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Keri Russell Said Yes to Cocaine Bear Because Margo Martindale Was in It

Photo: Evan Falk/Penske Media via Getty Images

This interview was first published in February. We are recirculating it timed to Cocaine Bear’s streaming debut on Peacock.

Since concluding her five-season run on The Americans, Keri Russell hasn’t felt the urge to rush back out in front of a camera. But Cocaine Bear director Elizabeth Banks managed to put together an undeniable offer.

“After Banks pitched it to me, the same day, Margo Martindale texted me and said, ‘Are you doing this movie?’” Russell says of her Americans co-star. “She actually said, ‘Are you doing this fucking movie?’ I said, ‘Are you doing this movie?!’ And I was like, ‘Well, now I’m definitely doing this movie!’ The thought of going to Ireland, which is where we shot it, and being with Margo in a movie called Cocaine Bear, I was like, ‘Where do I sign? Yes, yes, please.’”

Inspired by real events from 1985 (yes, really!), Cocaine Bear is exactly what the title suggests. Directed by Banks, the action-comedy follows the aftermath of an American black bear ingesting a duffel bag full of cocaine that has fallen from the sky and landed in the Georgia mountains. Russell’s Colette, a nurse and single mother, finds herself in the middle of the bear’s killer rampage when she goes searching for her young daughter, Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince), who has skipped school with her friend Henry (Christian Convery). Rounding out the decorated cast is Jesse Tyler Ferguson, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Alden Ehrenreich, the late Ray Liotta, and, in a mesmerizing cameo, Matthew Rhys, who happens to be Russell’s Americans partner and real-life partner.

I was so delighted that Cocaine Bear lived up to what I wanted from a movie called Cocaine Bear.
Did you see it alone, or did you see it in a group?

Luckily I saw it in a group.
Thank God. This is not one to watch alone on your couch. The whole purpose of this movie is pure communal, ecstatic release. You’re supposed to be laughing and screaming with your friends — hopefully slightly altered in some way.

How did you screen the film?
I live in New York, so Matthew, my guy, and Margo Martindale and Jesse Tyler Ferguson all went and saw it with a few work people. And I’m so glad we saw it together, because we were just cackling and howling and slapping each other. I mean, when Margo’s face gets dragged on the fucking asphalt, that was insanity! [Laughs.] You never really know what to expect, especially when you do a movie like this, because the tone is such a massive unknown. And it’s not like I thought it was going to be like Schindler’s List or anything, but I didn’t imagine it to be quite so gory. Like, it really goes for it. It’s punchy, poppy, crazy, silly, ridiculous, scary, and gory.

What was your initial reaction when you first heard the words Cocaine Bear?
When Banks told me about it, I was like, “You’re doing what?” But, honestly, it was in the middle of COVID, so everything was so hard and depressing, and the whole world was broken, and it just felt like the exact right movie to make at that time. It has nothing to do with what’s going on in the world right now, there’s not some deeper meaning that you’re supposed to take from it. It’s just a complete escape.

The title Cocaine Bear comes with certain expectations, so, in your conversations with Banks, how did you know they were prepared to really go for it and weren’t half-assing the insanity of the premise?
I don’t think there’s any way to half-ass a movie called Cocaine Bear. I mean, we’re talking about 12-year-olds eating cocaine in the forest, people getting their faces ripped off by a bear. It’s so insane. Liz is not a half-assed person; you meet her for two minutes and you know that’s not her bag. She fucking goes for it, and that’s just who she is. And she actually loves these kinds of gory, horror, fun movies, and she really had a precise vision of what she wanted to do. My first memory of Banks is her as a slutty teenager in Wet Hot American Summer, making out with Paul Rudd. She’s such a pro, she’s been doing it for so long, but her humor is wacky, sharp, and fast.

With you, Margo, and Matthew, this is essentially the unofficial The Americans reunion. Not to mention you once again dealing with a young boy named Henry! How much did you enjoy watching Matthew let loose in his brief opening-scene appearance? He doesn’t usually get that type of opportunity.
Still wearing 1980s clothes, still calling out for Henry! And Matthew in those first five minutes is gold. To me, he and Margo are the MVPs of this film. I know Matthew plays a lot of sad guys, but he’s really funny, so I was so glad he did this. I don’t exactly know what was written for that scene, but I remember Banks turning on some crazy loud music and just saying, “Go for it.” And him going for it was doing crazy weird dances and karate chops. Oh my gosh, that guy, Andrew C. Thornton II, deserves his own movie. My favorite fact is that when the plane actually went down with all the drugs, his karate instructor was also on the plane. Like, what?! So the karate instructor went to Colombia? What was happening? I need way more details about this guy.

