You could, as the saying goes, hate her because she’s beautiful. Make that obscenely gorgeous, with lips and legs and cheekbones enough for four people. You could also hate her because she’s making millions. Or because when she has to get up very early, it is to leave her husband and adorable 2-year-old daughter, Rose, for the studly likes of Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood, and John Travolta. (And, okay, Dustin Hoffman — in last year’s Outbreak. But still.)
Some false modesty would dull the sting a bit. Rene Russo, however, is reveling in her charmed life, which continues with her next film, Tin Cup, a golf-centered romantic comedy due in August. In it, the 41-year-old model-turned-actress plays a psychologist who becomes amorously embroiled with Don Johnson and Kevin Costner. ”Don has very soft lips. There was a lot of smooch action,” says Russo. ”And Kevin and I have a steamy love scene, so I was in heaven.”
The raucous laugh that punctuates this tale is one reason why, five minutes after meeting Russo, it’s hard to begrudge her anything. The other reason is a path to fortune that makes the old Schwab’s drugstore myth of sudden fame seem anticlimactic. The second daughter of a single mother who worked in a factory by day and tended bar at night, Russo grew up in Burbank, Calif., on the wrong side of the tracks. From age 10 to 14 she wore a brace for scoliosis (curvature of the spine), the cause, she says, of a debilitating insecurity that dogged her for years. By 15 she had dropped out of school and was inspecting eyeglass frames in a factory.
At 17, her luck, at least financially, turned: An agent saw her at a concert; within seven years she was a modeling superstar, when top models earned up to $2,000 a day. ”I had everything the world would say was cool,” says Russo. ”But [success] didn’t make a difference in the way I felt; I thought, ‘What’s wrong? I’ve got the car, the career, the money.”’
Upon hitting 30, that existential dilemma hardly seemed to matter. After shining as a Vogue cover girl for more than a decade, Russo was soon demoted to catalog work — specifically, a catalog for maternity clothes. ”I was as low as you could go,” says Russo. With some savings, she fled the modeling world, discovered Christianity, and spent three years studying the Bible at a church in L.A. ”I needed to spend some years with myself,” she says simply. ”It was a time when I was saying ‘What the hell am I going to do?”’
That question was answered with a role in a TV series, Sable, which led to a part in 1989’s Major League. ”I didn’t want to be an actress when I was younger — not even when I was older, to tell you the truth,” Russo says with a cackle. ”As crazy as it sounds, I needed a job. They wanted a girl with a certain look, and I guess I had it.”
After that, she got the lead opposite Mel Gibson in 1992’s Lethal Weapon 3. That part proved to be the charm: Russo showed she was not only that rare model who can act but that rare woman over 30 who could play in the big leagues of romantic leads. Indeed, she has become — with Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer — one of a handful of believable female partners for the screen’s more mature males, equally deft at sparring comedically with Travolta in 1995’s Get Shorty, or duking it out with Eastwood in 1993’s In the Line of Fire. She’s also the best bargain in Hollywood: Her reported $1 million to $2 million per film is a pittance considering the total box office of her last three films: $242 million.