NEW YORK – When "Felicity" began in fall 1998, its winsome heroine was finishing high school. Then, on a lark, she enrolled in college in distant New York City, taking grateful flight from her California nest.
When "Felicity" wrapped production in spring 2002, its star, Keri Russell (search), did somewhat the same thing. She left California, where the show had been produced, and took off for Manhattan.
There she gave herself a much-needed break. No pre-dawn call times. No lines to learn. No studio bosses prescribing the length of her hair.
Then, after a year and a half, Russell got back to work. She made a film, two TV movies and her stage debut in an off-off-Broadway play.
One of her TV projects, "The Magic of Ordinary Days," (search) just aired on CBS. A tender "Hallmark Hall of Fame" drama set during World War II, it stars Russell as a pregnant grad student sent away by her father to wed a lonely farmer (Skeet Ulrich) who agrees to raise her child as his own.
This is a different Russell from the dewy-eyed teen she played on "Felicity." Livy Dunne is a grown-up woman dealing with dashed dreams of an academic career, and, now banished to rural Colorado, with her obligatory marriage to a stranger.
"It's a delicate, slow process of awakening for her," says Russell with a radiant smile. "I think the most fun thing is watching these two people fall in love."
As she talks, Russell is feasting on fried calamari and nursing a soup-bowl-size cappuccino in a bistro across from the Greenwich Village theater where, in an hour, she will be on stage in Neil LaBute's savage comedy "Fat Pig." (search)
Needless to say, Russell is not the title character. She plays the ex-girlfriend of her caddish co-worker Tom, who threw her over for Helen, a woman of considerable poundage.
Russell is meant to represent a cultural ideal. This calls for her to do what comes pretty naturally: be reed-thin and beautiful. But she also gets to cut loose in comically vengeful style. ("Tom ditched me for Mama Cass!" she shrieks at one point.)
"It's so fun to be mean," chuckles Russell, who two nights later would leave the play shortly before its two-month, sold-out run ended. "It's been such a good ride!"
Russell wasn't so fired up about acting when she hit town nearly three years ago.
"After 'Felicity,' (search) I just wasn't interested in anything," she says. "Acting is too fun of a job to feel like that. So I needed to step back and reassess the situation. I literally moved here with my cats, mattresses, two boxes of books and my clothes. I lived in an empty apartment."
She hung out with old friends — "great girlfriends, who aren't in the business." She read, roamed Central Park, lingered over coffees at a neighborhood cafe — and fell in love with New York.
"This city has been great for me," says Russell, 28. "Being here really kind of saved my life."
Unwittingly, she has echoed a line from her series' first episode, when Felicity conceded that her move to New York "might be a colossal mistake. But on the other hand, maybe it'll save my life or something."
For those who've forgotten, "Felicity" was that season's most talked-about new show, with Russell tapped as TV's new sweetheart well before the premiere.
"It feels kind of icky," a 22-year-old Russell said in September 1998. "I'm this face that people have attached some sort of image to, but they don't even know the show yet."
Now she recalls how, at first, "Felicity" was "fun and exciting, but then it got really hard. I was kind of going with it: `Where do they need me to be? OK. I'm there.' I don't think I was consciously aware of what I was doing. I was just trying to get through the day."
Then, just before the second season, Russell cut her hair. She can now laugh (and does, heartily) at the uproar over the shearing of her fabled mane. The fleecing of Felicity was even blamed for a dip in the show's ratings that year. Such was Russell's life under a microscope.
"I don't regret any of it, of course," she declares. "But I got really tired after four years of that. I had to just take off."
Then came fall 2003, when "the way I knew I wanted to go back to work was: I was reading scripts that interested me."
Russell went to London to shoot "The Upside of Anger," a dark comedy also starring Joan Allen and Kevin Costner, which opens in March. "Doing it was a blast."
Late last spring she traveled to Alberta, Canada, for "The Magic of Ordinary Days."
"Where we were shooting was so beautiful," she says. Then, before she knew it, she was back in the same locale for "Into the West" — a six-part, 12-hour epic about the settling of the American West that gave her many happy days spent on horseback. It will air on TNT this summer.
"Living in New York," she says, "kind of distances me from the business, from doing things because I think I should, so I can ask myself: `Do I want to do that part? Yeah, it sounds like fun.'"
Bottom line: Like Felicity, Keri Russell came to Manhattan to have an adventure. She smiles at the felicitous comparison, but adds, "I'm still having it!"