When an actor says she’s decided to “take a break,” this can reliably be interpreted in one of four ways: She’s scheduled for an extensive cosmetic-surgical overhaul; her pharmaceutical dependency requires immediate and extended attention; she can no longer stomach the possibility of bumping into her more famous, recently-split-from, now-younger-woman-dating ex; or her career prospects have withered to the point that a “break” is the only way to get her back on the cover of People.
But when Keri Russell talks about the sabbatical she took after Felicity, it’s easy to take her at her word—perhaps because she sounds like she’s discussing a jailbreak. Describing her state of mind at the end of the show—on which she played a wide-eyed girl who trails a high-school crush to a college in New York City—Russell, now 29, doesn’t resort to the usual coy euphemisms such as “run its course” or “time for a change.” Instead, she’s a little more blunt.
“I wasn’t surviving,” she said in one recent interview. “I needed to be able to sleep past seven o’clock or not worry about how long my hair was or not worry about going to a photo shoot or not worry about saying the right thing in an interview.” Recently, to me, she was more succinct: “I didn’t know if I even wanted to be an actress anymore.”
For four seasons—fittingly, the span of a college career—Russell played Felicity Porter (yes, she had a surname), struggling through her college years and toggling back and forth between two competing, and audience-dividing, beaus (brooding Ben and nerdy Noel). Felicity became a national symbol of restless, romantic, find-yourself angst. (Her famous short haircut, while perfectly fetching, was a source of national hysteria.) But Russell spent her own Felicity years waking up for 6 A.M. calls, dodging paparazzi, and recovering from her run-in with the steamroller of sudden fame. So when the show ended, and the girl who’d fled to New York finally donned her mortarboard, graduated, and waved good-bye, Russell did the same thing: She pulled a Felicity. “I took my money, rented an apartment in the West Village, brought two boxes of books and a suitcase, and had my mattress on the floor,” she says. “I’d basically been working since I was 15 years old. I’d missed out on a lot of those years when you mess up or do bad things. I’d been so responsible for so long. I needed to check out.”
Her Felicity-accrued nest egg afforded Russell a year and a half of freedom: reading, sleeping in, staying out late, going dancing with friends. Now the Felicity fund is allowing her a judicious, toe-in-the-pool return to acting. Earlier this year, she appeared as Joan Allen’s bratty daughter in the film The Upside of Anger, then took a stage role in Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig as a snarling, skinny, hectoring counterweight to the show’s zaftig lead. She seems delighted to be finally rinsing herself of Felicity’s angelic residue. “Who knew it was so fun to be mean?” she says. “I’d been missing out all this time!”
And this weekend, she’ll appear in an episode of Steven Spielberg’s sprawling Western epic on TNT, Into the West, in which she endures all the hardships of the pioneer trail: She’s thrown from a chuck wagon into a river; battered, scratched, kidnapped, and nearly raped; then, thankfully, adopted into a Native American tribe and wed to a kindly warrior, for whom she bears a son. Apparently, some darker fate awaited her in a different cut of the show (zapped by lightning? Hit by a train? Trampled by a bison herd?), but she was spared. “I think Spielberg felt that so many terrible things were happening to my character, he wanted it to end on a lighter note,” she says. And so we leave her in the embrace of a loving husband, cuddling her child, happy at last.
“Who knew it was so fun to be mean? I’d been missing out all this time.”
In researching real-life tales of pioneers on the wagon trail, Russell found an instinct she recognized. “My big question going into this was, ‘Why would anyone do this?’ ” she says. “But it speaks to an adventurous spirit that Americans have in general—that spirit of reinvention. We want to reinvent ourselves.”
During Russell’s own reinvention, Los Angeles and her TV show were easy to leave behind. Her character, though, has proved more dogged. “Everyone’s been pretty cool here,” she says of New Yorkers. “Other than the packs of crazy, raucous 15-year-olds on the subway.” She continues, “Look, I love that character, too. And Felicity was in everyone’s homes for four years. I get it. It was pounded into your brains. It’s not your fault.”
When I ask if she’d ever return to series television, she pauses, then says, in a series of halting, carefully considered answers, “You can never say never, because the right situation may come up.” Pause. “It is a lot of pressure.” Pause. “I’m sure if it happened again, it would be for all the right reasons.” Pause. “I’d set myself up differently.” Pause. “But I was a kid. I didn’t know anything.” Pause. “Never say never.” Pause. “But for right now, I like my life too much.”