Many secretly dream of a successful career in Hollywood, but few know how to turn that dream into a reality. Hollywood actor Robinne Lee is living that dream, and fortunately for Reel Mama readers, she has agreed to provide some insights into her fabulous career, the state of the entertainment industry, and how to make it in Hollywood.
Robinne got her big break as one of the stars of the independent film “Hav Plenty,” which enjoyed success at the Toronto and Sundance Film Festivals and was ultimately picked up by Miramax for distribution. Robinne has starred opposite Will Smith in “Seven Pounds,” and has also been featured in such Hollywood films as “Deliver Us from Eva,” “Hitch,” “13 Going on 30,” and “Hotel for Dogs.” She returned to her independent roots starring in Chris Angel’s “This is Not a Test,” for which she won the Best Acting Performance at the Boston International Film Festival.
Robinne’s TV credits include “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Numb3rs” and a recurring role on “Tyler Perry’s House of Payne.” She is currently starring in the exceptional soon-to-be-released independent films “The Undershepherd” with Isaiah Washington, and the romantic comedy “Miss Dial” with Sam Jaeger, among many other exciting projects.
The remarkable thing about Robinne is how she makes every moment count. Like many of my readers, she is a supermom wearing many hats: dedicated mother and wife first and foremost, gifted actor, world traveler, and active supporter of numerous charities. Did I mention that she just finished her first novel? You’ll also find her speaking at a variety of events designed to help newcomers in the entertainment industry.
As I have come to know her, first as a colleague in the film industry, then as a friend and fellow mom, I have only become more impressed with what she accomplishes in 24 hours. I know you’ll enjoy getting to know Robinne as much as I have.
[Note that my questions and comments are in bold.]
Lauren Ivy Chiong: I wanted to bring up the topic of creativity with you because I know it’s something you really value. What is the importance of creativity for you, your children, and even society?
Robinne Lee: To me creativity and the arts have always been a huge part of my life. It’s something that I enjoyed as a child, and I’ve always thrived in. I don’t remember how old I was when I started acting. I remember being two years old and wanting to get inside the TV. I’ve always wanted to be in theater or acting in some way. I played instruments and was into the arts as a child.
My parents were not super supportive of me getting into the arts. They are both from Jamaica, and they have a different mentality about getting an education and doing something more “straight and narrow” like law, business, or medicine. They saw acting as a hobby, and they really did not encourage me to pursue it other than as something that I could just do on the side. I’m raising my children in a different way. I think it’s so important to be well rounded, to be open to the arts from a young age, and to value them, but I don’t think that happens enough. If my children choose to do something in the arts with their lives in any way, shape, or form, it won’t be frowned upon. It’s too important.
Lauren: Talk about the current landscape of the entertainment industry and some of the challenges for people starting out. What advice can you offer for those who want to break into acting?
Robinne: The industry is constantly in flux, and we are going through a transition right now. I think it stems from
the recession. There was a writers’ strike in the winter of 2008 that really changed everything about the business. Right after the strike, projects just dried up. It’s never been the same. Studios are doing fewer films, and because there are fewer studio films, more big name actors are doing independent films and good television, especially cable.
Those actors who were considered working actors without big names, who used to fill those roles on TV, are now having to do smaller roles. There’s just less work out there, and I think it’s changed so much that you can’t just come out to Hollywood and hope to land something big, because those parts are going to go to big name people.
More actors are willing to do web series. Some actors are in it for the money, but also people just want to work, and they’re doing webisodes. They want to express themselves creatively. You’ll go crazy staying at home waiting for a call to get an audition. You work where you can find it, because those big studio films are just not being made in the high numbers anymore.
If you’re interested in coming out here to Hollywood, just be willing to try everything to be able to diversify. Don’t just say, “I’m only going to do this, or I’m only going to do big projects,” because those big projects are harder to come by.
Instead of waiting for studio projects, you should be writing your own screenplays or teaming up with a writer, or getting involved with a producer or director, getting a short film done to get some attention and get into film festivals.
Lauren: There was a really interesting piece on KPCC (LA NPR affiliate) with Patt Morrison interviewing voice over actors (who mostly do commercial work), people whose names you probably wouldn’t recognize, but they’re regular voice over actors, and they’ve found the same thing. The big major stars are doing voice work, and that’s put a whole set of actors out of work.
Robinne: Yes, if you look at “Madagascar” with David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett and Ben Stiller, they’re big, big stars doing voice over work, and that takes away work from another [voice over] actor. Everyone wants to work. There are just fewer projects with real money behind them. Everyone’s taken a step down, trying to keep busy.
Lauren: Could you talk about your big break? Your first film “Hav Plenty” was created at a really unique and special time for independent film.
Robinne: “Hav Plenty” was like the little engine that could. I auditioned for that through an ad in “Backstage” magazine. I was living in New York. I had just started acting, and I answered an ad in “Backstage” for the film. I got the call to go in for an audition, and then I got the callback. I booked the part, and because we had so little money — it was trickling in — we kept pushing back our start date. We were supposed to start in December of 1995, then it got pushed back to January of 1996, and we ended up shooting in April. In that interim we rehearsed and rehearsed, because we didn’t have the budget to do more than two shots of anything.
