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Why ‘Swimming With Sharks’ Showrunner Kathleen Robertson Gender-Flipped the Hollywood Insider Drama

Kiernan Shipka and Diane Kruger star in this reimagining of the ’90s Hollywood power dynamics tale

Enshrined in Hollywood mythology are stories of tyrannical bosses and the assistants who must endure their wrath for an eventual shot at climbing the ladder. One of the more notorious exemplifiers is producer Scott Rudin, whose verbally and physically abusive behavior was the subject of a recent exposé

Years before those allegations went into print, they found their way onto the big screen. The 1994 drama “Swimming with Sharks” starred Kevin Spacey as a draconian studio executive and Frank Whaley as the assistant he pushes too far, spurring him to seek revenge.

Nearly three decades later, “Swimming with Sharks” is making its way back onto the screen, this time as a Roku Original series starring Diane Kruger and Kiernan Shipka. But aside from the title, setting and power dynamic between its two leads, the six-episode show – which premiered at last month’s SXSW Festival – has little in common with its source material.

“[The show is] very much its own animal,” writer-showrunner Kathleen Robertson told TheWrap. “I really wanted to explore this story from a female perspective, and lean into how much things have changed since the original film came out.”

Set in the present day, “Swimming with Sharks” paints Hollywood as a place where women can sit in the seat of power – at a cost. Joyce Holt (Kruger), the head of Fountain Studios, may seem like she has it all, but her icy exterior belies fractures in her marriage and relationship with the studio’s ailing owner (played by Donald Sutherland). Ambitious intern Lou Simms (Shipka) comes from a shadowy past and will do anything to ascend to the top of the food chain. In their game of cat and mouse, it’s not always clear who’s who. To Robertson, writing these women as multilayered characters was more important than making them “good” or likable.

“With Lou and Joyce, I personally love both of them. I understand both of them. And I don’t view either one of them, weirdly, as ‘bad people’ or villains,” she said. “I think that the industry [has been hard on] Joyce, but the world has been really hard on Lou, and both of these women are survivors.”

The tricky nature of Hollywood is something Robertson understands better than most first-time showrunners. At age 10, she appeared in her first onscreen role and has since acted in more than 60 projects, including “Beverly Hills, 90210” and “Bates Motel.” Growing up, she took scrupulous notes on her experiences, knowing they might come in handy in her own storytelling.

“I’ve always seen things, heard things, witnessed things and thought, ‘Oh, my God, that would be such an interesting scene in a series,’ ‘That would be such a weird, interesting character trait,’ ‘That would be such a crazy moment,’” she said. “And so [“Swimming with Sharks” is] a bit of an exploration of my experiences starting out very young.”

Read on for Robertson’s full interview with TheWrap, in which she discusses her writing process, why she likes casting against type and how #MeToo made its way into the script.

TheWrap: ‘Swimming with Sharks’ takes its title from the 1994 movie, but your show is nowhere near a remake. How much inspiration did you draw from the film? Was there a point when you decided you wanted to go in a different direction?

Kathleen Robertson: The only shared component is the title [and] the world, being the film and television industry. And then, sort of similar to the original film, focusing on this relationship between a very powerful person and somebody who works for them, who’s just starting out in the business. The rest is very much its own animal. I really wanted to explore this story from a female perspective, and lean into how much things have changed since the original film came out. 

I started acting when I was 10 and I’ve spent my entire life in this industry. Along the way, I’ve always seen things, heard things, witnessed things and thought, ‘Oh, my God, that would be such an interesting scene in a series,’ ‘That would be such a weird, interesting character trait,’ ‘That would be such a crazy moment.’ And so it’s a bit of an exploration of my experiences starting out very young. Having my identity shaped and formed through this industry has been kind of interesting.

One pronounced difference is the relationship between Lou and Joyce, or really Lou and everyone. There’s a psychosexual element and murky motives that keep us guessing about what Lou really wants. Considering that she’s the main character, why keep the audience in the dark?

It’s funny, I actually feel like I barely kept it in the dark. Instinctively, I wanted to drag it out as long as possible. But it became clear to me during the writing process that if people didn’t have a window into [Lou] and understand why she was doing the things that she was doing, it just [wouldn’t be] as rewarding a journey for the viewer. It’s not dissimilar to acting, when you approach a character. I’ve played many women over the years that have made really bad and complicated choices. You always have to sort of come at it from like, ‘Well, why did they do what they do?’ And it’s not to say that you’re justifying it. With Lou and Joyce, I personally love both of them. I understand both of them. And I don’t view either one of them, weirdly, as ‘bad people’ or villains. I think that the industry [has been hard on] Joyce, but the world has been really hard on Lou, and both of these women are survivors. 

If anything, I always viewed Redmond Isaacson (Donald Sutherland), who runs the studio, as the bad guy. The things that he did, and the choices that he made, were always to me coming from a place of real brokenness and real darkness, whereas the choices that Joyce makes I feel like are justified. And the choices that Lou makes, although probably not the right choices, I understand.

