Kathleen Robertson on location shooting Swimming with Sharks
Kathleen Robertson on the set of Swimming with Sharks
Kathleen Robertson is a boss because of Boss.
That would be Boss, the political drama starring Kelsey Grammer as a Chicago mayor struggling to conceal a degenerative neurological disorder that would jeopardize his formidable power if exposed.
By the time the show premiered on Starz in 2011, Robertson, who began acting professionally in her native Canada at age ten, had already built a successful career in film and television, including the pop-culture phenomenon of Beverly Hills 90210. But when she was cast as one of the mayor's closest aides in Boss, she was thrilled to have finally found what she had been seeking for years.
"I always thought, 'I just need to get that right part that feels to me, creatively, like this is what I've been working toward,'" she says. "I thought Boss was going to be it."
Instead, despite favorable reviews and a Golden Globe win for Grammer, the psychologically complex, sexually frank series was canceled after just two seasons due to disappointing ratings.
The experience was so dispiriting for Robertson, who had always written on the side but not pursued it in earnest, that it led to a reassessment of her path in the industry: "I was like, 'Wow, it's really hard to be at the whim of somebody else saying yea or nay, whether they want to hire me or not. I think this is a sign that I need to consider writing in a real way.'"
A decade later, Robertson has achieved real results.
While continuing to act in such series as Bates Motel, Murder in the First and The Expanse, she found a writing agent and sold several scripts. Her writing credits include Little Bee, a feature with Julia Roberts based on the novel by Chris Cleave, and she has projects in the works with director-producers Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air, Ghostbusters: Afterlife) and Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk, The Underground Railroad).
She recently added the title of showrunner to her resume with Swimming with the Sharks, a Hollywood-set limited series inspired by the 1994 indie film of the same name.
The original, written and directed by George Huang, was a darkly comic examination of the toxic relationship between a blithely cruel studio executive played by Kevin Spacey and a callow assistant played by Frank Whaley.
In Robertson's take on the material, the leads are women — a frosty executive played by Diane Kruger and an enigmatic intern played by Kiernan Shipka — and the relationship is more obsessive than abusive.
The updated Swimming with Sharks began as an hour drama, which Robertson revamped as ten-minute segments when it was acquired by Quibi, the now-defunct streaming service devoted to short-form content. When Quibi shuttered, she re-edited in into six thirty-minute episodes, which will premiere April 15 on the Roku Channel, which purchased the Quibi library following the platform's dissolution.
Becoming a showrunner for the first time was daunting, but Robertson relished the challenge and looks forward to doing it again.
"I have friends who are showrunners who would laugh at me and say, 'Why the hell would you ever want to be a showrunner? It is literally the hardest job in the business. You will have no life, no sleep, no existence other than the show.' And they were totally right. It's really intense, but I love it."
When you first told people in the business that you were writing scripts, what was the response?
The first thing people said all the time was, "I was terrified to read you because you were an actor." Luckily for me, I guess the bar was set really low, because when people read my work, they said, "You're actually really good." I think everybody was shocked that you can be an actor and also be good at something else.
The other thing people would say — which I think is weird, and make of it what you will — was, "You don't write like a woman."
What does that mean?
Exactly. When I met with studios or producers, they'd be like, "Your voice is so different than a typical female voice." Which I always found kind of offensive. What does that mean? Because I don't write rom-coms? I don't know. But those were the two things everyone said at the very beginning.
How did you get involved with Swimming with Sharks?
Lionsgate approached me about it. I was working with them on a different project, and they called me and said, "Hey, does Swimming with Sharks interest you?" I had seen the movie many years ago, and I said, "You mean, like, as is? Two men, film industry?" And they said, "Yeah."
I thought about it and said, "I don't feel like I'm the right fit. I don't really have anything to say about that. But if it was two women, and we flipped it and it became a story about the female experience, then I would definitely have something to say." Especially because I've been in the business for so many years. So, I said, "If that version works, I'm in."
Now, other than the title, being set in the film industry and that mentor-mentee relationship, it's really nothing like the film.
Now that you've been a writer and a showrunner, are you interested in directing?
Definitely. I don't know if I necessarily have a huge interest in directing other people's stuff, but I do have interest in directing my own stuff.
What about acting?
I'll always act. I just did the sixth season of The Expanse for Amazon, and it was so fun to just be an actor for hire. Like, "Ah, this is the life!"
Television has changed a lot since you began your career. What are some of the main differences from your perspective?
I feel like the obvious biggest difference — and I'm not saying anything new, everybody knows this to be true — but when I first moved to the United States, I was 19, and my first American job was Beverly Hills 90210. It was the biggest show in the world at the time. The cast was on the cover of Rolling Stone — it was the biggest deal ever. But you didn't want to be on TV. I was almost embarrassed to be on TV at that time. It was sort of like, "I don't really want to do press for it. I don't really want to talk about it."
Now there would be none of that. If you're on a massive show as a nineteen-year-old today, you're leaning into it. You're doing tons of press. But I never wanted to do the  fan conferences. I never did any of the Lifetime movies I was offered. The mentality was: I want to be taken seriously; I want to be an actor; I want to do movies. It's changed so much.
There are also a lot more platforms and more companies looking for content today.
For sure, and there are tons of opportunities for actors and writers and directors. But I'm always wondering, is it going to turn at some point? I have a list of shows that I want to watch, and I don't know if I'll have time to watch them all.
Thinking back to the tentative response when you first started showing your scripts, what happens now if your agent calls someone and says, "I've got a script from Kathleen Robertson"?
I think Hollywood is like high school: "You have projects with Jason Reitman and Barry Jenkins? You're in." Once you're validated by fancy people, everybody's like, "We love you."
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.