It wasn’t easy finding the right girl boss to play the title character of the new Netflix series, Girlboss. “We saw hundreds of women,” creator Kay Cannon reveals to Yahoo TV. “I knew the show lived or died by who was cast in that role.” After all, the chosen actress has the difficult task of stepping into the vintage wardrobe worn by Sophia Amoruso, a struggling San Francisco resident who parlayed her thrifty thrift store purchases into a burgeoning eBay empire and, later, the successfully fashion label, Nasty Gal. “I was trying to find someone who could capture the real Sophia,” Cannon says. “Which is to say, beautiful, but also an actress with a lot of depth, who can also be funny and look great in clothes. That was really important because when you meet Sophia, you’re like ‘You look amazing in everything you wear!’ She’s got this great sense of style.”
Cannon eventually found her leading lady in the form of Tomorrowland star Britt Robertson. But the actress’s style was lacking when she initially auditioned for the part. “When she first auditioned, she had a real girl next door quality,” Cannon remembers. “We had her come in again, and told her to rock it up a little bit. And that time, when she left the room I was like, ‘She’s it. She’s everything we want for that character.”
Robertson herself is equally taken with Girlboss‘s boss. “Kay’s point of view is really fascinating; I love the way she sees the world,” the 27-year-old actress remarks in a separate interview. “She has such a fun-loving nature, and would always have this rule of allowing me to get in a ‘fun run’ on every scene, where I could say anything or do anything. That was a huge help, especially in the beginning when I was trying to get comfortable with the character.” We spoke with Robertson about playing a real-world fashion icon, and her own eBay experiences.
How aware were you of Sophia’s story, or Nasty Gal, before you signed on to the series?
I had never even heard of Nasty Gal or Sophia; I looked up a few things before I went to the audition, but I mainly prepared by reading the script. Once I got the role I did a lot of research: I watched her interviews, I went to her store, I spent time with her, I read her book, all of that stuff.
In the time you spent with her, is there one element of her personality you knew you most wanted to capture in your own performance?
I knew it was important to figure out what it was about her that made her so successful. When I got to know her, I realized that it’s her passion and her drive, her ability to cut any corner and to push past any sort of barrier in order to get the things that she wanted and felt passionate about. That could be her greatest flaw in some moments, but it’s also her most wonderful trait as well. She’s dumb and she’s smart, she’s driven and she’s lazy. She’s a big, fat contradiction most of the time.
The show is almost structured like a superhero origin story. We watch as she figures out her own identity over the course of the season.
Exactly, and I think that was the most exciting part for Kay, being able to show the rags to riches portion of Sophia’s story. She talks a lot about that in her book: how she jumped into dumpsters for bagels, and wasn’t able to fix a leak in her wall. All of those things are very true to what she was experiencing at that time, when she became, essentially, successful overnight. I think that’s what makes her more relatable — being able to see how messed up she was, and how much she really pulled it together. In the first season you’ll experience her first two years of Nasty Gal: You’ll see her rise to the top on eBay, until she’s ultimately kicked off of eBay and starts her own site. That all takes place from 2006 to 2008, and by the end of this season you get to see the launch of Nasty Gal.
It’s funny — 2006 isn’t so long ago, but it feels like a whole different world, one without smartphones and social media.
Yeah, the show really does feel like a period piece in so many ways. People used MySpace rather than Facebook, and while [social media] was a way of communicating with people, it was used more as a business model. I think it’s interesting to see how far we’ve jumped just in that short amount of time.
Do you remember when you first bought something off of eBay?
My mom was really big into eBay! [Laughs.] I didn’t use eBay myself; I was just young enough to not have an account or anything. But my mom was super into it. She had a little section in this antique shop in South Carolina, and she would buy all of these vintage clothes. They would be like tapestry almost, hand-sewn. She had the most uninteresting portion of that antique shop to me, but it’s what she loved. So I remember eBay was a really big thing in our household for a long time.
Girlboss uses San Francisco very well. Was it fun to get to know that city through the show?
We spent two or three weeks there, just exclusively doing exteriors. There’s one episode where we go on a tour of San Francisco, so Sophia can be inspired by the city. It’s changed so much in the last 10 years as well, with the rise of the technology companies. That whole part of San Francisco has been taken over. The real Sofia speaks to that a lot now; she says that she doesn’t even recognize the city. I think it was important for to present the city as she remembers it. It’s probably very nostalgic for her.
The first scene of the series finds Sophia stuck on one of the city’s famous hilly streets where her car stalls out just as a trolley is approaching. It’s a fun way to begin the show. What do you remember about shooting that particular sequence?
That was funny scene actually, because the day before shooting it, I had torn my groin muscle! I had to run the length of the Golden Gate Bridge [for another scene] a couple of days before that, and I’m really out of shape, so I tore something. Then, for another scene, I had to run down a hill in ginormous heels, and all of a sudden I felt this gnarly sharp pain. We had to wrap filming that day a little bit early. So it was a big deal: How was I going to shoot this scene where I had to literally be pushing a car up a hill? And we were only going to have one day to film it because they had to shut down the street and bring in a trolley.
I rested the day before, and then while we were shooting, I had all this tape holding me together. The grips did a lot of the heavy lifting: I wasn’t pushing the car most of the time, although sometimes I did. It’s such a cool shot, and a great way to start the show. It gives you an essence of how this woman is. I remember that, towards the end, we had one shot left where I had to push the car, and I just felt this sharp pain go through my body. I broke out into tears and collapsed. I felt like such a loser: I couldn’t sustain just that one last shot! But, we got it and it looks good, so I’m happy with it.
RuPaul and Norm McDonald have supporting roles on the show as Sophia’s neighbor and boss, respectively. What was it like to work with them?
So fun! I love RuPaul. He’s such a sweetheart, and just the coolest dude. There are so many genuine moments in the show where he’s legitimately cracking me up. He had a tough time learning the lines, but he didn’t even need to because he’s just that good. He could say anything, and it would be funny. We had so many cool people on the show. Ru’s there, Norm’s there. In between takes, Ru would be doing dirty charades for everyone, and Norm would be putting on a stand-up routine. It was really fun just to have those guys around, and watching them enjoy themselves as much as we were enjoying them.
Charlize Theron is an executive producer on the series. Was she on set often?
She was super involved, especially early on. Once we got going, she was really sweet and let me do my thing. That would have been crazy stressful if she was there everyday. I would have been like, “Britt, I think you kinda suck today.” [Laughs.] Early on, she was at every single one of my rehearsals and had a lot of notes. She really helped guide me to find the fictional Sophia, who was tricky to capture. This isn’t an autobiography, but there were things I wanted to bring to life that were important.
What do you hope viewers take away from Girlboss?
I hope they’ll get a fresh take on what it’s like to be a human being. What’s special about Sophia’s story is that she was unsuccessful at a lot of things in life. She was not thriving in school, and she couldn’t get or keep a job. She had a lot of great qualities, but she sucked a lot. And she didn’t care — she dared to suck! I think that was a big lesson I learned, not to be afraid of failure. We try to be the best at what we do, being the best isn’t always the most important thing. It’s about trying and not feeling defeated when things don’t come naturally.
Girlboss premieres Friday, April 21 on Netflix.