Russell was born in San Diego, California, the daughter of Constance (née Lerner) and Richard Lion Russell, a stock analyst. Three of her four grandparents were Jewish. Her maternal grandfather was journalist and educator Max Lerner. Russell wanted to be an actress since the age of eight and started acting in school plays. She appeared in a Pepsi commercial that was taped locally while in high school. After graduating from Mission Bay High School in 1981, she moved to Los Angeles and began taking acting classes before landing her first role. She did a masters program in Spiritual Psychology at the University of Santa Monica and is a certified hypnotist and life coach, also from the University of Santa Monica.
The day after graduating high school, with limited commercial and modeling experience. Russell set out for Los Angeles with a UCLA-bound girlfriend. She located a roommate, actress Diane Brody, via the campus bulletin board. Brody helped Russell line up acting classes and waitressing jobs. Accompanying an acting classmate to an audition, Russell walked away with representation. She was subsequently cast in an unapologetic PORKY’S clone titled Private School (1983)
Private School (1983) Chris from a girls’ boarding school loves Jim from a nearby boys’ boarding school. Jordan also wants Jim and plays dirty. Jim and 2 friends visit the girls’ school posing as girls.
Russell played Jordan Leigh-Jensen, “a spoiled rich girl willing to do anything to get her way.” As her romantic rival, the top-billed Phoebe Cates waged war for the affections of Matthew Modine. Critics excoriated the film’s leering sexism, but Russell’s recollections are pleasant. “It was like walking on air,” she recalled. “Phoebe Cates was my idol at the time, and she was so nice to me. We grew very close, and she was fun to work with.”
Phobe Cates, in fact, coached the novice actress who was nervous about her nude scene: “Phoebe said, ‘Oh, this is nothing-in Paradise (1982) I had nude scenes. To make matters more stressful, old acquaintances showed up on the day Russell was shooting her topless “Lady Godiva” scene. “I hadn’t seen these people in years,” laughed Russell. “They turned up on the set, outdoors in the middle of nowhere. The director made them leave. It was hysterical. I learned that day not to take it all too seriously.”
She insists that reviews, citing herself as the film’s sole asset, caused no friction with leading lady Cates. Phoebe is very secure with herself, stated Russell “She should be. Look at her now! We didn’t pay any attention to critics.”
Offers promptly rolled in. One of the networks offered Russell a spot on any series she wanted Numerous agents called, Playboy asked her to pose for a pictorial on struggling actresses in Hollywood. Although she does not regret turning down Playboy, Russell admits that she, and her management, did not make the best choice of opportunities. Though she auditioned for smaller parts in higher profile filmy, she inevitably landed leads in B-movies.
Out of Control (1985) Teens (Martin Hewitt, Betsy Russell, Sherilyn Fenn) crash-land on an island, find vodka, play strip spin-the-bottle and run into drug smugglers
In Out of Control (1985), Martin Hewitt and Russell were cast as a prom king and queen who invite six of their classmates on a “grad night” chartered flight. The plane crashes and the kids acclimate themselves to survival on a deserted island. Most critics panned the film, but the Los Angeles Times and L.A. Weekly gave it good reviews.
“We filmed in Yugoslavia,” explained Russell. “It was fun. There were a lot of us around the same age… Martin Hewitt, Sherilyn Fenn. Russell remembered that Fenn, who debuted in the film, “was the youngest of us all and very sweet. We both liked Martin. I liked him for about two minutes the first day, and she ended up breaking his heart. The producer, Fred Weintraub, said, ‘Sherilyn is going to be huge-she’s going to break a lot of hearts. He was right. She’s worked very hard and she deserves her success.”
Russell played the title role in her third film, Tomboy (1985), Her character, Tommy Boyd, was a curvaceous auto mechanic with car racing ambitions. The movie was dogged by controversy: despite it’s claims of feminist affirmation, TOMBOY was peppered with the usual B-quota of sex and nudity.
Tomboy (1985) A strong-willed female stock car driver challenges her chauvinistic crush to a race to win his respect- and get him into bed.
“It turned out all right, said Russell. “Actually, that movie surprised me. I’ve heard a lot of people really loved that movie. At first, I thought it was going to be kind of dumb but I’ve gotten great response. I saw it about a year ago and thought it wasn’t so bad.”
