Interview: ‘Swimming With Sharks’ Showrunner Kathleen Robertson on Women Surviving Hollywood in 2022
When Robert Altman’s The Player came out in 1992, it was an immediate hit, with moviegoers lapping up all that awful Hollywood bad behavior and shameless misogyny. Two years later, when George Huang’s Swimming With Sharks was released, another merciless look at movie biz sociopathy, it was a complete and total box office bomb – perhaps because it eschewed all the glitzy trimmings in favor of unmitigated cruelty.
The new Roku series of the same name (they bought it after Quibi went belly up), produced and written by actress Kathleen Robertson – she was also the showrunner and makes a brief appearance – thankfully puts the glamour squarely back in. To be sure, Diane Kruger as Joyce Holt, studio head of fictitious Fountain Pictures, just drips with elegance and hard-won luxury. And the series seems to take pleasure in making her groveling minions mostly men, turning the tables on movie biz sexual hierarchy.
But into the mix comes intern Lou Simms, played with steely-eyed determination by Kiernan Shipka. Like all studio interns she is treated like dirt, and then dispensed with rather quickly. Yet her remarkable resourcefulness is revealed when she finds an absolutely astonishing way after she’s fired to save a very important deal for the studio. Recognizing a bit of herself in Lou, Joyce demands her return to the fold.
Donald Sutherland’s Redmond looms over them all, the crass, old-Hollywood representation of repulsive male power unchecked (as ever, he totally nails the role). Both women had traumatic childhoods – neither has ever met their respective fathers – and have resigned themselves that relentless scheming is the only way for them to climb to the top. The two enter into a kind of cagey bonding period, and there’s a great moment when Joyce asks Lou, “You have a boyfriend? You and Marty?,” and the latter responds, “He listens to Pearl Jam and doesn’t know who Clifford Odets is – not my vibe.”
Eventually, there are bodies and police investigations.
It’s a story that was certainly ripe for reassessment in the context of the #MeToo era. Yet Robertson’s script doesn’t go for Hollywood Babylon righteousness, instead choosing to dig deep into these two very complex women, painting a vivid picture of what it takes to thrive in an industry still so rife with flagrant sexism.
The original may very well have been using the entertainment industry as just an excuse to showcase horrific male sociopathy. But Robertson has simply borrowed the title and used Hollywood as a backdrop to craft a riveting tale which reminds us how women, even powerful, successful ones, are still subjected to the constructs of old guard male power.
We engaged her on how it all came to be.
What drew you to revisit a story that, despite its cult status in Hollywood, didn’t really do much box office upon its release?
The original film was released 28 years ago, a lot has changed in that time. My feeling was if I could use this world as a jumping off point, but have it be told through the eyes of two very complex women, there would be something there. I’ve been a working actor since the age of ten so this industry is very much a part of my identity. I grew up on sets. I have my 10,000 hours, and the stories and experiences I’ve been privy to inspire this series.
Writing Swimming With Sharks was an exploration for me of my experiences in Los Angeles. Like Lou Simms, played so brilliantly by Kiernan Shipka, I moved to LA at 19 with all the other dreamers and drifters looking to find some sense of purpose. Somewhere that I belonged. I had no idea what I was in for.
Why do you think it makes sense to tell this story now?
Hollywood is simply the backdrop for the story of these two women. I was always more interested in the strange and unexpected love story component, looking at obsession and the complexities of their relationship. So, in that regard, its themes and reasons for “why now” are timeless. I’m less interested in making a political statement about female power in Hollywood than I am in what makes these women tick. They are both survivors.
And what’s different about telling it from the female point of view?
The only DNA this show shares with the original film is the title, the world of Hollywood and the mentor/mentee component as its central relationship. The show is about this very complex relationship and, in particular, a very lost and lonely young woman looking to be seen and find love after the loss of her mother. This is not All About Eve. Lou loves Joyce and wants to lift her up. Not take her down.
So how has the business changed since you started working in the early ’90s?
For women it has changed a great deal. I grew up being privy to some pretty insane things. That is also a part of the story. A woman like Lou, 21, starting out has a very different trajectory than Joyce, who’s in her mid-40s and been a “token female” in a boys club world. Thankfully, young women today don’t have to “play nice” in the same way when bad behavior is front and center.
How much did #MeToo and the takedown of high-profile entertainment biz men affect how you would ultimately approach the project?
It was very much in my brain as I wrote this.
Was this your first time in a producers’s role? And does it mark a future direction?
I’ve produced before and been writing professionally for several years now. But this was my first time showrunning a series that I created, and [for which I] wrote every episode. I loved it.
It was a massive amount of work. We had a ridiculous, comical amount of setbacks. Producers being “cancelled,” never to work again. A global pandemic. Shut down twice. Losing a key actor mid-stream to another higher paying gig. And then on our very last day of filming, sitting at the monitor, so relieved we had finally reached the finish line, getting a Deadline Hollywood alert saying our network/home had just gone bankrupt, just as we were about to do our gallery shoot.
The gods were clearly conspiring against us. But, we kept our blinders on, kept digging ditches, and here we are. Acquired by Roku, premiered at SXSW with the whole cast in attendance and such a warm reception has been beyond thrilling for me.
In regards to Diane Kruger’s Joyce – do you think women have to be more ruthless in order to make it to her position?
Of course! LOL. Actually, I take the LOL back. Of course.
How would you describe her character?
Hardcore. Insane work ethic. Ambitious, which is a dirty word when you’re a woman. Vulnerable. Public persona very different than private persona. Joyce never feels whole. She has a deep void that may never be filled. I deeply connected with and loved her as a character.
So you feel she and Kiernan Shipka’s Lou are actually sympathetic characters?
Absolutely. I love them both. The world has not been easy on them. Traumatic childhoods. Abuse. They have somehow managed to survive and that has value.
Were you thrilled to be able to work with such a legend as Donald Sutherland?
Yes! We’re both Canadians and on day one he brought me the funniest framed New Yorker cartoon about how weird we are as Canadians. He’s incredible and had absolutely no fear when it came to portraying Redmond. Which was so fun to watch. I wrote the role with him in my brain. He was always who I envisioned.
Is Swimming With Sharks intended as a morality tale? Do you want people to take something bigger away from it?
That is not for me to say. I just make what I make. Writing is weird. There is an aspect that just comes out and you are never entirely certain where it comes from. It’s subjective. Make what you want of it.