One may know her from “The Blacklist”, the series in which she portrays Katarina Rostova, one of the most intriguing, terrifying and complex characters ever seen on television. Or, you may know her from the Youtube’s live broadcasts of Richard Nelson’s “The Apple Family” plays, seen during these terrible and trying times. Or, who knows, maybe you’ve seen her in Prime’s “The Boys” or even “Homeland”. No matter where you know her from, you have to agree that LAILA ROBINS is one of the most versatile and interesting acting figures of her moment. We had the wonderful pleasure and opportunity to obtain an exclusive interview with this great actress just a few weeks ago, an interview in which you can find out more about LAILA ROBINS’ artistic path, ideas on theatre and lots, lots more. Ladies and gents, now that season 8 of “The Blacklist” has officially started, I give you – LAILA ROBINS.
Tudor Sicomas: As I would normally begin any of my interviews, I would like to ask how Laila Robins the person became Laila Robins the actress? What was your artistic and career route? And why acting?
Laila Robins: I wanted to become an actress when I saw the animated movie 101 DALMATIANS. I loved the character of Cruella Deville and wanted to play her! She was the most glamorous, powerful, sophisticated lady I had ever laid eyes on!! Hilarious! In my teenage years my focus changed to music. As a child I had competed in piano contests and learned that I loved to sing folk music. I wanted to become Joni Mitchell. I received a music scholarship to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, but began to audition for plays and get involved with the theatre because I found practicing the piano a bit lonely. I was cast well in college an also spent my summers in the summer theater there as well. I knew I had practical experience, but I wanted to learn more about my craft, so I applied to the Yale School of Drama and was accepted. It was the best thing to happen to me. I learned so much in school and it got me to the east coast. During the summers I was given opportunities at the Williamstown Theater Festival. I worked with professional actors there including Christopher Walken, Dianne Wiest, Blythe Danner and Christopher Reeve with whom I did Tennessee William”s SUMMER AND SMOKE. It was the first time the New York Times noticed me. I had then signed a contract to work with the American Repertory Theatre for a year, but after three months I was cast to replace in Tom Stoppard’s hit play THE REAL THING on Broadway. I did that for six months, first with Jeremy Irons and then Nicole Williamson. I was 24 years old and I was on my way! I think in some ways I tried to control my career to much and said no to some projects that I should have said yes to. I was quick out of the gate, but I was young and intimidated, lacked confidence and knew very little about the business side of things. Today’s young actors are very tuned into the social media and self promotion. We didn’t have those outlets then. I simply focused on my craft and kept studying and working. I was interested in becoming a better actress, not a star or a celebrity. My film and television work came sporadically, but as a result, I did many wonderful plays. I played Chekhov, Ibsen, Williams, Shakespeare and Strindberg and even a world premiere of a Miller play. I love the stage and will always return to it. I hope that the beautiful theater can return soon!!
Tudor Sicomas: In Romania, for a long period, theatre actors and movie actors didn’t take different classes. The techniques were always the same and that is why, sometimes, Romanian actors in movies seemed so unnatural and exaggerated their voices, their movement, everything. How are things standing in the US with drama school? Do you think that theatre and film making are very different?
Laila Robins: I so enjoyed my training at Yale. I was very open to learning. Our focus was the theater. We never had any classes in screen acting. I think the inside work is the same, but how you communicate it is different. On screen, especially the big screen, very little can convey a lot; a turn of the head, a smile, even a thought. On stage you must reach the back row of the balcony. It is a matter of size and calibration. I remember working on a TV series with James Earle Jones and at first it seemed like he was doing nothing when we were on set in a scene. Then I would watch the show and see all the nuances that he had delivered. It was a lesson. The camera can see the “acting”, so you must be totally inside it and be totally alive. The camera can see your homework and your manipulation. You must make it seamless and spontaneous. You must be open to “happy accidents” and roll with them. It cannot feel that it is by rote. It must resonate deeply with you, as the camera can see into your soul through your eyes.
Tudor Sicomas: Which one (and why) would you choose – theatre or movies?
Laila Robins: I love them both. I am learning so much more about the camera in these last six years, as I have had more opportunity to do so. The subtle exchanges, the nuances are so fun to explore and finesse. But, I love the live audience!!! I love the energy exchange between the audience and performers, and every audience is different. They feed us and inspire us and change us as we go along. It is a wonderful feeling. I started in the theater, so in some ways I am most comfortable there. It is a world I love. It is like coming home. It is also a very sacred place to me. Human beings will always need it. We need to be in the same room with the same vibrations, be it theater or music or dance. I think everyone can feel that vacuum now as we fight the pandemic. We long for that communal feeling, we miss the collective experience. In many ways we have taken it for granted. It is precious and it is essential.