How much of a deep dive did you do on the real story? Maybe I shouldn’t be doing this, but I keep explaining to people that the first bit of the movie is true, whereas the bear going on a killing rampage is some added fiction.
Well, we don’t know what happened in those few days before they found the bear! This might have been true. [Laughs.] No, of course I went down the rabbit hole. It’s crazy that there’s a stuffed bear in those woods somewhere called Pablo Escobear, and people go look at it. The guy’s life and the whole story is nuts. I just can’t believe that we got away with making this movie and that they kept the title.

What was the filming process like when it came to the scenes opposite the bear?
Like most scary movies, you’re afraid of the scary thing for much longer than you actually see it, right? So there were many weeks of Margo, Jesse, and I making fools of ourselves in those woods, just hiding and screaming and ducking and hitting the dirt; there was a lot of hyperventilating acting happening. And then we had those amazing Weta guys, who I did have some experience with from Planet of the Apes. There was some highly skilled grown man in a unitard, with stilts that he used on his arms, walking around doing crazy, very realistic animal motions. And that was incredibly helpful because you could see how large it was going to be and the pace at which the bear would move.

But way more enjoyable than that talented person was our closeups on the attacks, which mostly amounted to Jesse and Margo standing off-camera and laughing at me while I did mine, and then I did the same for them. And Banks yelling into a microphone, giving us the blow-by-blow of the attacks. “Okay, they’re climbing up a tree and he’s ripping his face off and there’s blood squirting everywhere, and now his leg is just being thrown from the tree.” It was insanity, and just us laughing so hard.

Elsewhere in the cast, there is the late Ray Liotta, who passed away after filming was completed. How do you reflect on your brief time with him?
Such a legend. And I think the fact that he took this movie tells you about his sense of humor and not taking himself too seriously. He was easy and hardworking, and just an all-around cool guy.

Cocaine Bear had a great trailer, but I officially knew we were in good hands when I realized the running time was only 95 minutes.
No one needs to see a long version of Cocaine Bear. The whole point is in and out, enjoyment, laugh your head off, and get some thrills. No, this is not a three-hour war documentary. The world is hard enough, the news is hard enough, life is hard enough. This is a complete escape.

The Americans wrapped five years ago, and it’s been a bit since you were in a new project. Were you just waiting for something to really — pun intended — blow you away?
It is funny that this is the one. It’s hard when you were a part of something that you’re proud of and that was received so well, because it’s satisfying. And maybe I’m not ambitious enough to work a lot, which is probably a portion of the truth. I have a family, I have kids, so I enjoy working really hard for stints and then taking a break where I’m just a boring mom, dropping kids off at school and having slumber parties with 11-year-old girls. But it is true that I haven’t been interested in anything too sad, or too sentimental, or too serious right now. I think this got me because it was just so wildly unique, in tandem with the fact that we had just experienced this really hard couple of years. I just thought, “If there’s a time to take a risk and just do something so ridiculously fun, this would be it.”

Smart move to take some pressure off the first post-Americans follow-up by making it Cocaine Bear. It’s not like, “Oh, here’s the new prestige drama series from Keri Russell.”
[Laughs.] That’s a good point.

The Americans’ ten-year anniversary was in January. Do the series and Elizabeth still feel ever-present in your life? Obviously you have a daily Americans reminder in the form of Matthew.
I do! And I did know that it was the ten-year because, I don’t have social media, but Matthew has, I don’t know, a Twitter or something like that, and there’s this amazing edited clip that this guy made to Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage.” It was going around and Matthew and I were watching it and just laughing so hard. It was such a cool show to be a part of, and it’s still in our lives because it’s the one thing that people come up to us all the time and go, “Oh my God, that was such a great show.” It’s such a good fan response, instead of people going, “I love you,” or, “You were crazy in that.” People who liked The Americans loved the show, so it was a good ride while we had it.

And should Cocaine Bear be successful enough to warrant a sequel, as one of the surviving characters, would you rather see this bear return on cocaine or cross paths with a new animal?
I think it should be the surviving people in a new place and then some other animal, on some other drug. Or it could be cocaine. But I think it should be, “Oh fuck, it’s happening again with another animal!” [Laughs.]

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Keri Russell Did Cocaine Bear Because of Margo Martindale