SITTING down for a few minutes at the Four Seasons Hotel, Keri Russell apologizes profusely as she seizes the opportunity to wolf down her lunch (salmon and unidentified green rice: “I don’t know, but it’s good and at this point, I’ll eat anything!”).
Busy she is, a new mother with a house under construction and two movies making the rounds -- “August Rush” (in which she plays a cellist who discovers the child she thought had died at birth is alive and searches for him) and “Waitress.” It’s the latter film, an indie summer hit written and directed by Adrienne Shelly (who was murdered just before the film’s release) that’s quietly flitting through the buzz of awards season.
After TV stardom as a Mouseketeer and on the former WB’s “Felicity,” followed by a self-imposed exile from the business, Russell has arrived as a film actress -- and is enjoying herself.
You took an acting sabbatical after “Felicity” ended. What did you take away from that?
I just needed the break to reengage with the business. I didn’t know that I wanted to act anymore. I got sleep. I got rest and was able to consciously choose and be aware of being in the business and choosing things I was interested in. Now that I’m back, I’m really enjoying the work. It’s a lot more fun this time around.
You’ve said you were considering going back to school during that time. What would you have studied?
I think I would have wanted to read a lot, so probably something literary. Probably something blanket, like general studies. I’m so interested in everything. I think college is wasted on 19-year-olds. Now, as a 31-year-old, I want to learn about everything!
I had a neighbor who was teaching at Sarah Lawrence when I first moved to New York, and I’m like, ‘I want to sit in on your class; that sounds so interesting!’
What was it about “Waitress” that made you think you could really bring something to life with it?
I think the reason I wanted to do it, other than [the humor], was the scene where she’s writing a letter to her unborn baby: She’s with the doctor and everything’s miserable in her life. The doctor finally comes over and says, ‘You seem so sad,’ and just holds her and she cries. And the voice-over says something like, ‘I hope one day someone holds you for 30 minutes long and doesn’t expect you to look up and doesn’t need you to stop crying; they just let you cry and they hold you.’ I thought that was so beautiful and it came at such a nice point in the story. I knew then I wanted to do it.
It’s something of a breakthrough role for you, filmwise. To what do you attribute that?
You just never know why something works well, what’s really going to hit. Especially with ‘Waitress,’ it was such a small budget, to shoot a whole movie in 20 days; I had no idea that it would resonate like it has. I think it was a combination of all sorts of things coming together. Adrienne wrote a really clever, wickedly funny, touching script; everything about it was fresh. And everything that’s in the movie was definitely on the page. I’m so honored that she chose me to be in it because, what a fun ride it’s been. And obviously, the bittersweet aspect of Adrienne not being here to enjoy it is . . . a whole other story. Any success is a complete tribute to Adrienne.
Did you know her work before the project?
I didn’t. After reading it, I was so shocked to meet her -- she was so beautiful. I know in the film, she plays kind of a funny character. But actually, she’s a very beautiful woman. And how tiny she is -- she’s like, 4-foot-nothin’.
How has motherhood affected your approach to the business?
Logistically, it affects it a little bit because you think, ‘Oh, that shoot’s in South Africa, that’s really far away from my husband and our life.’ I haven’t had it affect my taste, I don’t think, too much. But then, I don’t know, if you put a really violent script [before me] with something horrible that was happening to a child, I don’t think I’d be able to stomach it.
Even thinking of “August Rush,” having to do those scenes I think would be even harder, just knowing that a child is out there. It’s so much more real and awful now.
I think that’s one thing about ‘Waitress’ . . . Shooting it, I didn’t realize it was so hopeful. Watching it all cut together, I remembered it’s really about hope and believing in yourself. Believing in yourself enough to make a change you deserve. That you should enjoy your life. That’s why I go to the movies; I want to feel good at the end.