NEW YORK — David O. Russell is on a roll. Three years ago, “The Fighter” earned him an Oscar nomination for best director. It also won Christian Bale a best supporting actor Oscar and Melissa Leo best supporting actress. Last year, “Silver Linings Playbook” earned Russell both a best director and best adapted screenplay Oscar — and Jennifer Lawrence won best actress.
Now comes “American Hustle,” which Russell directed and co-wrote, with Eric Singer. Loosely based on the Abscam political-corruption scandal during the late 1970s and early ’80s, it stars Bale and Amy Adams as a pair of con artists entrapped by an ambitious FBI agent (Bradley Cooper). Also along for the ride are Lawrence, as Bale’s wife, Jeremy Renner, as a New Jersey mayor, and Robert De Niro, as a Mafia boss. Part comedy, part caper movie, part morality tale, part period piece (check out Adams’s wardrobe), it’s all Russell.
That’s to say, it has headlong velocity, yeasty dialogue, and heart-on-sleeve emotions. “I’m interested in soulful people who live dreams,” Russell said in an interview earlier this month at a SoHo hotel, “and try to reckon with themselves — and with love — and maybe have to go through some terrible trial or redemption.”
“Hustle” won best picture, best screenplay, and best supporting actress (Lawrence) from the New York Film Critics Circle. And it has Golden Globe nominations on the musical or comedy side for best picture, best actress (Adams), best actor (Bale), best supporting actor (Cooper), best supporting actress (Lawrence), and best director and best screenplay.
It’s a run any filmmaker would envy. For Russell, 55, it’s doubly welcome. Between “Three Kings” (1999) and “The Fighter,” he made just one feature, “I Heart Huckabees” (2004). “I had a sort of wilderness period,” he said.
It was personal considerations that put Russell on the shelf 15 years ago. He was a stay-at-home dad for his bipolar son and went through a divorce. But those years affected him professionally too. “I kind of lost my sense of storytelling,” he said.
Bale, reunited with Russell (and along for the interview), has seen how success has affected him. “He was going through his own reinvention, right?” Bale said. “And he’s grown more confident in his vision of how he wants to make films.”
Sprawled on a couch, Russell wore a three-piece suit (looking rather ’70s) with a Boston Teamsters Local 25 button in his lapel. Much of “Hustle” was shot in the area. The Worcester Art Museum stands in for New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Copley Plaza stands in for New York’s Pierre Hotel. “There are big sections of your real estate — Worcester, Salem, Medford — that are virtually unchanged since the ’70s, which our designer found very hard to find anywhere else,” he said. “It was fantastic to shoot there. And there are great guys in the Boston Teamsters, especially Sean O’Brien, president of the local.”
Actors who appear in one Russell movie tend to show up in other Russell movies. Renner is the only first-timer among the “American Hustle” leads. “For so many of us in the cast,” Bale said, “working with David for a second time, there’s a sense he brought us along because he could see that we were not thrown by the spontaneity he likes to work with.”
The answer to why he returns to the same actors is simple, Russell said. “I believe in these actors and I love casting against type.”
He certainly does. Mary Tyler Moore as a Jewish mother, in “Flirting With Disaster”? Spike Jonze as a hillbilly US Army private, in “Three Kings”? Mark Wahlberg as a bicycle-riding environmentalist, in “I Heart Huckabees”? Sure, why not.
“Hustle” takes casting against type to new heights. Bale is a guy from the Bronx with a comb-over and serious gut (“That was a lot of doughnuts,” Bale cheerfully noted in the interview). Lawrence is a yummy-mummy housewife from Long Island. Renner is pre-“Sopranos” Jersey Italian.
Such casting is “one of the tools, or tricks, that we can use,” Russell said, “to have someone you don’t expect — you think of someone one way — and then he comes at you from a completely different angle. That’s my intention. I want you to lose your bearings. I want you to be brought into a new world that you might have to see twice to see what the rhythm is here. So I love casting against type. I knew Jennifer [Lawrence] would have a hard time resisting playing someone so far from herself. Then magic things happen.”
Asked if he agreed with Bale about his increased confidence, Russell didn’t hesitate.
“For sure,” he said. “All my life and work up to that difficult, fallow period was leading to the films I feel fortunate — and was meant — to make, which is these films.
“I feel I see things very clearly and intuitively. Bob Hoskins said to Christian once, ‘It doesn’t come from the ears up. It comes from the feet up.’ That was his credo, which I think is a beautiful credo for anything. That is what I would say has happened in this new period for me, my love of the characters and doing cinema. For me, the trifecta is emotion, music, and camera movement. It’s creating a dream, which I find exhilarating. That means you’re coming more from instinct. So when you do let go to instinct, it’s a little scarier, because you’re trusting an enormous amount, but then things come to you that never would have.”