Sitting cross-legged under a tree in a Brooklyn park, Keri Russell is talking babies. And hormones. And ever-expanding bellies. In a matter of weeks, she will be giving birth to her first child with husband Shane Deary, a carpenter. Her ''situation,'' as she jokingly calls it, has given her a greater appreciation for her new movie, Waitress. In the offbeat Sundance hit, Russell plays a working-class Southerner who reacts to her pregnancy with comic resentment, even wondering at one point if she could sell her kid for extra cash. ''I loved how not precious she was,'' says Russell, 31. ''People expect all women to react the same to pregnancy. But anyone who's been around pregnant women knows that it's not all cutesy and sweet. You spaz out and you're angry and you have tantrums.'' She laughs. ''There's a lot goin' on!''
There's certainly plenty happening for Russell. Thanks to Waitress, she's enjoying a sweet little career boost. In the years following her Golden Globe-winning turn as a lovelorn college coed on The WB's Felicity, which ended in 2002, the actress has kept a relatively low profile, popping up in supporting parts in movies like 2005's The Upside of Anger and last year's Mission: Impossible III. With Waitress (see review on page 58), written and directed by the late indie vet Adrienne Shelly, she's back in the lead. Russell stars as a woman who, after learning she's pregnant by her rotten husband (Six Feet Under's Jeremy Sisto), has a fling with her dashing obstetrician (Serenity's Nathan Fillion) all while whipping up desserts with names like ''Pregnant Miserable Self-Pitying Loser Pie'' at the local diner. It's more grown-up than anything Russell has done adulterous sex in the doctor's office is a long way from boy crushes in the dorm and critics at Sundance even wondered if Waitress heralded the arrival of a movie star. ''I'm not that sentimental a person,'' says Cheryl Hines, who plays a fellow diner worker in the film. ''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.''
However exciting a time it is for Russell, the joy comes with an undercurrent of tragedy: Last November, director Shelly was found murdered in her Manhattan office (see sidebar). ''It still hasn't really sunk in,'' Russell says. ''I keep thinking she'll come back from vacation and be like, 'Can you believe it? The movie's so great!''' Without Shelly, who also costars in the film, Russell now finds herself in the peculiar position of being the movie's de facto spokesperson. ''Here we are trying to do all this press. I'm so pregnant, and we're lacking our ringleader,'' she says. ''So journalists are asking me questions like 'What kind of pie would you be?' I'm not the writer. That's not my creation. And I feel so sad that no one's getting to hear what Adrienne's inspiration was.''
Sipping an impossibly healthy concoction of freshly squeezed celery, chard, and apple juice, Russell kicks back on the grass and jokes about needing to unbutton her faded Wranglers to let her round tummy breathe. ''Ugh,'' she groans. ''Non-pregnancy pants are the worst!'' Her curly locks are straightened and pulled into a low side ponytail. She looks as fresh as if she were on her way to a CoverGirl shoot she's been a spokesmodel since last year but there's not a hint of Hollywood glamour about her. And her private life is just as unassuming. Her husband is not an actor, director, or producer. He's just a guy from Martha's Vineyard whom she met through friends. (''He asked if he could buy me a cup of coffee, and I said sure.'') Russell cleans her own house. Her closest friends in New York are non-bold-faced names. And though she's been working since she landed on the revamped Mickey Mouse Club at age 15, she rarely, if ever, turns up at industry parties. ''It's just not for me,'' she explains. ''I like my normal life. And I like my privacy.''
For Felicity co-creator J.J. Abrams, who had never run a TV show before working with Russell, the actress' no-nonsense attitude was a godsend. ''We're the ones who learned from her,'' recalls the Emmy-winning mind behind Alias and Lost. ''She had been doing this for so long. She came in, was maternal to the crew, was always prepared, and she helped other actors with their lines.'' He still marvels at how gracefully Russell handled the media storm and ratings drop when she cut her trademark hair in 1999 as part of the show's story line. ''She went from being a version of America's sweetheart to being derided on a daily basis for a decision that was not even hers,'' Abrams says. ''But she never showed any signs of breaking.''
When you've been in the business for 16 years and the only scandal tarnishing your name boils down to a bad haircut, that's something. How does she do it? ''I'm a nerd,'' Russell says, adding that her Felicity costar (and former boyfriend) Scott Speedman used to call her ''Homework Reminder.'' ''At lunch, I would always be going, 'Guys! We gotta get back! We're gonna get in trouble!' Scott was like, 'Homework Reminder, chill out, we'll be okay.''' She shrugs. ''I'm just a nerd. That, and I can't stay awake past 10 o'clock, which is usually when bad things happen.''
As noon approaches, the park fills with parents chasing their kids, one of whom wanders by and gets a warm ''Hi!'' from Russell. About to welcome her own child into the world, she is, of course, wondering how motherhood will change her career. ''Shane and I are not the type to have a nanny,'' she says. ''But I'm gonna have to get help if I work.'' She recently finished a two-episode guest spot on NBC's Scrubs, and has a pair of movies due for release this fall. In the child-prodigy drama August Rush, she costars opposite Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Freddie Highmore; in the thriller The Girl in the Park, she cameos as Alessandro Nivola's wife. She's also working closely with Shelly's husband, Andy Ostroy, for the Adrienne Shelly Foundation, which he created after her death to assist female filmmakers.
Though Russell hasn't decided when she'll return from maternity leave, she can be confident that there will be at least one person waiting for her. ''I love working with Keri,'' says Abrams. ''There's hardly any [project] that comes around that I don't wonder if she would do it.'' What about his upcoming Star Trek reboot? Would he consider casting the former Mouseketeer as a hot Klingon? ''That'd be awesome!'' Abrams says, laughing.
It might take a little convincing, though. In the park, Homework Reminder wrinkles her nose at the idea: ''I'm not that nerdy!''
A SAD ENDING
Adrienne Shelly never got to enjoy the accolades her movie Waitress would receive. Last November, she was found dead in her New York City office at the age of 40. (The construction worker charged with her murder is awaiting trial.) Shelly, who first gained recognition for her roles in Hal Hartley indies like 1991's Trust, wrote Waitress while eight months pregnant with her daughter, Sophie, now 4. In her memory, Shelly's husband, Andy Ostroy, has created the Adrienne Shelly Foundation adrienneshellyfoundation.orgto fund and mentor female filmmakers. Says foundation board member and Waitress star Keri Russell: ''It's tragic. But hopefully people will see the movie and it will serve as a legacy for her.''