Kathleen Robertson reveals the #MeToo 'horror stories' that inspired 'Swimming With Sharks'

·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
·15 min read
AUSTIN, TEXAS - MARCH 14: (L-R) Kiernan Shipka, Kathleen Robertson, and Diane Kruger attends the
From left, Kiernan Shipka, Kathleen Robertson and Diane Kruger attend the SXSW premiere of Swimming With Sharks in March. (Photo: Samantha Burkardt/Getty Images for SXSW)

Kathleen Robertson still remembers the knock on the door that changed the entire trajectory of her career. The Canadian-born actress achieved teen-idol status in the early 1990s when she landed a major role on Beverly Hills, 90210, and followed that series up with memorable appearances in buzzy indie films like Gregg Araki's Nowhere and Austin Chick's XX/XY.

But her interest in acting dimmed after a deeply unpleasant experience while shooting a major motion picture on location in Bulgaria. "There was a knock on my trailer door, and I was essentially told: 'So your character is about to do a sex scene with this other actor,'" she recalls, declining to identify any of the principals involved. "His character is cheating on his wife with you, and we need to sell you as being really hot. So we think you need to take your clothes off and go for it. Let's just go for it and have fun with it."

Needless to say, Robertson wasn't interested in acquiescing to their on-set pressure tactics, even when they threatened to fire her. "I was literally sitting there thinking: 'I'm going to throw up,'" she says now. "I called my reps, and they were like: 'Tell them to f*** off,' so I didn't do it. I have thousands of those stories, but that's the experience that made me go: 'This is not something I want to continue doing in this capacity. I'm going to start writing and try get on the other side of the camera.'"

Kathleen Robertson in the acclaimed indie drama, XX/XY. (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)
Kathleen Robertson in the acclaimed indie drama "XX/XY." (Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection)

That experience in Bulgaria is one of the thousands of stories that informs Swimming With Sharks, Robertson's new six-episode series that she adapted from George Huang's 1994 cult Hollywood satire, which starred Frank Whaley and Kevin Spacey as an ambitious assistant and an abusive mogul, respectively.

Premiering on the Roku Channel on April 15, the show presents another darkly comic — and wickedly thrilling — peek behind the curtain of La La Land. Robertson wrote and executive produced the series, and cast Chilling Adventures of Sabrina star Kiernan Shipka as Lou Simms, a new arrival in Hollywood who scores her dream job working for high-powered studio executive Joyce Holt (Diane Kruger).

But it quickly becomes clear that Lou's admiration of her new boss verges on obsession, and she's more than happy to protect Joyce by any means necessary. At the same time, Joyce's own history is checkered by the personal compromises she's made along the path to success, including a messy relationship with a Harvey Weinstein-like studio boss, played by Donald Sutherland. As it happens, Robertson has her own #MeToo experience with the now-imprisoned former Miramax executive. "I did a film for Harvey, and everybody knew about him. When I went into making the movie, it was like 'When the movie's premiering, you'll have dinner [with him] and your husband is not allowed to come."

Robertson on the set of Swimming with Sharks, which she wrote, executive produced and appears in. (Photo: The Roku Channel)
Robertson on the set of "Swimming With Sharks," which she wrote, executive produced and appears in. (Photo: The Roku Channel)

Robertson — who also has a small role in Swimming With Sharks as Lou's emotionally troubled mother — says that she shared some of her "horror stories" with Shipka during production. "I would tell Kiernan about the difficult experiences I had working on different movies all over the world," she says. "And she was like, 'I cannot believe these stories are real and that they happened to you!' She would also say that she was so lucky to be coming into the business at a time when experiences like that are just horror stories."

In a separate interview, Shipka says that those "story sharing" sessions with Robertson contributed to a "neverending understanding of one another" as two women who started their Hollywood careers at a young age. "We had a constant dialogue and communication about the complicated nature of being an actor as a child and growing up in this world," the 22-year-old star observes. Adds Kruger: "I've certainly had my fair share of questionable encounters with mostly men in powerful positions, so I think that definitely informed my performance, but what was on the page also rang very true."

Kiernan Shipka plays an obsessive Hollywood dreamer in Swimming with Sharks. (Photo: The Roku Channel)
Kiernan Shipka plays an obsessive Hollywood dreamer in "Swimming With Sharks." (Photo: The Roku Channel)

Since Robertson has been both Lou and Joyce — the rising star and the industry veteran — over the course of her career, she relished the opportunity to explore both sides of herself in fiction. "One of the things I wanted to comment on is what it's like to be a women in your mid-40s whose grown up in this industry versus a 21-year-old that's just starting out," she says. "When I was coming up, directors were allowed to say whatever they wanted to you. People were allowed to knock on your trailer door, ask you to take your clothes off and threaten to fire you if you didn't. People were allowed to have their friends on set when you were shooting a sex scene. That's all stuff a woman like I had to go through, and it used to be completely acceptable."