Tudor Sicomas: One of the theatrical roles from which I know you is Marian, from “The Apple Family Plays”. Sadly, I could only watch the Zoom conversation play. However, the original role brought you an award. So, what makes this role and these Apple Family plays so special?
Laila Robins: Richard Nelson’s writing and direction. The words are so natural. He has captured the way people really speak. He calls it “verisimilitude theater”….not even naturalism. Also, in his direction, he would always want us to truly listen to each other and not argue. Often in theater there is conflict and often we are taught to lean into that conflict and create”drama”. He does not want that. He wanted us to listen and really try to understand each other, to reach across to each other. When we speak, we are always specific about who we are directing our comments to. As a result we are very connected to each other. I remember the first time we performed the first play, THAT HOPEY CHANGEY THING, and I had never felt more comfortable or less self conscious in a performance, even though our audience was very close. In fact, the front row of audience members had their feet literally on our carpet in the room. There were times when an audience member’s face was no more than three feet away from us. Richard also uses a subtle microphone system that allows us to speak in natural voices instead of having to project in stage voices. It brought a nuance to our speaking. It was unforced. Ironically I think his approach taught me to be a better screen actor.
Tudor Sicomas: “What do we need to talk about?” was highly successful. Was it maybe because it talks about the immediate contemporary problems, we all deal with during this unprecedented period?
Laila Robins: Yes, all of the Apple Family Plays have dealt with the now! In the early previous plays that we performed at the Public Theater in New York they were dealing with events happening right now. In previews the play was something that was happening in the future, opening night was in real time, and after that it became a history play. WHAT WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT was the first play written for zoom. Not ON zoom, but FOR zoom. It was the family having a zoom call in real time. We started this cycle of plays ten years ago. I know these actors very well. We have created a family. I bring much of myself to the role. After the first play, Richard really started to write FOR us individually. He took into consideration the actor and what they could specifically bring to the role. It is a joy and an honor to be written FOR. We did the series of plays over four years which culminated in filming them for local PBS. One of my dreams was to film a play I had lived inside for a long time. In film or TV there is very little rehearsal and you must work very quickly. It was a thrill to have these plays so deeply within us and then to commit them to celluloid. Such a gift. In fact, my father had passed just before we started shooting. What is on that tape is the week between when my father passed and when we buried him. My family held the funeral so I could finish the taping. A very specific and emotional week for me.
Tudor Sicomas: One of the other roles about which I have read and would have loved to see is Nora from “A Doll’s House, Part 2” by Lucas Hnath. First, how do you see Ibsen’s play in relation to the contemporary society. And how is Lucas Hnath’s version mounting up to be such a success?
Laila Robins: I loved playing Nora. As we all well know, gender equality still has a very long way to go. I think Lucas’s play struck that nerve. It was crazy to think that Ibsen wrote this at the turn of the last century and we are still dealing with these issues in the present. It is a wonderfully inventive play in that the dialogue is contemporary. On Broadway Laurie Metcalf also gave Nora a contemporary physicality although she was wearing period clothing. Wonderful choice and one I took the liberty of stealing from her in my portrayal. I had a lovely conversation with her right before I began rehearsals and asked her about the traps of the role. She said that I should never apologize for the things Nora does or says. I must be resolute. It is a scary role, as the audience does not always find her sympathetic and the temptation would be to soften her, but Laurie didn’t and it was marvelous. I found that the critics who liked Nora ultimately, “got” the play and the ones who didn’t, didn’t. Some wanted her to be softer or more this or more that. Once again men telling women how to be, or how to feel, or how to present themselves, so as not to offend THEIR sensibilities.
Tudor Sicomas: A Variety reviewer dubbed the Apple sisters as “a Chekhovian family pod”. How much of Chekhov did you find in these texts?
Laila Robins: Oh. very much so. I see Richard Nelson as the modern day Chekhov. For goodness sake we have three sisters and a brother!! Not only that, but as in Chekhov plays, nothing happens, but worlds are changing. Seismic shifts within simple familial settings. It sneaks up on you. It leaves you with an ennui. It is subtle and powerful and universal in its specificity. It captures the very struggle of being alive. They are wonderfully human plays. I just love being a part of them.
Tudor Sicomas: Is Nora still a modern type of character? Do you think audiences still relate to her drama, to her problems?
Laila Robins: As I said earlier, I do think Nora is still a relatable character for all the reasons I stated.
