december 05, 2014
Nearly 10 years after her last leading role, the beloved actress looks back at her career, her self-imposed acting hiatus, and why she’s back with the riveting Nightcrawler — for now.
For the first time in at least a decade, Russo finally has a role worthy of her abilities and star power. In Nightcrawler, opened 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."
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."
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."