Rene Russo on Nightcrawler, Career Regrets, and Not Having a Sex Scene With Jake Gyllenhaal

Photo: Gary Gershoff/Getty Images

Nightcrawler, which is slowly creeping into this year's awards conversation, features two polarizing characters — Lou (Jake Gyllenhaal), a drifter who chances upon a lucrative career shooting grisly crime scenes and selling the footage to a local TV news outlet, and Nina (Rene Russo), that station's director, who seizes the opportunity to boost her show’s ratings and secure her shaky position. But is Nina a victim, manipulated by Lou as he ups his demands, or is she the one actually in control? Russo, who plays both Nina’s desperation and Machiavellian leanings with equal aplomb, chatted with Vulture about the sociopath in all of us, moral dilemmas, and the benefits of sleeping with her director (in this case, he’s also her husband, Dan Gilroy).

Spoilers for Nightcrawler follow.

Nightcrawler is really hitting a nerve, at a time when some forms of journalism are under attack …
It's not just an indictment of television news, because we're the consumers, so we're part of the system [too]. We really are a culture that enables and rewards graphic images. That's what we do. So I think it's easy to go, "People like this, they're interested, how bad is it, after all?" That's part of Nina rationalizing things. And I had to make choices for myself. Did she know he was out there moving bodies around and dodging bullets to kill his partner? I think she didn't ask any questions. At first, it was just to save her own ass, and then after a while, it was like, Wow, things are good, and maybe it's not just about losing health care. Maybe I could save some money. It's a slippery slope. We cross moral boundaries, and then we just keep going. It's easier and easier to rationalize. She's doing something everyone else is doing anyway. And she's being rewarded, because the audience wants to see it.

It reminds me of a couple debates I've had with other entertainment journalists recently. One is about the ethics of publishing leaked emails or stolen documents or other material obtained through dubious means, even if it's newsworthy. The other is what some tabloids consider reporting. For an assignment, they will send someone on what they call a "stalk" — which could be waiting outside your building to see when you come and go, or sitting next to you at a restaurant and eavesdropping on your conversation. 
Right, right! Well, it's interesting that you say that, because I'm not Angelina Jolie, but I've had that happen to me twice. I don't know what I would do if I were her. I have to tell you that I'm really thankful, because I have a big mouth. I talk, I don't think about things, I never really had to think about things. I came out of a culture when there wasn't tweeting and everyone with a camera in their hands. I didn't grow up with it, so I'm not always thinking about it, but there have been times when I looked over, and I saw that someone was recording my conversation. They had the phone in a way where they were also watching me. They were capturing everything. And I have to tell you, it was frightening! I was like, "Oh my God, what the hell did I just say?!" I'm not a paranoid person, but as Dan reminded me, "Rene, you have a temper. You have to be careful out there. Everyone has a phone." I have to be careful on the road, with my road rage! [Laughs.] You make one mistake and it can go viral, and there's not a lot of mercy out there.

Did you consult with any news directors or journalists for this part?
Danny gave me some statistics about local television news, and I have heard some stories since about some female news directors who are really awful! But I didn't hang with one of them, because Nina could be in any business. You can take Nina and almost put her anywhere. We're in a really tough economic world; we’re all struggling in some ways, no matter what our gender or age, so I didn't go there.

So it’s more of a portrait of a desperate woman ...
Nina, she was desperate, so what moral boundaries was she going to cross? And where in myself could I find an honest place where I could portray her? I think that was more difficult for me, just trying to find out, "Who the hell are you, Nina?" [Laughs.] Because I didn't really know her, at least at first. It actually took some time for me to get there. At first, I went to Dan and I said, "I think Nina needs some work!" I could not plug into her at first and she was kind of a terrifying character to play, because for me, in that restaurant scene, I can't say this, but I would have told him to fuck off! [Laughs.] I'd be more like, "Fuck you, Lou!" Push him off his fucking feet! But that's me, and I am not a victim.

I always thought I'm kind of a tough girl. I'm kind of a no-nonsense, go-fuck-yourself girl. [Laughs.] I had to fend for myself from the time I was 17 years old. I was a high-school dropout. I wasn't quite living on the streets, but I didn't have a lot of hope. If I had met someone like Lou, I think I would have said, "Fuck you, I'll sleep in my car." I would take that little son of a bitch, and I would strangle him. I would have killed him in his sleep. You know? That anger probably does not serve me well in life, but I really had to look and try to find Nina in all of that anger. [Laughs.]  

