Louisville Officer Pursues Hollywood Dream
Phil Russell has had many roles during his 47 years.
Among his favorite are the roles of husband, father and police officer. The latter has seen Russell move up the ranks of the Louisville Metro Police Department, and promoted to lieutenant in July where he serves as commander of LMPD’s Community Policing Unit.
Russell also has played many other roles. According to Internet Movie Database, Russell has 12 acting credits and five credits in areas ranging from law enforcement advisor to producer.
His most recent role will be in the eight-episode mini-series “Smoketown” on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. TBN will air the show in its fall lineup.
In the show, Russell plays the father of a murdered teenage girl.
“It has a unique storyline which involves the police,” he said. “My character is the father of a girl who was murdered outside a homeless shelter. The homeless shelter director, an African-American man, is wrongly accused of her murder. The storyline goes through race-relations and strain between the police and the community.
“We’re hoping and crossing our fingers for a season two, and it will be successful,” he added.
Russell’s interest in show business began during his teenage years.
“I started out broadcasting in radio during high school,” he said. “I always had a passion for the movie industry, and that was what I wanted to pursue through college. I did not start out wanting to be an actor; I wanted to be a director and produce content.”
However, he soon discovered the easiest way into the film industry was by acting.
In 1992, Russell and his wife, Lisa, were extra’s in the Penny Marshall movie, “A League of Their Own,” which starred Tom Hanks and Geena Davis.
“It was in Evansville, Ind., and my wife and I were in it,” Russell said. “We just went up there and we’re in a couple scenes of a huge crowd. We can find it and pause it, but nobody else would know it was us.”
His first paid opportunity came in the 1995 television movie, “Derby,” which was shot in Louisville. He started out as an unpaid production assistant, but a call from his agent changed everything.
“My agent calls me and said, ‘How would you like to be a featured extra in the movie?’’ Russell said. “Back then, they paid something like $100, so I thought, ‘Do I work for free, or do I get paid to be on the same set?’”
In the late 1990s, Russell earned a communications degree from the University of Louisville. Afterward, he collaborated with a film company based out of Louisville and traveled back and forth between Los Angeles and Louisville.
During that stretch, Russell said he devoted many hours into the film industry, but another passion was burning and soon would surpass his fire for Hollywood.
“I always wanted to get into law enforcement, but I didn’t want to do it full-time because I thought I was headed to Hollywood,” Russell said.
In 1994, Russell joined the Clark County (Jeffersonville), Ind., Sheriff’s Office in a part-time capacity.
Seven years later, Russell applied to the Louisville Police Department.
“Around 2001, I realized I really liked working part-time for the Clark County Sheriff’s Office,” he said. “It was something I enjoyed and felt fulfilled by, and I made a career choice to shelve the production and TV to just be a cop.”
He applied for LPD in 2001 and joined the department in 2002, around the time of the merger, which created Louisville Metro Police.
Russell was with Louisville a short time when his production background came back around.
“The chief of staff at the time, Troy Riggs, learned of my background in broadcasting and production and found ways and opportunities for me to assist the department in some productions we have here,” Russell said. “Then I became a [public information officer].”
Being one of the agency’s PIOs, Russell often found himself in front of television cameras answering questions from the media.
Those encounters soon caught the attention of a family friend, a director, who was attending Asbury College in Wilmore, Ky.
“He called me to say he was working on a film called “Pivot Point” and he wanted to pick my brain from a technical standpoint because he had seen me on TV as a PIO,” Russell said.
Soon, Russell found himself with an acting role in the movie, and the aptly named, “Pivot Point,” began to move Russell back toward the film industry.
“That movie was the jump-start for me to take it serious,” he said.
Prior to “Pivot Point,” Russell landed a small roll in a movie, “Easter Experience.”
“It got me back to thinking, ‘I’ve had two projects now, maybe I need to revisit (acting),” he said. “I thought that part of my life was shelved.”
In 2015, Russell landed a role in the movie, “I Am Potential,” which was a unionized movie through the Screen Actors Guild.
“[Director Zach Meiners] contacted me and told me he had another feature film which was based on a story out of Louisville, but it was being shot in Mississippi,” Russell said. “The movie was going to be a SAG movie and the project allowed me to become a member of SAG.
“When you’re an actor, [SAG} is the golden ticket,” Russell continued. “It has opened up several other opportunities.”
One door his SAG membership opened was on the film, “Where Hope Grows,” which was shot in Louisville.
Russell initially auditioned for the role of police officer, but the filmmaker wanted a more recognizable name. However, during production, Hollywood actor [Kerr Smith] wasn’t able to make some of the scheduled shoots.
“I got a call from an assistant director who told me [Smith] could not be in town for two of the production days, so they were going to split the role into two parts, and the scene was going to be shot the next night,” Russell said. “The director jokingly said, ‘Where can I find a SAG actor who can play a police officer on short notice?”
The assistant director worked with Russell in prior films and told the director he knew of a real police officer who happened to be a SAG actor.
“Call him up,” the director reportedly told the assistant director.
Russell’s acting has opened the door for good-natured ribbing from his fellow officers in Louisville.
“It’s to be expected,” he quipped. “A lot of them will give me a hard time, but you also have others who will say, ‘Let me know if something comes available. I would love to be a part of that.’”
While Russell only has one official credit as a law enforcement advisor, directors regularly ask him for advice on set.
“Hollywood likes to have something that is authentic,” he said. “They want to know who we would put someone into custody in terms of handcuffing and things like that. I’ve consulted script writers on the verbiage we would use.”
However, Hollywood is still Hollywood, Russell said.
“They like to put a spin on a lot of that, so they take some artistic license on some things, and I will cringe and say, ‘It wouldn’t really happen that way,” he said. “When you’re around it for a while, those things are inevitable.”
The important thing for Russell is being true to himself and law enforcement. To that end, he has turned down roles and consultant opportunities because the concept painted policing in a negative light.
“I have standards and I’m not going to get involved with a project where law enforcement looks ridiculous or do something morally wrong or illegal, unless it’s significant for the storyline and it shows there are plenty of good police officers,” Russell said.
Being involved in the film industry has been beneficial to Russell in both occupations. While he enjoys being in front of and behind the camera, his priority is the city of Louisville.
“My top passion is being a police officer and serving the community,” he said. “[Movies] are a fun pastime for me. I love being an officer. There is no doubt God has had his hand on me in many different ways. I’m lucky to do every day what I’m most passionate about, but also have opportunities to pursue secondary passions like filmmaking.”
Law enforcement officers interested in acting can contact Russell at firstname.lastname@example.org.