From creating fake radio shows with her brother as a kid to starring in one of the most unique horror movies of 2017, The Ice Cream Truck, Deanna Russo has been entertaining audiences with her wit and charm for virtually her entire life. In addition to acting, she is also a director, producer, and writer. Her 2007 short, A Taste of Kream, won her Best Director at the New Orleans Film Festival. She also directed and produced two seasons of a web series for Funny or Die called Real Life with Married People. This reporter had the pleasure of having a candid conversation with Deanna, and the multi-talented artist did not disappoint.
Deanna Russo has been in over 20 major television series, including The Young and the Restless, Knight Rider (2008), Rescue Me, Burning Love, Gossip Girl, and The League (among many others). With spot-on comic delivery, as well as the ability to portray powerful emotions, Deanna is one of those artists that after you see her perform the first time, you remember who she is. When speaking to Deanna about her career, it was refreshing to see how down-to-earth, and downright funny, she is.
A Ham, KITT, And A Golden Realization
This reporter asked Deanna when she first realized that she wanted to act.
“I fell in love with acting when I was in the second grade, when I was cast in a school play. And also, I just love Miss Piggy. And I mention Miss Piggy because she was such a ham, ba-dum tshh, and she was constantly ready for the spotlight. And I just thought that was so cool. That a woman, even though she’s a puppet, could be that powerful. She really inspired me. You would catch me as a kid creating fake commercials in the mirror, and my brother and I would take cassettes and make fake radio shows.
“But it wasn’t until I was in college that I started booking acting jobs in central Florida, where there’s barely any work. It dawned on me that if I could find work where there’s barely any work, then I should roll the dice and move to a big city. The only reason I didn’t go to New York at the time—I’m from Jersey and had a lot of contacts in Manhattan—is my Aunt Kathy. She told me, ‘You’re not married or pregnant, go to LA.’ And she’s right, it’s so much easier making a major life change when you’re fresh out of college.”
Deanna Russo was the co-star in the 2008 continuation of the Knight Rider series, and she shared her experience on that show.
“Knight Rider was a dream come true. You know, we grew up watching it and it’s still on. I look back at that and think, I can’t believe that was me. But that whole thing was a whirlwind. It was during the writer’s strike, and we got greenlit just in time. The show completely transformed between the premiere and the series pick-up. My character went from being a Stanford professor to being, you know, Mechanic Barbie. They really changed my character so much between the two hour pilot and the debut of the series, that it sent me for a loop.Suddenly, I’m in stilettos and a bikini doing fight scenes.
“It was my idea to be doing the fighting, because I hate when women just stand in the background while the men tussle. So it was important to me, and they were really generous with including me in the fight training, creating cool scenes for my character, etcetera. But it gave me a head trip with body image issues, and misogyny. I think the car world can be very misogynistic. So that was an interesting thing, to see where the direction of the show was going. But I have this strong work ethic that I just keep my head down and give it my all.”
“Then suddenly my skin was breaking out in this stress rash, blisters on my hands and feet, so I had to go through this whole rigamarole. I saw every doctor under the sun, and we figured out it was a stress rash when I had a few days off and it went away. I was pulling 80 to 90 hours a week, and that was just on set. The amount of hair and makeup alone, I was there two hours before anyone else just to get gussied up. It’s a marathon, and you have to take care of yourself.
“The cool thing about being on Knight Rider was talking to KITT, that was awesome. And meeting David Hasselhoff was huge. But at the time, for me, it felt like a storm that lasted a long time.”
With performing in the famed comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) and doing numerous sketch comedies on platforms like College Humor, Deann Russo has a strong background in comedy. She shared with me her experience in appearing in The League, in one of the funniest episodes titled “The Yank Banker,” and her experience with UCB.
“The League was an amazing group to work with. That was so fun, and Paul Scheer is so rad. I got to work with him a few times. In the comedy circle, it’s like a Venn diagram, everybody kind of knows everybody. Sometimes your circle intersects and sometimes they don’t. The first time I got to work with him was in Burning Love, and I was super-psyched for The League because I love that show. They’re so funny, and to jump-in on the last season just in the nick-of-time was great.
