TIFF 2014 Interview: Rene Russo on ‘Nightcrawler’

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Rene Russo was in Toronto to promote her biggest role in almost a decade: a has been (perhaps, never was) LA local news producer who commissions Lou (Jake Gyllenhaal) to bring in gritty tapes of bloody accidents in Nightcrawler. It’s a dark, twisted fantasy that’s very funny. From a lot of the folks that I talked to at the Toronto International Film Festival, it was also their favorite movie. 

This might be my favorite interview that I’ve been able to do. We dissect the word “bitch”, her age (and my age), she calls “bullshit” on Hollywood, and she decides that she should check out CraveOnline and calls me “very important.” Well, Rene Russo, you certainly made us feel important. 

Rene Russo: Oh man, I love your suit.

CraveOnline: Thank you, I was interviewing some British talent, on camera, earlier, so …

You had to Brit it up? [laughs] That’s great.

It’s so good to see you in the movies again. It’d been about seven years until you did Thor. What is bringing you back now? 

Because this guy here, John Crosby [she points to her agent who is resting on a nearby bed; Crosby discovered Russo in 1972 at a Rolling Stones concert and suggested that she apply for a modeling contract. He’s been her agent since]. I thought Thor would just be fun. And then I did a tiny film called Frank & Cindy — which I loved, but who knows if or when it’ll see the time of day. And I love Robert De Niro so I’m doing one with him called The Intern. That will be fun to work with him. But I don’t do much anymore because there just doesn’t seem to be a lot of great roles.

I was at the (Nightcrawler) premiere last night and you said that you could identify with Nina’s (a late-shift local television news producer) career desperation?

[laughs] I always try to find some part of a character that exists in me and plug that in. So if I can place some certain energy from that character around when I’ve felt that, then I don’t feel that much different from the character in that regard. So I asked myself where are you desperate? Because when you’re desperate you uncover fear, and some nasty qualities. Desperation is strange because it can happen at one point during the day and only last a period of time. Or you could have a desperate week. And you can have a desperate year. In my career I am not desperate. If I were [laughs] I’d be working and you’d be seeing me a lot [laughs]. I can’t divulge where I do feel desperate in my life. I can tell that you’re nice, but we’re talking to the internet [laughs].

But I can say that when you model when you get to a certain age: that’s it for you. I remember there was a time where I was like, “what am I going to do with my life?” I am a high school dropout who’s only modeled. So there was desperation with that. With Nina I knew that desperation would create a situation where the other characters might look at her and label her a “bitch” but she knows her career is on the clock. Added to that, without it she doesn’t have health insurance. She’s come down the ladder of success. 

There’s a line in the film, where Jake Gyllenhaal’s character has done his research on you and sees that you’ve left a lot of jobs after two years. Did you come up with any extra backstory that explained that job-jumping?

I understand that there’s a certain energy in youth, no question, in terms of pursuing jobs. But there is wisdom in age. It’s too bad that the two can’t come together because I do think that people are dropped from what they’re really good at too soon. Especially women. And especially in this industry. There’s really not that many good roles for women. It’s such bullshit! [laughs] All around. Look at the Senate, you know? [laughs] It’s all just old men. So she probably is just called in to fix things and on a contract and replaced by someone younger.

But in terms of Hollywood, there really aren’t a lot of great roles for young women, either.

My next few questions were kind of about that, so I’m glad you’re already going there. One thing that I’ve always liked about you as an actress is that you pretty much always play a woman who has a career and often times it was a career that typically a man would have in movies. Off the top of my head I’m thinking of In the Line of Fire and Outbreak and definitely now in Nightcrawler.

Right.

Your characters might be dating someone but you’re rarely just the girlfriend role, she’s usually in a formidable position. Do you think that as you get older, however, that those type of characters written for older women just turn into icy, cold enemies?

Oh that’s interesting. I’ve never really thought of it that way, but you’re right. They’re just written as heartless. Well, if someone offers me a role like that they can forget it. [laughs] I’ll be like, I’ve done it once. It was Nightcrawler. It was great. Did it. Give me something new! That’s so interesting …. Wow, you’re right. Sorry I’m just thinking of all these roles that are offered. Wow. [laughs] Well, you know I loved this movie. I thought it’d be cool to play a desperate woman. But there’s truth in what you say. I think in Hollywood, people assume that older women are desperate and will take any job. But it’s not true.

How do you think older career women could be written better?

Really today, young actresses still are mostly playing girlfriends. Guys get the better roles. They just do. For older women you almost exclusively get roles where you’re the mom or the grandma. Maybe the cold executive, but you’d never see how she lived. She’d bark orders. The fact that you’ve seen any of my movies from the 90s and you’re as young as you are, you’re definitely a movie buff so you can probably come up with more examples.

Well, I watched In the Line of Fire a lot as a kid. I was 14.

Oh, that’s so sweet.

We heard a chat with Jake Gyllenhaal earlier and he said that he saw his role in Nightcrawler as being like a coyote in the mountains of Los Angeles that come out at night. What sort of predator is Nina?

I think Nina is prey.

Interesting. But she does stand her ground when Jake’s character is trying to set up some quid pro quo sexual arrangement… Which is the one thing that gives her pause in the movie.

Exactly. You have to be careful as a woman. Sometimes with sex if you turn it down you’re labeled “a bitch” and if you give in, you’re desperate. So she just doesn’t answer because she can’t accept either of those: hatred or disgust for giving him what he wants. But also just in acting, being on set, a lot of times how I assert myself men will call me “a bitch” or say I’m “bitchy” and women will say, “I know where you’re coming from, man.” [laughs] I probably didn’t answer your question …

No, but there’s something truly unfair about the word “bitch.” Because if a woman exerts power or just her own will, they can automatically be called that by certain men and women and there’s absolutely no male equivalent in that regard. If a man exerts power it’s like he has a good work ethic or strong-willed …

Exactly. Across the board. If a woman is an alcoholic or a position of power, the words against her will be so much harsher. And some men can be real sons of bitches, but …

But that term almost just blames the mother …

You’re right! If a woman isn’t demure and soft, it’s still not okay for a lot of people. Most people. Even in this industry. It’s strange what we expect from sexes.