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“I’m really appreciative of all the SAW fans,” says actress Betsy Russell, who has been a mainstay of the Lionsgate horror franchise ever since her surprise appearance in SAW III. She adds, “The reason they love SAW so much is because of the heart and the soul it has underneath all of the bludgeoning, traps and torture.
“We’re the GUINNESS WORLD RECORDS-holders now for the number-one horror franchise in history, which is exciting,” notes Russell, who “had a blast at Monster Mania” in August and met more fans at this month’s New York Comic Con. But now that the smash series is coming to a bloody end with SAW 3D, opening nationwide this Friday, October 29, fans are wondering—to paraphrase ads for an earlier influential fright film—who will survive and what will be left of them?
Russell, strictly adhering to the production’s mandate of secrecy, is in the same, er, predicament: “Usually, by this time, I’ve seen it,” she says, “and [at the time of this interview] I haven’t, so I’m waiting and anticipating something great—just like the fans are.”
Whatever the fate of Russell’s Jill Tuck, vengeful widow of the late torture mastermind Jigsaw/John Kramer (Tobin Bell—now the actress’ real-life neighbor), SAW 3D promises to build on the surprise at the close of SAW VI, in which—breaking with series tradition—Jigsaw case detective/disciple Hoffman (Costas Mandylor) wriggled out of a lethal Jill-set trap at the last possible moment. Russell reacted accordingly when she saw the movie: “I was like, ‘Oh, crap!’ I thought Jill was going to be the only one standing,” she laughs.
Indeed, though screenwriters Marcus Dunstan and Patrick Melton had years earlier hepped the actress of their intentions to have her play a pivotal role in advancing the spiraling storyline—once they took over the series scripting reins with SAW IV—they haven’t comparably confided in Russell prior to the last couple of movies. For instance, when Russell is asked if it had been revealed to her what was in the box Jill opened in SAW V, she says, “Nobody tells me anything. I get the screenplay and find out along with everybody else [in the cast], and we’re always surprised” when reading the shooting script and/or watching the final cut. She reminds, “Marcus and Patrick work up to the very last second. Sometimes they’re still writing it when we get there to film.”
When the start of a SAW sequel’s production loomed every year for the past four years, Russell always “approached it the same way. I went through the script and worked with my acting coach, Shari Shaw. We did my backstory and the life of my character and dissected it. I didn’t think, ‘Here I’m going to be mysterious, here I’m going to be dark’; it was just kind of living in Jill’s body. I’m in my character the whole time, the whole day.
“Shari and I have cried together over all that Jill has gone through—we cry, and then we laugh,” Russell continues. “I replay things on a tape recorder before I shoot a scene. It’s my ritual; it’s worked well so far, and it’s the way I’ll always work, with any role I’m playing.”
Her colleagues took similar pride of ownership in their parts, although she and her fellow series veterans had to learn to stop worrying and love the bombshells. “At the end of the [shooting] day,” she explains, “we’re trying to unwind, sitting down in the hotel lobby. It’s like other people who don’t talk about their work; when we’re sitting around talking, it’s not about SAW.”
That’s because she and her co-stars like Bell and Mandylor put in so much effort on a given day. As Russell reveals, “We get to the set early; we rehearse the scenes, if there’s time. We have it down to a science; we’ve already developed and know our characters and our stories. We do collaborate with our director; he knows what he wants, and we know what we want.”
Given that Jill’s hand is being played out in full over SAW VI and SAW 3D, Russell has worked especially closely with Kevin Greutert, the helmer of the final two series entries and the editor of the first five. She assesses Kevin as “a good director. He knows so much about movies; as an editor, he sees the scenes already cut together in his head before they’re even shot. So when he says, ‘I need this to work with that,’ you believe him. He tweaks a couple of little things, and I try it a few different ways.”