“I don’t consider myself an expert in comedy, at all. I’m just a huge fan more than I am someone who has cracked the code. I think with comedy, I try to take the pieces of what I’ve seen my heroes do, like Bea Arthur, and the way she delivers. Bea Arthur of the Golden Girls is my f***ing hero. She’s what I want to be—always!
“What the Upright Citizens Brigade [UCB] were doing was pretty genius. I knew them as players in the show. It wasn’t until Knight Rider ended when I read an article about how Aubrey Plaza, an alumni of UCB, was slated to work on Parks and Recreation. That’s when it dawned on me— here I am after giving my blood, sweat, and tears to Knight Rider, and with it not panning out I was really taken aback—realized that I hadn’t been in anything that I otherwise would have watched. Why is that, I thought. And I realized, it’s because all I watched was comedies. So reading about Aubrey Plaza is what inspired me to get comedy on my resume, because there are so many heroes out there I haven’t met yet.
“Now with my husband in the comedy world, and all of my best friends in that circle, I feel like I have less to prove. It’s kind of fun. I can go back to indie horror films, and I feel like I can expand more now that I’ve scratched that itch.”
Vulnerability, And The Horror Of Holding It
Deanna Russo is the star of The Ice Cream Truck, written and directed by Megan Freels Johnston, set to be released in theaters and on VOD on August 18, 2017. Fans and critics alike are praising Deanna Russo’s portrayal of Mary, the movie’s protagonist.
Mary is cool, witty, a writer, and is all alone in a new house while her family ties up loose ends at their old home. As Mary adjusts to her new suburban life, she reflects on her journey and examines where she is at in her 30s. Johnston utilizes symbolism to represent Mary’s relationship with her new world, and the transitional stage that Mary is at. Deanna shared how she got the role and what appealed to her about The Ice Cream Truck.
“That character, Mary, is the whole reason why I wanted to do the project in the first place. When I read the script it was for my friend Megan, and I thought she was just looking for notes. She didn’t want to be tacky and just be like,’Hey! I wrote this movie do you want to do it?’ It’s one thing when it comes through the official channels and you’re offered a role. But for a friend to ask, it was really smart of her to just be like, ‘What do you think of this idea?’ Then I thought I was being clever by saying, ‘If you can’t’ find anyone more famous to play Mary, I really love this character, will you consider me?’ And it was a trap because that was her plan all along, to work together after years of being friends.
“I just love that character because normally, the horror tropes rely on the ingenue. Mary never got to be an ingenue because she grew up so quickly. Then to be alone for the first time for 13 years, it’s something tough, you assume, and then it’s very seductive—to be a fish out of water, and to hole-up in your house, smoke weed, and write a crazy story about that transition—and what the nightmare of suburbia can be. I think it really showed what a bada** she is, and I’m constantly looking for bada** characters to play.
“I wanted Mary to be relatable, because what I was trying to do with my performance was play it as the voice of the audience. She’s a stranger in a strange world, so she’s always kind of taking a step back, watching, and reacting. Like an audience, we sit back and we judge; she’s constantly judging, for sure.”
This reporter asked Russo how much of Mary was actually her.
“Oh I would say, a lot of it. I’m not one of those people that tries to put on a mask and see how that fits. I come from a different school of thought of acting; just take any boundaries away, and try to be as truthful as you can in the moment. Coming from comedy and improv, the funniest sh*t is when people try to be so honest. So having said that, Mary is way more comfortable with teenagers than I am. I don’t think I would go smoke pot with—I mean—it depends, I guess. I definitely wouldn’t have sex with a teenager in a playground. I would go do that indoors somewhere, like an adult. Kidding.”
In The Ice Cream Truck, one of the characters is the Delivery Man portrayed by Jeff Daniel Phillips. In an eerie scene, the Delivery Man makes himself at home and walks into Mary’s room while she is changing. Deanna talked about what that scene represented and also of the talented eye from Phillips.
“The paranoia women feel. And ignorance is bliss sometimes, but ignorance will also get you in a dangerous situation, I don’t think there’s any woman out there that walks home alone at night without being completely aware of the 360 degrees around her. It’s not even a conscious thing we do anymore. I think all women feel on guard. So we position Mary to be the prey, where predators are the familiar. It’s this delivery man who doesn’t think he’s being creepy. He’s watched so much porn that he thinks this is his opportunity, that she’s consenting.
