Keri Russell wasn't 100% sure she wanted to do Cocaine Bear until she learned that her former co-star Margo Martindale, whom she shared the screen with on The Americans, was involved. Not because she wasn't interested, but because she couldn't fully envision what kind of movie it was going to be until that point.
"[Elizabeth] Banks and I were talking on the phone about a completely different project, totally different in tone than this, that she's developing," Russell recalls to GamesRadar+. "We finished that conversation, then a day later, she called me back and said, 'Hey, I'm directing this crazy movie. Do you want to read it?' I did and was like, 'It's about what?!'
"Margo texted me out of the blue and said, 'Are you doing this movie?' And I was like, 'Are you doing this movie?!' I was like, 'Oh my God. Now I'm definitely doing this movie.' Because I got what Banks was doing. I thought, 'If Margo's in it, I see the tone that she's going for.' I was so pumped."
Don't crack up
Inspired by true events, albeit very loosely, Cocaine Bear was written by The Babysitter: Killer Queen scribe Jimmy Warden. It sees Russell's plucky nurse Sari venture into the Chattachoochee National Forest when her daughter Dee Dee (Brooklyn Prince) and her friend Henry (Christian Convery) skip school in favor of trekking out to the park's secret waterfall. Before setting out, she enlists the help of animal expert Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and tell-it-like-it-is park ranger Liz (Martindale) – but the trio gets more than they bargained for when they come across a crazed black bear that's ingested a bunch of the titular white powder.
"It was the height of the pandemic. The whole world was just so intense, and it just seemed so fun," Russell says of reading the script, before revealing how she played a part in landing her husband Matthew Rhys, also in The Americans, a cameo.
"We were getting ready to go to Ireland, which is where we shot it because the COVID numbers were so low there, and I reached out to Matthew – my Matthew – and I was like, 'You gotta read this. This is out of control.' He read the first part and said, 'Who's doing that guy at the beginning? I said, 'I don't know.' And he said, 'Text Banks and tell her I'm gonna do that part.' So I did, and they knew each other from a long time ago, so she was 'Great, tell him I'll see him on set.'"
Rhys' role in the film is small but pivotal, as he plays Andrew C. Thornton II, the mustachioed narcotics cop-turned-drug smuggler who dropped the 14 million dollars-worth of blow from a plane, all over the Georgia woods.
Typically, Thornton would do this so that his superior, Syd (Ray Liotta), could retrieve the drug-filled duffle bags at a later date. But due to being high-as-a-kite himself, he fails to open his parachute after bailing the aircraft and, well, dies, unable to tell his boss where he launched the load. After learning that Thornton's body was discovered by a detective in Knoxville, Tennessee, a forceful Syd orders Daveed (O'Shea Jackson Jr.) and Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), his estranged son, to recover the missing stash before the authorities get their hands on it. But, of course, it's not the police they need to be worried about...
"It's so wacky," Russell laughs. "Margo, Matthew, Jesse and I all went to a screening here in New York together and just laughed and slapped each other – and when Margo gets into all that trouble in the ambulance? It's so gory, but Liz loves that stuff. All of us were screaming."
Playing a character that grounds a lot of the silliness, Russell was tasked with being much less reactive to the insane goings-on around her during filming. "It was so hard because they were being so ridiculous and funny together. Jesse and Margo, they were improving all that stuff. I mean, just like banter, crazy stuff about the animals in the woods," she remembers. "They were saying the most ridiculous things. I could have watched an hour of the stuff that they were doing but you have to keep it concise, a movie like this.
"What they were doing was so funny, it was so hard to not laugh and ruin their takes. But it was also good to be the straight man because it kind of gives you a focus amidst the chaos and something to kind of hang on to on the wild ride ahead."
Cocaine Bear marks Banks' third feature film, after Pitch Perfect 2 and Charlie's Angels. As an actor, though, she's no stranger to darker fare, having appeared in The Uninvited, Brightburn and James Gunn's Slither – and her experience across so many different genres shone through during production, reminisces Russell.
"Tonally, that was the real struggle of this film, balancing the darkness and humor, and I think Liz did a great job. She's so capable. She's a total pro," the actor says of Banks as a director.
"She's so steeped in the comedy world, she's so comfortable there but she’s also not afraid to go big. This is a big studio movie with massive CGI and massive stunts, and she's always ready for it all. She's unflappable and I hope it serves her well." Sounds as if, like Russell's Sari, even when Banks is surrounded by farce, she's not about to entertain any funny business.
Cocaine Bear releases in US and UK cinemas on February 24. In the meantime, check out our list of the most exciting upcoming movies coming our way throughout 2023 and beyond.