What was your way in?
I thought, "I need to find where I would do this, so I would be believable." And even though I'm not desperate in my job — I have the luxury of saying no, I have health insurance, I have a support system, I'm very fortunate — I realized that I've crossed moral boundaries in my life, and it's always been out of desperation or fear of loss. Once I understood that, then I was like, "Of course! That's where it comes from."

One of the themes of the movie is that all these kids are getting out of college now and they don't have a lot of job prospects, so what would they do? I know young kids who have said, "Yeah! Good for Lou!" because there are no jobs out there. He tried to get a job. He asked to intern. I can see the same struggle if you're just starting out. A modeling career was just kind of given to me. Someone said, "Oh, you should model." "Oh, okay." But thank God, otherwise I wouldn't have had a job as a high-school dropout at 18 years old. I don't know what I would have done. I was inspecting eyeglass lenses for a while. And I worked as a concession girl in a movie theater. And I was ironing before that. I always had some kind of a job. And then I started modeling. But when I look back, I was just taking it one day at a time. My daughter Rose, she'll be a senior in college next year, so she's making decisions about what she wants to do. But I wasn't thinking like Rosie was when I was her age! [Laughs.] I wasn't thinking at all, actually!

It's a bit of an age and gender reversal, too, with the younger male threatening the older woman's career, trying to use that as leverage to make her sleep with him.
Right! There is no way in hell that I would have done that. And not because I think it's immoral. It had to do with playing fair. I wouldn’t want anyone to be able to lord that over me.

Well, you’re in the unique position of sleeping with the director anyway!
[Laughs heartily.] Ah, yes! That’s true! Yes, I am. [Laughs.] I got a good role, and I’m really thankful to him. I haven’t worked in a long time, so it’s nice to have a challenging role. I think part of the reason I didn’t work [as much] was you don’t want to do just another watered-down role that you’ve already done before. I love being in my garden, and I started a little business, and as much as I appreciate the opportunity that I’ve been given as an actress, it does come with a certain amount of fear and trepidation! [Laughs.] It’s been my life, and I’ve just met amazing people, but it’s also been kind of cool to not work for a while as well. And if the parts aren’t there, I just can’t. You can’t get up at 4:30 in the morning and sit in hair and makeup if you’re not excited about the role.

How did you thank Dan for giving you a part worth getting up at 4:30 in the morning?
Now I got to think about that one! Now you’re making me feel guilty. [Laughs.] Now I have to go out and find him something! Maybe I’ll write him a letter! [Laughs.] When he came to me, he goes, “I’m going to write a part, and I’m going to write it for you,” my first thought was, Okay … So I read the script when he was finished, and I thought, This is such a perfect screenplay. It’ll never get made. There were people who wanted to finance the film, but they said, “We want to see a love scene,” between me and Jake, and Danny said there was nothing he could show that would be as interesting or dramatic as what the audience was thinking. And there were people who wanted Jake to get his comeuppance in the end. So the fact that it got off the ground is just miraculous. We look at each other, and we’re like, “Did this actually happen?”

The thing that came out of that, that was most interesting to me, was that no one asked what was going on in the bedroom. So when Jake said in one scene, “And I want you to do what I ask, not like the last time,” not one person asked, “But what were you doing behind closed doors?” [Laughs.] I think everybody’s fantasy is better than what you would show. My feeling is … [coughs.]

She’s dominating him?
Right?! Possibly! You know what I was thinking during that scene, while he’s reading me the riot act? “You go ahead, you have to get it all out, that’s your way, you have a little tantrum, and then we’re going to go right back to where I want to go.” Not that I was always in control, and not that he was always in control, but some people were like, “Oh, it’s horrible that she’s got to succumb to this,” but for me, it was like, “You go ahead, and I am going to manipulate you. And when we get in that bedroom, I know how to do that.” Nina had enough confidence where she’s probably been here before. If it were me, that’s what I would think. “Okay, but I’ll manipulate this guy somehow. It won’t be so bad. I’ll read him Goodnight, Moon.” [Laughs.] And Jake was in a totally different place with it. He knew that he had me in that scene, but I was doing something else.

