Theresa Russell

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: Plucked by Elia Kazan to make her screen debut opposite Robert De Niro in 1976’s The Last Tycoon, Theresa Russell quickly established herself as a fearless actress with a talent for exploring the edge of obsession. Her extensive collaboration with Nicolas Roeg, whom she eventually married and divorced, yielded five daring, and sometimes forbidding, films, including 1988’s Track 29, which has just been released on DVD. In recent years, she’s played smaller roles, like the wife of Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman in Spider-Man 3, but movies like The Believer and The Box demonstrate her ongoing interest in the outer limits.

Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession (1980)—“Milena Flaherty”
Theresa Russell: I think that was the third one with Nic [Roeg]. I can’t even remember. I’m pretty sure it was. But I had done other films previously, not just with him. 

The A.V. Club: There’s a fearlessness throughout your career, but especially in some of those earlier roles. Did you know what you were getting into at the time? Was it helpful not to know?

TR: Oh yeah, it was on purpose. I’m a complete glutton for punishment. You’ve heard actors say it before, but I was one of the first people to say, “If I read something and it frightens me, I’m compelled to do it.” I always did want those more challenging parts. I think that’s why I ended up doing more of those independent films, because the mainstream films during those days were really like, you got your big leading man, and then the leading lady was there virtually just to show that he has a heart of gold and to fuck him with her on top. That was like the main position. So, “Oh God, I don’t want to do this.” That was kind of why that happened. I really wanted to be an artist. I didn’t really want to be a star. It wasn’t really what I was interested in doing. That’s kind of why: Because I’m crazy. [Laughs.]

AVC: And where did that desire come from? 

TR: Oh, I have no idea. I think I was born that way, really. I don’t know. I mean, I left home at 16. I’ve always had this, “Why would some little girl from Burbank think I could go off and be an actress?” You know? But that was what I did. So I really don’t know. I’ve always been really independent. No one could tell me what to do. So there you go. [Laughs.]

AVC:  You and Nic Roeg had a long professional collaboration, and you were married as well. Is that something that brought you together, approaching the medium as artists rather than looking to sell tickets? 

TR: You know, you don’t really think of that. You hope people are going to go see them. But I probably knew more than Nic that it wasn’t going to be a huge blockbuster. [Laughs.] He was always so shocked whenever that occurred. I was like, “Really? You’re shocked? There’s nothing to be shocked about. Look at the work people go to see—they’re all idiotic. What are you talking about?” You could say they go into the vault to age. [Laughs.] People will understand them eventually.

AVC: Do you watch your old films at all?

TR: No, I really don’t. I don’t remember the last time I saw Track 29, either. Sometimes they’re like, on television, and I’m flipping through and I’ll watch them for a few minutes. Otherwise, I really don’t. I already know what happens. [Laughs.]

AVC: Compared to Art Garfunkel, you were an acting veteran at that point. 

TR: It was weird, especially because I hadn’t done a lot of films, but out of the films that I had done, I’d always worked with these really high-powered, incredible actors and creative people. Because he wasn’t from an acting place, it was kind of hard to negotiate around that. I remember saying to Nic a couple of times, [makes frustrated noise]. He’d say, “You’re an actress, deal with it!” And he was right, and I did, and Art actually did an unbelievable job. He went down a road that I don’t think many other actors really would’ve. Like it or not, it was real. It really was. So many actors will try to protect themselves from being such a horrible person, and he didn’t even know how to do that. All he did was do how he saw the person. And that’s unusual, you know? It really is. There’s not that ego thing in it.

The Last Tycoon (1976)—“Cecilia Brady”
AVC: You’ve worked opposite great actors, right from the beginning, people like Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman in Straight Time and Gene Hackman in Eureka.

TR: And Robert Mitchum, don’t forget about him.

AVC: What was it like between Mitchum and Elia Kazan? It doesn’t seem like their styles would naturally mesh. 

TR: Well, actually, that wasn’t really a thing. He didn’t try to micromanage. That character was not a tortured soul where, you know, Kazan had get in there and find all of the things. It wasn’t that. But, you know, Mitchum was a very highly intelligent man—very funny and thoughtful, and took his work very seriously. You think these guys were all like—when you see those original things with the Rat Pack, and they’re like, “We shot all day, and then we did the show at night, and then we got drunk and laid, and then we gambled.” Like one huge party—no. People came to work. Ray Milland came to work. Claude Rains, all of them. They were there to work, and when you’re working, it’s serious, and you do it. It’s fun to do, and everybody’s still privileged and happy to get a gig like that, but to be in this business and work, there really isn’t, “Oh, I couldn’t be bothered to learn my lines,” or, ‘“I was too drunk to arrive on set,” or any of that shit. Only amateurs do that, frankly. Those are the ones you have the trouble with, are these huge egomaniacs who have very little fucking talent, and they shouldn’t even be in the damn business. [Laughs.] Those are the ones who are the biggest pains in the ass.