"Thankfully that's just not acceptable anymore, at least it's not publicly accepted," Robertson continues. "Does this still happen behind closed doors? Of course, it does and it's gone further underground. But I think that somebody like Kiernan thankfully won't have to endure some of the stuff that I had to endure as a 25-year-old shooting on location in Bulgaria. That's the positive thing about where we are right now: young women don't feel like they have to put up with that s*** anymore."

In a wide-ranging conversation, Robertson explains the power dynamic she wanted to explore in Swimming With Sharks and reveals why she often needed a bodyguard during her 90210 days.

You started on Beverly Hills, 90210 in 1994, the same year that the original Swimming With Sharks premiered in theaters. How did the opportunity to make a series come your way all these years later?

It came to me through Lionsgate, which owns the rights to the film. I believe they had tried to make it work with a two-man version similar to the movie, but then they were looking for a fresh take. I was working with them on another project, and they approached me about this. I was like, "I'm not interested in doing it if it's two guys, but if I could do it from a female perspective, I think I'd have something to say." I've been in the business for many, many years and I've collected many stories along the way that made me feel like I was the right person to tell this story.

Did you reach out to George Huang at all as you were adapting the film?

Weirdly, we've never met, but I feel like we should! The show is very different from his movie. The movie was very much about Kevin Spacey being this horrific, terrible human being who was incredibly abusive to this young guy, whereas my version is a weird sort of love story. It's certainly not like Lou is looking to take Joyce down: she's obsessively in love with her and wants to help her achieve everything she wants to achieve.

The Kevin Spacey character in our show is played Donald Sutherland. He represents the darkness of what the industry has been for all of these years. Whereas Joyce presents as tough, aggressive and cold, but she's not like that at home when she's in her sweatpants. My idea was to humanize that kind of person for the audience and really have them understand their struggles and why they behave the way they behave. Not to excuse it, but just shed a little light on it.

Joyce is in a position of power, but she's also surrounded by people looking to undermine her. I wonder if that's something you've experienced as you've navigated your career.

I don't know if I've felt that, because I usually have blinders on when it comes to work. I tend to be the kind of person that's happiest when I have seven things going on; it's just the way I'm built. So I don't really allow myself to think too much about other peoples' impression of me. If I was simply an actor and that was all I did, I'm sure I'd feel that more, especially as I'm getting older.

Over the years, I've worked with a lot of really big iconic players: Aaron Spelling, Steven Bochco and David E. Kelley. The thing that I have always found really interesting is that the people who are calling the shots all have a boss, too. There are very few people in this industry that don't also have to answer to someone else. And they're still having to constantly prove themselves, even if they are running a company, a studio, an agency or a TV show. You're always beholden to other people who are above you.

I've also thought about the various women who have achieved that very rarefied air of being a female CEO, and how there aren't that many of them and so they have to learn how to be like one of the guys. At the same time, they have these other complicated components like wanting to be a good mother. I don't know if that's as complicated for men. Even with my husband [film producer Chris Cowles] if he has to go away and be on location, I don't think he feels the level of extreme guilt that I would feel to the point where I'm like, "I can't go — I can't leave the kids." It's a complicated world for sure.

Diane Kruger plays a veteran Hollywood power player in Swimming with Sharks. (Photo: The Roku Channel)
Diane Kruger plays a veteran Hollywood power player in "Swimming With Sharks." (Photo: The Roku Channel)

Meanwhile, Lou feels like an extreme version of Internet "stan" culture. Was that something you wanted to comment on?

I guess it's sort of infused in there in a way. When Kiernan and I initially talked about Lou, I told her that the danger was always going to be that the audience would think she's crazy. But Lou's not crazy: whether the choices she makes are right or wrong, they're fully justified to her.

When I was creating her, I read this really interesting article about the psychological imprinting of obsession, and where it comes from. I thought: "How interesting would it be if it's this girl had a mother who represented 'Hollywood' to her." Her mother created this idea in this young girl's head that Hollywood is where people go to reinvent themselves and live this magical life. And Joyce is essentially the queen of this world that her mother was so enamored with. That's the imprint moment, and she goes towards her.

Did you have your own experiences with obsessive fans from your time on 90210?

