The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Kathleen Robertson (“Boss”)

Although I get plenty of opportunities to do in-person interviews when I’m out on the west coast for the Television Critics Association press tours, I very rarely get the chance while I’m here at Virginia, so when I was offered the chance to meet Kathleen Robertson for coffee, one of the stars of a show I already have a lot of love for (“Boss”), you can imagine that I didn’t have to think twice before answering, “Absolutely!” Indeed, I didn’t even blink an eye when it was casually mentioned that it might be nice if I managed to find a way to bring up Starz’s new app for Cox subscribers, Starz Play, because, what, like it’s such a bad thing to hype something that helps more people see some of my favorite series? (As you hopefully recall, I’m a big “Magic City” fan, too.) As I was assured in advance, Kathleen was a total sweetheart, and as we chatted over the course of a half-hour, the topics included the series that brought us together in the first place, of course, but also “Maniac Mansion,” “90210,” “Tin Man,” and even the hilarious-but-underrated IFC series, “The Business.” Read on…but don’t forget that the “Boss” Season 2 finale airs Friday night on Starz!

Bullz-Eye: So the second season of “Boss” is coming to a close…

Kathleen Robertson: Yep!

BE: Your character, Kitty O’Neill, had a decidedly different dynamic in Season 2 than she did in Season 1. How much forewarning did you have about how Kitty’s storyline was going to play out during this season? Did you know from the get-go, or was it only doled out to you on an episode-by-episode basis?

KR: I knew from the get-go. I sat down with the writers at the very beginning of the season, and they sort of explained to me what the storyline was for her. With the exception of the finale. They were very secretive about the finale, and I didn’t know what was going to happen until the week before we shot it and I read the script. Have you seen the finale?

BE: I have not yet.

KR: [Tries and fails to disguise her giddiness.] It’s so good. It’s so good. They kept saying to me all through the year, “Just be patient. Just be patient and wait for (episode)10.” I said, “What does that mean, though? Like, am I gonna get killed? What are you…what happens in 10?” “Just be patient.” And then they’d say, “10 is your episode, and you’re gonna be really happy with it.” So I was. And I am really happy with 10. It’s amazing.

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BE: 10 may be “your episode,” but it’s arguable that you’ve had a lot of episodes. Kitty’s evolved throughout the season, at least in a certain sense. At the same time, though, she also ends up making it pretty clear that she doesn’t really know who she is unless she has someone to serve.

KR: Yeah, that’s true.

BE: Did you see that as being a part of her character from the very beginning, or was that something you discovered as time went on?

KR: Well, with Season 1… [Hesitates.] Farhad (Safinia) said to me at the beginning of the series, “For Season 1, Kitty almost has a reverse arc.” She kind of starts here… [Holds hand up and then begins lowering it.] …and ends here. And it’s kind of like that in Season 2 as well, because from the moment we meet her in this season, she’s pregnant, she’s sort of deciding if she even wants to be in politics anymore…she’s deciding who she is. So the journey for her over Season 2 was a much more internal one, and it was much more a case of asking, “Who am I without my identity?” And for her, the identity isn’t just working for Kane. It’s being in this whole world that she’s sacrificed everything for. So she sort of flirts with the idea of trying to be an alternate Kitty throughout the season, and by the end… [Smiles knowingly.] When you see the finale, I think she ends up where she belongs.

BE: In regards to the “alternate Kitty,” for instance, we see her trying to make something out of her relationship with Sam, but from what we know of her, we don’t even really know for sure that she can have a proper romantic relationship.

KR: Absolutely. Like, the abortion in Episode 3, that was an interesting moment for her, because…well, to me, it seemed to represent a lot more than just what it was on the surface. There was the idea of what that life would be like, the choice of a woman considering trying to be something that she’s not. But Kitty…she’ll never be that. She’s a political animal, and that’s the only way she feels alive. I think that we all sort of have those components and parts of personality, the parts of us that are damaged and the parts of us that don’t work right, and we try to fix them, but sometimes those things are just who we are. And I think that, for her, by the end of the season, she kind of comes around to the realization of, like, “I’m probably not going to change. And that’s okay.” And…I kind of love that about her. [Laughs.]