AVC: Do you learn to avoid people like that later? Do you have that option?

TR: No, I mean, sometimes you’re just in it and you just got to frickin’ do it. It’s a terrible situation.

AVC: So what do you do? You learn to negotiate those people better?

TR: No, because you don’t really know until you’re in it. And then it’s just—oh Christ, I don’t know. How do you negotiate it? You try in the nicest possible way to move things along, but then if you can’t, then it’s like, “Will you just give me the two lines and stop milking the fucking bank? We need to move this along.” [Laughs.] And then the whole crew would go like, “Thank God she said something,” because I’m not the only one being tortured, it’s everybody. Luckily, that doesn’t happen very often.

Insignificance (1985)—“The Actress”
AVC: You don’t seem like an actress who ever does the same thing twice, but playing a role that’s Marilyn Monroe in all but name brings with it a substantial technical burden. There’s a look and a sound you have to get right, or at least a ballpark you have to be in.

TR: Oh yeah, there were a million traps. In fact, I turned it down to begin with. The producer came to me with it before Nic, and I was like, “I just don’t want to tread in this pile of poop, I really don’t.” That was the time when Madonna was in her Marilyn phase, and it was just like, “Oh, for fuck’s sake, how am I going to do this? I don’t want it to be this caricature that’s being judged like some transvestite or something.” I didn’t know how I would do it. So then when Nic thought he would like to do it, and we did it together, and that’s when I said okay. Because I can trust him. There was no issue of having to trust of the director, which takes a lot of time and energy. I knew, flat out, if I suck, he’s gonna fix it or make me do it better, or something. So I always had that as my safety net. And then, I don’t know, something just clicked. After watching and reading a lot about her, she invented this persona. So behind closed doors, you were able to not have that pressure of the breathless thing that she always seemed to do. That could be toned down somewhat. My voice is naturally so deep, so I took singing lessons, just to get my register higher in a more natural way so that instead of it being studied with the lines, it would just naturally feel good about talking in that register. So that was kind of how I approached it. A lot of the time I watch dailies and it helps my performance, but with that one I did not want to watch them. If Nic said everything was fine, and I was feeling good about the day’s work, okay. I didn’t want to start analyzing her and be like, “Oh my God, Marilyn wouldn’t do that, and Marilyn wouldn’t do this.” I would be driving myself insane if I had to start watching them. So I had to just let it go, and that’s kind of how it happened. Like I said, the trust was built in, and if I sucked, he was going to tell me and help me figure out how to not suck. 

AVC: How much research did you end up doing? 

TR: Oh, I researched the hell out of it. I mean, absolutely. You have to do that. I just didn’t want to feel that caricature pressure, you know? That’s what you put on yourself. I didn’t want that. I just wanted an impression, like you’re doing a broad brushstroke on a painting. I’m not trying to analyze every minute little thing under a microscope and nuance of her. No, a brushstroke of her. And she was called “the actress,” too, so…

Track 29 (1988)—“Linda Henry”

TR: First of all, it’s Dennis Potter. You put Dennis Potter with Nic Roeg, that is a weird combo regardless of anything. And actually in that one, I had more input into the progress of the various different rewrites and things like that. I thought it was hilarious, but both Nic and I have a weird sense of humor. It was more of an absurdist kind of comedy, not a farce or a satire. It was really almost Artaud-ish. It wasn’t meant to be funny ha-ha, but I thought it was pretty funny. So yeah, I guess it’s unhinged; that’s a pretty good word for it. I thought Linda was very tragic. I did a lot of research on people who had that apparition thing. I mean, it does exist; it’s not common, but it happens. She had a terrible, traumatic time. Her parents were horrible, and her mother was awful, and they took this baby away from her and they made her marry this horrible man. So she just went to another land, which made her feel happier. 

AVC: Both Christopher Lloyd and Gary Oldman are playing, if not for laughs, at least in a kind of heightened comic register. 

TR: Yeah, and that was kind of a difficult note to hit. I remember watching Juno, and what would work so good was that every single actor, and all the set direction and where you put the camera, has to be turning up the volume just the same amount. So many times, a director thinks they can do that, and then you’ve got one performer that’s over the top and the whole thing falls apart. So it’s tricky. It’s very tricky to get everybody on the same page and in on the joke, so to speak. And obviously Gary and Christopher are both just highly intelligent people.

