PHOTOGRAPHY BY JASON BELL
u201cOh my god,u201d says Keri Russell, hazel eyes wide and mouth agape in shock. u201cWow.u201d Pause. u201cHoly crap.u201d She shakes her head and looks up at the ceiling for a moment, doing the math in her head. u201cIs it?u201d
Yes, this year really is the 20th anniversary of the premiere of Felicity, the show that rocketed Russell and her mass of curls to stardom when she was just 22. Sitting across from the actress at an Italian restaurant in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge on a foggy February afternoon, I canu2019t help but think it is a bit of a shock that Russell is 41 now. Her creamy complexion is smooth enough to get her carded (just a few fine lines around the eyes) and sheu2019s just as tiny as she was when Felicity followed Ben across the country to enroll at a New York university. She looks bike-ride ready today in a red-and-white striped linen T-shirt and white jeans, and, although her hair is fairly straight now (she does Keratin treatments, shhh), wisps at her forehead are fighting to curl again on account of the humidity.
Suddenly, a lightbulb moment. u201cOh yeah u2026 maybe thatu2019s why theyu2019re asking about a reunion!u201d she says with a laugh, explaining that she had been invited to this summeru2019s ATX Television Festival, where, in the past, the casts of Gilmore Girls and Battlestar Galactica came together for much-publicized events. u201cHuh. Thatu2019s crazy.u201d
You could forgive her for not being aware of such a milestone. Since Felicityu2019s four-year runu2014which also helped launch the career of creator J.J. Abramsu2014Russell has had three kids, appeared in 14 movies, and spent the last five years trying to bring down the U.S. government as an undercover Russian spy on The Americans. Last month brought the sixth and final season of the critically adored FX drama, which has nabbed Russell two Emmy nominations for her role as the fiercely loyal, ruthless KGB operator Elizabeth Jenningsu2014not to mention a baby daddy. After the seriesu2019 first season in 2013, she and her on-screen husband, Welsh actor Matthew Rhys, started dating, and in 2016, she gave birth to their son, Sam. (She has two children, River, 10, and Willa, 6, with her ex-husband, Shane Deary.)
Now, she says, when people stop her on the street, itu2019s not to ask her why Felicity got that awful haircut (which, oh man, they used to ask her all the time), but rather to talk about what a badass Elizabeth is. u201cBut thatu2019s probably just because Iu2019m so much older now,u201d she says, u201cnow that youu2019ve just reminded me that itu2019s been 20 years!u201d
But although fans and critics may define Russell by these two roles, she thinks of them much more pragmatically. Yes, The Americans is the most culturally relevant show on TV right now (Russia! Russia! Russia!) and, yes, Felicity was a touchstone for an entire generation of young women struggling to figure out who they were. But for Russell, they were jobs. She has always taken a workmanlike approach to acting. When I mention this trait to series creator Joe Weisberg and showrunner Joel Fields, they agree immediately.
u201cI think one of the things that makes her such an incredible artist is that she does the work part of the work,u201d Fields says. u201cBut because sheu2019s so easygoing and because sheu2019s so hard-working, itu2019s easy to either ascribe her genius to the hard work or kind of forget about it because sheu2019s so easygoing, and then it always winds up surprising you.u201d
u201cYou know what she is?u201d Weisberg asks. u201cSheu2019s a low-key genius.u201d
Perhaps Russellu2019s workmanlike approach to acting can be explained by the fact that she never meant to be an actor. Her first venture into Hollywood was a total fluke. When she was 15, she and a gaggle of u201cdancer friendsu201d showed up for an open audition for The All New Mickey Mouse Club because why not?u2014there wasnu2019t anything better to do in Denver that day. But then she ended up getting cast and spent the next three years performing cheesy skits and choreographed dance numbers (along with Justin Timberlake, Ryan Gosling, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera) for a live studio audience. For 10-year-olds watching at home, it looked like a blast, but the work was hard. Besides memorizing her lines, making her marks, and nailing the dance moves, she had to create a version of u201cKeriu201d who was always confident, always happy, always on.
She remembers, years later, being in New York and going to see the documentary Spellbound, about kids competing in the national spelling bee, and spotting one of her best friends and fellow former Mouseketeers, Ilana, in line for the next showing. u201cAnd I said, u2018Call me after you see this!u2019u201d she recalls. u201cThere was something about the stress on those kids. I understood it. When youu2019re a kid, youu2019re not supposed to do everything right. Youu2019re supposed to mess up; youu2019re supposed to fail. And thereu2019s no room for that in the professional world.u201d She pauses to take a bite of her salmon. u201cI think we were having fun while we were doing it, but itu2019s creepy. Itu2019s strange to put kids into that world. I wouldnu2019t want my kids to do it.u201d
When The All New Mickey Mouse Club ended, she stuck with acting because that was all she knew and u201cbecause it seemed like that was a fun life to continue.u201d But after Felicity, she took a break. u201cI think I needed to reassess if I wanted to still do it,u201d she says. So she pulled her own Felicity and left her LA life behind, moving to New York on a whim. Today, she admits that she was jealous of her fictional characteru2019s freedom. u201cI wanted that! I wanted to be that! I thought, Why am I in Los Angeles on a bad sound stage wearing a big coat and pretending to be cold when Iu2019m sweating? New York is so romantic.u201d
So she spent a year having funu2014hanging out with friends, going to concerts, drinking beers on her stoopu2014and vowed never to move back to LA. Slowly, she waded back into acting: She did an off-Broadway play, appeared in a handful of TV shows, and started doing movies. Abrams cast her in Mission Impossible III, which showed audiences that there was more to her than those dimples and curls, but mostly she landed sweet, wounded roles, such as those in Waitress and August Rush.
