Steven Russell, who’s serving a 144-year sentence at Michael Unit, a maximum-security prison a couple hours southeast of Dallas, looks harmless enough: The 53-year-old man is bald save for brackets of colorless hair, with features so nondescript it almost appears as if his face was doodled by a child. But three guards accompany him out of his 10-by-7 cell, shuffle him into a cramped booth, and then remove his handcuffs through a slot in the locked door. One can forgive their vigilance. Between 1992 and 1998, Russell broke out of various Texas prisons a stunning four times — without ever pulling a gun. Well, he didn’t so much break out as he did slip out the main entrance, waving a breezy goodbye. ”I asked if I could go home, and they opened the door,” he smugly told a roomful of journalists who were there to welcome him back to Texas’ Huntsville prison in 1997. And, as he insists repeatedly from behind a thick Plexiglas window, he did it all for love.
Russell’s story is so fantastical it’s as if somebody stamped Hollywood on his enormous forehead. ”Well, I never thought about it becoming a movie because of the homosexuality part,” says Russell, who dove recklessly into a life of crime after falling for Phillip Morris, a sweet, slight man — bearing no relation to the tobacco company — whom he met in a Houston county jail. ”I didn’t think that would fly in America.” But Russell’s misadventures, as recounted in Houston journalist Steve McVicker’s 2003 book, did in fact catch the interest of filmmakers Glenn Ficarra and John Requa. ”We saw it as an epic love story,” says Requa, who co-wrote 2003’s Bad Santa, ”about two people who happen to be gay.” But when the duo pitched Russell’s story to production companies, Ficarra recalls, ”they said, ‘Great! Sounds like an amazing story. Can you turn Phillip into a woman?”’ Instead, Ficarra and Requa wrote the script on their own and then managed to sign Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor to play Russell and Morris, respectively. The R-rated dark comedy I Love You Phillip Morris, which Ficarra and Requa also codirected, hits theaters Dec. 3. (It debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009 but fell into limbo when its first distributor ran short on funds for marketing; Roadside Attractions acquired I Love You Phillip Morris in August.)
Not that Russell will get to see the movie of his life story. He’s spent the past 12 years on a prison block with murderers, rapists, and gang leaders, in solitary confinement for 23 hours of each day. He doesn’t have any access to a TV or the Internet. (His only sources of distraction are his clock radio, a stack of books, and newspapers.) He’s never even seen a Jim Carrey movie. The last film he saw was Titanic, by himself in a little Dallas theater when he was on the lam. Russell pauses, angling his face away from the receiver so he can let forth his high-pitched laugh. ”Figures,” he says, his Southern accent thick. ”It was a love story!”
Steven Jay Russell was raised in Virginia by conservative, churchgoing parents who adopted him at birth. His biological mother, who kept his older and younger siblings, handed him over in the hospital parking lot. Jim Carrey, who plays Russell in the film but has never met him (his requests were denied by Texas prison authorities), believes the man was driven by this early imprint of rejection. ”As far as I’m concerned,” says Carrey, ”and it’s certainly true of myself as well, that’s why I recognize it, he has this sense of worthlessness that he walks the world with. For him it was very extreme. It created a grandiosity and a void that can’t be filled.” (On hearing this diagnosis, Russell responds, ”Jim said that? I don’t know why he would say that. I probably didn’t feel good about being rejected by my biological parents. But I couldn’t have had a better family! Mommy issues?” he says with a grin. ”No, I always felt pretty loved.”)