Interviews


Rene Russo


Occupation: Actress
Date of Birth: February 17, 1954
Place of Birth: Burbank, Calif., USA
Sign: Sun in Aquarius, Moon in Leo
Relations: Father: Nino (sculptor); mother: Shirley (factory worker, bartender); sister: Toni; husband: Danny Gilroy (screenwriter); daughter: Rose
Education: High school dropout

 

WHEN you consider that she cut Clint "Make my day" Eastwood down to size in 1993's In the Line of Fire and kicked the too-adorable-for-its-own-good ass of Mel "Road Warrior" Gibson in 1992's Lethal Weapon 3, it's darn hard to picture actress Rene Russo as the shrinking violet type. Though she became a top-dollar fashion model straight out of high school, the leggy brunette came into her own only after living through a decidedly trying childhood and adolescence marked by parental abandonment, four years spent wearing a body cast, and pre-pubescent gawkiness that caused her peers to christen her the "Jolly Green Giant." One of the fashion industry's top cover girls for over a decade, Russo traded that metier for an acting career after a photo shoot for a maternity catalog prompted a timely reassessment of her rapidly diminishing supermodel status. After spending a few years doing the token girlfriend/supportive wife thing, she rapidly ascended to the seven-figure salary range following her breakthrough tough-girl performances opposite Eastwood and Gibson and a high-profile turn as a B-movie scream queen in 1995's Get Shorty.

Though the low-rent Burbank, Calif., neighborhood  an area she has since described as "welfare row"  where she was born and raised lay within spitting distance of Hollywood, Russo had no grander aspirations as a child beyond fitting in. Her starving-artist father abandoned his wife and two daughters when young Rene was just 2 years old, an occurrence that caused her to develop deep-seated feelings of guilt and loneliness. Insecurities about her physical appearance became a further burden on her fragile self-esteem at the age of 10, when she was diagnosed with scoliosis (a spinal condition) and subsequently shoehorned into a full-body cast. "The cast was from the neck to the thigh like a barrel," she later recalled. "You're developing at that age, so I'd put a bra on top of the cast and stuff it with tissue paper." Except for the twice-yearly fittings during which her plaster prison was resized, the timid schoolgirl wore the cast continuously until the middle of her eighth-grade year at Burbank's Jordan Middle School. She became casually acquainted with child actor (and future director) on Howard at Burroughs High School, but Russo's unusual height and her determinedly introverted personality combined to ensure that she remained largely a loner. She lost what little interest she had in the school scene midway through her sophomore year, and dropped out.

Perhaps hoping to ease the financial burden borne by her mother, who worked day shifts at a factory and passed her evenings tending bar, Russo took full-time work behind the concessions counter at a local theater, and eventually progressed through a series of blue-collar jobs to the position of inspector at a plant that produced eyeglasses. Guided by the life experience of her luckless mother, the workaday ingenue might have remained on the assembly line indefinitely had not fate, in the form of a girlish infatuation with Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger, intervened. A Stones-phile of the highest order, the dewy-eyed youth fed her fantasy of marrying the scruffy singer by attending his concerts, and it was while she was leaving one of these shows that talent scout John Crosby caught a glimpse of her. Convinced that the striking 17-year-old was "the most beautiful girl [he'd] ever seen," Crosby gave her his business card and arranged an appointment to take snapshots, which he later showed to a Los Angeles colleague.

In rapid succession, Russo relocated to New York, signed with the prestigious Ford Modeling Agency, and was ushered into a private session with world-famous fashion photographer Richard Avedon to prep for a series of ads for Revlon cosmetics. Though she was a weeping, self-conscious wreck at that inaugural session, Russo stuck it out, and Avedon subsequently took the fashion neophyte under his wing, shepherding her career during its infancy. Soon everyone wanted a piece of the Ford Agency's glamorous newcomer, and Russo rocketed to the pinnacle of her newfound profession  even her long-lost father briefly attempted to insinuate himself into his famous daughter's life, when, shortly following Russo's 19th birthday, she landed on the cover of Vogue. Though modeling brought Russo ample financial rewards  she bought a house for her long-suffering mother, and another for herself  she found it far less than fulfilling on a personal level, not to mention the fact that everything she knew about the nature of the fashion industry portended a career of limited duration. When the onetime Cosmo-girl eventually found herself standing on a beach with a pillow strapped to her mid-section on a shoot for "some piece-of-shit pregnancy catalog," she knew it was time to move on.

An over-practically-before-it-began marriage at age 29 and the demise of her modeling career shortly thereafter prompted some heavy soul-searching, and Russo experienced a strong connection with the works of noted British author and essayist C. S. Lewis, in particular his 1952 reflection Mere Christianity. She became a deeply committed Christian, and buried herself in the Bible; as she later told one interviewer, "This isn't a philosophy  God walks with me." In 1989, she hooked up a second time with Crosby (who'd been following her modeling career closely since discovering her), and told him she wanted to act. With no more experience than a pair of auditions for roles in the early '80s films Urban Cowboy and Cannery Row and a seven-episode run as a literary agent in the short-lived, action-oriented ABC series Sable, Russo landed a supporting role as Tom Berenger's girlfriend in Major League.

Similar roles followed, the most notable being her assignment in the 1992 sci-fi thriller Freejack, which brought the journeyman actress into the same orbit as the two great loves of her life: a moonlighting Jagger, who had a starring role in the movie (and who was reportedly "unimpressed" when told of his co-star's long-ago infatuation); and screenwriter Danny Gilroy, whom Russo subsequently fell in love with and eventually wed. Kickboxing classes prepared her to trade quips and karate kicks with Gibson in Lethal Weapon 3, and their crackling chemistry paved the way for Russo to star opposite A-listers Eastwood, John Travolta (in the Elmore Leonard adaptation Get Shorty), and Dustin Hoffman (in the 1995 virus thriller Outbreak). Having already earned her action-adventure stripes, she proved to have an equally sure touch with light romance with 1996's Tin Cup, which paired her to good effect with Kevin Costner, and she scored a big win later that same year when she re-teamed with Gibson for the high-stakes kidnapping drama Ransom.

Having learned as a fashion model that fame in any medium can be fleeting, Russo, who keeps house with Gilroy and daughter Rose in a $3.75 million Brentwood bungalow located conveniently close to Hollywood, hopes to work as a child counselor when the movie offers stop rolling in. Though her first starring vehicle, 1997's simian-themed Buddy, was a financial disappointment, she bounced back in 1998 by reprising her breakout she-cop characterization in Lethal Weapon 4. Russo's sexy and smart performance  as an insurance investigator who squares off against playboy art thief Pierce Brosnan  in the 1999 high-profile remake of The Thomas Crown Affair was one of the few redeeming features of the otherwise ill-conceived effort.

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