Diversity has become a top priority for Hollywood in the last year. Robinne Lee is one of the multi-talented industry professionals at the forefront of these important conversations, contributing her voice as an inspiring, successful woman of color. As an actress, writer, and advocate for important causes, Robinne has made her mark on Hollywood, and is continuing to do so in her ongoing roles as a movie star, novelist, and mom. I thoroughly enjoyed my latest conversation with Robinne, who in addition to her many gifts listed above, is a wonderful friend.
RELATED: Check out Robinne Lee’s ReelMama.com interview in which she addresses breaking into Hollywood, parenting, and more.
Lauren: I really enjoyed Fifty Shades Darker. It was such a nice moment of escape, and I really needed that.
Robinne: I feel like, with everything that’s going on in our country, it totally came at the right time. People need a break from reality, and that’s exactly what it does, it serves as escapism. It’s nice, it’s light, it’s sexy. It hits all the right notes. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. There’s humor there, and I think we all need that.
Lauren: Absolutely! I think everyone should head out to the movies as soon as possible and have a break from the twenty-four hour news cycle.
Lauren: If I could set the stage a bit, where does Fifty Shades Darker take these familiar characters, Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, and what is your role in the story?
Robinne: I play Christian Grey’s COO Ros Bailey. She’s mentioned originally in the book as his right-hand woman. She and his mom are the only women in his life who are on an even keel with him, who can go head to head with him and don’t take any crap from him.
It’s nice to play this strong, confident, self-assured, career-minded, powerful woman opposite a character known for being so brilliant and powerful. Christian Grey is recognized as being this really strong character not easily thrown, flustered or altered, so he’s very stoic in some ways. It was really nice to play a character who could go against that and give as good as she got.
Lauren: I think the premise might lead folks to think otherwise in terms of this really being a movie made for women, but I was reading another interview that you did with BET where you said it was made for women. I think that’s really interesting. Could talk about the fact that there are a number of empowered women in this movie?
Robinne: I hadn’t read the books or seen the movie until I booked it. And when the first movie came out, or even when the books came out, the resulting backlash about him being this domineering, almost abusive or “stalkerish” character and her being this virginal, sweet, innocent girl. I felt like I read it completely differently when I finally came to it, because I felt like she, for being as virginal and innocent as she was, stood up to him. She was like, “I’m not going to play by your terms. Maybe the women in your life have done that before, but that’s not who I am.” And yes, she fell for him, even though he was slightly…he showed up at her workplace and at her house. Even though he kept showing up, eventually he won her over. But I really feel like she did it on her own terms.
I feel like there are all different types of women characters in this series and in this film especially. They are much more layered than I feel like they were given credit for when the book first came out. It’s not just Anastasia being multi-layered, it’s all the different women in his life: Elena Lincoln and Leila who come back. They’ve all got different things going on, it’s not just one sided. And I think they’ll represent different types of women, different parts of Christian’s life and psyche.
Lauren: You created a fascinating backstory for your character, and I wondered if you could talk more about that and who she is.
Robinne: I did. I write, I’m a writer…I’ve got a book coming out, so I like to write, but I think I’ve always learned in years of acting class, you develop your backstory for your character, you really need to know who she is and where she’s coming from, and what her story is, and how she got there. You don’t just walk into a room with a character and you just have the lines on the page, and you’ve got how many years of living behind you? There wasn’t very much in the book or script, so I just kind of had to create what I thought that would be. In the book my character is described as a redhead, so I knew that physically she wasn’t going to be anything like me. I’m a woman of color. In the movie I’m gay. I’m the COO of this Fortune 500 company, and I’m in Seattle, Washington. So I’m thinking, “How does a gay black woman end up running this major company in Seattle?”
It’s so completely different from most of the things I’ve that done in my life, and I kind of have to go about developing that. I spent a long time figuring out the backstory, like who my parents were, where I was born, where I grew up, where I went to school, when I first realized that I might be gay. What it meant to come out to my parents, the danger, the risk I took. How they reacted, how they responded. What my relationships have been like, how I met my current partner, how my sexual status played into my career or not, you know.
I didn’t want to do a shoddy job of representing who this person was. I didn’t want it to be this thing I just slap shot together. I wanted to put in the legwork and know who it was I was playing, even if a lot of that stuff doesn’t show up on screen. You’re shooting constantly and you never know what they’re going to edit out and what they’re going to keep in. I knew that I’d done the homework, and my character was fully there for me, and that I think really helped to create a character from whatever you’ve got on the page. You have something beyond that.
Lauren: Absolutely, and I feel like that empowered element really came across to me with your screen time. I enjoyed your role and feel like it added a nice dimension to the film. I’m always optimistic that there will be more films by, about, or for women. What are your thoughts about the state of women in film?
Robinne: There needs to be improvement. I’ve been addressing this question this past week in different ways: what’s the status of movies for people of color, actors of color, and is it getting better for women? We’ve made strides in some places and not so much in others. There was a lot of backlash that come out, I think it was last year, when they had all these studies published about the dearth of women behind the camera, and how the percentage of women directors who directed network TV compared to men, the percentage of women who directed films at big studios, were really paltry. It was shocking and disappointing that in this day and age we’re still so underrepresented and not taken seriously.
Then there was another breakdown of women’s roles vs. men’s roles, of characters in studio films and breaking down their percentages of lines, not just women talking to other women about something besides men, but just even talking, the numbers were so paltry and so disappointing. It was kind of unbelievable.