Avenging Angel (1985) was more of a challenge for Russell. The film served as a sequel to 1983’s ANGEL, about a high school student’s double life as a hooker. “That was a rough experience, because I didn’t understand the character,” recalled Russell. “I felt kind of unsure I was still very young and this had all come very fast, and I hadn’t really studied that much. I didn’t totally relate to the character. Angel wasn’t an everyday girl. It was something new to me, and I didn’t have time to do any research.”
Avenging Angel (1985) Molly, former prostitute, has managed to leave her street life with help from Lt. Andrews. She studies law and leads a normal life. When Andrews is killed by a brutal gang, she returns to the streets as Angel to find his killers.
Although ANGEL had been released only two years previously, the sequel’s storyline picks up five years after the conclusion of its predecessor, Producer Keith Rubenstein and director Robert Vincent O’Neil felt that Donna Wilkes, who played the title role as the first ANGEL, wasn’t credible as a college graduate. The sequel’s investors, however, insisted that Wilkes reprise her familiar role. But it was Wilkes, pricing herself out of the market, who finally broke the stalemate. Cast as a streetwise heroine, Russell drew unflattering reviews from critics.
“Queen of Schlock Wants to Abdicate,” announced the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. After AVENGING ANGEL, it appeared Russell was fed up with her movie career. “I’ve done four B movies and now I’m just gonna stop,” she told a reporter. “I’ve paid my dues, and four is enough.” Russell also related that a meaty role in PRIVATE SCHOOL blinded her to its exploitation elements. She was critical of her involvement in B-films, and pledged to stop making them.
During the next two years, Russell turned to television, performing guest stints on T.J. HOOKER MURDER, SHE WROTE, FAMILY TIES, and THE A-TEAM, “I had down time, she noted. “I didn’t really want to do more nudity. I didn’t want to do B-movies and be taking my clothes off.” A lack of good scripts also prompted Russell to decelerate her movie output.
Cheerleader Camp (1988) A group of cheerleaders become the targets of an unknown killer at a remote summer camp.
Russell wasn’t obligated to disrobe in her next film, Cheerleader Camp (1988) which was initially promoted as BLOODY POM POMS. The plot: cheerleaders, including centerfolds Teri Weigel and Rebecca Ferratti, are sliced and diced while attending a wilderness retreat. The slasher epic hardly adhered to Russell’s speculations about a future in A-movies. “CHEERLEADER CAMP came along, and I liked the character, the actress explained. “She was kind of cute. She was getting driven crazy, and I could keep all my clothes on because the Playmates around me took all their clothes off. It was fun, too, working in Sequoia National Forest. I’ve always made friends with every film I’ve done.”
Following the film, she renewed a past friendship with actor Vince Van Patten. “I met him at the Playboy mansion when I first moved to L.A., Russell recounted. “We dated a few times, and then I never heard from him again. He was involved with the tennis circuit. We both really liked each other, but at the time he wasn’t right. I broke up with my boyfriend five years ago, ran into Vince at the Hard Rock Cafe and the rest is history. The timing was perfect.”
Trapper County War (1989) Two city boys (Estes, Blake) get in trouble with a backwoods North Carolina family (Swayze, Armstrong, Hunky, and Evans) when they try to help an abused step-daughter (Russell). Bo Hopkins and Ernie Hudson are the good locals who attempt to help the boys.
Russell’s last turn as a teenage ingenue was Trapper County War (1989), an updated, sanitized version of DELIVERANCE. Playing the 17-year-old adopted daughter of a backwoods family, Russell served as the city slicker’s love interest.
In Delta Heat (1992), a film noir thriller shot two years ago in New Orleans, Russell was cast as a deceased drug kingpin’s daughter. Academy Entertainment recently released the film on video. “New Line wanted it.” smiled Russell, but the investors had already made a deal with Academy. I think it should have come out in theatres. It’s pretty good.”
Delta Heat (1992) An L.A. cop investigates the death of his partner in the swamps of Louisiana. Enlisting the help of an ex-cop who lost his hand to an alligator many years before.
In Amore! (1993), “It’s Jack Scalia and Kathy Ireland and me, but you wouldn’t know it because of my billing,” laughed Russell. “I’m definitely in the movie. In fact, it’s only me and Scalia in the first half of the movie, and we get divorced and Kathy Ireland comes in. It was my first real comedy.” As the film started to roll, Russell had something else in production. I was three months pregnant at start time, and kept getting bigger!,” she revealed. “I finished the movie when I was four and a half months, and the filmmakers never knew I was pregnant.”
