New Athens native making a name for himself in Hollywood

News-DemocratMay 4, 2014 

Much to Joe Russell's dismay, there's a pecking order on movie sets.

Lead actors, directors and producers dine on smoked salmon and chocolate-covered strawberries while extras and production assistants wait for pizza delivery.

But that's not how it was on the set of "Laboratory Conditions," an independent short film Joe is producing in Los Angeles.

"Every single person had the same exact food," he said. "Everyone ate at the same time. Everyone was equal."

Respect and civility are important principles for Joe, 35, who grew up in Smithton and New Athens as Joe Lanham and changed his last name to his middle name.

He has been living in California for 13 years, acting in commercials, web and TV episodes and films, and working in production.

"Laboratory Conditions" is his most notable project so far. It stars Minnie Driver and Marisa Tomei.

"A group of grad students steal a dying man from a local hospital and perform experiments on him to prove the existence of a human soul," Joe said.

The film is expected to run 17 minutes after editing. Terry Rossio wrote the script years ago, before he became famous for blockbusters such as "Aladdin," "Shrek" and "Pirates of the Caribbean."

Joe is executive producer. He's in charge of budgeting, hiring crew, finding locations, gathering props and, yes, ordering food.

Joe wanted to make absolutely sure nothing went wrong during filming, so he slept on a couch in the warehouse to keep his eye on $2 million in rented camera equipment.

"It was a huge shoot," said his wife, Casey (Strand) Russell, 37, an actress and kids acting teacher who portrays a nurse in the film. "And when you're in control of all the money, that's a huge responsibility."

Proud family

Joe and Casey traveled to New Athens for Easter break with their 7-month-old daughter, Tria. They spent a week with mom Cathy Kreher and stepdad David Kreher.

Cathy still tears up when talking about the day her 22-year-old son left for California. She misses him "every single day."

But Cathy, 59, a bank employee, also is proud of Joe's ethics and perseverance in the dog-eat-dog world of Hollywood.

"Anything he wanted to accomplish, he'd go for it," she said. "It didn't matter if he didn't have any money, or it was too hard, or it would take too long. Nothing seems impossible to him."

The family faced its share of hurdles when Joe was growing up. Cathy reared him and his siblings, John and Meghan, as a single mother after her divorce.

Cathy remembers Joe stuffing tissues under her bedroom door one night when he heard her crying over an $800 car part.

He took special classes for a learning disability at New Athens High School. That helped him empathize with people viewed as inferior or different.

"He's made friends with some big, big names (in show business)," said longtime friend Aaron "Goody" Gutjahr, 32, of St. Louis, formerly of New Athens. "But he seems like he is very well grounded. I don't think he's starving for the limelight or motivated by money. He wants to do good work."

Joe appeared in more than a dozen plays before graduating high school in 1997. He took acting and TV production at Southwestern Illinois College and Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and worked as a radio deejay.

Then Joe landed a six-month job as an MGM Studios tour guide at Walt Disney World. He appeared in commercials and his first TV show, "Sheena, Queen of the Jungle."

After Florida, Joe returned to St. Louis and continued with commercial work.

"I did six or seven Dobbs commercials, and they ran for like seven years," he said. "That was huge. My family and friends were seeing me on TV. I was on during every Cardinal game, every Blues game, every Rams game. I was on TV all the time."

California or bust

The Dobbs gig led to other commercials, and Joe's earnings allowed him to buy a new car, with help from his grandparents, John and Dorthy Parke, of Smithton.

Joe drove to Los Angeles, sublet an apartment and worked as an extra, caterer, even a gardener. He dabbled in sketch comedy and stand-up and studied briefly at Herbert Berghof Studio in New York.

Joe later progressed from bit parts in short films to the lead in a TV pilot for "The Mexican Conspiracy" and more recently roles in the feature films "108 Stitches" and "The Wedding Pact."

"Especially in the last five years, I've really been able to see him as a character instead of just my friend, Joe, pretending to be a baseball player or whatever," said Aaron, an exercise physiologist and golf instructor.

"The more he's around people who are great at their craft, the better he gets."

Joe produced the first time in 2010 on a short film called "Strawberries," which Casey wrote. He proposed to her on stage during a Q&A at a film festival. They got married in Hermann, Mo.

Joe went on to produce a couple of low-budget music videos and the first six episodes in the web series "Nuclear Family," which was made into a movie.

Shooting locations included property owned by Terry and his girlfriend, Jocelyn Stamat, a writer and a director. They took a liking to Joe and asked him to take over as producer of their web series, "Turbo Dates."

Jocelyn is directing "Laboratory Conditions," which is in post production. Joe hopes it will be ready to submit to film festivals in August.

"It's a suspense thriller, and we have beasts and spirits and really cool special effects," he said. "We haven't done the score yet. It's really an ambitious short film."

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