In 2007, she got married and started having babies and realized that was the job she wanted to focus on, so acting again took a backseat. When The Americans came along, she had just had her second child, and the last thing she wanted was to jump into a long-term project. But Weisberg and the team at FX were adamant. They knew Russell was the perfect choice for Elizabeth Jennings. They needed someone audiences loved, trusted, and related to, and who was believable as a suburban mom who wears silk blouses and bakes Duncan Hines brownies for the new neighbors. They needed that so when Elizabeth then killed an innocent security guard in cold blood or beat her female handleru2019s face into a bloody pulp, eyes wild with anger, viewers wouldnu2019t look awayu2014they would cheer.
Season 6 of The Americans, which premiered March 28, jumps forward three years to 1987, when Gorbachev is the leader of the Communist Party and on the cusp of taking over the entire Soviet Union. Rhysu2019s Philip Jennings has mostly gotten out of the spy game, and the result is remarkable: His skin is radiant, he gives inspiring pep talks to his employees at the travel agency, he even goes line dancing wearing those cowboy boots he bought in Season 1. Elizabeth, meanwhile, is at her breaking point. She looks haggard and sleep-deprived and chain-smokes cigarettes in her Oldsmobile while staking out a mark. Sheu2019s shouldering the entire spy load by herself, and she canu2019t handle it. Turns out the advice she gave fellow spy Tuan in the Season 5 finaleu2014a spy will fail without a partneru2014applies to her too.
The Americans is ultimately a show about partnership. When the series begins, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings have been married for almost 20 years, but theyu2019ve only just started to love each other. They respect each other and need each other to do the job that theyu2019ve dedicated their lives to. But without that common goal, without them working together for the love of their country, can they really love each other? Is their love real or just circumstantial?
Circumstance, of course, led to Russell and Rhys falling in love while they filmed that first season. The show continues to benefit from the spark. Their on-screen relationship crackles with realnessu2014the way they look at each other longingly one moment and with utter disgust the nextu2014like any real relationship. u201cThere are obviously pros and cons to working with your partner,u201d Russell says. u201cThere are really great moments, where youu2019re so happy that theyu2019re there. And there are moments when it would be really great if they werenu2019t there.u201d She laughs deeply. u201cTheyu2019re so annoying or every little thing bugs you or you had a big fight about something at home and you donu2019t need it to carry over when youu2019re working. Itu2019s not as clean-cut a relationship.
But then there are those moments when, because they know you so well, it makes it that much, well, better because you trust that person and you know how to have fun with that person. There is a shared personal intimacy, and it does come across.u201d
Weisberg agrees: u201cWhatever pieces of [their relationship] went into the art, they sure come through. What we have there is two great human beings who work incredibly hard and are deeply respectful of everybody. And it just created this fantastic environment that made everyone do their best work.u201d
Itu2019s difficult not to draw parallels between Russell and Rhysu2019s real life and on-screen partnerships, which in turn raises a question: When Elizabeth and Philip stop working together, their relationship falls apart, so is Russell at all worried that her dynamic with Rhys will change once theyu2019re no longer scene partners? u201cI think there will probably be great relief from his point of view,u201d she says, dimples blazing as she laughs. u201cHeu2019ll be like, u2018Finally! I donu2019t have to spend every moment with her!u2019u201d
u201cI joke with her about being greatly relieved, but the truth is, Iu2019ll miss it enormously,u201d Rhys tells me later. u201cThe juggle and balance isnu2019t easy, but the good far outweighs the bad. Learning lines together in bed speeds up the process.u201d
The two have made a life for themselves in Brooklyn, first raising Russellu2019s kids together and then adding baby Sam to the mix two years ago. Filming in New York has made it easy to balance work and family. u201cEven if we have a night shoot until late, we can still wake up and walk the kids to school,u201d Russell says. u201cAnd on long lighting setups, I used to be able to bike home, nurse the baby, and come back.u201d Rhys is teaching everyone Welsh, his native tongue (Russellu2019s favorite word is pili-pala, which means u201cbutterflyu201d), and the family has traveled to Wales a handful of times over the past few years. Russell shows me the necklace sheu2019s wearing, a gold medallion with a dragon on it. u201cItu2019s a Welsh dragon,u201d she says, explaining that she actually had it made for Rhys as a good-luck charm to wear at the Emmys last year. u201cOn the back, I put a Hemingway quote: u2018To hell with luck, Iu2019ll bring the luck with me.u2019u201d She pauses. u201cHe didnu2019t win,u201d she says and bursts out laughing again.
While itu2019s a big deal to close the book on the show that reinvigorated her career and introduced her to her love, Russell, ever the professional, remains unsentimental. u201cI think itu2019s a good time to end it before, you know, Elizabethu2019s running a hair salon in Jersey or something,u201d she says. u201cItu2019s the right time. Six years is a good, long run in TV. Iu2019ll be sad to see it leave for some reasons, but at the same time, Iu2019m ready for anew adventure.u201d
That doesnu2019t necessarily mean another show or movie. Russell has nothing lined up, and thatu2019s how she wants it. u201cI could probably read the best script right now and Iu2019d go, u2018I donu2019t even know what to do with this,u2019u201d she says. u201cItu2019s too much. I need to decompress a minute and start again.u201d No, she wants a literal adventureu2014to Portugal, maybe, or Copenhagen or Snowdonia in the mountains of Walesu2014just with Rhys. u201cThat would be my biggest luxury,u201d she says, u201cgoing on a trip without the kids.u201d All hard workers, after all, deserve a vacation.