You might even say she was savvy or manipulating him to give in to some of his other demands, such as when he asked for a credit on footage that put him in the crosshairs of a criminal investigation. Had Nina advised him to wait a while longer, she could have provided him protection as an anonymous source, but instead, with his naiveté, he made himself vulnerable, and she was absolved of liability.
Interesting! Interesting! I never saw that. I wonder if Danny did. I’ll have to tell him about that when he gets home. You’re giving her credit for something I never even thought of. I’m going to have to start talking about that one, “Look at how smart I was!” [Laughs.] Some people walk out of that theater feeling sorry for Nina. “Oh, he totally corrupted you.” There are some women, oddly enough, who did say, “Oh, you knew exactly what you were doing.” That's what's so cool about her. Some people think she's a victim. Some people think she's in control. So I'm getting credit for a performance I didn't even know I was giving! I'm finding that she's kind of a Rorschach test. Depending on where you are in your life, and maybe your age, and maybe your gender, and maybe the way you've judged yourself in life, and the way you judge others. When I was younger, it was easy. You go, "I would never do that!" But you don't know what you'd do if you're desperate. So I like that theme as well — the sociopath in all of us.

So what moral quandaries have you faced? Even if just on a professional level?
Some of those are secrets! [Laughs.] You have to start back as a kid. I went back to that, and I thought, How many shitty things did I do to my sister? So it starts at an early age, and then it continues. Cheating on a boyfriend, but there were reasons for that, in my mind. So there! [Laughs.] I just told you I cheated on someone! [Laughs.]  

What are some of your regrets? 
I guess my biggest struggle in my career has been a certain reluctance to actually work as much as maybe ... How can I say this? I've been offered opportunities that I didn't take. I probably haven't embraced my career like I could have. I think part of it was just who I am as a person. There's a certain insecurity that I have. Look, I worked my ass off. And I'm so fortunate, because I worked with amazingly talented people. I've been really lucky. But there have been times where I have been tentative going into every situation. It's not easy for me. I don't think I'm as brave. Not just in my career, but in my life, and that's probably held me back a little bit. Everything I've done has been a little bit tentative and a little bit of a struggle. Too much angst in it, really. [Laughs.] I'm probably the only actress in Hollywood who is kind of happy when my agent doesn't call and have a job for me!  

What's one area where you would have total confidence?
If I were going to do a garden. If I were going to put together a native garden, it would be amazing. I think what it is, is getting around other people, and performing, and what it takes to be an actor, in a way. I've seen some actors, and they're just up for it. They're up for anything. It's exciting to them. For me, it's like, [inhales] take a deep breath, and then, "Am I going to be able to do this?" But hey man, it's a job! Sitting in a trailer for 12 hours a day? [Laughs.] A lot of it is downtime.  

Do you pay attention to awards season, Oscar buzz, things like that?
I have heard some Oscar buzz. “Oh, you’re on a list.” “Wow, okay.” [Laughs.] I don’t really know if I’m on a list or not on a list. It’s just a weird thing to focus on! I would like to say this about Jake. I really hope that Jake is recognized for this role. What he had to do in this film is about as hard as it gets, and I don’t know if people realize that, because he had to knit together so many different competing character traits. He was charming, but he was repulsive. He was threatening, but there was an innocent quality to him. He wasn’t a complete sociopath. And every time you thought he was something, he would change it up on you. It’s like a magic trick. So I really hope he’s recognized. I really do.

But here’s the deal — I have more competition in my category, more than I think Jake does. I think the best thing about this business for me, besides the few minutes you can create in between “Action!” and “Cut!” is when people come up and go, “You really touched me in that,” or, “That was really comforting to me.” Getting stopped in an airport and having someone go, “I want to tell you, I saw this film, and it changed me in some way,” or even, “Thank you! You really entertained me, and I loved you in that movie!” You always feel good about that. You know, when I did The Thomas Crown Affair, I cannot tell you how many women came up to me every time I went out of the house, “I’m so glad you did that movie! You were 45, and it was great to see a woman your age with Pierce [Brosnan]! That gave me hope!” [Laughs.]