And the latest film added a new wrinkle to the process. “Getting it all tweaked and everything right took a lot longer this time because of the 3-D cameras. It’s just a much slower process—and the cameras are huge.” Since SAW 3D is the rare current movie “actually shot in 3D [rather than converted in postproduction], we had to do scenes many times”…
…although she naturally can’t divulge what those scenes are, while admitting that she enjoyed being part of setpieces unlike any she’d done previously. “SAW 3D will probably be my favorite [of the series],” she says, “with SAW VI the runner-up. And there are a lot more traps [in the new film]—11 of them! It’s taken to the limit, if there is such a thing. SAW 3D answers questions—and ties things up nicely.”
But, surely, as Boyz II Men sang, it’s so hard to say goodbye to yesterday…? Russell feels that it’s time to look to the future, because “I’ll carry Jill in my heart, but for now and forever, as far as I know, I’m done with my favorite role and this fun ride.”
This decisive break is evident in the actress’ appearance; the stunning Russell is now able to once again sport the dark hair that had been on view in so many of her prior movies. “I don’t have to be blonde any more,” she notes. “Now it’s back to my natural color; I like being dark. I started off as a blonde when I did SAW III, so then I had to stay that way. In SAW V it was a little bit darker—I was experimenting. But I needed to be blonde to lighten up SAW, in a way. Plus, people would have gotten me confused with [raven-haired SAW veteran] Shawnee Smith,” she laughs.
The weeks leading up to SAW 3D’s unveiling have seen two more genre features in which Russell co-stars debuting: Deon Taylor’s serial-killer opus CHAIN LETTER, which opened in select cities October 1, and the Syfy telefilm MANDRAKE, which premiered September 11. In the latter Louisiana-lensed horror adventure, directed by former actor Tripp Reed, Russell portrays one of a group of explorers facing down something the network referred to as “part plant, part animal, and all bloodthirsty.” Russell elaborates, “I play an anthropologist who studies other cultures, and we’re out in the jungle to look for a valuable dagger. I had a lot of dialogue; [my character] speaks another language—it’s not specific, just one that is spoken out in the jungle so I can communicate [with natives].
“MANDRAKE was very action-oriented. In fact, I practically had my face blown off; that was pretty scary, and not an experience I would ever like to repeat,” she says diplomatically. When pressed for details, she recounts, “It wasn’t even a stunt—it was just running down a pathway with little ‘pops’ happening on the side. The first one got dirt in the face of the crewmember who was supposed to time when the ‘pops’ were to happen; he couldn’t see where I was, and the timing got thrown off. More dirt banged me in the face, and cut me up some. It was shocking, but—we had to jump into a lake in the next shot and so I got right back in there. After that, they got me a stunt double.”
Russell has since “heard that MANDRAKE came out well, particularly the special effects—there was a lot of greenscreen [work required] for us. I’d work with Syfy again.”
When asked which actor she’d most like to play opposite, Russell doesn’t hesitate. “Hugh Grant,” she raves, citing “his timing…and, he’s real cute.” Also on Russell’s wish list is a collaboration “with any decent director. I’d love to work for Quentin Tarantino. I think Sylvester Stallone would be fun to work for; maybe he’ll read this and give me something!”
No matter what her next projects are, Russell will carry with her the many lessons learned from the SAW years. First off, she laughs, “It taught me to be part of a successful franchise whenever possible!” On a more thoughtful note, she says that in working on the movies, “I always learned about myself. I made new friends that I care about. What I really admired about Jill is that she is a loyal woman, and I try to strive for that in my daily life.
“The message of SAW, to my mind, is: Appreciate what you’ve got, and don’t take it for granted. That’s what I try to do. Hopefully, none of us will ever actually be put in those traps, but—it’s possible, so what would we do? What kind of choices would we make, if we were put to the test? A lot of us are in our own prisons, every single day, walking through life, feeling trapped in our lives and our situations. It’s a brave person who actually takes a chance and steps outside of the box and goes for their dreams in life. That invigorates us.”
Summing up, Russell takes a breath and says, “I think we all have grown, working on the SAW series, and I’m grateful and happy to have been part of it.”
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