In the summer of 1992, “Lethal Weapon 3” was dominating the box office, but audiences didn’t leave the theater talking about the outrageous stunts or Mel Gibson and Danny Glover’s buddy act. Rather, it was Rene Russo, a model-turned actress with a few minor roles in films like “Major League,” who stole the movie right out from under her A-list co-stars. Her turn as Sergeant Lorna Cole, a tough-talking internal affairs agent, fully capable of dodging bullets and kicking the crap out of the bad guys, was a breath of fresh air at a time when action movies were male-dominated affairs.
Russo, who’d go on to star in notable hits like “In the Line of Fire” and “Get Shorty” over the ensuing decade, credits director Richard Donner with taking a chance on the acting newcomer, whose resume initially made him hesitant to give her the gig. Donner died July 5 at the age of 91. In addition to the “Lethal Weapon” franchise, he also directed “Superman,” “The Omen,” and “Maverick.” At the time of his death, Russo reveals, he planned to make a fifth film in the “Lethal Weapon” series and was trying to convince her to dust off Cole’s badge for one more run.
Russo shared several of her memories of Donner with WM Leader. They have been edited and condensed for clarity:
He gave me a shot early on in my career, but it almost didn’t happen. My agent was fighting to get me in to read for ‘Lethal Weapon 3’ and he didn’t want to see me. He’d heard that I was a model and blah, blah, blah. So when I got the interview, I was worried because I knew he didn’t really want to talk to me, and I’m already insecure. I didn’t want to go, but I went and I was so nervous.
He was bigger than life, but he was so kind and so easy that it wasn’t intimidating. He had a gentle spirit and this sense of humor that put you at ease. He then called me back to read with Mel. And he told me ‘you remind me of my wife. You’re a lot like [producer] Lauren [Schuler Donner]. And I thought, that might be a good thing.
I walked on the set the first day. It was a scene where I’m at police headquarters and I’m annoyed with Mel and Danny. I was so nervous that the first scene, I kid you not, I blew my lines four times in a row. Once is like uncomfortable. Four times is beyond humiliation. But Dick just laughed and got me through it. He made me believe I could do this.
He had a booming voice and couldn’t remember anyone’s name ever. So he called everyone kid. He was kind of the dad on the set. He was there to get the job done and knew exactly what he wanted but you could have fun.
It was not an easy shoot for me because the physicality was a lot. I was working with Cheryl Wheeler, who was the kickboxing champion of the world, and she would work out with me every day. I’m kind of a street girl, which I don’t think Dick expected. I can get angry really fast. That’s the Italian side of me. Honestly, I don’t think a lot of girls can say fuck you and mean it. But I can do that.
It was one of the first times that there was a real action part for a female. Back then women didn’t play a lot of cops. That’s changed now, but it was different then. My stunt double did a lot of the hard work, but I had to start a lot of those scenes. I can’t believe I did any of it. I look back and think if I did it today my arm would just snap the fuck off. There’s no way.
On the scene where we compared scars, we improvised a lot of that. We knew basically where the scars and bullet wounds were, because of the makeup, but Mel and I would sort of discuss what we were going to say before we shot it. I felt like we nailed it when we filmed it. Sometimes you go home and kick yourself, but that time, I knew it worked. We didn’t do too many takes. It was two takes maybe. Dick gave you a lot of freedom to experiment which is why his movies are so good. Those are the best directors. They get you to play. He’d start off and say ‘do whatever’ or ‘when you’re ready.’ He didn’t say ‘action.’ And then he’d sort of get in there and cut things gradually and hone in on what was working.
Dick loved practical jokes. Dick and Mel brought in a marching band for my birthday. Another time, I cut my eye off-set and I opened up a box and there was a steak in it. He allowed for that kind of fun.
It’s rare that someone is so kind and so talented, but he was both. He could see into someone’s spirit and understand what your issues were and help nurture you and get you to use it in your performance as well. By the time I came back for ‘Lethal Weapon 4,’ I didn’t have the old nerves. I just remember laughing a lot.
He was interested in doing ‘Lethal Weapon 5,’ and I spoke to him about six months ago and they were working hard on it. It would have been amazing to work with him. I said to him, ‘if you think I’m doing any of the moves that I did back then, come watch me try to get out of my car.’ I was clear that I was not going to be doing any of those kicks again. He said, ‘don’t worry, we’re going to make you captain of the police force on this one. You can sit behind a desk.’