It has been a startlingly long time since Rene Russo commanded a movie screen. The 60-year-old actor hasn't had a starring role since 2005's forgettable family comedy Yours, Mine & Ours, a self-imposed hiatus interrupted only by a small, supporting part as Thor's mother Frigga in 2011's Thor and 2013's Thor: The Dark World. This is a woman who parlayed an early career as a model into a movie career in which she held her own against Pierce Brosnan, Mel Gibson, Kevin Costner, John Travolta, Dustin Hoffman, and Clint Eastwood when they were all in their leading-man prime. Put Russo's place in cinematic history this way: You could easily draw a direct line from her natural talent, bawdy laugh, unfiltered frankness, and uncommon beauty to Jennifer Lawrence's current blockbuster career.
For the first time in at least a decade, Russo finally has a role worthy of her abilities and star power. In Nightcrawler, opening Oct. 31, she stars as Nina, a morally compromised local TV news director in Los Angeles who enters into a high-stakes partnership with dangerously ambitious freelance videographer Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal). Watching Russo verbally spar with Gyllenhaal is a reminder of just how much her presence has been missed, but when she was recently asked if she knew just how much audiences are happy to see her take on a major role again, she looked genuinely thrown off guard.
"You know, no, I didn't really think about that," Russo told BuzzFeed News during an interview earlier this month. After reflecting for a moment, however, she recognized the impact that her fans have had on her decision to return to acting. "There were times that people came off the street and said, 'God, would you please work? I really miss you.' You know what, I think that may have been one of the reasons that I thought, Well, you know what, Rene? Maybe you should appreciate your job. I don't love getting up at the crack of dawn and having makeup put on my face for three hours — like, I really don't like it — and then having a part that's just not that challenging. But it is amazing to be able to use all the things that I've learned in my life, or all the colors that I have, and mix them up, and let people see themselves through it and go, Oh, I feel that way, or, I've been there before. I love that."
Part of Russo's ambivalent attitude about her acting career stems from the fact that it was never her lifelong ambition. "I remember at the time [growing up] in the '60s, you were given a little form to fill out," she said. "If you were female, it was like, What would you like be when you grow up? Nurse? Stewardess? Secretary? Of course the male [choices] were doctor, astronaut, scientist." Just as things were getting somewhat heavy, Russo threw her head back in a full-throated laugh, determined, it seemed, not to take herself too seriously. "So that's where I lived. I chose nurse. I kind of wanted to choose stewardess, but I thought, Well, they need to be really, really pretty. I remember this going through my head."
But then Russo was discovered by her manager, John Crosby, at a Rolling Stones concert when she was 18, and her life was never the same. Her first shoot was with legendary fashion photographer Richard Avedon. "I didn't know who Avedon was," she said. "I was 18 years old. I dropped out of high school in the 10th grade. I had no idea. I remember just going into this office and I burst into tears. It was just so much, so fast. I never even thought of myself [in show business]. I never thought I could model, and I certainly never thought about acting. It's just something that happened to me. I did not go after it. And it's a good thing. What would I have done? Dropping out of high school in the 10th grade, what would I have done? So I was fortunate." She launched into another peal of self-deprecating laughter. "I'm glad I didn't go to the bathroom before I left the Rolling Stones concert! God knows where I would be today!"
To celebrate Russo's true return to movies — a return, by the way, that may be as short-lived as her hiatus was long — BuzzFeed News asked her to reflect on some of her career highlights, and how her feelings about acting have changed (and not changed) over time.
Major League (1989)
After spending her twenties working as a model, Russo landed her first feature film role at 35, playing the love interest of Tom Berenger's ne'er-do-well pro baseball player. She quickly discovered how well she took to acting.
"I don't remember being terrified. I think acting is something that came natural. I did a library scene in that movie, where there was no cutting — it was one continuous, two-minute scene going through a library. I didn't know if I could, you know? It was a long scene, and just to remember, OK, you put the books down here and then you take two steps and you have to turn around, and you have a little bit of an argument, and there's no cutting, so you had to do it in one take. And at the end of it I thought, OK, well then, maybe I can do this. That was a real confidence booster for me."
