The woman who walks into the lounge in the Four Seasons Hotel bears little resemblance to the brunette bombshell who turned heads 15 years ago as Clare Arnold in the teen soap, Beverly Hills, 90210.
Sporting a black bowler hat, laced boots, jeans and an Urban Outfitters sweater, Hamilton-born Kathleen Robertson is now a closely cropped blonde. And while she prefers dark tresses, she explains that if director Gus Van Sant asks you to dye your hair, you do just that.
Landing the juicy, demanding role of serial careerist Kitty O'Neill in Van Sant's first-ever TV show, Boss, has redefined the 38-year-old actress's career. The series, which airs on Starz in the United States, is drawing raves from critics, who have applauded performances by both her and co-star Kelsey Grammer (who won a Golden Globe on Monday for his role as Chicago mayor Tom Kane).
In Toronto recently to chat up her new indie feature film, Not Since You (in theatres on Friday), a chatty Robertson talks about the thrill of working with two-time Oscar nominee Van Sant ( Good Will Hunting, Milk), the media hype surrounding Grammer, and how excited she is that her family – still all based in Steeltown – will soon be able to watch Boss in Canada, where it's slated to air on Superchannel in April.
How did it feel when your co-star Kelsey Grammer won the Golden Globe?
Kelsey's win is incredible on so many levels. For Kelsey personally, he spent 20-years embodying the most iconic comedic character on television, and to wipe that slate clean and be seen in such a drastically different way, was thrilling to witness on set every day. It was a happy night for our show and for Kelsey.
You begin shooting season two of Boss in March. Did you ever expect the show to generate this buzz?
I have to say, kind of. I mean it's Gus and it's his first TV series. He hasn't done anything that hasn't been interesting, if not brilliant. I grew up with My Own Private Idaho and To Die For. And when I read this script, I thought oh my God, this is good.
What's it like working for a director of his calibre?
He's so confident, calm and mellow. He doesn't like to rehearse. He doesn't like to block. He doesn't like lighting. He doesn't like hair and makeup on set. You feel like you're in a documentary. At the end of every episode, we all say we've never worked on anything before where you feel less witnessed. He doesn't want any of that artifice. He's all about let's just do it.
Grammer's messy divorce from The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills's Camille Grammer – and his subsequent marriage to British belle Kayte Walsh [26 years his junior]– has been non-stop fodder for the media. Is the man portrayed in the tabloids anything like the one who showed up for work?
There are a lot of stars I've worked with – big stars – who, when they walk on set, the energy just changes. It's their set and you're just in service to them. Kelsey is completely different. He's courteous, helpful and solicitous. He'll say things like, how do you feel? Do you think that was good? Do you want to do it again? There's all this drama around Kelsey – and the truth is within an hour of meeting him you simply can't help but like him. He's just completely self-deprecating. I can't say enough great things about him. And he's James-Gandolfini-good in this role.
What's your take on the professionally competent, but personally messed-up Kitty O'Neill?
It's by far the most challenging role, and the most nuanced material, I've ever worked on. The script is loosely based on King Lear, and I play Kelsey's right-hand man. She's a woman whose dedicated her entire life to her profession and she's sacrificed everything for it. She doesn't have a boyfriend. She doesn't have many friends. She doesn't deal with her family. And she doesn't have pets. Her life is this man and her job. We meet her when she's at the point where she's starting to question if the sacrifices have been worth it. She's fantastic at her job, but she's emotionally wrecked. She makes reckless, bad personal choices, which is always a fun character to play.
You're happily married, with a three-year-old son, William. How do you relate to Kitty at all?
I think everyone can relate to the idea of making a bad choice – and knowing it's a bad choice – but doing it anyway. Not being healthy enough to stop yourself from making that choice. That, I can connect to – maybe not so much now, but definitely when I was younger.
Your new feature film, Not Since You, was shot two years ago in Athens, Ga. In it, you play the girl-next-door type, which is something of a departure for you. What attracted you to the part?
The director is a Canadian, Jeff Stephenson, and any time I get a script that has any Canadian component, I'm always immediately much more interested. Plus, it was a role I don't get offered very often. For whatever reason I tend to get roles that are more damaged. To be the healthy, girl-next-door was, in a weird way, a challenge to play. She's a schoolteacher. She's married and she's happy. She's simple so it was a bit of a reverse challenge.
This interview has been condensed and edited.