Her husband, who has retired from tennis, is producing a movie adapted from his own script. Rewritten by Dan Jenkins (Semi-Tough), The Break (1995)is a family affair for the Van Pattens. “It’s my first small part in a really good movie,” beams Russell “It’s like ROCKY or BULL DURHAM with tennis. Vince plays the veteran coach, with this rookie kid that he has to coach for the summer. I play the love interest to the kid. I’m the older woman.” She laughs, reflecting upon her ten-year development from PRIVATE SCHOOL starlet to more mature character actress.
When addressed with questions regarding nudity, Russell replied, “If BASIC INSTINCT came my way. I’m sure I wouldn’t have turned it down. It depends on who’s in the movie, what kind of part it is, what the movie’s about. But, you know, I’m not getting those types of offers or scripts anymore, so I’m not worried about it.
“I hope to do good work, to do entertaining, enjoyable projects,” Russell continued. Then, with a glimmer in her eye not at all reminiscent of Arnold Schwarzenegger, she smiled and vowed, “I’ll be back…”
Interview with Betsy Russell
What is the difference between the filmmakers you were working with in your early career versus the filmmakers of today?
Betsy Russell: That’s an interesting question because I was just reading a little blurb online about a director on a movie I did called ‘Out of Control’ [1985, directed by Allan Holzman], and he went on to do award winning things, documentaries and other films. The directors I work with now are amazing, talented and insightful, but I’ve also worked with directors before who have gone on to do incredible things. For example, the dialogue coach from Private School [Jerry Zaks] went on to a Broadway career. All the people I worked with were fine. I don’t like to compare one to the other, they are all different.
When you made “Private School” back in the early 1980s, the videotape revolution had just begun. What do you think of how your images from that film proliferated from VHS to DVD to the internet? What do you think of the ability to download virtually anything from the internet, including those pictures of your younger days?
Betsy Russell: When I said I would do the topless scene, because it wasn’t in the original script for Private School. I remember thinking I’m 19 years old, my body is great and for the rest of my life I’m going to have something on film that the people will say, ‘yeah, she’s topless but that is my Mom, that was my Grandmother, that was my Great-Grandmother’s first film.’
I remember thinking this is kind of cool, why not? Just to have it out there now in the ‘anything goes’ era, with Playmates becoming TV stars and the like, I am proud of it, I’m proud of my body and I’m proud of the sort of free feeling that my character had in that movie, not inhibited whatsoever. It’s more of a European-type feeling, that the body can be a beautiful thing. There is reason to hide it.
You were beautiful then, you are beautiful now, nothing to worry about. Do you remember the name of the famous horse on which you rode to 1980s movie glory?
Betsy Russell: No, because he almost killed me. I didn’t know how to ride very well and I got on it just to get to know the horse. We didn’t have a very big budget so that the stunt guys had gotten some kind of wild horse. The minute I got on the horse it took off with me. Of course, everybody was at lunch except for the stunt guys, the horse wranglers and me. I thought I was going to die, because it started to run out of the stable area. Somebody finally stopped it. So I don’t remember the name, but it ended up being a quiet, passive horse after that incident.
You were fairly busy in the 1980s with your career. Was there anything that you auditioned for or didn’t do that you think might have led to a different career track?
Betsy Russell: Yeah, I was a favorite of a casting director name Wally Nicita, and she eventually became a producer. She was a big fan of mine after Private School, and there was a film coming up called ‘Silverado.’ I was shooting ‘Avenging Angel at the time and I had an audition. It was a night shoot, I was very tired and I didn’t really understand the ins and outs of the business, I relied more on my manager to take care of that, and he was learning to as we went along.
So they called for me at the audition for Silverado, and I didn’t pay attention to who had been cast in it. I just looked at it as an ensemble piece, and the other movie I was auditioning for was a ski movie, in which I would star. I just said let’s go for the bigger part. As luck would have it, the audition was in the same building as Wally Nicita’s office, and she kept saying how much the directors and producers of Silverado would love to see me. I told her no, I was here for the other audition. She looked at me like I was the stupidest person on the planet, and never contacted me for anything again. Everything happens for a reason. I always believe my career would have been different had I done that part. I can’t say if it would have been better or worse. I’ve had a good run.
Tomboy had your character as a mechanic. How did this occupation change your character from a typical character?
Betsy Russell: It defined her. I was playing a girl who loves auto mechanics. My oldest sister was a mechanic growing up. She did all the lube jobs on the car – she was that type of person. It wasn’t far out for me to imagine myself as that type of character. That’s what she did. She was a tomboy who liked riding motorcycles and playing basketball.