Lethal Weapon 3 (1992)
For many, Russo's true breakout role was as an LAPD Internal Affairs officer who becomes romantically entangled with Mel Gibson's hotheaded cop Martin Riggs. She would reprise the role, this time as Riggs' pregnant girlfriend, for 1998's Lethal Weapon 4. Both films were directed and produced by Richard Donner.
"I went up for that role — I took a meeting with Dick Donner. And then I left, and he said, 'She's a model, she's pretty, I'm never going to believe her with a gun.' But I knew that I could hold a gun and say, 'Fuck you' better than anyone he is going to run across. So I wanted another meeting. He didn't know that I'm definitely a street girl. If I pull a gun and say, 'I'm going to blow your fuckin' head off,' you're going to believe me, because I've been there!
I'm from a neighborhood that's, you know… They were kind of, I mean… They were white-trash neighborhoods. I don't know another way to say it. I hate to say it that way. In fact, I shouldn't say it that way. But they were tough, food-stamp kids without dads, latchkey kids. Your stabbings, your molesters. If you grew up in that, it was tough. There were fights. It's just what it was. I know that people look at me and think, Oh, you're from Connecticut, and it's like, no, not really. And then when they say, 'Where are you from,' and I say, 'Burbank,' they go, 'What are you talking about? Burbank's great.' But there was a little enclave that was not so great. I mean, I know that side of life, so I can kind of relate.
So I went back in there [to meet with Richard Donner again]. And he wanted me to read with Mel Gibson. Talk about nerve-wracking. It was our chemistry — it was fun. I think that's why I got the role. Yeah, it's a guy's film, and I understood my place in it. Look, I was the girlfriend. That's what it was going to be. But I could still be tough, and I knew what that life was about, and I'd been there before."
In the Line of Fire (1993)
Russo got to point a gun again as a Secret Service agent paired — professionally and romantically — with a fellow agent played by Clint Eastwood.
"Well, first of all, he was the only actor I've ever been intimidated by. We were being driven to set together, I don't know why. It usually doesn't happen. But I was in the car, and I just didn't know what to say to him. I was blathering on about nothing. I mean, talk about embarrassing. 'Blah blah blah blah blah' — and he did not say one word. He's wonderful. [But] he did not say one word.
We made a pact. I eat garlic and he eats garlic. And so we promised each other that we would both eat garlic, so we would cancel each other out, and we wouldn't have to give up our garlic. And then I had to come back for the love scene — because there was a period there where I wasn't shooting, and he was. It was about three weeks or a month. And when I came back, I was pregnant, and I really couldn't eat garlic. So, yeah, that was a really difficult love scene. I mean, I had morning sickness. I was like, Are you going to hold this together here?"
If you think it would be weird to have starred as an epidemiologist at the Center for Disease Control in a movie about an Ebola-like outbreak in the U.S. now that the media has been exhaustively covering the presence of Ebola in the U.S. — well, you would be right.
"It's really weird. We had to go to the CDC, and when I spoke to the epidemiologist, my question was, 'OK, so tell me, what's the deal? Is there going to be [an outbreak]? We've had plagues forever. What's going to happen?' And they said to me, 'It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when.' And he wasn't necessarily talking about Ebola. But that freaked me out. I said, 'Well, can I keep my racal suit?!' I mean, I started making plans. I am prepared. I'm not afraid of nuclear whatever — that's fast. But I have to say, [an outbreak] would scare me. I'm not thinking it's going to come get me. I'm not paranoid. But I am prepared.
A couple times I have thought, Would they start closing borders? That's what they did in Outbreak. They started closing borders. There was a lot of panic. But mostly what comes to mind is the epidemiologist telling me, 'It's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when.' It's so sad, what's going on right now in Africa. It's just hard for me to watch."
Get Shorty (1995)
As a B-list movie actress who gets mixed up with a loan shark (John Travolta) who discovers he's an ace at navigating the movie business, Russo had the rare opportunity to satirize her own profession.
"She was an observer more than anything, I think, and she got the joke. Even though she was a B actress in scream flicks, I still think she was looking around her, kind of like, 'Oh god.' She was judging it, maybe in a way that I would, where I would roll my eyes at things. I get the joke. I think that's the quality that I gave to her. She didn't miss that much. Even though she was a B actress, I don't think she was desperate to be anything than what she was.