For me, it’s much more interesting to get into the intricacies of who she is and why she is the way she is than to sort of…like, the midsection of Season 2 was definitely challenging, because it was that thing of, “Would she really ever fall for this guy?” Absolutely not. But she’s going to try, just because he seems like…he sort of represented truth. It’s, like, “This guy’s pursuing the truth, this guy’s the real deal, what you see is what you get.” And then she slowly realizes that that actually wasn’t even the case with him. Yeah, there were definitely moments during this season where I was thinking, “She would never do this, this is absolutely not her.” And they would say, “Well, yeah, exactly! That’s the point!”

BE: Kitty would also seem to be a challenging character to play, given that a great deal of her reactions tend to involve looks rather than lines.

KR: Absolutely. And I love that. I’m always the actor that loves to cut lines. I would much rather try to convey what I’m thinking and feeling without any dialogue. That’s, for me, the most fun. Yeah, I get to do that a lot, and it’s really nice. And our show affords that. A lot of television…I mean, I watch a lot of television, and I think that you can do that as an actor, but if the show doesn’t sort of unfold in a way that lets you do that, it’s missed. Do you know what I mean? Like, if the camera’s always moving and never letting you have your moment, then the audience won’t be able to pick up on those nuances. And I like that about our show: you can really have that. A lot of times, the camera just stays on the person that has no dialogue. I mean, if you remember, in Season 1, even with Kelsey (Grammer’s) very first scene in the whole series, when he was finding out his diagnosis, the camera never went off of his face, and he didn’t have a single line. So the show does that a lot, and I love that. Like, I’m talking to you and blabbing away, but what you’re registering is kind of more interesting than me just blabbing away. So I love that, and…I’m rambling. [Laughs.] But you know what I mean.

BE: Some critics have accused the series of offering gratuitous nudity. Not that I have a problem with that, per se, but do you view it as being only what’s necessary to achieve the dramatic effect, or do you sometimes go, “Wow, really”?

KR: I…I don’t know. [Hesitates.] Do you feel like they accuse a lot of cable shows of having too much nudity, or is it specific to this show? Because to me…and maybe I’m wrong…I don’t think that there’s more nudity or sex on this show than there would be on another show on HBO or Showtime.

BE: Well, I think at least part of it may come from the fact that the show is ostensibly a political drama first and foremost, so it’s, like, “Is it really furthering the storyline that much more to have all of this in here?”

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KR: I think that the component of sex in “Boss” comes from the fact that I know the writers have always felt, and Farhad said from the very beginning, that you can’t truthfully make a show about politics and not have sex be a very big part of it.

BE: Well, I understand the sex/power aspect, of course.

KR: And look at some of the stuff that went on sexually in politics – in reality, I mean – during our first season. It was kind of insane. So…this isn’t the NBC version of what this world would be like. It’s the cable version of what this world would be like and who these people really would be. You know, people have asked me, “Do you feel comfortable playing a character that really goes there and really has so many extreme scenes?” And for me, it’s, like, if that’s all it was, then that would not be interesting to me and not something that I would be interested in being a part of. But all you need to do is watch an episode of our show to realize that it’s…it’s a really fucking good show. [Laughs.]

It’s really amazing writing, and these characters are really fascinating, every single one of them. So I just don’t really think about that component of it, because it’s part of who she is. It’s a huge part of her identity, and I think that to not be willing to go there would be doing the character a disservice and doing the material a disservice. I knew going into this show, when I read the first episode and I knew Gus Van Sant was producing it and I knew it was part of the character, so it was a decision: “Either I’m gonna go for this and really play this role or I’m not going to do it. But I’m not going to do it half-assed. Either I’m gonna do it or I’m not gonna do it.” So I made that choice to do it, and…I’ve done it. [Laughs.]

BE: Before I ask you about a few other things you’ve done over the years, I believe I’m supposed to casually bring up the new Starz Play application for Cox subscribers.

KR: [Laughs.] Yes! Let’s talk Starz Play!

BE: Have you yourself had a chance to play around with the app?

KR: Yeah! It’s amazing. You can do it on your iPad or your iPhone, and it’s, um, I guess it’s similar to… [Lowers voice.] I’m probably not supposed to say this, but it’s kind of like HBO Go, right?