What are your thoughts on the trailer for Tomboy showing you as a strong female, but then cutting to you in the shower?
Betsy Russell: I’ve never really paid attention to that. I don’t know that I’ve seen it. I guess strong females still have to take showers. They still like to feel sexy, so I don’t think there’s one thing that should stop someone from feeling sexy and showing their body if that’s what they choose to do. I don’t think it makes any difference in the world.
Tomboy is arguably feminist. Was this a draw for you?
Betsy Russell: Yes, I like playing strong characters. I thought it would be fun. I was probably twenty-one years old, so the idea of playing this type of character was great. I didn’t think that hard about it. I said, “Ok, this is another role, this is what she does, and I’m going to get into it.” I started working with the assistant basketball coach at UCLA, trying to learn a little bit of basketball. At that point in my life I wasn’t thinking that long or hard about which role to take. I did have a couple of offers with Tomboy; I had another offer for another movie. I picked this one. I’m sure that was a draw for me.
What do you think makes it a feminist role?
Betsy Russell: She has a career that isn’t the norm for women. Usually women rely on men to do all the mechanical things. It’s kind of unusual for a woman to be a mechanic. I think it’s silly to be unusual, but I guess it is.
In the same vein, what role does feminism play in Avenging Angel?
Betsy Russell: I barely remember that movie, but I know Angel carries a gun. She’s a tough chick. I saw that movie maybe one time. I don’t remember it well, but I had a lot of fun doing it.
There were a couple of stronger roles you did early on. Did you find yourself drawn to the stronger roles?
Betsy Russell: Typically the leads in movies are stronger women. Nobody wants to watch a wimp for two hours. I played more of a leading lady than the sidekick. I don’t think I’ve ever played the sidekick. If given the chance, I would have. I did what I thought was good.
How did you get your role in Avenging Angel?
Betsy Russell: I auditioned first, but then the director fought for me. The producer wanted the girl from the first movie. The director said he wouldn’t do the movie without me. That was nice.
Do you remember having a favorite line from Avenging Angel?
Betsy Russell: No, but a lot of people tell me their favorite line from it, and I don’t remember anything.
What were your thoughts on Cheerleader Camp (1988) and Camp Fear (1991) and how have these thoughts evolved over time?
Betsy Russell: Camp Fear was somebody called me and said, “Would you and your husband, Vince, like to do this little movie? You’re going to make a lot of money for three weeks shoot, and it’s going to go right to video.” I said, “Great, I want to make a lot of money. If nobody sees it, I guess it doesn’t matter. It’ll be fun to work with my husband.” We did it. Who knew that YouTube would happen. I’ve never seen the movie, so I have no idea. I’m sure I was terrible in it. It would be hard to be anything but terrible in it. I’ve always seen bits and pieces on YouTube. My voice is really high in it. We had fun. My brother-in-law is in that movie. I remember the actor playing the Indian could never remember his lines; we laughed so hard we almost fell off a cliff. That guy who played the Indian asked Vince to be his best man at his wedding. We barely knew him so that was funny. That happened back when they would say, “No one’s ever going to see it.” You’d do it. As an actor, if you’re not working, you want to just work. It doesn’t matter all of the time if it’s best project if you haven’t worked in a while. You have to put some money in the bank. That’s why I did that. Cheerleader Camp, I hadn’t offered this role called Bloody Pom Pom’s at the time. I remember thinking, “Oh my gosh, I don’t have to take any clothes off.” At that time, coming from Private School, Tomboy, and Out of Control (1985), I was tired of taking my clothes off. I wore those big nightgowns, and I just wanted to be taken seriously. That’s why I did that movie. I had a lot of fun filming it. As for Cheerleader Camp, we didn’t know we were making kind of a farce. Honestly, it was a little bit funny, but I took my character very seriously. We were rewriting scenes on the set five minutes before.
What are your views on nudity in film?
Betsy Russell: I don’t have any negative views on it at all. In my twenties, I would say, “If it’s intrinsic to the character then I think it’s great.” I learned that word, intrinsic, just to say that. I really don’t have any problem with it. If it’s just thrown in there because it’s a low-budget movie and they’re trying to sell it, it’s really obvious. It takes you out, which isn’t always great. Sometimes it’s just right for what’s going on. It’s great that the actor or actress isn’t embarrassed to show it. If it looks good then it’s great. If it’s a person who looks terrible I would rather they keep their clothes on. If it’s important to the role and that type of film then it’s fine.
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Bad Ass Women of Cinema: A Collection of Interviews Chris Watson