Catching Up With Keri Russell of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Movies Features Keri Russell
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It’s the day after the world premiere of the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in San Francisco. Keri Russell is on day two of doing press for the movie. She spent the day doing on-camera interviews with her co-stars, Jason Clarke and Gary Oldman with the iconic Golden Gate Bridge in the background—which is practically annihilated on the DOTPOTA movie poster. She’s been on the phone with press for God knows how long, but the by the time it’s my turn to talk with her, she still looks and acts as though her day just started.

“An in-person interview? I thought it was another phone interview!” Russell says excitedly as I sit down across from her.

As I get settled in, I tell her that I just read that it was just recently J.J. Abrams’s birthday and how it is appropriate that I was interviewing her.

“It was?!” she exclaims apologetically. “I should have known that! Matt and I have to call him.”

Russell is referring to DOTPOTA director Matt Reeves, of course. And the connective tissue between the two of them and Abrams is Felicity, the WB college drama that had the world divided into Team Noel or Team Ben. Abrams and Reeves created the show and Russell was the muse that brought the show to life – and won her a Golden Globe.

“You know, Felicity was the first real story that I fell in love with—and where I got to act,” Russell says. “I wanted to be her. It was just such a good story. It was funny, but sad and sweet—the combination of J. J. and Matt was just so good.”

It’s been over 15 years since Russell has played the endearing touchstone of college growing pains, but to this day, the three of them maintain a strong friendship that reflects in their moviemaking relationship. She had a small, yet strong presence in Abrams’ Mission Impossible III, and now, she and Reeves have teamed up for the second installment of the Apes franchise reboot.

Before she signed on to the movie, Russell admits that she knew as much about the Apes franchise as much as the average pop culture denizen. She knew all the iconic images, and of Charlton Heston, of course. As for the actual films, she wasn’t too familiar. Reeves, on the other hand, is a huge fan. Through that, she developed an appreciation for the series—but she wasn’t quite at the level of fandom as Reeves.

“He would talk about sending away for these (Planet of the Apes) make-up kits—he did it all,” laughs Russell. “He was so obsessed with it and would do the makeup on himself because he wanted to be an ape.”

Reeves’s fandom and ability to tell a story are the perfect combination to pick up where Rise of the Planet of the Apes left off. San Francisco is in ruins, and a colony of hyper-evolving apes led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) is living separately from the humans who are barely surviving. When the humans have to access a dam in apes territory in order to get power for survival, the relationship between the two groups start to become volatile.

Russell says that when Reeves first talked to her about making the movie, they watched Rise, and both were impressed with Andy Serkis’s performance as Caesar. Russell, in particular, was so impressed that acting opposite Serkis and other actors portraying apes in motion capture suit wasn’t a problem.

“I was so anxious and worried about it, but it goes away instantly,” Russell says. “Andy, Toby Kebbell, and Judy Greer were magnificent—they were fucking bringing it!”

Russell has some experience in an action-packed environment (see her adrenaline-pumping gun fight with Tom Cruise in the aforementioned MI3), but she does admit that she isn’t exactly the first person you call when you are in need of an action star for a Fox summer blockbuster movie. She says that there is a “specific girl” for a movie of this ilk. In this particular movie, there are action scenes, but in her role as Ellie, she is doctor who is just trying to survive, so she really didn’t have to do any hardcore training.

“We were really deep into the forest, and it was definitely cold and muddy,” Russell says. “I think the biggest challenge for Jason, Kodi and I was maintaining that level of anxiety and fear. I felt like we ere hyperventilating all the time—it was exhausting!”

In the hands of Matt Reeves, this isn’t your normal summer blockbuster. The brilliance of the WETA special effects are up to par with the intimate sensibility of all characters—both real and computer generated. Russell says that Reeves has a special way of creating complicated, struggling, brave, vulnerable performances and scenes between characters. This not only shows with Russell and Serkis, but with Clarke, Oldman and Kodi Smit-McPhee, who he worked with in Let Me In.

“I love that we’d be shooting in New Orleans in the middle of the night at some weird power plant, and Kodi and I would be doing this intimate little scene,” Russell says. “Matt always has the lens really far away so it feels even more intimate. It’s sort of unspoken, heartfelt and painful—like no one’s watching. He would come up afterwards and say, ‘We’re just making those good moments—like we did with Felicity.’”

As much as the world adores the world of Felicity and yearns for a reunion, Russell breaks the news that there isn’t one in the foreseeable future. However, she does hang out with Amanda Foreman (a.k.a. Mandy, who played Megan, her snarky Wiccan roommate with a heart of gold) often. Since there won’t be a reunion, I give Russell the ultimate “what if” scenario of her current and past work: Who of the cast of Felicity would survive in the Planet of the Apes?

“I’m not wrong when I say [Scott] Speedman has a little Jason Clarke in him—they are the same in spirit,” Russell says. “Scott Foley would be pretty resourceful.”

After jokingly saying they would “eat Greg Grunberg,” she thinks about who would perish among a world of apes. She reluctantly mentions her dear friend Mandy—with a story to back her decision.

“She and I were once were in the ocean with group of people—and one of those people happened to be Anthony Kiedis,” Russell says. “While we were swimming, a riptide came. By the way, I would like to stand by the fact that I am an excellent swimmer. Next thing I know, Mandy came over hanging onto a surfboard with a lifeguard and I was like, ‘Are you serious? You don’t know how to swim against a tide? Are you serious right now?’ They were serious. Mandy will hate me for saying this.”

As for herself, Russell doesn’t think twice.

“I’m going to vote that I’m a pretty good survivor,” Russell says with a confident smile.