I sat in on a conference with a couple of casting directors several years ago, and they were talking about how they got into casting. The majority of casting directors are women, it’s like the one part of the industry where we rule. I don’t know why that is, but casting is definitely dominated by women. Part of it was because these casting directors were both actresses, and the would sit there [at the movies] and watch the end credits roll, how many roles in each film were cast with male parts vs. female parts. They did the math and said, “Why are we doing this?” It’s going to be like 20% per movie for women, if that, and so they got into casting, which I thought was really interesting. It wasn’t enough to make me quit, but it made me work harder, and I’m going to write, and I’m going to create characters for women.
But it’s really upsetting, and the numbers are still quite slim. So often we are given parts that are not substantial, like eye candy. I feel like [Fifty Shades Darker author] E.L. James did a good job in this film and this series of not just making women be eye candy, having strong women roles, and everything being slightly different. It’s a woman’s story. Like I said, it was made for women, and I kind of like that. I’m in a writers’ group with other smart women—all the women I know who are writers are trying to make an impression, to write multi-layered characters for people like us, and also struggling to be taken seriously, to get into a room to be considered for directorial positions, to be considered for producer positions, to get into writing rooms. They’re still struggling. They’re struggling.
Lauren: Regarding the different kinds of women represented in the film, I really enjoyed that it was bringing forward women from different walks of life, different ages and world views and experiences. I really liked that about the movie, in addition to the fact that it was very entertaining. The study you mentioned was so appalling.
Robinne: It’s really disheartening.
Lauren: I started out going to film school, then became a mom and started this blog, but I’ve been thinking that some day it would be really nice to get back to filmmaking. At the same time, there are so many obstacles. It’s daunting. I really appreciate what you’re saying. It’s an ongoing struggle. It’s one that I hope at least in our having this dialogue, and bringing attention and a spotlight to it, will help at least get it out there and keep the conversation moving forward.
Robinne: Right, I hope so.
Lauren: With Oscar season upon us, I would love to know what your reaction was to the #OscarsSoWhite phenomenon and the state of filmmaking this year, if you think progress has been made. Although you’ve been asked that a lot, I’d love to get your take on it.
Robinne: If I’d been asked this question a year ago, it would have been a completely different answer. I think having the #OscarsSoWhite campaign for the past year, and bringing on all these new members of the Academy [of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that awards the Oscars] has been really triumphant in bringing out out more diverse stories, filmmakers, writers, and actors. It’s an incredible year, we have so many actors up for awards, people of color up for awards. We have films like Hidden Figures being represented, Moonlight and Fences, and it’s really great to see new faces and old getting recognition.
I say that, over and over again, it’s incredible that we’re seeing black people out there, but I’d love to see wider diversity in other minority groups. I know that Dev Patel is being honored for his role in Lion, and that’s wonderful, but for every Dev Patel, we have more Latino actors, and more Asian-American actors, more Native American actors who are not getting the recognition. I think that part of it is that we make the mistake of segregating these projects, like, “This is the ‘black’ film,” and, “This is the ‘Latino’ film,” and “This is the ‘white’ film, or ‘mainstream’ film.” I’m putting air quotes around these. I wish these mainstream films would be more inclusive, so that we could get exposure to all these different types of people, their stories, within what is considered mainstream. I think – and now I’m really getting on my soap box – part of the division in our country right now is that one part of the country feels one way, and the other part of the country feels another. I think it’s because of lack of exposure to different types of people.
I think I’ve been really lucky to live on the coast – and you can say it’s the “liberal elite” or whatever – but I’ve always been surrounded by white people, and Asian people, and Latino people and Jewish people and Muslim people, and all these different types of people in my life who are my friends. Some of them are my family members. I realize these are people, they aren’t groups of colors that I can’t relate to. They have wants and desires and feelings like I do.
I think there are swaths of America that don’t have that, where their communities are so segregated or isolated that they don’t have interaction with people who don’t look like them. The only exposure they have to that, if they don’t go away and move to a big city, or go to a school in another state and interact with people like that, the only exposure is the media. It’s incumbent upon us to create more mainstream projects that have all these stories and different people together. So that people see that we are all pretty much the same. I know that’s totally loaded.
Lauren: Not at all. That’s a whole other hour’s, at least, conversation, we would need to have over drinks perhaps. I really hear you on that one. What more should Hollywood and filmmakers be doing to tell these diverse stories?
Robinne: I think, if they’re being conscientious about it, they get all those people in the room when the decisions are being made. If you’re doing a TV show, you bring those people to the writing table. You have someone who is Muslim in the room, or you have someone Jewish in the room, but [laughing] typically you have someone Jewish in the room. You have women voices in the room, you have Asian voices, you have South Asian voices, you have black voices, you have all these voices in the room when they are writing these characters so that they are fleshed out and multi-dimensional and real. That’s for TV, and for film, you are incorporating these stories, you’re greenlighting scripts that have those characters.
I embrace diversity and inclusivity in every single way, but I don’t want us to be like, “Well, we just made this character this race because we were low on whatever,” and you don’t really think about that person’s story, what they’re bringing to the story. You see what I’m saying? I’d like to see it accurately represented. It’s being inclusive in these mainstream films: you’ve got these different types of characters. Because someone in Texas, who’s surrounded let’s say in this small town by only Christian white people, this might be their one time this week they’re going to get into the head of someone who doesn’t look like them and walk in their shoes. And I really think that’s it, it’s walking in someone else’s shoes.
My eight-year-old daughter is sitting in the back seat listening to this, and she just said, “It’s empathy.”
Lauren: I love that!
Robinne: That’s from my eight-year-old. I love that, I’m going to cry.
Lauren: Way to go, great parenting moment there.
Robinne: [to her daughter] That’s exactly what it is, sweetie, that’s exactly what it is.
Stay tuned for Part Two of Robinne’s interview, where she discusses her new novel The Idea of You, debuting in June 2017!