Tudor Sicomas: Going from theatre to filmmaking and, especially, to TV shows – here, in Romania, 2 of the TV shows you have starred in proved to be very viewed: Homeland and The Blacklist. These are both intricate, complex, and very interesting dramas, with a lot of political and psychological insight. How were both these experiences?
Laila Robins: HOMELAND was heaven! What a cast! I also had the adventure of shooting in Cape Town, South Africa for five months. The show is so well written and beautifully directed. They really know how to build to a climax on that show, very powerfully and effectively. I enjoyed playing Martha, a wonderfully complex and conflicted character. THE BLACKLIST has been so much fun! Great group of people and James Spader is absolutely charming. Katarina has many facets and I enjoy jumping from one to the next. She is enigmatic, mysterious, and a blast to play!!! I know that the audience loves to hate her, haha, but I look at her as just terribly misunderstood. Haha!
Tudor Sicomas: Katarina Rostova is one of my favorite roles in The Blacklist. And one of the best created characters from all the TV shows I’ve watched until now. How did you approach this one?
Laila Robins: I had a meeting with the creators and learned a lot about how they wanted me to approach her. Over the last six seasons there has been a lot of build up to her appearance. Interesting…. when the audience has created something in their own mind about what she should be like, it is always a challenge to meet their expectations. Everyone has their own Katarina in their minds. That said, I have gotten wonderful feedback and it has been such fun to create her. The writing is fantastic and I am given many opportunities to reveal her complexity. Always a challenge in TV as you don’t know what is going to happen next as they are writing the scripts, often times, shortly before you shoot.
Tudor Sicomas: I see The Blacklist as something deeply connected with our everyday struggles and political issues. How do you see this TV show in the modern-day world and context?
Laila Robins: We are in world filed with spies and moles and espionage! Double agents and informants! Yikes! Glad I only play one on TV. And speaking of the world…..WHAT A WORLD. So much happening these days. Quite overwhelming. So much to process and take action on. I remain optimistic, but BOY is it challenging these days!!!
Tudor Sicomas: Going back to the theatre world – I know that in 2004 you played Lady Macbeth at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. We’re talking about another great and strong female character. Does this type of roles represent a challenge to you?
Laila Robins: Loved playing the Lady. Wonderful character arc. I had the joy of performing that with my partner of 20 years, Robert Cuccioli. We are both associate artists of The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Bonnie Monte is the artistic director and was at the helm of our production. We are both presently doing an audio recording of the play for a benefit for the Actor’s Fund directed by Joe Discher, but this time he is MacDuff and I am all three weird sisters!!!! Robert and I have also performed ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA together at he Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. I grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota and try to return there as often as possible to visit my mother and to do the occasional play. That is also where I did the world premiere of Arthur Miller’s RESURECTION BLUES . It is wonderful to be a part of both of those theaters…it gives one a sense of family and continuity. I love the classics and will always enjoy exploring them.
Laila Robins: I don’t know. I really don’t. If and when we get a vaccine, I hope and pray that people will venture back into the live venues. I have faith that they will. In the meantime we do what we must to keep art alive!!!
Tudor Sicomas: During your career up till now, were there any roles that you wanted to play but you were never given the chance to do? Were there also parts you turned down?
Laila Robins: I have done most of the Chekhovs, but never had a chance to play Yelena in Uncle Vanya. There is still time for Arkadina in The Seagull. I have played Nina twice, the second time with Olympia Dukakis! I would like to try MEDEA and perhaps Williams’ SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH. Williams is one of my favorites. I played Alma in SUMMER AND SMOKE three times and Blanche Dubois in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE twice, once for the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago and the second time at The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. Blanche is my all time favorite. What a wonderful journey that is…..a masterpiece.
Tudor Sicomas: According to you, what makes a great actor?
Laila Robins: Wow, ok, someone with whom you don’t see the acting, I guess. Super grounded, specific, has a facility with language, is easy and free in their body, can be spontaneous. I like to watch an actor and feel that I am in good hands, that I don’t have to worry for them and THEN I want to see that actor in danger, something that takes them to the edge of their control. So I suppose it is a strength in their technique, but then a free electron that takes them beyond that safe place. Something unexpected, something surprising, something dynamic. In film, I love when a plain woman suddenly, though the journey of the film, becomes beautiful through the revealing of her soul.
Tudor Sicomas: Last, but not least, what thoughts or message would you send to your fans and our theatre, movie, and art lovers here in Romania?
Laila Robins: Thank you to all of the fans of The Blacklist! I am also on Amazon’s THE BOYS and have a feature film opening Oct. 2 called A CALL TO SPY. Thank you for all your support!! Keep art alive! It is sacred, it is essential, it is the future of mankind!