“I love how the movie ends! The movie wasn’t going to originally end like that, but Jeff was so committed. He’s worked a lot in horror, and he knew that the ending would work and that it was really important to do it that way. It gives me chills just thinking about it. That was a really smart collaboration on Megan’s part.”
When Deanna spoke of Megan Freels Johnston, she did so with pride. It was apparent that Deanna admired her friend and her visionary style.
“I have to hand it to Megan, she’s such an inspiration of a filmmaker. She’s a hustler, and she knows how to squeeze every last drop out of a movie. I think all women should pay attention to what she is up to.”
Horror fans know Deanna Russo from her performance in Rest Stop. Deanna shared her experience of Rest Stop and of what she likes about horror movies.
“I think my fondest memory of working on Rest Stop was working with the makeup artist, Jamie Kelman [The Walking Dead, Twin Peaks]. He’s super talented, and he was just a cool guy. I have fond memories of learning from him. That film was really early on in my career, and I was just happy to have a job and be in a movie.
“I was really nailed into that table. Not like, drilled into my skin, but the restraints around my wrists and ankles were fastened to the wood. It was a quick cut-away when you see my character get tortured, but during the filming of that scene I was legit nailed. I couldn’t get up from that plywood. Then here is the guy playing the psycho killer, waving rusty tools around me, and putting my fingers in them for real. You can’t get more vulnerable than that. I think another reason why I was legit scared in some of those moments in the movie, is because—I really had to pee and I couldn’t. I couldn’t get up. You know, whatever works.
“I’ll tell you what I don’t like about horror movies; I don’t like how it gives me insomnia. I can’t sleep if I watch a horror movie at night. My husband knows this. I try to watch them during the day, and then have some sort for a palate cleanser after, like a quick sitcom or something, to get it out of my system. I’m very impressionable. When I was a kid I was so afraid of Freddy Kruger. I saw Poltergeist when I was five. I saw Hellraiser at a young age. And I saw Sleepaway Camp at a young age, and I still don’t understand that ending. I like them because you think about how you would get out of the situation, or how you would survive.”
Perspective Is Everything
Although you can sense the passion Deanna has for performing and for art, her priority is her family. Her husband, Michael Daniel Cassady, is a composer and actor known for Love and Drunk History. This reporter asked Deanna if she thought it was an important dynamic for artists to be with other artists.
“The saturation of Hollywood can make anyone with a regular job seem very sexy. I think when you are immersed in so much entertainment industry drivel, it’s refreshing to talk to a medical professional or whatever. With a relationship it’s more about the schedule than the creativity. Creativity is in technology, in business, and everywhere. So, I think we do see creativity in different fields.
“It’s really about the schedule. It can go from six months with no reason to leave your house, to ‘Here’s the premiere for this movie you did last year, and you have all these interviews I scheduled for you today. And by the way, you got the offer to be in Canada tomorrow so get your passport.’ I think that schedule can test a relationship. And I am really lucky that I fell madly in love with a feminist, because he is as much of a parent as I am in this household. We collaborate on how to raise our children. Which is our only priority. Everything we do now is so that we can take cool trips with our kids. So I think if you’re not okay with the push and pull of the schedule, then you’re doomed. I have a very understanding family.”
Deanna Russo is an activist for issues like women’s rights and equality. She shared with me the importance of social equality and what she’s trying to do as a parent to make a difference in society.
“I’m trying to be more aware of inclusivity and terminology, and keeping myself in check. I have two beautiful children, but they’re white kids. I have a responsibility to keep prejudice out of their upbringing. I think a lot of my activism is going to be paying-it-forward through my children, for example putting them through public schools where they will be the minorities, on purpose. That is a valuable perspective. I think that private schools, not always, they can be a subconscious disguise for racism.”
When speaking to Deanna Russo, three things were apparent: She enjoys entertaining, she loves her family, and the human condition is very important to her. Before we ended the conversation, this reporter asked her why art is important, and per her usual, she gave an intriguing answer.
“Art is our greatest survival tool. It’s how humanity interprets perspective.”
To watch Deanna Russo’s performance in the The League, other funny clips, and to learn how she makes funny faces while dancing visit DeannaRusso.com.
[Featured Image by Kristian Dowling/Getty Images]