After years of studying jazz, tap and ballet, Keri Russell, the daughter of Nissan Motor executive David and Stephanie, is cast in The New Mickey Mouse Club (left). On the Disney Channel series, she begins dating costar Tony Lucca, and works with Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake and Ryan Gosling. Russell is also cast in Disney's sequel Honey, I Blew Up the Kid.
At 17, Russell moves to L.A. alone to pursue an acting career, but takes less than stellar roles, like the NBC TV movie The Babysitter's Seduction. "I was really discouraged with what was out there," she tells the Los Angeles Times in 1998. At 19, she lands a high profile starring role in Aaron Spelling's series Malibu Shores. "I never thought it would be picked up," Russell says of the series that costars boyfriend Tony Lucca (right). "It was cheesy, but it was fine for where I was in my life."
Russell, 22, is cast as the title role of Felicity Porter in J.J. Abrams' new WB coming-of-age college drama. "My first reaction was 'Damn, she's beautiful! There's no way in hell she can work!'" Abrams recalls to EW. "But she was incredibly accessible and had an amazing sense of humor – a thing most people missed from the script." The pilot, which opens with Russell talking into a tape recorder, receives raves. The Chicago Daily Herald says, " Russell, of course, is the key. She has good looks right out of a Pre-Raphaelite painting...More important, as an actress, she has a way of letting emotions ripple across her face."
Three months into the season, Felicity averages 5.5 million weekly viewers. The show is not winning the ratings race, but it attracts the highest concentration of 18- to 34-year-olds in upscale households, according to Entertainment Weekly, which lands Russell on the magazine's Fall TV cover. "The teenage girls that come to me are smart and cool – exactly the kind of girls I want to be watching," Russell says. Costar Scott Foley adds: "She's humble to the point that you think it's an act, but it's not...She's very unaffected by all of this."
Felicity is nominated for two Golden Globes in the TV drama and lead actress categories. The 22-year-old, dressed in "hippie chic" Giorgio Armani, walks away with the best actress award. During her acceptance speech she says "encouraging comes more to mind more than thanks." Series cocreator Matt Reeves tells the Los Angeles Times, "It's not just that she plays Felicity. There is no Felicity without Keri Russell."
For Felicity's second season, Russell chops her long ringlets into a boyish crop. Although the show changes day and timeslot and takes on a darker edge, Russell's new haircut is credited for the decline in ratings (a WB exec says, "Nobody is cutting their hair again on our network"). "We take full responsibility for the idea of cutting her hair," Abrams tells the New York Times. After four seasons, the show ends in 2002 and Russell leaves L.A. for New York.
Russell appears off-Broadway as a vengeful girlfriend in Neil LaBute's Fat Pig. "It was so much fun because I never get picked for those kind of projects," Russell tells the Calgary Sun. She continues her post-Felicity career playing one of Joan Allen's daughters, an aspiring ballet dancer who suffers from an eating disorder (pictured with Evan Rachel Wood and Erika Christensen) in Sundance hit The Upside of Anger.
After appearing in the Steven Spielberg-produced miniseries Into the West, the 30-year-old actress joins Christie Brinkley and Queen Latifah as the face of CoverGirl. "When I first started, I did do a commercial for a deodorant or something. I don't even think it aired," she tells the AP. "This is the first thing I've done like this. It's a lot less stressful than doing a film."
When Scarlett Johansson drops out of Mission: Impossible 3, Felicity mastermind J.J. Abrams casts Russell in her place. She plays an agent trainee under the watch of Tom Cruise (left) in the sequel. "We did lots of weapons training," Russell tells PEOPLE. "We had to assemble machine guns blindfolded within 30 seconds. My best time was 13 seconds." The film opens at No. 1, grossing $134 million worldwide.
In Waitress, Russell plays a Southern pregnant pie-maker in an unhappy marriage. The film was written and directed by Adrienne Shelly, who is murdered before it's release. After receiving an overwhelming reception at Sundance, Russell tells PEOPLE, "I felt like I just can't believe (Shelly) isn't here to experience this. She was like a firecracker – she loved this world." Costar Cheryl Hines (right) adds, "I'm not that sentimental a person, but every time I watch this movie, I get choked up. Keri finds the beauty and the vulnerability of this woman in a very clear way."
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): Everett Collection; Everett Collection; Steve Granitz/Wireimage; Kobal Collection/Wireimage; Everett Collection