Russ Russo is shadowing me. Or at least we seem to be moving in similar circles. I’ve acted in three movies and Russ has been in the cast with me – but we’ve never been in the same scenes and we never sat down to talk until we somehow found common ground (literally, on the floor of an empty high school) in between takes of “Bikini Blood Bath 2.”
New York-based Russo is becoming a ubiquitous figure in indie cinema. His gift for accents has made him something of a latter-day Anthony Quinn – the scene-stealing ethnic dynamo, whether he’s playing an Irish gangster (in “Land of College Prophets”), a Latino bank teller (in “A New Wave”), a Russian prince (in the made-for-TV “Catherine the Great”) or an oversexed German exchange student (in “Bikini Blood Bath 2″).
Russo has also turned up in short films (most notably Christian Fischer’s “The Casualty”) and even mainstream TV (scan the reruns of “Sex and the City,” “Law and Order” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and you can see his work).
While waiting for his camera set-up in “Bikini Blood Bath 2,” I had a chance to ask Russo a few questions on his career.
Q: For the benefit of the Film Threat readers who don’t know you…who are you?
RUSS RUSSO: Um….I don’t really like talking about myself, but I guess that defeats the purpose of an interview. So…I’ll say that acting for me is meant to be anonymous, but with that, it has come to directly affect whether you can have a career doing it. That is what is stRange to me. You have to be a known actor to continue to work and make money in your craft, at least in film, but that defeats the purpose of someone believing that you are that character. How can you watch celebrity actors and pull yourself away from that kind of stardom to understand, believe and enjoy the story?
I’d like to think of myself as the Unknown Soldier. When the smoke and mirrors clear, you’ll always have me to fall back with. I put in the work because it is what I love to do, but I’d be just as happy working construction. I like the creative processes in both, but overall, I have a complete fondness for the human experience and would like to tell those stories that reflect the moral and ambigious struggles we all have as human beings. They don’t have to know my name.
Q: You’ve worked in major big-budget TV series and in low-budget indie films. What are the pros and cons of doing both?
RUSS RUSSO: In New York City, there are a handful of right of passage shows such as “Law & Order” that showcase the performance of any working actor; the pro is that you might get more work from having put yourself out there, but I’ve found that my experiences with continued work has come from my relationships with creative artists doing low-budget indie films because they are truly the one who see the blood, sweat and tears within sometimes a 14 hour days performance. At the end of the day, all I really want to do is work. I don’t care if you have trailers lining the street or just an apple box crate to sit on. I want to work.
Q: Your performance as the Irish gangster Jonah Joe in “Land of College Prophets” earned you a Best Supporting Actor nomination in the B-Movie Film Festival. How did you manage to get into character and stay thoroughly in character, both on and off camera, during the film’s production?
RUSS RUSSO: True story. The night before the auditions and pre-production began, I remember thinking that this was going to be a hell of film to do. It grabbed me from the moment I read it. A friend had passed it along to me. It was like nothing I’d ever read before. I wasn’t sure if there was going to be a part for me. So, I was in my old neighborhood in Brooklyn at a friends house for a rooftop film party. Later in the night, I found myself with partygoers under the Brooklyn Queens expressway and there were bike jausting competitions going on with steel poles and ten foot bikes. This guy at the party comes over to me and, in this Irish accent, he says ‘You, Me, Next’ – it was barely intelligible or audible, but I got my a*s kicked by him on the ten foot steel bike and when I got up, all I could feel was ‘Jonah Joe.’ I woke up the next morning with an empty bottle of Jack, a hot chick by my broken side and a thick Irish brogue character that I either dreamed up or met that evening. Either way, Irish Gangster ‘Jonah Joe’ was born. Listen, I had a hard time leaving that character behind. Getting into the character for the audition and rehearsals and throughout the filming was a lot easier than parting ways. I still think there is a part of that character inside me just waiting for a sequel.
Q: One of your most recent films is the indie “Williamsburg.” Tell us about your role in that.
RUSS RUSSO: I played a character by the name of BJ, Brother James, which is explained in the film. The director, Brad Saville, a native of the Carolinas initially based this character on a friend of his, BJ Barbee, who is a street artist in Williamsburg, Brooklyn born in the South. I met BJ before the film, he is a chain smoker who has had a heart transplant and wasn’t suppose to live past his teens, but is now in his mid 20’s. The guy is amazing. A lot of his story is in my character in the film. It is the first time I had a a chance to study someone and use some of their characteristics to create something in film. Overall, Brad didn’t want an imitation or an impression, so we developed some improv dialogue through sessions of working on character and Brad wrote an incredible script, he was a published novelist before he was 23, so the guy really had a gift for language and also has a real understanding of actors, just a creatively sensitive person although I knew I wanted to work with him the first day I met him because he just had this wily look in his eyes and all this energy, almost jumping for joy during the audition process, I was like ‘that is what an actor needs, a f*****g cheerleader’ and this character has yet another accent, this one though is Southern and ever so slight, not a heavy brogue.
It had a screening in New York last month that got quite an ovation and really was a beautiful, solid film. Very much in a Noir New Wave style, something out of a Cassavettes era in an Orson Welles style. In fact, it won Best Noir Feature in the festival.
Q: What are some of your upcoming projects?
RUSS RUSSO: “Williamsburg,” although billed as a dramedy, was such a heavy drama experience that I’ve turned toward comedy for the moment and currently am working on the Horror Parody films “Bikini Blood Bath” which should be out late this summer and “Bikini Blood Bath 2: The Car Wash” which I am currently filming for Jon Gorman and Thomas Edward Seymour at Blood Bath Pictures. They are some of the funniest scripts I’ve ever read and are really for fans of the late 70’s, early 80`s horror films. I’ve worked with Tom Seymour before on Hale Manor Productions “The Land of College Prophets” and think the guy is a creative genius.
I’m also working on a Western TV pilot called “The Memoirs of Austin Driscoll” for Shoestring Productions this summer. I’m doing another indie feature called “Hollywood Backlots” with Joe Estevez for Time Code Films; “9am” for Beautiful Lady Productions as well as small roles in several other films.
I’m talking with great indie filmmakers such as Michael Mongillo (“Welcome to Earth”), Ron Bonk (“City of the Vampires”), John Huff (“The Hunter’s Moon”) and Ted Williams (“Two Shades of Blue”) about possibly being part of their respective upcoming feature films, as well as Troma Entertainment about an upcoming trilogy feature. I may also get back to the stage soon. I love to do showcases in New York City for a couple of nights every once in a while. The bottom line is….. I just love to work.