Russell’s motherhood fuels her on-screen performance

Keri Russell returns to the big screen in “Dark Skies.” (Associated Press)
Keri Russell returns to the big screen in “Dark Skies.” (Associated Press)

Keri Russell’s “comeback year” has the feel of a reinvention, a re-branding of the dainty young lovely who burst on the scene with “Felicity” back in the last century.

But as different as her flinty mom in the new film “Dark Skies” might seem, as dangerous and “out there” as her Born Again Bolshevik sleeper spy is in TV’s “The Americans,” she refuses to label her return to public view a career makeover.

“The great thing about disappearing is that people forget about you a little bit,” Russell says. “Your past is forgotten. You can come back as something fresh and new. These past two years, I’ve come back to all these interesting things that people might not have thought about me for in the past. They just happened.”

She stepped away from film and TV half a dozen years ago, getting married and giving birth to two children, who are now 1 and 5. At 36, she’s a different person – a mom, for starters. And it’s made her a different actress.

“Anything that opens you up emotionally is going to impact your acting,” she says. “Parenthood, becoming a mom, certainly does that. For one thing, you practice storytelling at its most basic.”

Basic, and maybe primal. Russell’s return to the big screen has her playing a suburban mom whose children are threatened by a supernatural menace. Her turn as Lacy Barrett in “Dark Skies” – in theaters today – was informed by her own motherhood – and by imagining real-life motherly terrors.

“The thing I kept in my mind doing those scenes where things got truly hairy for our characters was Katrina. It helped me to try to imagine what that would feel like, as a parent – to know something so enormous was coming your way, hitting you, something you have NO control over, and that you have these little precious kids in your charge who are looking to you to take care of.

“It’s heartbreaking to think of. They’re scared to death, and you have this terrifying, hopeless feeling, knowing that you might not be able to protect them. I kept that in the back of my mind in every scene where something extraordinary was happening to us all. You’re scared to death, but you’ve narrowed your focus to these kids and this one job I have: protecting them.”

Her “Mama Bear” on television’s “The Americans” (Wednesday nights on FX) is an altogether different mom, a mother of a mother from Mother Russia, lying low in suburban D.C. with her fellow-agent husband (Matthew Rhys), ready to ratchet up the Cold War to match new president Ronald Reagan’s 1981 rhetoric.

“Elizabeth, the spy, is plainly more stunted in her emotional life,” Russell says of the TV series. “She’s very uncomfortable showing it. She is very hard to like, she’s not the most moral person and she’s not exactly a touchy-feely mom. She is a communist, after all.

“And we’ll find out, over the run of the show, just what made her the way she is.

“But she’s at a place now where she realizes she’s not going to survive if she doesn’t bend. It’s that period in the Cold War. She has to open herself up a bit, to be seen by life, it’s very hard for her. She’s pretty dogmatic.”

Russell is no stranger to good reviews, earning them for her TV debut, “Felicity,” back in 1998, for the sweet and sexy indie comedy “Waitress” a few years back. Robert Lloyd of the Los Angeles Times loves the “novelty” of seeing her as a TV spy, and a “sexy superhuman fighting machine” in “The Americans.” And Maureen Ryan in the Huffington Post called it “a thrill to see Russell’s steely side.”

But the real Russell? The one not defending her kids from evil or defending communism? Not steely at all.

“Scaredy cat,” she confesses. “Even the way I answer the phone. I’ll go ‘Um, hello?’ And my friends will go ‘What, you’re afraid to pick up?’ It’s part of why I couldn’t bring these roles home after work. My kids know me, and they know I’m not that tough. And if you’re spending all day crying and screaming and fighting, they’d think I’d lost my mind if any of that made it home.”

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