We were shooting on film back then, and we had a budget of about $50,000. I’m not exaggerating in any shape or form: five, zero! The writer-director-star Christopher Scott Cherot got the money by taking a mortgage out on his mom’s house, and we shot it in 15 days. Every setup was only two takes [due to the expense of film]. You couldn’t screw up. We just didn’t have the money.
It was a tiny little independent film. We spent a year editing, we screened it for a few people, and it got the attention of Warrington Hudlin, who had just started at the time what was called the Acapulco Black Film Festival (ABFF). It’s now called the American Black Film Festival, and it’s based in Miami every summer. Warrington chose our film to open the very first ABFF in 1997. From there we got into the Toronto Film Festival, and at Toronto it was picked up by Harvey Weinstein from Miramax, and then the wheels just started moving. We shot a new ending, we went to Sundance, and we came out the following June.
It all started with a little “Backstage” ad. We were really lucky. It was the first movie for all of us.
Lauren: What are you working on now, and where will my readers be able to see your latest projects?
Robinne: I’ve done three projects over the last couple of years that are in different stages of post production. I did an independent film called “The Undershepherd,” that stars Isaiah Washington of “Grey’s Anatomy” fame, along with Lamman Rucker, Malinda Williams, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Keith David, and Bill Cobbs. It’s an amazing ensemble cast. You dream about working with a cast like this. I was very lucky.
“The Undershepherd” is about a black church, and these two guys who come up together in the church. They’re
very close, and they both want to become the main pastor. One of them decides to leave and start his own church — that’s Lamman Rucker’s character — and I play his wife.
[Our characters] break off from the main church, and start our own. It’s a very humbling experience for our characters, and not having much success, while Isaiah Washington’s character stays at the original church and usurps the main pastor’s position. He becomes this huge almost tele-evangelical figure, and it’s about what happens when he gets corrupted by power. It’s amazing.
Russ Parr is the writer-director. He wrote a wonderful script and had a vision. We shot it last summer, and I believe it’s going to be coming out next year, first quarter.
I did another independent film called “Miss Dial,” shot last year as well. It’s a romantic comedy. It stars me, and Sam Jaeger from “Parenthood.” I play a customer relations person. One day she’s going through a breakup with her boyfriend, who’s cheating on her, and she is fielding phone calls from disgruntled consumers. She misdials and calls a total stranger, and she makes a connection. You’ll have to see the movie to see what happens!
“Miss Dial” was written and directed by David H. Steinberg. He wrote this project with me in mind. My husband, Eric Hayes, had the idea about doing a film in which no two actors are in the same frame. It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s original, and I haven’t seen anything like it. I’m really excited about it. It got distribution from a company called Phase 4 Films, and I believe it also comes out in the first quarter of next year.
The last thing I did is a television pilot for BET called “Being Mary Jane,” which I shot this past spring. It is coming out next year as well. I’ve got a lot coming out next year! It stars Gabrielle Union as a single woman living in Atlanta, and her work as a TV talk show host, her relationships, and her family. I don’t know how to say it without giving away too much, but she kind of becomes my character’s nemesis. The pilot got picked up and we go back to shooting in Atlanta in January.
Lauren: Let’s end with a question about your busy life: how do you balance work and family? You’re a busy working actor, a novelist, and a mom.
Robinne: I just take it one day at a time. I have my priorities straight. Nothing’s more important to me than my family, but I also realize that I need to exist outside of them. I need to create, and I need to work, and so if it’s the right project, I do it.
I don’t do much shooting on location because I need to be here in Los Angeles for my children. I feel like I’m very lucky, being around for my kids almost all the time. When my son Alexander was 20 months, we picked up and moved to Atlanta for two months to shoot Tyler Perry’s “House of Payne.” Alexander was young enough that I could take him with me. Now that he’s in school full-time, it’s less likely that I can do that. My family is grounded. My husband is here in Los Angeles, and we make it work.
I need to feed that creative part of myself constantly. When I’m not acting and my kids are in school, I’m writing. I’ve spent the last five years working on a novel in between projects and during projects. I just completed it, and now it’s out to publishers.
I’m trying to become a better artist in every way. I think it’s important, and I’m going to keep on doing it.
Lauren: Can you give my readers a taste of what the novel’s about?
Robinne: It’s a coming of age story, a love story about a young woman living in New York in the 1990s. She seems to have it all together. She’s 25, but she has that feeling that she’s not quite living up to her potential, even though on the surface everything looks good. She’s got a lot of inner turmoil. One day she gets on a train and meets a guy who is the opposite of her, and it changes her life. You’ve got to read the book!
Lauren: I will! I know my readers are looking forward to reading it and to seeing your upcoming projects. I’ve had so much fun talking to you!
Special thanks to Robinne Lee for the fantastic interview. I’ll be providing updates on Robinne’s novel and film and TV projects right here. Stay tuned!