AVC: You use the word “intelligent” a lot when talking about people you like working with. That’s an important quality for you?

TR: I think it dictates a lot about someone’s sense of humor, and the terms of reference in your life, the way you interpret something you read or a painting you look at or something. Working with Nic Roeg, you have to have a little bit of that. I’ve seen him work with people who didn’t get it, and it was a very frustrating experience for him and the other person. With him, it just works a lot better.

AVC: You’ve said he’s a director who talks through a script in thematic or conceptual terms rather than simply a matter of character.

TR: He’s much more cerebral than a lot of different directors. I think it shows in his work, sometimes to his detriment. I mean, I remember reading some version of something and I said, “Why are you taking this away and putting in the head? The audience wants to feel this, why are you taking it away?” Oh my God, we would have big battles about it. But that’s him, you know? I, as an audience, want to go and feel it, not just cerebrally and intellectually. “Oh yes, that was very stimulating.” You know? I want to feel it. And Nic is more the other way. 

Whore (1991)—“Liz”
TR: Oh, it’s hard. Even to this day, I can’t really watch it. It still makes my stomach hurt. [Laughs.] It was just really a tough film, on a lot of levels. But not working with Ken [Russell]. He’s kind of that mad English person I could relate to. [Laughs.] But just in terms of the intensity of it. Just the logistics of it. Every night, I had pages and pages of monologue to learn. And then, just being in the space of that person, to have such low self-esteem, and frankly, low IQ, you had to literally wake up in the morning and feel bad about yourself. It’s every day, and in every scene, and it’s like, “Whew! That was hard.”

AVC: Your character gets beat up, raped, and strangled. It must have been hard to go through all that. 

TR: It was intense. Grueling, let’s put it that way. Like doing two marathons underwater. But I’m terribly proud of it, don’t get me wrong. I think it’s a wonderful film, and I’m very proud of my work in it. And even that candy-apple way that it’s shot, and the way that it’s put together, I think it kind of worked in some weird way. To me, it did anyway. The roughness of it, you know? It didn’t have any slick quality about it. It was just rough, the whole thing. 

Kafka (1991)—“Gabriella”
TR: That was [Steven Soderbergh’s] first left turn. That was right after Sex, Lies, And Videotape, and he got slammed for it. He recovered, that’s for sure. But I thought it was a really fascinating film. I had read a lot of Kafka before that, and I knew Jeremy [Irons] before that, too, and I can’t remember why. Maybe some London thing. What was really cool about it was that the Berlin Wall had just recently come down. So you were freshly over there, living in Prague. There were no McDonald’s signs, or Marlboro, none of that was there. It was so fresh and raw, and you’d talk to the people, we were working down at Barrandov Studios, and I remember arriving at the hotel with my bags, and there’s no guy to help you. And you see someone that obviously works there, and say hi, and they go, “Nah, we’re not gonna…” Here’s another example: Restaurants would just decide that they’re not going to let you in and seat you. It was just bizarre. And so we found this restaurant; it was Betsy [Brantley], Steven’s wife—I think they were married at that time—and me and Jeremy. We kind of had to drive a little in the country to go to a restaurant. So we’re driving back, and we’re all trying to have this intense conversation, and the taxi driver has the music on, this crappy music, and was smoking his head off, and it was freezing cold outside. We just asked, “Pardon me, maybe you could turn that off and maybe roll down the window a little bit?” And he said no! [Laughs.] As a young American, it was like, “What in the world?” It was just weird. It was very strange. I was in Czechoslovakia when we did Bad Timing; that was when the wall was firmly up. So the contrast between the two things, that was a very fascinating aspect of being there and doing that film, too. 

Fringe (2009)—“Rebecca Kibner”
TR: They said I might have a recurring character, and they never put me back on it, and I’m so pissed! I want to be back on. I think they talked about it, and it was like, “Well, if [Walter] does have a girlfriend, he can’t be as weird as he is.” And he was supposed to have had that committed marriage in the past, and that would’ve meant he was cheating on her, and all this other stuff. So I guess that’s what happened. But damn! ’Cause I loved that show. 

AVC: That sort of explains the question of why they got an actress of your experience for such a small role.

TR: I know! Gosh darn it. [Laughs.] Get her back! The thing has got to be winding down by now. It seems like it must be its last season. I want to find out what happens! That’s the thing with J.J. Abrams. I tried to watch Alcatraz. It was like, “You’re up to your old tricks again. You’re never going to tell us why! Never, ever, ever.” And that’s the trick, that’s the hook. You want to know why, and you’ll never know. And that’s what keeps us watching. [Laughs.] Right? It’s a trick.