BE: I don’t think that would be inappropriate to say. I mean, it is the Starz equivalent to HBO Go, so I think that’s a fair point of comparison.

KR: Well, it’s great, I know that. And this show…I mean, don’t you feel that, like all great cable shows, if you haven’t seen them, it’s fun to be able to go all the way back and start from the very beginning? We’ve done 18 shows so far, and you really have to go back and start from the beginning to fully understand and appreciate it and get the most out of it. That’s always the challenge with cable shows, especially with Starz, which is a network that not everyone gets. It’s the challenge of getting the shows out there and getting people to see them. We’ve had some endorsements recently which have helped us, like Oprah. Did you hear that?

BE: I didn’t.

KR: Oh, yeah, Oprah’s been Tweeting about it and saying that “Boss” is one of her favorite shows. And Anderson Cooper did a big thing about how he was missing “Breaking Bad,” but that “Boss” has replaced “Breaking Bad” for him. So things like that really help a show like this. We need to raise awareness and get the eyeballs on us, and I think the Starz Play app will really help with that.

BE: Hopefully it’ll do the same for “Magic City” as well.

KR: Yeah! Absolutely.

BE: Okay, time to hit on a few other things you’ve done in your career, and I’ll start by saying that I would’ve absolutely been fine if we’d bypassed “Boss” altogether and you’d just told me 30 minutes worth of anecdotes about working with Joe Flaherty on “Maniac Mansion.”

KR: [Gasps excitedly.] Oh, my gosh! I love Joe. He’s such a good friend of mine. He’s amazing.

BE: So when you started working with him, were you aware that he was Joe Flaherty?

KR: Oh, yes. Oh, yes, I knew. I knew all of the “SCTV” people. I grew up in northern Ontario, and so growing up in Canada, comedy is a big deal, and “SCTV” is an even bigger deal. I mean, you grow up watching reruns of it. It was reruns of “SCTV” on all the time. [Laughs.] And “Kids in the Hall” and all that great comedic stuff. So, yeah, when I got “Maniac Mansion,” it was all the “SCTV” people. It was Joe, but it was also Eugene Levy, who was the producer of that show, and we had all the writers and all the people from “SCTV,” the hair and makeup people and everything. So it was a huge deal. And my dad was so excited, because, y’know, “SCTV” is God there. And Joe was amazing. And it was a such a cool first job for me, because we did 66 episodes, and it was very similar to “SCTV,” in that every week we would do a show, but then we would do parodies. So they would come to me and be, like, “Okay, this week you’re going to play Juliette Lewis from ‘Cape Fear,’ and we’re gonna build your ears out a little bit and we’re going to get you a retainer and the wig.” And they would teach me how to do those. Like, “This is what you need to watch for. Watch the way they hold their body and the way they say things.” And it was just the most amazing training for me as a young actor to have those comic geniuses around me, saying, “Do this and do that and…just watch the way she sits. Pick up one little trait and just keep hitting that trait.” So it was amazing. A great, great experience. And George Lucas produced it, which was bizarre, too. It was a bizarre experience. But it was great. And so fun.

BE: Do you have a preference between comedy and drama? You’ve certainly shown aptitude for both.

KR: It’s funny. I did a series a few years ago that I produced called “The Business,” which aired on IFC.

BE: I have Season 1 on DVD. And wish they’d release Season 2.

KR: I know. So do I! I loved doing that. The guy who created that always says to me, “It’s so weird to me that you do all this drama. You’re a comedian! What’s with all this dramatic shit?” [Laughs.] So, yeah, I’ve definitely done both comedy and drama, but I tend to get more dramatic offers. That tends to be what people send me. But I love doing comedy. I’m actually going to do a movie in a couple of weeks that’s a comedy, which’ll be kind of fun to do, to mix it up a bit. After playing Kitty, I need a few laughs!

BE: What’s it like being on the other side of the camera? As you say, you produced “The Business,” and you’ve written a script or two here and there.

KR: It’s great.

BE: What made you decide to go that route? Was it just to try and spice things up?

