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A Potential Star Is Torn

Keri Russell could do without the hype around her new WB show, 'Felicity,' and this whole fame business. But she may end up the next teen queen anyway.

September 27, 1998|Bruce Newman | Bruce Newman writes about television and movies from Los Angeles

'I'm feeling a little guilty," Keri Russell says, but this is not exactly a surprise.

For the past 10 minutes her face has been clouding over, a sadness rising thick as humidity. She knows that she has to do something, make a choice. "I wouldn't want you to say anything bad."

You of course are not going to say anything bad. Russell, who stars in "Felicity," the hotly anticipated new show that begins Tuesday on the WB network, has already taken care of that. In a moment of apparently uncontrollable candor, she has said something she regrets about a member of Hollywood's new royalty--one of the Teen Queens--and now she is trying to un-say it.

"She's a very sweet girl," Russell stresses. "I don't want anything bad said about her career."

It is a very Felicity-like moment for Russell, who is 22 but plays seventeensomething with a mixture of determination and regret.

"I remember saying to [Russell] one day, 'You do these scenes so deeply, and yet they don't seem to be exactly who you are," says J.J. Abrams, a co-creator and executive producer of the show. "And she told me, 'Felicity sort of says all of the things that I think but I'm too afraid to say.'

"And that's what's so cool about Felicity, she says things that make people uncomfortable because she's very impulsive. Keri's very much in touch with that stuff."

As impulsive as Russell and her inner teenager can be, there is very little about "Felicity" that has not been planned, often in excruciating detail, in the two years since Abrams came up with the idea to do a show about a girl going off to college. The series was a perfect fit for the WB, which has become the niche-caster of choice to America's teenagers with such breakthrough shows as "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Dawson's Creek."

Even more than those shows, "Felicity" arrives with the sheen of a critical smash, its success prefigured by a "rave page" in the network press kit filled with what appears to be favorable quotes from reviewers. Until very recently, however, no critic had reviewed the show, and all of the "raves" were a reaction to the reaction of advertisers.

"Already the most talked-about new drama by advertisers," raved the New York Times, for one. Entertainment Weekly gave "Felicity" a loving five-page send-off (" . . . a justifiably hyped new drama," the magazine said).

"There's a great frenzy in this business around what's hot," acknowledges Russell's manager of five years, Joannie Burstein. And no one, it seems, wants to be left standing on the shore when "Felicity's" ship sails.

With no place to go but up, the WB groomed potential young stars such as "Buffy's" Sarah Michelle Gellar and now Russell, spending less money while building an audience whose median age is about half that of CBS. "They know who their audience is," says Burstein, "and they know what their demographic is."

The nation's supply of teenagers continues to replenish itself at a frightening pace: There will be 3 million to 4 million new 13-year-olds every year for the next decade, and most of them seem to know their way to the mall and the multiplex.

"We didn't set out looking for a demographic," says Matt Reeves, co-creator and executive producer of the series. "We set out to do a show we thought we'd want to watch, and a demographic found us."

Reeves and Abrams quickly realized that if they were never able to figure out what teenage girls wanted when they were in high school, they certainly weren't going to do it now that they were in their 30s. Abrams says the best they could do was to resist designing the show to make it conform to some "ludicrous industry notion of who the kids are, and what the kids are buying."

"They've seen a lot of stuff being peddled to them, so in that sense they're much shrewder now," Reeves says. "And maybe to some degree more cynical about being catered to."

The machinery that has been set up to position Russell as the new diva of dorm TV is controlled by Russell's manager, a flock of network and studio publicists, and most formidably by the WB's marketing strategists, who last winter conducted a blistering advertising campaign on behalf of "Dawson's Creek" before that show went on the air.

This time, the network has let Russell carry the ball, sending her out on an exhausting round of interviews that has left her occasionally bewildered and, at times, feeling not terribly felicitous.

"You have some interesting people in your profession," Russell says, coolly studying the ink-stained specimen across from her. Then she sighs, deeply, as if she already knows that this will be misunderstood. "I've been to the point where I was almost about to cry [during interviews]. And I'm going, 'What am I doing? If this person is making me so uncomfortable, why don't I just get up and leave? I've never met you and you're asking me insanely personal questions about things I haven't even told my mom? Who are you?' "

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