Actress Theresa Russell recalls the wild ride that was Track 29

by Mark Burger

Theresa Russell is beautiful, brainy and, for much of the ’80s and ’90s, a goddess of independent cinema, particularly in the provocative films directed by her then-husband, Nicolas Roeg.

With Image Entertainment’s recent release of 1988’s Track 29 (see review on Page 35), Theresa Russell looks back on an eclectic, sometimes electrifying body of work. Her memories of the film are “absolutely wonderful,” she said. “It was a fun shoot. Hard but fun. Nic always allows his actors a lot of freedom and expression.”

Written by Dennis Potter and produced by Rick McCallum (later George Lucas’ producer) under the auspices of George Harrison’s HandMade Films, Track 29 stars Russell as the restless and troubled wife of an eccentric physician (Christopher Lloyd) who’s more interested in his model trains than their marriage, and becomes convinced that a young drifter (Gary Oldman, in his third film) is the son she gave up for adoption years before. And that’s just the beginning of this weird, sometimes wacky, tale of obsession filmed on the coast of North Carolina.

During the Russell/Roeg heyday, which also included Insignificance (1985) and Cold Heaven (1992), many observers viewed her as his muse (which she was) and the films as strange (which they were), but too often overlooked she was playing roles that were emotionally and physically charged.

“I appreciate that,” she said. “That was what I wanted — those challenges. It wasn’t about the money, it was about the work. I never really had a career plan. If I had, I might have had a bigger career!” Bigger, perhaps, but probably no better, having worked with such notable filmmakers as Elia Kazan, Steven Soderbergh, Sam Raimi, Michael Crichton, Ken Russell, Bob Rafelson and John McNaughton.

None of the Russell/Roeg collaborations was particularly successful at the box office (“People didn’t understand them,” she said simply), but they made no apologies for what they were or, equally important, what they weren’t. Additionally, independent films never seem to go out of season and are always ripe for rediscovery.

Russell thrives on demanding, edgy roles. She recalled Russell’s controversial 1991 drama Whore as “a really hard film to do. But I’m glad I did it.”

Russell was part of an all-star ensemble of the acclaimed HBO miniseries “Empire Falls” (2005), based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and played a latter-day fascist who mentors Orthodox Jew-turned-white supremacist Ryan Gosling in The Believer (2001). That Gosling has become one of Hollywood’s hottest stars is no surprise. “I knew,” she said. “I remember thinking ‘This boy is unbelievable.’ I knew it would only be a matter of time.”

She played the embittered wife of villainous Flint Marko (Thomas Haden Church) in Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 (2007). “Originally, it was a larger role,” she sighed, but she’s not about to criticize a film that grossed almost $900 million worldwide.

Not every film’s a winner, but Russell doesn’t mind. Take the low-budget 1994 crime drama Public Enemies, in which she played pistol-packing Depression-era outlaw Ma Barker.

“The casting was completely stupid,” she laughs, “but where else would I get the chance to hang off the side of a moving Model-T while shooting a tommy gun? Come on, that’s something everyone wants to do in the movies — I know I did!” One of her best performances was as an undercover cop in Impulse (1990), for which she received great notices but wasn’t widely seen. A direct hit was Wild Things (1998) — “a terrific film,” she said — which earned more attention for its steamy sexuality than its wicked, serpentine plot. Denise Richards played a teen temptress and Russell her lusty, cold-blooded mother. “I got to be so deliciously nasty. I loved it.”

The actress is a great cinema enthusiast, although she doesn’t particularly enjoy revisiting her own work. “It’s hard to explain,” she said. “There’s so much tied up with memories with what was going on at the time.

“Working with Nic was always a little fraught,” she laughed. Although some perceived that he’d go easy on an actress he was married to, she says, “Just the opposite was true.”

Cast and crew could retire for the night, but Russell continued to hear about budget concerns, production problems and other woes, even on films she wasn’t in, like The Witches, his 1990 adaptation of the Roald Dahl story. “You’d think a director would understand that a little mouse might run the wrong way during a shot, but not Nic!” Although the two divorced, Russell fondly recalls their work together. “It was a beautiful craziness, a wonderful, artistic, creative craziness,” she said, adding she’d work with him again without hesitation. (Since their divorce, however, Roeg has made few films, most for television.)

She’s particularly fond of Bad Timing: A Sensual Obsession, the 1980 psychological drama that first brought them together. Having played the ingenue, Russell was eager to tackle something deeper and darker. It was an instance, she laughed, “of be careful what you wish for. It was a huge, complex character and a great period of creative growth at that time in my life. I was 22 and it can never happen again.”

Playing Gene Hackman’s reckless daughter in Roeg’s Eureka (1983) “was intimidating. Gene always seemed pissed off! But that’s how the character was written, that’s how he played it, and that’s how he works. He’s great in the role.”

On-set tension between Russell and Debra Winger in Rafelson’s 1987 hit Black Widow worked to the film’s advantage, as the two played adversaries: Russell the title role, a serial predator who marries and murders wealthy men, and Winger a federal investigator on her trail.

The vast majority of the audience “isn’t aware of that [tension],” she said, “nor do they care, nor should they. If the film works, that’s what they care about.”

Russell remains close to Roeg’s children from his first marriage and they have two sons together, both of whom have followed in the family business. Older son Staten is a writer/director and younger son Max — “Look out for him!” boasts Mom — is an up-and-coming actor. “Both are going to do interesting things. We’re going to see a lot of interesting young filmmakers, and it’s going to be a very interesting time for filmmakers.”