KR: I think it’s just a natural progression. I’ve been doing this for so long, and…I really love to write. And I really love just the ability to be creative without having to sort of wait for someone to give me permission to be creative. Being an actor is all about waiting for that phone call, for someone to say, “Do you want to come and do this?” Writing, for me, is the most creatively fulfilling thing that I do, just because it’s mine. And I don’t have to listen to anyone else. I love that. And I’m hoping that’s something that I can continue to do. I really, really love it. I’ve written a couple of pilot scripts. I sold the first pilot script, and the second one that I wrote, I’m out with it right now, trying to sell that. So we’ll see!

BE: Similar to the comedy-versus-drama question, do you have a preference between working in film and on television? Although the dividing line is getting smaller all the time, I suppose.

KR: I definitely have a preference as far as what kind of television. Cable television? Absolutely. Network television? Not so much. I mean, there isn’t a single show that I personally watch on network right now. Do you? What do you watch on network?

BE: Honestly, I tend to watch mostly sitcoms, and when I watch hour-longs, they tend to be sci-fi. I’m really enjoying “Revolution” at the moment.

KR: Okay, I haven’t seen that yet. I’ll have to catch up on that.

BE: C’mon. You even starred on (“Girls Club”) with Giancarlo Esposito, too. You’re slacking off.

KR: [Laughs.] I love him. I just saw him during the Emmy weekend, and he’s just the sweetest guy. Have you ever interviewed him?

BE: I have. He’s great.

KR: He’s so sweet! I just love him. He’s such a great guy. He was so happy for me and “Boss,” and I was so happy for him and everything he’s doing. God, he’s so good on “Breaking Bad”! He’s amazing. I think as an actor, if you get the opportunity to be on a great cable show and to pursue that character over the course of 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 hours…there’s nothing that touches that. Doing a movie is great, but you only have two hours to sort of figure out and explore who that character is. With a great role on television, it’s just so fun to see all those little details and all those little colors of who that person is. You don’t get that in film. So I love doing “Boss.” Doing a role like this on a show like this…it’s amazing.

BE: The writers obviously have the final say, but how much input have you had on “Boss” as far as developing your character? In other words, what have you brought to Kitty that wasn’t there before you arrived?

KR: Well, in Season 1, no, not at all. Because Season 1 was basically…you know, when we started Season 1, they already had the entire season mapped out, so there wasn’t really any room for anything to change. Season 2 was a little different, just in that we had a little bit more input and there was a little bit more discussion upfront about, “Would this happen? Would that happen? Does this feel false to you?” Because at a certain point with television, it does very much become a case where these characters are ours, and it’s our interpretation of who that person is. So the directors come in and out, and…television is very interesting that way. It’s very different from film, because with film it’s all very much about the director, and the director will give you notes and focus. But in television, sometimes the directors will say, “Well, you tell me: would she do this? Would she sit there?” And you’re, like, “Well, no, she wouldn’t sit there, because she knows the door’s there and they’d see her, so she’d never do that.” “Oh, okay, let’s move it, then. Let’s have it here instead.” So it does become much more…you’re navigating that character through the world.

BE: Time to ask the obligatory Clare-on-“90210” question, and it’s a two-parter: do you have a favorite Clare storyline, and do you have a most-ludicrous storyline that still stands out?

KR: [Laughs.] Oh, Clare. It’s so funny, but, honestly, I don’t know if I have a bad memory or if I’ve just kind of blocked it out, but people ask me questions about “90210,” and I genuinely can’t…I mean, it’s just so long ago! I think I had…didn’t I have a ridiculous “I Dream of Jeannie” Halloween costume once? That’s probably the most ludicrous moment I can think of. That was weird, because that was my first American job, and it was the first thing I did when I moved here. It was right after “Maniac Mansion.” And when I auditioned for the show, I had never seen the show. That’s the truth. I called my sisters, and I called my best friend back in Hamilton, and I said, “I’m auditioning for ‘90210.’” And I knew of it, of course, because it was a huge, massive phenomenon. So I said, “I’m going to go audition, so can you tell me…I have the sides here, and I need to know who these characters are. Like, who’s Brandon? Who’s he played by?” “Oh, that’s Jason Priestley.” “Okay, so this scene is with Jason Priestley. I know who that is. What about this Donna? Who’s that?” I mean, genuinely, I had no idea. And my sisters, of course, and my best friend were freaking out. And then when I got the job, it was originally just for five episodes. So it wasn’t even really much of an audition. It was just kind of…I went in, read, and it was, like, the next day, “Oh, you got the part, it’s five episodes.” And then it turned into 99. [Laughs.] Which I love. I love that it’s one short of a hundred. I got out just in time!

