Making the Trek
Keri Russell and Skeet Ulrich talk about their part in the Steven Spielberg miniseries on America’s expansion into the west.
AFTER taking a break from the spotlight, Keri Russell and Skeet Ulrich return in Steven Spielberg’s epic saga, Into the West. The six-part series, which begins today, airs every night at 7.15pm.
Russel and Ulrich were Hollywood’s hot young stars in the mid-1990s.
After Scream became a box-office smash in 1996, Ulrich was pegged as Gen X’s answer to Johnny Depp. At the same time, Russell had gone from one-time Mouseketeer on the Mickey Mouse Club to TV’s darling, thanks to her college drama, Felicity.
Then they disappeared from view.
In 2001, Ulrich decided to leave Hollywood to live on a farm with his wife and newborn twins.
In this interview, two stars open up on the challenges of making this sweeping saga and their time away from the spotlight.
You were filming in very isolated places. What were the conditions like?
Normally on a movie you do your hard scenes, then go back to your trailer, rest and make phone calls.
There wasn’t a lot of that with this. We sat outside in these harsh conditions with this huge group of people, played cards and told stories. There were kids crying and adults crying, and people fighting. It was definitely a physical process, which, yes, makes you closer.
Skeet Ulrich: It was tough. When we started, it was around 27°C that first day when we did the river crossings, and then it got progressively colder and we dealt with the elements a lot. But I think it lent a lot to the performances in that we got a glimpse of what these people had to deal with in the migration.
What did you learn from this experience?
KR: I did a lot of reading for my character because [her story takes place on] the wagon train – this group of people who actually made the westward journey. My biggest question was: knowing the trip would be so hard, why did anyone agree to do it? So many people died.
There are all these interesting journals from women who made that journey with stories about their pregnancies, the babies who died along the way and the lives of their family members. You were lucky if half your wagon train made it there alive, so I think it’s amazing that anyone decided to do it.
I think it speaks a lot to the American spirit of adventure and reinvention because it takes someone either very naïve or with a lot of chutzpah to undertake such a journey.
SU: What these people went through, this pioneer spirit they exhibited, has defined the American work ethic.
As Americans, we’re known for our work ethic and that mentality was set at the time when all the toil went into the migration west. Obviously, we’re a very young country but, I think we defined ourselves really quickly.
KR: The biggest thing for me was that Steven Spielberg chose to make it. The coolest thing about it is that half of it is the Native American story and the other half is about these Virginian settlers. It’s not a typical Western but I think it’s great having the Native American cast.
SU: We were essentially making three independent films. Working with [different directors], everybody has such completely different styles but you all understand what the context is and what the story is you’re trying to tell.
It’s great to have a fresh perspective [from a new director] every five or six weeks and it also brings a lot to the character.
[KR:]I really think it’s great that he has a history of using his name to make projects like this. Once the audience sees that Steven Spielberg is involved, they think, “I want to watch that!”
SU: I think he’s just an unbelievable storyteller. You trust that these are going to be amazing stories that you want to be a part of. When you hear [Spielberg’s] name, you trust that he will hire the best.
I knew that it would tell an emotionally provocative story and it was going to be truthful.
SU: No, it’s really just a matter of whether or not I’m drawn to a story. It’s got to be something that really resonates so deeply that you can last six or eight months with.
I took two years off when my kids were born and I really have always been interested in building furniture.
I’ve built stuff throughout my life, but I met this great furniture maker in California and was really inspired by his art. When you see it, you want to touch it or sit on it. It’s really inviting and sumptuous.
Then I really started to get hungry to [return to acting]. I enjoy it because it really does inspire me continuously.
KR: Family is everything, especially on an adventure like this. They’re your best friend, but they’re also your worst enemy. They’re all you have.
What I also think is interesting about this project is how things continue every generation.
You have people playing characters that happened a few generations after the one I was in and yet the same problems or issues keep cropping up.
SU: Unfortunately, I can’t talk about being a husband anymore [Ulrich divorced his wife, actress Georgina Cates, in 2005].
Being a single father [to six-year-old twins] now brings even more to bear. Shaping their hopes and dreams, their mentality and their morality is the most important thing I’ve done in my life.
As I go to bed, I want to wake up the next day and be a better dad. It’s a constant striving towards bettering their future.
The hardest thing to stomach as you watch them grow up is seeing that slow loss of innocence.
I think we’ve continuously developed a better sense of how to keep that innocence and to raise families in a better way.