Malibu’s queen of Halloween

October is a big month for Malibu actress Betsy Russell, with “Saw 3D” and “Chain Letter” in theaters.

By Michael Aushenker / Special to The Malibu Times

Fifteen years ago, Betsy Russell walked away from acting. This month, she has two horror films in release: “Chain Letter” came out Oct. 1, while “Saw 3D,” the latest entry in the successful horror franchise, opens Oct. 29.

In two weeks, Russell reprises the role of Jill Tuck, ex-wife of sadistic villain Jigsaw, in the seventh and final installment of the “Saw” series. She has played the character since 2006’s “Saw III,” in which Russell returned to the profession she had, like Jigsaw with his victims, left for dead.

At a Santa Monica cafe days after her birthday, Russell, 47, appeared fit, down to earth and matter of fact. She did not flinch when a reporter admitted he was too chicken to see her work in hard-core horror films. She countered that the “Saw” movies transcend the “torture porn” label because of their underlying morality.

Pre-“Saw III,” Russell was best known for her role in the 1983 teen sex comedy “Private School,” and her work in “Tomboy” and “Avenging Angel” (both from 1985). As a result of her genre work, Russell recently began appearing at conventions.

“My fans are really respectful,” she said. “Very loyal. Until recently, I didn’t get to meet them but now I am doing comic-cons.”

Raised in San Diego, Russell has always worked hard on her craft. Even in the 1980s, she did not party much.

“In my twenties I was pretty reclusive,” Russell said. “I was so diligent about my career and my health, keeping in shape.”

In the wake of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Private School”-co-starring Phoebe Cates, Ray Walston and Matthew Modine-typified the “Porky’s” wave of sex comedies. Men who came of age in the 1980s may never forget that scene where 19-year-old Russell rides topless at a high society polo show, making an old lady exclaim, “That’s the finest example of bareback riding I’ve ever seen!”

Russell looked back fondly on shooting the film.

“I was so excited to be working with Phoebe Cates,” she said of her “Private School” co-star. “I had to bleach my hair and turn it strawberry blond in order not to look like Phoebe.”

Still good friends with Cates, Russell described her as “a great mother and a great friend. Her family comes first for her and I always believed that, too.”

Russell took a break from acting following, aptly, 1995’s “The Break.” Aside from a role in “The Flunky” (2000), she focused on family. Russell was married to Vincent Van Patten, the son of actor Dick Van Patten, from 1989 to 2001. They have two sons, Duke, 17, and Vince, 15, both Malibu High School students.

Russell spent her down time from acting being a Malibu mom.

“I lived at my kids’ schools practically,” she said. “That was my life. I socialized with a group of mothers who were doing the same. It’s great. I loved it.”

Still, she said, “I felt like a part of me had died, my creative side. I was dating a producer, hanging out with producers. But, truthfully, I never thought I would give it up.”

In 2006, she joined the third “Saw” production that featured actor/co-creator Leigh Whannell (who starred in the first one as well) and fellow Malibu resident Tobin Bell, who has played the villain from the beginning.

The first “Saw” made a bloody splash with its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2004. As with the “Blair Witch Festival” a generation prior, “Saw” became a massive independent success story that grew into one of Hollywood’s biggest horror franchises, grossing more than $730 million worldwide and selling more than 30 million DVDs, according to distributor Lionsgate.

Russell credited her acting coach, Shari Shaw, for helping her find Jill Tuck: “We did all of my research together.”

“The role started with three lines on the page,” Shaw said. “She brought it to life … She had to pull up all her pain and loss from past relationships in order to create depth.”

Although the “Saw” role is on the dark side, Shaw said of Russell, “She is amazing at comedy!”

With a new “Saw” every Halloween, the trick-or-treat holiday has become sweeter than candy for Russell, who came, “Saw” and conquered.

Said the grounded actress, who recently earned a master’s degree in spiritual psychology from the University of Santa Monica: “I’ve got life experience behind me. Two major break-ups: my husband, my fiance. I’ve got kids, and I love my life.”

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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