BE: How did you enjoy getting to play the villainess in “Tin Man”?

KR: Oh, I loved that show! That was great. So much fun. Zooey (Deschanel) was a blast to work with, and it was a great role. Again, it was a really challenging, strong, complicated, fucked-up woman. [Laughs.] It was great, though. Those costumes were something else. My body was trashed every day. I mean, the bruises and the cuts from the armor and the weight of it… The guy who won the Academy Award for “Moulin Rouge,” he did all the costumes, so he was, uh, intense. So you wore those costumes! So, yeah, it was great. A great role and a lot of fun.

BE: Do you have any Robert Halmi stories? Or possibly an impression? It seems like everyone’s got one of those, too.

KR: He was just really, really sweet. Do you mean bad stories?

BE: No, quite the opposite. Everyone seems to love the guy.

KR: Yeah, he’s just a teddy bear. So sweet. And that movie…it’s so weird, because that’s the only science-fiction show I’ve ever done. I mean, I guess it’s technically considered sci-fi. But it’s the only one I’ve ever done, and it is just a whole other world! [Laughs.] The fans from the sci-fi world? They are loyal. I joined Twitter fairly recently – I’m trying to get better at it – but someone Tweeted me a photo of this event they were at, and there were all these girls dressed up as Azkadellia from “Tin Man.” Just really amazing costumes, with the wig and…just amazing. I was just blown away. I mean, that was a few years ago, but here are these girls dressed up like Azkadellia. I’m telling you, it’s pretty intense. I can’t imagine if you were on…like, I just did a movie with Michael Shanks, who was on “Stargate,” and the stories he told me about the fans and how intense they are…it’s amazing. [Pounds fist on table.] We need those fans on “Boss”! Where’s our crazy people dressing up like Mayor Kane and Kitty? [Laughs.] We need those Halloween costumes!

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BE: Excluding “Boss” for the moment, since it’s current, do you have a favorite project you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?

KR: Hmmm. [Long pause.] I’ve done a lot of indie movies that I felt…like, I did a movie I was very proud of with Mark Ruffalo called “XX/XY” which I thought was…it was work I was really proud of, and 50 people saw it, I think. So a lot of little movies like that. A lot of Sundance movies. I’m trying to think of others. But independent movies in general…I think that’s why everyone’s doing television now. The independent film world has changed so much since its heyday in the ‘90s. That’s all I did after I left “90210.” That’s all I wanted to do when I was able to do it. Nowadays…I don’t know if it’s possible to just have a career and make a living doing indie films. It’s just changed so much. I mean, a million-dollar movie back then happened all the time. Now, it’s, like, a million-dollar movie would be made for $200 thousand, and the actors would be making a hundred dollars a day, and it would maybe get into a couple of festivals. It’s changed a lot. Now you’ve got independent movies starring Jennifer Aniston, with people like that showing up at Sundance promoting these two million dollar movies. It’s just…I mean, everybody says this now, but that’s why Gus Van Sant is one of the producers of our show, that’s why Todd Haynes is doing television: because it’s really the way to continue that spirit of what independent film is without having to compromise creatively.

BE: To bring it full circle and close on “Boss,” can you tease anything at all about what happens with Kitty and her storyline in the season finale? Or is it giving too much away to say anything at all?

KR: I can just reiterate that they spent all year telling me, “Wait for 10.” And when they sent me 10 and I read it and came to the set, our show runner looked at me and was, like, “Yeah…?” And I gave her the thumbs-up and said, “Yeah.”

BE: Worth the wait?

KR: Totally worth the wait. Getting that script and reading it, I was, like, “This is one of the best pieces of material I’ve ever been handed to do.” So I was thrilled with where Kitty ended up in Episode 10. I was very happy…in a sick, twisted way. [Laughs.] And then Francis Guinan, who plays Gov. Cullen, he came into the trailer and looked at me and was basically, like, “Oh, you poor thing. You and Kane are just a match made in heaven, aren’t you?” Which made me happy…and shows exactly how warped I am. But that’s what I love about her!