Cocaine Bear's Keri Russell On The Absurdity Of Acting Against A Bear On Cocaine [Exclusive Interview]

There are certain expectations that come with a film when you title it "Cocaine Bear." And according to Keri Russell, who plays one of the characters who has a run-in or two with the titular ursine creature, the movie lives up to those expectations.

"It really goes there. It doesn't shy away from things," Russell told me when I talked with her about all things "Cocaine Bear." The movie, she concedes, is "a total risk," but when she sat down and saw a cut with co-stars Margo Martindale and Jesse Tyler Ferguson, the three of them were more than pleased with the final product. "We were screaming and hitting each other and laughing our heads off. And I don't know, it was just like a total escape, a total romp, ridiculous, fun escape."

Read on for our full discussion, which also touched on "The Americans" reunion in the film and how director Elizabeth Banks yelling into a megaphone what "Cokey" the CGI bear was doing in every scene was the thing Russell enjoyed the most on set.

Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

'It was so ridiculous and stupid and wild'

I got to see it "Cocaine Bear" yesterday, and it was everything I expected, which is the highest compliment I can give.

Okay, good. It's nuts.

It's nuts.

But it's fun.

Yes and yes. So when this script came across your desk, at what point when you were reading it were you like, "I have to do this." Was there a specific line or scene?

Well, Liz ["Cocaine Bear" director Elizabeth Banks] and I were on the phone talking about a completely different project. And we're getting that going, and then I think it was the next day, she called me and said, "Do you want to read this thing that I'm directing, this crazy movie?" I was like, "You're doing what?"

It was just at the height of Covid and everything was so intense in the world, and it just seemed that crazy. I read it and I was laughing so hard. It was so ridiculous and stupid and wild. And then Margo Martindale [Russell's co-star on FX's "The Americans"] texted me and said, "Are you doing this film?" And I was like, "Are you doing this film?" And I was like, "Now I'm definitely doing this film."

Because the thought of Margo doing that, that [Elizabeth Banks] had cast Margo, I was like, "Oh, I see what she's seeing." And I could understand the tone of where she was going with it. And I'm so glad, because Jesse [Tyler Ferguson] and Margo [Martindale] and I in that forest, laughing our asses off, having so much stupid fun, it just was such a relief and an escape from all the intensity of everything in the real world.

They screened it, and again it was Jesse and Margo and I in some theater just howling. It really goes there. It doesn't shy away from things. And we were screaming and hitting each other and laughing our heads off. And I don't know, it was just like a total escape, a total romp, ridiculous, fun escape.

'Now his leg's being eaten off and there's blood squirting everywhere'

I know you're talking about the scene in the woods with the tree and the bear [that we see in the "Cocaine Bear" trailer]. Was there any specific moment when you were doing that scene or another scene in the movie where you were like, "I can't believe this is my job. This is, hands down, one of the silliest things I've ever done"?

I think that's pretty much every day I'm doing this job, for the record. But yes, a million times. First of all, you're reacting, hyperventilating, screaming to something that's not there. That's weird. Then you're hiding behind a tree and Liz is on a microphone far away. There's a close-up on you and she's like, "Okay. Now his leg's being eaten off and there's blood squirting everywhere. And he's screaming for his life. And now he's falling off. And now it's just torso, bloody torso falling out." That's what I get paid to do for a living. It's a really serious job. Meanwhile, Margo and Jesse are laughing at me from off camera.

Obviously, you and Margo were both in "The Americans." And I know Matthew Rhys, who was your co-star on that show and is also your husband, has a cameo here.

A good cameo.

A very good cameo! Did you have any part in getting him involved with that?

Matthew knows Banks from a long time ago from L.A. So when we were getting ready to go to Ireland, I was like, "Oh, you're not going to believe this movie. It's so f***ing crazy." So he was reading part of it, and that first scene, he was like, "Who's playing that guy?" And I said, "I don't know." He goes, "Text Banks and tell her I want to do that part." I was like, "Really?" He goes, "Yeah."

He does a great job.

Yeah. That was, I think, the first scene we shot of the movie. And I was watching him doing those karate moves and everything. It was making me laugh so hard.

'It was Liz screaming the details of the horror and the close-ups that I want to take home with me'

So I know there's no actual real bear in the film. It's all CGI. But there was a person in a suit, right? Were you able to act against them?

Yes. The Weta guys, who do all of the big giant movies, the New Zealand crew. So we had Allan [Henry], who studied animals. So he's on stilts on his arms, doing the bear movements and the whole bodywork for part of it. And they also had designed a very real bear head, so that we could occasionally put it in frames and we could see how big it was. But honestly, it was Liz screaming the details of the horror and the close-ups that I want to take home with me.

I wonder whatever happened to that bear head.

Oh, I'm sure it exists somewhere. I'm positive it exists somewhere.

So you've played period pieces before, especially in the '80s. So that's not new to you.

I know. I can't get out of the '80s.

But in this film, the '80s plays a part of it, but it's not front and center. What was it like for you to act in this version of the '80s and wear that pink jumpsuit every day?

Oh, my god. The pink jumpsuit. I'll tell you one thing, it was hard to pee in because you got to just take it all off, and the belt and snap, and then you got to take out the mic and everything. We would shoot in the woods, and to go pee, you'd have to hike out of the woods to go. You had to take everything off. The '80s, I can't get out. Hilarious bangs, hilarious hair. But I think to me, I think the hardest thing to do is to be some beautiful romantic girl. I think that would be very stressful. So it's always better when you can be funny or stupid because it's just easier riding around on a yellow 10-speed.

'Tonally, it was hard. It's a gamble'

Totally. Although your character is almost like the straight person in the show, which I think grounds it a lot. It prevents it from getting too out there.

Right, exactly. Yeah. I'm like, "Where are the kids?"

When you were performing, was it hard to find that groundedness within you, especially when things were just so ridiculous around you?

It is weird to find the tone in something like this because you're not seeing the extremities of how gory it's going to get or how scary it's going to get or what version of the comedy they're going to keep. So it is a tonal mystery. It's a huge trust with Liz to keep it in check. I think luckily, Jesse, who I did a lot of those scenes with, he is so funny. And he was doing so many hilarious one-liners with Margo that all I had was just to sit to stay straight. Because if I were to laugh, I'd mess up their great bits. So that's all you had to hang onto. Tonally, it was hard. It's a gamble. It's a total risk. But I think Liz did it, and I hope it works well for her because I think she's awesome and she's so deserving of it.

In that vein, do you have any advice or guidance for people coming into this movie as to what to expect or how to gird themselves for what they'll experience?

I think the trailer — to me, this is one of the better trailers I've ever seen. I think the trailer says it all. I think the movie goes for it. Don't look for a moral ending. Don't look for it. This is a movie that you're supposed to laugh your head off and go with friends and have a drink or do whatever it is that you do, and just let loose and forget for a minute. To me, it's an escape for an hour and a half. A funny, wild escape for 90 minutes.

"Cocaine Bear" hits theaters on February 24, 2023.