ANYONE WHO SAW HER IN 1992'S Lethal Weapon 3 knows that Rene Russo can kick Mel Gibson's butt—literally. Preparing for the role of Lorna Cole, a ballsy LAPD detective, Russo even took kick-boxing lessons. But in their new movie, Ransom, opening Nov. 8, in which the stars reteam as a wealthy New York City couple whose young son is kidnapped, Russo resisted doling out further punishment. The script called for her to slap Gibson's face after he refuses to pay the ransom. Hit Mel? No way, said Rene.

"That was very difficult for her," says Ransom director Ron Howard. "Mel was saying, 'It's okay, you can hit me.' " Finally, reluctantly, she did the scene. "And," Howard deadpans, "beat the hell out of him."

There is, in fact, a core of toughness to Russo, 42, who took up acting just nine years ago after a decade-long career as a supermodel. "I thought, 'I don't care what it takes or how much rejection I get or how bad the reviews are," she once told Buzz magazine, "I'm gonna go [to Hollywood]."

Since her arrival she has met with minimal rejection and glowing reviews—many from her leading men, who, besides Gibson, have included Clint Eastwood (In the Line of Fire), John Travolta (Get Shorty), Dustin Hoffman (Outbreak) and Kevin Costner (Tin Cup). What Cup director Ron Shelton calls the "slightly daffy" role of Dr. Molly Griswold, a Texas shrink who falls for a down-and-out golf pro, was a departure for Russo, but Shelton had a hunch she could pull it off. "On the first day of shooting," he recalls, Costner came up to him and said, "Boy, were you right about her!"

It turns out that there's a lot of Molly in Russo. "She was the most vivacious, nutty, bubbly thing that ever walked into our lives," Richard Donner, her director on Lethal Weapon 3, says about Russo's first meeting with him and Gibson. "We were a couple of giggling, babbling idiots around her."

A not uncommon reaction, to hear her friends tell it. "She has a sense of humor, a realness," says Ransom co-casting director Janet Hirshenson. "She's a great chick. There's also a tomboy quality about her." Indeed, Russo, who likes to light up a stogie now and then, "was big at hanging out with the boys—the crew, the other actors," says James Orr, who directed her in 1990's Mr. Destiny. "Rene is a regular girl trapped in a beautiful woman's body."

She's also a diplomat. "I've liked all my leading men," she told The New York Times. "But if I had one that I didn't, believe me, I'm going to pretend that I do." The No. 1 man in Russo's life, who requires no pretending, is Dan Gilroy, 37, a screenwriter she met on the set of 1992's Freejack and married that year. The couple have a daughter, Rose, 3. "Motherhood is even more precious to Rene because she had Rose a little later in life," says Russo's friend Cheryl Wheeler, her stunt double on Ransom. And though Gilroy happily plays Mr. Mom at their new $3.75 million, four-bedroom Brentwood, Calif., home whenever Russo is working, "she likes being a homebody," says Wheeler. She and Gilroy "are able to share in raising Rosie," adds Line of Fire executive producer Gail Katz.

All this is a far cry from what Russo has called her "oppressive" childhood in an impoverished Burbank neighborhood. Her father, a Sicilian-born sculptor, walked out on the family when Rene was 2. "It was really traumatic," Russo told the Chicago Sun-Times. To support Rene and her sister Toni, now 40, their mother, Shirley, 65, had to work two jobs. At 10, Rene was diagnosed with scoliosis (curvature of the spine), which required her to wear a body cast for four years. "She used to wear these heavy kinds of clothes to cover it up," says Steve Campbell, her seventh-grade English teacher at Burbank's Jordan Middle School.

Even after the cast came off, Russo felt like an outsider. One of her classmates at Jordan was her future director Ron Howard, who recalls the tall, thin Russo's "towering over all of us guys, with that Cher hair and white lipstick." Says Campbell: "Kids called her the Jolly Green Giant." Still, he adds, "Rene would always have boyfriends. Not the big, burly, macho types. She liked the sensitive kind." Though Howard wasn't one of them, he liked her enough to let Russo crib off his exams. After only a year at Burbank's Burroughs High School, she dropped out. "It's one of her big regrets," says Howard.

At 17, Russo took a job inspecting lenses in an eyeglass factory. Not long afterward she found herself being ogled in the parking lot of the Los Angeles Forum by an ICM agent named John Crosby as both were leaving a Rolling Stones concert. "I stopped the car and looked at her," says Crosby, Russo's manager since 1989. "She was the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen."

Crosby gave her his card, and a month later Russo was in Manhattan, modeling for the Eileen Ford agency. "Every photographer wanted her," says Lacey Williams, Ford's daughter and Russo's sometime roommate. "Avedon and Scavullo, everyone."

At 29, Russo married—"for, like, two minutes," she told the San Francisco Chronicle. Almost as rapidly, her modeling career crashed. At 30, she was deemed too old. "I went from the cover of Cosmopolitan and Vogue," she told the Los Angeles Times in 1989, "to standing on the beach with a pillow over my stomach doing some piece-of-[expletive] pregnancy catalog."

She soon quit, moved back to L.A. and, at loose ends, spent three years studying theology. C.S. Lewis's 1952 book Mere Christianity especially inspired her. "That started me sort of on a path that included God in my life," she told the Chronicle. It also gave her the self-confidence, she said, to plunge into acting. At 33, she made her debut in ABC's Sable, playing the girlfriend of a masked crimefighter. The show was quickly canceled—but she caught the attention of director David Ward, who was looking for an actress to play Tom Berenger's girlfriend in his 1989 baseball comedy Major League. "She was very raw," Ward recalls. "But there was a real grace about her." She got the part.

Russo continued to hammer out solid performances. Still, having perfected the role of the spunky wife, girlfriend or mistress, Russo—who makes between $1 million and $2 million a picture—is ready to stretch. "She's beyond these parts," says producer Katz. "She's able to carry a movie." She'll soon have the chance. In Buddy, due out next summer, Russo plays Gertrude Lintz, a real-life eccentric socialite of the '20s and '30s who raised exotic animals in her Brooklyn apartment.

And after that? Chastened by her overnight demise as a supermodel, Russo is pragmatic about her leading-lady prospects. "I'm going to make as much as I can for the short amount of ride that I have here," she told Newsday, "and then get out."

Ron Howard, though, thinks she may be in for the long haul. "There's an underlying strength there," he says, that informs every role she plays. "Rene's been through a lot." Even on the set of Ransom. In her most wrenching scene, Russo has to react to the news that her son has been abducted. "I was asking her to do it over and over again," says Howard. "It boiled down to me telling her, 'Cry your guts out, Rene!' " She did—but not without taking a playful jab at her director. "You know," she said, "back in eighth grade I thought you were a nice guy."

MICHAEL A. LIPTON
JEFF SCHNAUFER and KAREN BRAILSFORD in Los Angeles and ANNE LONGLEY in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Jeff Schnaufer,
  • Karen Brailsford,
  • Anne Longley.