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Following in the footsteps of Ellen Pompeo, Kerry Washington, and Viola Davis, Britt Robertson has moved into Shondaland, starring on ABC’s midseason entry For the People as embattled newbie public defender Sandra Bell.
“To try and live up to any of those people you just named would be ridiculous, so I’m not even going for that,” says the 27-year-old CW alum (Life Unexpected, The Secret Circle), who picked up tricks of the trade from years of watching TGIT. “The biggest lesson that I’ve learned from all of them is there’s no one particular person that you have to conform to. It doesn’t have to be one little box that you have to fill; you can be a very well-rounded character.”
But viewers almost didn’t get to see her in the role: Britne Oldford originated the part before being recast when the character was redeveloped as “a relentless fighter that sometimes fails to calibrate things the right way,” says creator Paul William Davies, noting they went through an extensive search before casting Robertson, who most recently starred on Netflix’s ill-fated Girlboss. “It was just a matter of making sure we had the character down.” The verdict? “We ultimately cast Britt, and it’s exactly the right fit for the show now.” Read our full interview with Robertson below.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’re following in the footsteps of Ellen Pompeo, Kerry Washington, and Viola Davis as one of the new leading ladies in Shondaland, alongside Station 19’s Jaina Lee Ortiz. How nervous are you going into this with that in mind?
BRITT ROBERTSON: You know, not nervous. I don’t know, I don’t really think about that stuff anymore. I think it’s because I’ve been doing it for so long, and I’m like a kid actor at heart. I just kind of hop from one project to the next, really. For me, it was a really cool opportunity to be able to work on a show like this for Shonda Rhimes, who was a part of the producing team, and I just think what she’s done for specifically women in television has been so phenomenal, and I’m a big fan of hers. So that part of it was really cool for me and super-exciting. But to try and live up to any of those people you just named would just be ridiculous, so I’m not even going for that. I’m just trying to do what I do.
What tips or tricks did you take from those other leading ladies that they either gave you in person, or maybe you just picked it up from watching TGIT over the years?
The big lessons for me that a lot of actors have been able to embody as different characters on Shonda Rhimes’ shows are that there’s no one particular person that you have to conform to. You’re not the bitchy one, or the good girl, or the love interest, or the worker. It doesn’t have to be one little box that you have to fill. So the biggest lesson that I’ve learned from all of them is that you can be a very well-rounded character. You feel a lot of different things at a lot of different times, and it gives you a bigger range going forward for me as an actor if I can approach a character and not feel limited in my choices.
Tell us about Sandra as a character. What drives her?
Her big drive is with the human aspect of her job. She feels highly responsible for these people that she’s representing and their livelihood, because that’s what her job is. So I think she wears that. It’s a big part of her life and her existence, and it’s hard for her to get home and have a glass of wine and not think about the guy or the girl that she’s representing who could then go to jail for 40 years. So her big drive is just to do right by her client and to give [them] the toughest and fiercest representation that she can. And to do her due diligence. You see she’s knee-deep in her work oftentimes, but that’s her biggest drive, just to be successful — not even for herself, but just for the people that she’s representing.
How do you think Sandra is different from some of the leading roles you’ve played before?
I think she’s different in that a lot of the characters that I’ve played before, or maybe this is just the way that I’ve interpreted them, but they’ve been — I hate to say the word “selfish,” but they’ve been very self-involved and self-aware. It’s like they are driven by their own passions or their own thirst for life, and a lot of times those characters would get lost in like, “What’s in it for me?” Whereas this character is very different in that she almost never cares about herself, she has no personal life aside from her best friend, and the reason she’s in it is the job, and to be successful at that. Mostly, she just really cares for other people. She’s deeply empathetic and feels like there’s an injustice. And if there’s an injustice in the world, she wants to be there to serve that injustice.
The original pilot starred Britne Oldford in your role. Was there anything in particular they said to you to make this a distinct and different version of Sandra Bell?
No, I mean, everyone was like, “Don’t watch the pilot, we’ve re-written a lot. We just want your take on this character, so we want you to see it with fresh eyes, and don’t think about the fact that this was a pilot once upon a time without you in it. Just think about it the way you would want to embody this character.”
How do you think For the People is different from the other Shondaland shows?
It’s really different, because it’s more of a procedural and there’s not necessarily the cliffhanger at the end of every episode. Grey’s [Anatomy] has a little bit more of that feel, procedural, where you’re getting to know new patients. With this show, you’re getting to know new clients, and specifically with this show, you’re learning more about the characters as the season progresses, because you sort of get a window into their world. One episode is maybe following the Allison character, or the Jay character, or the judge, or the clerk. So, I think that’s also very different than anything else Shonda-wise, because you’re getting to learn these characters really on a very intimate level, but it’s more about the journey throughout the season, rather than getting to know them all at once.
The show has a built-in rivalry with the prosecution vs. the public defenders, but are the actors also a little competitive off-screen?
You know, not really, but I think with certain people. One of my newfound favorite friends is this guy Wesasm [Keesh], who’s on the show and plays Jay. And he’s just a really competitive dude anyway. Not really even competitive, but he’s very driven as a person, so he gets really excited. His episode was episode 2, where you get to learn more about his family or why he works the way he works, or how he got involved as a public defender. So you get to learn more about his character, and actually he gets to defend a very controversial client and he was so excited that it was his episode. He was taking ownership of it, and he was like, “Mine’s going to be the best episode.” I think if there is any competition, it’s just in the drive to have the best episode when you’re given the opportunity. But we all want what’s best for the show. Sometimes when we’re in scenes — like I had a scene with Susannah where it felt very competitive just in the scene, because we’re having to make a deal with one another and it very much feels like a chess match. So I think it lives underneath the surface because that’s what the writing lends itself to.
What was your audition process like for this role?
I literally just went in, I read the script, I was like, “Cool, I like this Sandra character.” They were auditioning both Sandra and Allison at the time, and I felt like I connected with the Sandra character more, so I was more into auditioning for that role. And then I just went in, and they were all in the room. I kept messing up, I got really sweaty, they had to powder me at one point. They’re being like, “Yeah, that’s a no-go.” Then they called me three hours later and they were like, “You’re going to be in this show.” And I was like, “Oh, sh—, okay.”
What was that feeling like when you found out?
I didn’t totally buy it. I was like, “Wait, wait, wait, they don’t want me to come back in and fix everything I messed up?” But I’m kind of a perfectionist in that way and I guess as creative, they have a way of imagining things and so they maybe could imagine me less sweaty or less unprepared. I mean, I wasn’t even that bad in terms of preparation. I was totally prepared, but I was so nervous and I was having to spit out all of this legal jargon that wasn’t familiar territory for me. So it was just tough.
What’s one thing you would want the audience to know before tuning in to For the People?
It’s more like after they’ve tuned in. If you give it a shot for the first episode — which I totally think audiences should give it a shot — it’s a cool, interesting show, but it really lives in episodes following the premiere. If you stay tuned after you watch the pilot episode, it only gets better from there. Pilots are hard because you’re just trying to find your footing and trying to find out what your tone is. And they had already done a pilot and had to redo the pilot. It can be a tricky place to get your first shot at what this series is going to be about. So my advice to audiences is just to be open to more episodes and to stay tuned after the fact.
For the People debuts Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET on ABC.