I love John. John is very, very funny. John's fun. He's really, really quirky. He loves to eat. He loves food. He'd always have great food in his trailer. He'd have great chocolates. 'Here, have a chocolate.' I loved working with him."
Russo's most emotionally harrowing role reunited her with Mel Gibson, in which they played wealthy parents whose son is abducted and held for ransom.
"Here's the funny thing about Mel. When [my character] found out that my kid was missing — I didn't know how I was going to get there [emotionally]. So I got in whatever [emotional] space I was supposed to be in. Mel's the kind of person who turns it on and turns it off. Literally he is burping before action, and then he goes immediately [into] this horrific scene. And then about the second take, Mel came over and he said to me, 'You know, you're not going to last all day doing it that way.' And I went, Wow, he's right.
So I don't know. It's different for everybody. There were a couple scenes in that film where I did have to go off and stay in a particular space. But Mel did teach me something, too. Mel is one of those actors who can just be in an unbelievable dramatic scene, and just come out of it and telling jokes. And you know what, he feels both emotions. I mean, Mel feels it when he's there. He goes to those dark places for real, and maybe he doesn't want to stay there too long. But some actors, they're Method, and they stay there. They stay there all day. I couldn't do that. I'm more like, let's get the job done."
Russo's only sole starring role was as real-life New York socialite and eccentric Gertrude "Trudy" Lintz, famous for keeping gorillas as pets that she would dress up and treat as her children. That animal was played by an animatronic puppet courtesy of the Jim Henson Company, but there were some actual live animals on set with Russo during filming.
"There were actual live chimpanzees. I don't think I'd work with chimpanzees again, knowing what I know now. One of the trainers said to me, if he had to go up against a chimpanzee or a tiger, he'd rather go up against a tiger. These were young [chimps in the movie], but at a certain point, they can be vicious. So they were very careful to say, 'Do not make friends. Do not make eye contact.' Because they would be come very sexually [excited], literally, and then fight. So I had to be careful to not give them too much attention at all. How wild is that? By the way, it wasn't that they would just become attracted to me. It's just that chimps, around humans, we're just like another chimpanzee to them, basically [cackles]."
The Thomas Crown Affair (1999)
Arguably Russo's best role was as Catherine Banning, a sophisticated and tenacious insurance investigator who sets her sights on the dashing one-percenter of the title (Pierce Brosnan). Director John McTiernan made great use of Russo's savvy and sex appeal, but not without some difficulty.
"It did not come easy to me, because I don't necessarily lead with some sensuality. Some women, you know, they walk into a room, they lead with sex. I don't. In fact, if anything, I just lead with humor. I just can't — [laughing] — I just don't, all right. As a model, yeah, but still, that's a picture. That's not me. That's getting sexy for the picture.
[John McTiernan] was the best director I've ever worked with. He saw that in me. And when we met, he saw that I probably should really have done comedy. So he said he wanted to take me to an S&M mistress. I think that's what they're called. He goes, 'Yeah, I want you to see somebody.' I was like, Holy shit, that was uncomfortable. I said, 'OK, whatever.' I think he wanted me for this movie to take ownership of my sensuality. And every minute that I was on that set that he saw that I was using humor or something to avoid that, he was like, 'What are you doing?' He really directed me. He wanted that kind of power-direct in a laserlike way, instead of scattered, which I am — a little more scattered! It was a little suffocating for me; the role did not come easy."
The Hiatus From Acting (2005–2011)
After Thomas Crown, Russo starred in a series of paycheck roles that barely made use of her talents, like the 2002 comedies Showtime and Big Trouble. By 2005, she decided she'd had enough of acting, and decided to walk away from her career.
"I was kind of going through a hard time in my life a little bit. I'd started ironing, I say, when I was 9 years old. I worked constantly. I didn't really ever take a break. I just think I hit a wall. I mean, even emotionally. I was not in any shape to do a movie. I was depressed. It was not a good time for me.
