“Legacies” star Danielle Rose Russell

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Photo by Tina Turnbow

Acting professionally since the age of 13, Danielle Rose Russell has shared the big screen with the likes of Liam Neeson and Bradley Cooper on the way to a starring role on TV.

Like so many others, Danielle Rose Russell is spending these socially distant days largely at home. With filming on the second season of her hit CW show “Legacies” cut short due to coronavirus lockdowns, the actress says she’s been enjoying her first extended run of free time in years. She has spent it in her native New Jersey with family and friends while awaiting a start date for the filming of season three.

“It’s so hard when you’re away working,” Russell told Fra Noi in an exclusive interview. “I’ve been nonstop for so long, I’m trying to take this time and be here.”

For those who haven’t yet been drawn into its fantastical universe, “Legacies” is a soapy, fun, young adult mashup of “Twilight” and “Harry Potter,” in which Russell stars as the powerful witch-vampire-werewolf “tribrid” Hope Mikaelson. For the time being, however, Russell’s to-do list is far less otherworldly. Long overdue home improvement projects vie for her attention along with online college business courses and even a bit of culinary alchemy conjured from her Italian-American lineage.

“I’m very passionate about my bread-making,” the 20-year-old actress says. “As an Italian, I want to learn how to cook. I learned a lot from my grandmother and my grandfather, who would always do it so effortlessly,” adding with a laugh, “I’m just happy if it comes out decently and not burnt to a crisp!”

The unexpected hiatus also offers Russell a chance to take a breath after a whirlwind seven years that saw her transition from advertising work and regional theater to supporting roles in films with Liam Neeson and Bradley Cooper to starring in her own TV series.

“I never really thought of making this something I would do the rest of my life,” she says of the stretch of modeling, theater and commercials that began for her at age 10.

Russell’s family brought a fair amount of firsthand showbiz knowledge to the table. Her father, Ricky Russell, was a performer and a professional singer, and her mother, Rosemary Rado, was a former Rockette and Broadway dancer up until her daughter was born. Russell says her mother was particularly influential and supportive as her interest in performing grew. By age 12, Russell already had a manager, who put it simply: If you want to work in TV and film, you have to train seriously to develop your craft.

Her hard work quickly paid off. A year later, Russell was on the set of the 2014 kidnapping thriller “A Walk Among the Tombstones.” It was her first feature film role and a chance to share screen time with Academy Award nominee Neeson.

“It was my first day on the set, and I was 13 years old,” Russell says. “I said to myself, ‘This is it.’ I only had about two words in the entire film, but I felt like this was what I wanted to do.”

Russell followed that up with a supporting role in the romantic comedy “Aloha,” directed by Cameron Crowe (“Almost Famous”) and co-starring Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone. She and her mother spent three months on location in Hawaii during the shooting of the film, with Russell acting during the day and working on her schoolwork remotely at night. The experience, coupled with the scenery, was galvanizing for the young actress.

“I feel so incredibly grateful to have worked with such amazing actors at such a young point in my life,” she says. “I had no idea at the time how spoiled I was filming in Hawaii for three months. It was one of the most magical experiences I ever had, and it gave me a sense of direction for where I wanted to be in my career.”

Two high-profile TV jobs followed. The first was the short-lived Old Hollywood show for Amazon, “The Last Tycoon,” co-starring Kelsey Grammer of “Frasier” fame. The second was a featured role during the fifth and final season of the popular CW show “The Originals” in 2018. “The Originals” was a spinoff of the network’s hit TV show “The Vampire Diaries,” and Russell was brought in to potentially expand the franchise.

“The Originals” cast Russell as a youthful Hope Mikaelson, the scion of a family of legendary and powerful vampires, werewolves and witches. The role was so well received, the producers decided to move forward with “Legacies.” This spinoff series follows a now-orphaned Hope trying to reconcile her past and forge her future while a student at the Salvatore School for the Young and Gifted, a haven for teens with supernatural abilities.

“Legacies” is a wonderful showcase for Russell, who gets to play expressive, vulnerable and strong, often all in the same scene. It also allows her to kick some serious villainous you-know-what in mortal combat with a rogue’s gallery of dragons, shape-shifters, necromancers and, no joke, evil slugs posing as unicorns. While Russell credits the show’s fast and fabulous stunt team for doing “much of the heavy lifting,” she gets plenty of opportunities to mix it up physically.

“I do enjoy doing the fight sequences,” says Russell, who has a background in dance and has taken up boxing in her free time. “It can be fun to train in a different way on set. It feels authentic. They train us so that everything is very safe.”

The show films in Atlanta, and with a full-season order of 16 episodes, Russell is typically away from home for 10 months out of the year. Her passionate fan base makes it all worthwhile.

“Sometimes on my YouTube suggestions, I’ll see a [fan-made] video of myself come up. People take the time to do these edits and these videos because of how much they love the character and how much they love the show,” Russell says. “It’s something I never want to get used to because I’m so grateful.”

When “Legacies” returns, Russell says she hopes to move closer to her goal of eventually directing, crediting the creative team behind her show for fostering what she calls “the best school money could buy.”

The actress also says she’s hoping for a post-pandemic trip to Italy, which would be her first. Tracing her roots on her mother’s side to Naples, Russell credits her heritage not just for her love of Italian cooking, but also for the passion and emotionality that inspire her acting.

“It really makes me feel very close to that part of myself and to the culture,” she says. “My bucket list item is to go to Italy and visit my family that lives there. To be in Italy, how much better can it get?”

For more, click here.

The above appears in the October 2020 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.

About Jim Distasio

Jim Distasio is an award-winning writer, director, editor. His documentary “Sawdust: Life in the Ring,” about the Zoppè Family Circus, was an official selection at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the River’s Edge Film Festival. His documentary “5,000 Miles From Home,” about the impact of World War II on Chicago’s Italian-American community, earned two local Emmys on six nominations. Distasio earned a master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, where he currently serves as an adjunct lecturer. His writings have appeared in numerous publications, including Chicago Tribune Magazine, American Profile, Vine Line and Fra Noi.

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