At 23 years old, Russ Russo found himself in a similar situation to most people his age. He had no idea what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. During a stroll on a rainy night, Russ’ attention was grabbed by a flyer for acting internships at a local theater. Under the tutelage of Jade Greene, Russ fell in love with the art form and never looked back.With a plethora of experience in front of and behind the camera, Russ is primed to make the biggest splash of his career with his role in “An Act of War.” The film follows returning veteran Jacob Nicks, his struggles with PTSD, and a new war at home. Russ’ experience with the subject matter and his convincing performance make it a must see. Steve Johnson of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Russ to discuss his influences, what keeps him expired as an actor, his evolution as a performer, and all things concerning “An Act of War.”
How did you get started on your journey into the entertainment industry and what made you know acting was something you wanted to pursue as a career?
I was going to college and pretty much had no direction. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was 23 years old. I didn’t realize at that time that it is such a daunting task to think about what you are going to do for the rest of your life at 23. I know a lot of people go through that. I ended up walking in the rain and seeing a sign for acting internships at a theater. I went to it because I had no idea what that meant. I don’t know if I had a real sense of … I never acted in high school plays or anything. I had no idea what I wanted to do there, but it was a sign so I walked in. I ended up learning Meisner, Stella Adler, and Lee Strasberg. All of these things that Jade Greene taught me. She had studied to be an actor and she was teaching me. She got me on stage in Clifford Odet’s “Awake & Sing” playing Moe Axelrod. The period of time that it took place was in the Depression era, right after the Great War. I played a Great War veteran. I fell in love with it right there. The whole process of it. Everything about it.
Who would you consider your biggest influence as a performer?
It has always been and always will be Marlon Brando. To me, he changed what acting was. When I finally started to research and learn the history of stage acting and film acting, they were different animals. When I was first there in New York in the early 2000s, people were telling me they are different beasts. I didn’t want to believe it. People were like, “You’ve got to play to this back row. You’ve got to vocalize to the back row and accentuate everything you do.” I didn’t believe in it. I started to get a sense of Brando and what he had done in the late ‘40s on stage and how that translated into his film work. It was just being. It was living. Being a human being. Being present. I think that ended up influencing DeNiro, Duvall, Pacino, and all of these guys that came after him. I think that’s why we have the film and television acting we have today. I’m blown away by some of the things I see today. I really feel like it came from that. He wasn’t the only one, but he was one of the pioneers. Montgomery Clift as well. He was an excellent actor.
What keeps you inspired as an actor?
When we were talking prior to the interview, I told you I saw a rally on Sunset Boulevard for Armenian Genocide. I got transfixed and wanted to know more about it. I wanted to know more about what was happening. I think that is always going to keep me inspired with acting. More specifically, the human condition. The will to want to learn more about what it is to be a human being. Everybody’s experience is different but I think there is a sense of certain things that are all the same inside. If we can translate that and sort of learn about it through film, or through playing a role, or whatever it is … that’s going to inspire me and keep me going.
Speaking of the human condition, your latest project “An Act of War” is a very interesting film. How did you get involved with that project?
It’s kind of a funny story. In 2007, I had a short film by Belgian director that went to Cannes. He invited me out there. I was flat broke and I didn’t know how I was going to get myself there. By the skin of my teeth I was like, “OK. I’m going to go. I’m going to stay with the people involved in that film. I’m going to make this work.” So I did. One night walking on the promenade in Cannes I bumped into this guy. He was a producer from New York. I said, “Well I’m in New York and I’ve never bumped into you in six or seven years. We got to talking. His name was Atit Shah. His father was in the film business doing movies in Bollywood. Four years later from that run-in in Cannes, he sent me a script that was to be “An Act of War.”
What about the script or the character appealed to you and drew you to the project?
The first time I read it was early 2011. I just broke down. Just reading it … the thing that I didn’t realize while reading the script was … my father was a Vietnam veteran and a lot of things that were described and the things that he was going through, his inner world, suffering from post traumatic stress, having insomnia, horrible visions, and nightmares about the war and his past … it started to remind me of my childhood. It started to remind me of things that I thought my father may have been going through. That was sort of my through line into the character. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was.
What did you bring to the character that wasn’t on the written page?
After talking to the writer/director Ryan Kennedy, he and I sat down and we started talking about Jacob, we realized that a lot of the manifestos that you hear in monologue form in the movie are almost the only time he speaks in this film. That was a byproduct of what I brought to the character. I started to lessen what it was that Jake would have to say to the world through his isolation and through his insomnia and post traumatic stress. He became more of a silent character for the most part.
Did you research the condition faced by the character?
I have friends that are veterans and they were nice enough to open up their world to me. In some instances it was really difficult. I have friends that were telling me stories … they hadn’t even told some of these stories. We ended up having three or four Iraq and Afghanistan war vets either in the film or on our crew. They also became friends of mine. It was a lot of that …. I love to do research. It’s something I like to do anyway. In the end it really, really was my father who had spoken to me and unfortunately passed right before filming.
