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MOVIES : Rene and the Brass Ring : Former top model Rene Russo plays strong women opposite Mel Gibson and Clint Eastwood, and she gets $1 million or more a film. So why's she so worried about show biz?

March 05, 1995|Michael Walker | Michael Walker is a frequent contributor to Calendar.

In her dream, Rene Russo goes to heaven.

"I know you're going to laugh," says the 41-year-old actress, pale-blue eyes rolling skyward above her famous cheekbones, apologizing in advance for the treacle that will follow, "but I'm telling you, it was so powerful. I got to see heaven's perspective of Earth and my fears. And I remember thinking: 'Oh, God, please, I've gotta go back, I've gotta go back,' because the worst thing would be to finish this life early and not do the things you really wanted to do because you were afraid.

"Because you can do anything. I mean, within reason--I'm not going to be a rocket scientist, believe me. But any desire that's there, you just need to cast your bread and it's out of your hands."

Russo had that epiphany six years ago. By then, her run as one of the top models of the '70s and '80s was emphatically finished. "They didn't want me anymore--they had other, younger models. I went from the cover of Cosmopolitan and Vogue to standing on the beach with a pillow over my stomach doing some piece-of-(expletive) pregnancy catalogue for a dollar an hour."

So it was that Russo, with no real experience or entre beyond her looks and the tireless flogging of her manager, cast her bread once and for all as an actress. She'd done some obligatory auditions at the height of her modeling fame, with encouraging results--only Debra Winger stood between her and plum roles in "Urban Cowboy" and "Cannery Row," and Cybill Shepherd, Andie MacDowell and Lauren Hutton were proof that models could make credible film performers.

Nevertheless, it was far more likely that Russo would vanish forever into forgettable movie roles and spokes-model-ish exercise videos than what, miraculously enough, came to pass: a sturdy career in big-budget, high-grossing films playing opposite the likes of Mel Gibson ("Lethal Weapon 3") and Clint Eastwood ("In the Line of Fire").

In "Outbreak," which opens Friday, Russo plays a virologist whose fraying marriage to Dustin Hoffman goes on the mend as they hunt down a killer virus, and she is currently finishing "Get Shorty" with John Travolta and Gene Hackman, in which she portrays a lippy B-movie queen. She now earns an estimated $1 million to $2 million a film.

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Having rejected offers to play what she calls "James Bond girls" and even the kitten-with-an-ice-pick part in "Basic Instinct" that went to Sharon Stone, Russo has, in a remarkably short time, established a solid reputation playing strong, accomplished women handy with their wits, fists and, often enough, automatic weapons.

"Watch her," Gibson nudges Danny Glover in "Lethal Weapon 3," as the bored-looking Russo dispatches a clutch of bad guys with a series of karate blows. "She has a gift."

Says Russo's manager, John Crosby, who discovered her outside a Rolling Stones concert at the Los Angeles Forum when she was 17: "Rene throws a punch and holds a pistol better than any female I've seen."

But Russo's appeal lies more with her unfettered acting style and ability to stand up to powerful leading men such as Eastwood and Hoffman, both as the romantic interest and as a wet blanket for preening male egos--the latter accomplished with a withering glance or an oath muttered under her breath. (Her first line in "LW3" was "Son of a bitch . . .")

"She's got that sass," says casting director Joanne Zaluski, who cast Russo in "Major League," her breakthrough role, "the intelligence and strength and sassiness of a Barbara Stanwyck or Carole Lombard. She's also got the genuine quality that Mel Gibson has--you kind of want them to be your best friend because you like them so much. After her first reading (for 'Major League'), I told her: 'You're going to be a star.' "

Wolfgang Petersen, who directed Russo in "Outbreak" and "In the Line of Fire," says that "the Rene Russo personality is a combination of humor, smartness, great sensitivity with a little bit of shyness that makes her an incredibly likable human being that you trust. That comes through in the way she presents herself on the screen."

According to Petersen, Russo was "in awe to play with Dustin Hoffman and Clint Eastwood. But Clint fell in love with her. Dustin fell in love with her. I fell in love with her. There must be something about her."

Before the clouds of hyperbole get too thick--it is, after all, good business for anyone connected with Russo, a rising star, to swear to her wonderfulness--let it be said that, in person, she comports herself with winning self-deprecation and good humor.

Exhausted from the nighttime shooting schedule of "Get Shorty" and a mind-numbing round of interviews with the foreign press, she declares, "I'll be in a bad mood for two weeks now." She owns up to her quirks--she can't bear to watch herself on screen and has seen only a handful of her movies--and shrugs off the beauty that launched a thousand magazine covers with, "You know what it was? I have an unusual face." She is also refreshingly direct about her film career.

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