Yes, and it still goes on! It was the biggest show in the world at the time, and I definitely had some scary things happen and had to have a bodyguard and all that kind of stuff. It was very trippy — very trippy. And like I said, it's weirdly something that people are still kind of obsessed with.. I mean, there's podcasts made about it and merch for it. I'm constantly asked to do things to do with that show still. I'm like, really?! [Laughs]

Ian Ziering, Brian Austin Green and Robertson in an episode of Beverly Hills 90210. (Photo: 20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Ian Ziering, Brian Austin Green and Robertson in an episode of "Beverly Hills, 90210." (Photo: 20thCentFox/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Certainly, social media has changed things a lot for young performers today. How do you think you would navigate that if you were starting out in Hollywood now?

It's definitely complicated. Ross Butler, who is on Swimming With Sharks, and certainly Kiernan have huge social media followings. I did a show called Northern Rescue on Netflix, and there were two really young actresses on that. It makes me sad to a certain degree — the level of constantly feeling like you need to put forth posts like: "I'm beautiful. I'm using the right products. I'm watching the right things."

I have two boys who aren't into yet, and I'm sure it's different for them than it is for girls. I always was a bit of a black sheep when I was on 90210: I was the one that was like, "I'm not doing the fan thing. Let me go dye my hair and do a Gregg Araki movie!" [Laughs] So I certainly wouldn't have been the girl that was posting photos of my manicures and stuff like that just because that's not me. But there's a lot pressure for young people.

The original film depicts a very specific kind of overt male aggression, whereas your show is more about microaggressions. Does that stem, in part, from the gender reversal of the main characters?

Yeah, I think it's male vs. female, right? A lot of it is has to do with the way we work and move through the world as women, which is very different than the way men do. I was just talking to my husband this morning about Will Smith and the Oscars, and I said: "Could that have been a woman? Would a woman have ever walked up onstage, slapped another woman in the face and then screamed at her?" Maybe, but I don't think so. Of course, the behavior that was displayed in the original was also very heightened, but ours is very different.

When I was writing the series, my inspirations were The Talented Mr. Ripley and A Woman Under the Influence. I knew that Joyce didn't need to yell, because that's not who she is. And I actually struggled with the moments that are a little bit more overtly aggressive, even though some people were like, "I love that!" I know there was a hope in re-envisioning it that there would be more of the stuff that was in the original, but I definitely pushed back against that creatively. I think you can say more with a look then you can with a monologue of somebody screaming at somebody else. People who are truly powerful, women especially, don't need to do that kind of stuff. They don't have to have a huge screaming match or slap somebody.

Canadian actress Kathleen Robertson attends the premiere of
Robertson at the SXSW premiere of "Swimming With Sharks." (Photo: SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP via Getty Images)

The executive in the original film feels analogous to Scott Rudin, whose abusive behavior was widely publicized in 2021. Do you think that was overdue?

My husband worked for Scott Rudin, so I definitely got a lot of stories from him. The scene in the show where Joyce dumps another character on the side of the road is a famous Rudin story. He did that to an assistant, just dumped somebody off on the side of the road and was like, "Get out of my car. You're a f***ing idiot."

I think everybody knows that there's many, many, many other people where it's like: "I can't believe the stories haven't come out yet." And they will one day. There's a million Harvey's and a million Rudin's. There's a million of those kinds of people that are making consistently bad choices, and have had to go further underground now that they realize that they could caught and essentially never work again. It's an interesting time that way.

Kevin Spacey's own misdeeds have also come to light in recent years. Does that change the original movie for you now?

Yes, it's weird. I've never met Kevin, and I don't know anybody who directly had any experiences with him. But I was genuinely shocked when I read about that stuff. It's a weird thing to know that we'll probably never witness him act again.

Kevin Spacey in the original film version of Swimming with Sharks. (Photo: Trimark Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection)
Kevin Spacey in the original film version of "Swimming With Sharks." (Photo: Trimark Pictures / courtesy Everett Collection)

Do you think that's the appropriate punishment for him?

Yes. I don't think anyone wants to watch him act anymore. And I’m very curious to see what's going to happen with Will Smith. In any other industry — like if you were a doctor performing surgery — and you did something wrong, you would be gone. Our business is really weird; it's like actors are gods and they're put on pedestals. Will Smith is a God to a lot of people and will continue to be that.

You seem to have a healthy perspective on fame. How have you been able to step outside the industry and critique it as you do in the series?

I've always had an outsider perspective: I've always been the girl from the East Mountain of the blue collar steel city of Hamilton that's viewed L.A. and Hollywood as being a little bit insane! [Laughs] So I think I've always been able to be objective about it, but I'm also very fascinated by it. I actually optioned Kenneth Anger's book Hollywood Babylon and wrote a spec script for John Wells. It's just such a strange and unique place. There's nowhere else quite like it, and there's nothing else quite like it.

Swimming With Sharks premieres April 15 on The Roku Channel