What was the vibe like on the set and what did you take away from the experience?
I don’t know if I’d ever really do this again. I slept in the apartment that we filmed in. I kept myself fairly isolated. I wanted to stay in my own world with this. It was hard for me to get an understanding of what everybody else was doing because I was really focused on that character and being him, and being present, and understanding what he was experiencing. I remember it being very quiet. [laughs]
What can you tell us about working with the team, namely the director and the producers? What did they bring to the table?
I felt like they were very sensitive to the subject matter and therefore allowed me to just be. Anytime we got to a threshold where we thought, “OK. This is it. This is our final take. This is what is going to be in the film,” Ryan was good enough to push for more. For such a young director, that was pretty impressive.
What was the biggest challenge you faced on the project and what part of the experience was the most rewarding?
The biggest challenge was my health. I landed myself in the hospital. I was having some breathing problems. Looking back there was a lot of panic inside of me. The psychological things that go on inside a person when they are dealing with this stuff, it leads to anxiety and panic disorders. I don’t consider myself an anxious person, but I was anxiety ridden throughout this. So, that was the biggest challenge. The most rewarding aspect … wrapping! [laughs] Also taking some time off after that! [laughs]
Do you have a typical process when it comes to bringing characters to life on the screen?
The whole thing about method … there were a lot of years where I thought that you could define methodology. It really is different on each project, and each character, and what it is you’re doing inside the story. So, I try to do my due diligence and find out. A year later I ended up on Ryan Phillippe’s film, “Catch Hell.” I play an Eastern European narcissistic movie director. That was such a different project from “An Act of War,” from Jacob Nicks. It really is different depending.
Looking back on your career so far, how have you evolved as a performer?
There’s an evolution that I think never ends. I think it keeps going. You know, they talk about perfection in sports. I always liken it to boxing or any sort of sport. It’s something that you just can’t perfect. So, you keep trying to perfect what it is that you are doing, which is just living. So, you’re evolving as both a human being and as an actor. I don’t know if there’s ever a time where I would evolve into something that I think is perfection.
You played a plethora of different characters in your career. Is there a role or a genre you always had your eye on tackling that you haven’t done so far?
There is something that I have been talking about the last year that I hope comes to fruition. That’s the story of the life of Roy Orbison. Nobody has done this film before. I don’t think his story has been told. We have one million movies about Elvis. He’s a person who in Elvis’ own words eclipsed his vocal ability and inspired his work. As a society we pick this one person with talent in one industry and we go, “This is the god of this industry!” So, it was Elvis, but Roy Orbison was incredible. He inspired so many. He’s really, really underrated and now he’s gone. I feel that it is up to me to tell that story. [laughs]
I say go for it! I would love to see the story of his life.
Yeah! I love Roy Orbison.
You have quite a few projects in the works. What should we be on the lookout for in the near future?
I just wrapped a film called “The Devil in the Deep Blue Sea” with some really good actors, Jason Sudeikis and Jessica Biel. I think that is going to be a really great film. The director Bill Purple, he was just extraordinary. It’s just a really beautiful story. It was another script that really got me. I think that’s going to be out in theaters in December. In the fall I start shooting a TV series called “Gypsy.” I’m excited about that too.
You are a busy man! That’s a great thing in Hollywood!
Oh yeah! Thankfully!
You performed in both film and television. Is there a format you prefer or are there any advantages or disadvantages to either?
No. Television wasn’t the genre it is today. It now has sort of a narrative feel to it. When I first left the stage, I thought I’d really love to do film because they keep telling you, “Bigger. Bigger. Bigger.” You just want to live. You just want to be. Television has sort of changed into that film narrative, so I don’t think it matters anymore.
It has to be welcome by actors like yourself. You’re really not limited anymore.
Absolutely. It’s opening up in a really great way. What I find interesting is that in the last several years, as it was opening up, the work was there. As an independent actor I was like, “Television is opening up. I’ll go right into that.” All of a sudden every A-list name was snatching up every role in television. [laughs] It’s opening up though.
You dabbled in writing and directing. Do you aspire to further explore the world behind the camera?
I do. I’m just not sure what yet. I’m writing the treatment for Roy Orbison, so who knows … I don’t know …
What’s the best piece of advice someone has given you along the way in your career?
It rings in my ears all the time … keep going. Just keep going.
We hear that quite a bit in most of our conversations. I would assume that would be your advice to someone who wanted to pursue a career in the entertainment industry.
Absolutely. A lot of people I have known in my life have given up way before it was time for them to pack it in. Whether it’s financial or family constraints … persistence does end up paying off. It really does.
You mentioned the Armenian protest on Sunset. Are you involved in any charity we can help spread the word about or help you with?
I’m always involved in several and I tweet them out. A lot of the children’s charities and anything to do with water and the environment, especially here in California. There is a drought and unfortunately they claim that companies like Nestle are just bottling this water up for profit. You know, I don’t like to get too overtly political, water would seem to be a human right.
Well that’s all I have for you. I really do appreciate your time.
I appreciate it a whole lot. Thank you so much.