One of the reasons I hit the wall is I really wanted to do other things, but I didn't know how to get off the treadmill. I wanted to educate myself a little bit. I probably watched 2,000 documentaries on the history of different places, and it was so exciting, because I had such huge holes in my education. There were so many things I was interested in, so I did that.
And then I worked with the DWP [Department of Water and Power] — I mean, this is all pretty boring to people — on native gardens, because we are in the middle of a drought. So that was really cool to try to bring a sense of place back to California, since we don't have it. It's all been ripped out. We have beautiful plants, beautiful natives. So anyway, I did this huge native garden, and helped DWP blah blah.
And then I started a business. White Cow Dairy. I have 40 cows. Upstate New York. I have the coolest farmer friend. He's great. He used to be in advertising. He's brilliant, and he's an incredible chef. He brought food over, and I said, this is so good. Let's start a business. And we did it. Got the best write-ups in Bon Appetit and everything. 'You have the best yogurt in the United States.' I was so happy! It was so much more fun than getting up and having makeup on my face at 4:30 in the morning. I loved it. I could milk a cow, wear no makeup. I could be on a farm. It was just great!"
Thor (2011) and Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Russo was finally coaxed back into acting when she was offered the role of Frigga, the queen of Asgard, wife to King Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and mother of hero Thor (Chris Hemsworth). But the role itself was not exactly a grand return — Frigga barely spoke in the first film, and (SPOILER ALERT!) she was killed off in the second.
"It was [directed by] Kenneth Branagh, and I thought, Oh, I could play a queen. That might be kind of fun. I get to go to London, and that would be great. And it's a small part. Cool. Why not? It's a queen, it's costumes, blah blah. And then the part was pretty much cut out. Some of it was not there, and some really cool scenes. So that was disappointing. But I was already under contract, so I did the second one. That was kind of cool. OK, I got some sword fighting. It was fine. It was something different, you know? And it was [acting with] Anthony Hopkins. I mean, working with him is amazing. So that's the reason I did that."
Perhaps not surprisingly, the filmmaker who finally created a role that fit Russo's abilities was her husband, Dan Gilroy, who wrote the role of Nina in Nightcrawler specifically for his wife. Although she did not quite realize it at first.
"My first reaction [when] I read the script, I said, 'Oh my god, the dialogue in this script! This script's great! What a great setting.' You know, blah blah. And then I said, 'But the female needs some work!' [Laughs.] Of course I did! And at the end of the day, not one line was changed. It was me trying to find her within those words, so the words didn't need to be changed. So that was very interesting. I think he thought she was more of a victim than I thought she was.
I don't think it would be helpful for me to go and watch a woman [local TV news producer], because everyone's coming from a different point of view. I really had to think about Nina. Is she just a straight-up cold bitch that would walk on everybody to get where she's going? But is she? I'm not that way. I've crossed many a moral boundary, by the way. But I'm not that. So what I had to do to really be able to get her across to people, then, [was ask myself,] OK, where do you live, Rene? What are your moral boundaries. What have you done, and why did you do it? And I thought, mine have always been desperation. Mine have always been, I'm scared to death. And I thought, OK, if you were a 60-year-old woman, if you were in jeopardy of losing your health insurance, if you were alone in the world and about to lose your job and god knows where they're going to ship you off to, I mean, what would you do? Whenever I'm angry, mostly, if I look underneath it, I'm scared to death. And what would I sacrifice? What moral boundary would I cross. I didn't want to judge her. I just wanted to leave it out there."
Before Nightcrawler, Russo shot an independent film called Frank and Cindy, based on the real-life dance-rock band OXO. But she is not sure when audiences will get to see it — or if she will ever act again.
"It was the best time I've ever had. A million-dollar film. Went through a lot of different edits, and people weren't really happy. So it's hit a wall. I hope it goes somewhere. I really do.
And now, I don't know what I'm going to do. I don't know. I'd kind of like to go back and see if I can get this [dairy] business off the ground, because it's so much work. We have a store. It started small. Whole Foods wanted us. We said no. We want to keep it local, sustainable. But it's really hard to expand. It takes everything, and I don't know if I can do that on my own. So we're talking to some business people right now.
If a good part comes my way, I would love to do it. But it has to be something that I feel some kind of passion [for]."