Holding a knife to Farrah Fawcett’s throat, later commanding “touch me, say you want to make love,” James Russo sparks a screen sensation in Extremities by playing a piece of human sludge. This is not a sympathetic part. But Russo gives it a nightmare charge that has already started Oscar talk.
Raving about Russo’s performance as a rapist takes no effort; talking to him does. In Italy for three months to film the starring role in a three-hour TV movie called The Alliance, the 30-year-old actor only grudgingly agrees to be interviewed. “Actors talk too much about themselves,” he growls. This from a man who only the day before had asked that his Extremities reviews be read to him on the phone.
Russo is sitting at an outdoor table at Rosati, a cafe on Rome’s majestic Piazza Del Popolo. Squinting in the hot morning sun, which highlights the stubble on his pale face, Russo sips cappuccino and regards the tape recorder on the table like a rodent about to pounce. “Don’t turn that thing on,” he asks. “Write it all in your own words. Use as few quotes as possible.” Watching his visitor scribble, he bristles, “Don’t write that. I’m paranoid.”
He’s stubborn too. When the photographer interrupts for pictures, Russo dons his sunglasses. Like his brothers in press paranoia, Robert De Niro and Sean Penn, Russo behaves as if his eyes were the key to his soul. Trying vainly to loosen up, Russo kicks off his shoes and props his bare feet on the table while neighboring patrons look on in horror.
Before embarking on an hour’s limo drive back to his film set, Russo espouses the De Niro gospel that as an actor “your work should speak for you.” Since he’s best known for playing hoods, the suggestion is made that his work might not speak so favorably. “Playing a monster can have an effect on you,” Russo allows. “It did on me.” Discerning the look of hope in his listener’s eyes, he dispels it by adding, “but I can’t describe it in words.”
He’s better at saying what Extremities did for his career. “It got me in the public eye,” says Russo, who originated the role in William Mastrosimone’s 1983 off-Broadway play. During a nine-month run, he played opposite Susan Sarandon, Karen Allen and Fawcett, sustaining numerous bruises and two broken ribs as his victims got even. As for the rampant rumors of a Russo-Fawcett feud, an icy Russo says only, “It was a unique experience.”
It’s too much to expect candor from a man who parcels out biographical details like a miser handing over his last gold pieces. He was born in Queens, Long Island, the only child of a German mother and an Italian father, who worked as a sales manager for a brewery until his death from a heart attack in 1973. Russo says he was kicked out of Manhattan’s Art & Design High School for “general insanity.” Painting, he says, led him to acting, where “I could use myself as a canvas.” With almost no acting training, Russo won roles in small theater companies in Canada and New York, then acted in student films at New York University. To support himself he “dug graves, did construction work and drove a cab for three years.” Since Extremities, Russo has had small roles in such high-profile films as Beverly Hills Cop and The Cotton Club and on TV in The Equalizer and Miami Vice. His current part in The Alliance, as a World War II OSS lawyer who discovers his Sicilian uncle is a Mafia chief, is his largest to date.
Arriving on the set, Russo heads for his trailer. A few crew members grumble that Russo is standoffish. But director Pino Passalacqua insists he is no trouble. “Of course,” says Passalacqua, “I don’t speak English and he doesn’t speak Italian.” Russo brightens when a pretty young American enters the trailer. He asks that she not be mentioned because the relationship, he says, “is at a delicate stage.” However things look, Russo insists, “I’m unattached. I take ice cube baths.”
He is kidding! He has made a joke! His Alliance co-star Patti (Evita) Lu Pone says it’s not that unusual when you get to know him. Jimmy is serious, she says, “because he wants to do his best.” Says Russo, who recently gave up his N.Y. apartment and doesn’t care that he has no place to come home to, “I try to ignore everything in this business but the work.” Slipping into a tattered jacket he wears for the scene, Russo looks more comfortable than he has all day. “Now I’m dressed,” he says. “Now I know who I am.”