Writer-showrunner Kathleen Robertson on the set of “Swimming with Sharks”

It’s interesting hearing you say that, because many of the more shocking moments come from learning about Lou’s involvement with certain events after they happen. Does that make Lou an unreliable narrator? Or is this just a different way of structuring the story?

It’s always such a weird thing talking about writing, because a lot of the things that are in this [series], I don’t know where they came from. I don’t know why I crafted her the way I crafted her, other than it was how I saw her. It’s sort of similar to talking about acting, talking about how you [found] that moment or how you [accessed] that emotion. I try not to dissect it too much. And I know people like it to be dissected and they like a clean and clear answer, but it’s kind of hard for me sometimes to articulate why I make the choices that I make.

Kiernan Shipka became known as a child actor on ‘Mad Men and then as the star of ‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,’ so Lou is a much darker role than people might be accustomed to seeing her in. Was that contrast something you wanted to play with, or was it all in her performance?

I’m actually such a huge fan of watching actors do things they’ve never done before. Adam Sandler [in] ‘Punch-Drunk Love’ was one of my favorite performances and I just love when Bryan Cranston did ‘Breaking Bad.’ And I definitely did like that with Kiernan, I would be lying if I said that wasn’t appealing to me. It was like, ‘Oh, this is something that we’ve never seen this person do before, but she’s clearly so capable of it.’ Also, I always sort of felt – and I do sort of feel – a weird connection with Kiernan because I was a child actor as well. There’s something about growing up as a kid around very sophisticated adults that causes you to become pseudo-mature at a really young age. When I met her, I was just like, ‘Oh, she’s so interesting, because she sort of presents as one thing, but she has all of these sort of interesting layers.’ There’s like a bit of a mystery about her in a real way, in a way that you can’t fabricate. I met with other actresses for the role who were talented, beautiful, interesting, tough and cool, and all of those things. But there was just something about [Kiernan where I felt] like, I don’t quite have a beat on her, I don’t quite think I get her. And I like that for Lou. 

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The chemistry between Lou and Joyce is the heart of the show. Were Kiernan Shipka and Diane Kruger always your first choices?

We never had them meet together. I believe Diane was in Costa Rica when we cast her and she just felt so perfect for this. Both roles, I will say, were very difficult to cast. Because I’m an actor, the goal with both of these roles was to write something that felt like, ‘She presents as this, but she’s actually this.’ With [Joyce] in particular, she [needed] to be super strong and very powerful. She needs to have that energy where she walks into the room and everybody stops. But then she also has to be super vulnerable and she has to be able to go home and throw on her sweats and her glasses and have these scenes with her husband, where we as the audience are just like, ‘Oh, now we see her, that’s when we see why she does the things she does, because she’s really struggling personally, and she’s really vulnerable and insecure.’ To have [that] sort of duality for both of them was the challenge in finding those actors. And I think we did find the perfect choices for both.

By making these women the center of the narrative, you’re able to bring in issues like infertility, mother-daughter relationships and #MeToo. Why was it important for you to address these subjects in a modern story about Hollywood and the studio environment?

As I was writing it, #MeToo was sort of exploding and Harvey [Weinstein] was being [exposed], all of that was going down. It was such a part of what was going on in my brain that it definitely came through [in the writing]. I don’t really have [an] interest in doing things that are a commentary on where we’re at in society, I don’t feel like it’s my place. But what I did really want to explore – because again, it was more personal – is how I started [acting] when I was 10 and the things that I’ve seen happen in this industry over the course of the last 20 years are massive in terms of how different it is for a young woman like Lou, starting out at age 21, and a woman like Joyce, who’s in her mid 40s. 

When I tell 21-year-olds about some of the experiences I’ve had as an actor over the years, they just can’t believe it’s even real. Because it could never happen now, thank God. In terms of where we’re at right now, I feel like the biggest positive is that things that used to be commonplace – knock on your trailer door, director asking you to take off your shirt because it’ll make the scene sexier – that can’t happen anymore, that person would be fired. So that was definitely in my brain as I was writing it, like the idea [that] Joyce has had to put up with all of these things to get where she’s gotten. She’s had to be harder than the men, she’s had to be tougher than the men, she’s had to be more ruthless to get to where she’s gotten. And the hope would be that a woman who’s just starting out would see those things and say, ‘You don’t have to put up with that anymore. That’s over.’

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Do you see “Swimming With Sharks” as a cautionary tale about Hollywood or about being infatuated with power? 

Again, I don’t really feel like it’s my place to put that on people. I’ve had people watch this and be completely empowered and sort of blown away by the sexuality [in the show] and how unapologetic it is. The feedback so far has been great. If anything, I guess, it’s always surprising to me, because again, I don’t really know where it comes from. It was in my brain and it came out, and I don’t view it as a cautionary tale. 

I feel like the best kind of stuff, the stuff I’m always the most into, makes me kind of go, ‘Wait a minute, what was that? I don’t know how that makes me feel. I kind of like that, but that also makes me feel pissed off or that makes me feel vulnerable, or nervous.’ So hopefully it evokes emotion. Given just the feedback we’ve had so far, people seem pretty passionate about it, which makes me really happy.

“Swimming with Sharks” begins streaming April 15 on The Roku Channel.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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