We’ve never interviewed an actor before for the HOUSE column so we came to Lois Robbins’ apartment armed with questions about rejection, the worry of getting enough work and the inevitable, “How do you remember your lines?” (“It’s a muscle. You have to work it.”) She has worked consistently in theater, musical theater, TV and film including roles in daytime shows such as ‘All My Children’ and ‘One Life to Live,’ a much-praised lead in the revival of Abe Burrow’s 1960’s classic play (and film starring Goldie Hawn) ‘Cactus Flower’, as well as a recent lead opposite Billy Baldwin in the movie ‘Blowtorch.’
She is disarmingly honest about her privileged and happy upbringing and has, at times, felt undeserving of an acting career—”I hadn’t had ‘the difficult childhood’.” But, as is so often the case, we doubt ourselves less when we are children and she knew she wanted to act from the age of five. In part, she says, it was a reaction to having three louder, older sisters who frequently spoke for her. Things changed when she started acting in school, “… all of sudden I found a place where my voice could be heard and nobody was going to shush me.”
I live in Cranberry Street in Brooklyn Heights and they’re always filming something in the street so sometimes I watch the actors, and I think: What an awful job! Over and over and over! And all the waiting around … why do you do it?!
You know it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do – since I was five. Actually I have to tell you I’ve done a ton of theater in the last ten years, and film is infinitely more … well I don’t want to say it’s more fun … but there is something about the camaraderie that happens on a film set—it’s a long day. We had some days that went to three, four, five in the morning. Once our last hour of shooting was at ten in the morning and we had been working all night.
It’s like being in the military, all the waiting around and no sleep.
A little bit—and we have like military-style beds, little cots!
It does not look glamorous.
There’s something about the preparation for it and having to sustain a scene, especially if it’s an emotional scene, that is so gratifying. I can’t explain it. If you like to act, it’s fun.
I read something you said by way of explaining why you wanted to act which was that you were “desperate for attention.”
I’m the youngest of four girls so it was very hard to get a word in edgewise, especially because my sisters are quite a bit older than me and I was the baby—by a lot. They babied me and they talked for me. When I started to act in school, all of sudden I found a place where my voice could be heard and nobody was going to shush me [laughs].
You always hear actors saying they’re very shy. Is there a paradox with actors, which is that on the one hand they’re desperate for attention and on the other hand, they’re shy?
I was very shy as a little girl. My friends would not say that I’m shy [now] but I am a little bit shy in a crowded room. My sisters are very demonstrative and extremely outgoing and when I’m with them, I revert to being that little girl again.
Are actors or performers happier being other selves? I watched that Joan Rivers documentary and the only time she seemed to be rid of her demons was when she was on stage.
The thing I have going for me in that regard is that I did have a very normal childhood with two married parents who were very much in love and a close, happy family. I don’t think I’ve had the sturm and drang of a lot of actors. I’ve found that as I’ve gotten older with more life experience, my work has gotten better. I do think that when I was younger I didn’t feel quite deserving in some way because I hadn’t had ‘the difficult childhood’. I have so many actor friends who were like, army brats who had traveled around everywhere or they had alcoholic parents and I didn’t have any of that, so I thought, “Well why am I entitled to have this career?”
When I watched your reel, I felt that you were a naturally comic actress. Is comedy something you prefer?
I love comedy. I really do love comedy. But for me, it’s just the work or the role that draws me and it doesn’t necessarily have to be comedy. The film I just finished is a drama. Comedy is hard. Comedy is more difficult.
I also read that you quite recently had a role in which you were a waitress and you prepared for that role by taking a real waitressing job at a small Italian restaurant, but then I thought that most actors don’t really need that kind of preparation—it can’t have been the first time you waitressed?
I was very lucky. My parents were extremely supportive of me pursuing my career. And my dad had said to me when I graduated from college and told him I was going to get a waitress job (because all my friends were doing that), he said, “Darling, I couldn’t tolerate you being a waitress. You work hard at your craft and I will support you until you can afford to support yourself.” I can almost weep telling that story … my Dad died ten years ago [her voice breaks] … I’m sorry, I can’t believe that caught me like that. [We pause.] And that support allowed me to pursue my passion. Actually when I was waitressing, I was sort of chuckling, thinking, oh my God, if he could see me now. Here I am waitressing to prepare for a role! It was a very humbling experience.
Did the work come in?
I was always working. I was doing daytime [television soap operas] while I was in college and before I turned around I had three national network commercials running.
I started doing more theater because I was living in New York and there just wasn’t enough TV to keep me going. If you did an episode of Sex and The City or you did an episode of Law&Order, you couldn’t do another one for another year. And years back, there wasn’t as much film being done here. I’ve really worked hard to get myself back on TV and in film.
What did you learn from your waitressing job then?
I learned that your feet really hurt after a long day at work. And your back hurts. People can be really rude and dismissive. They don’t look up when you’re taking their order. Bussing tables is not so easy. I didn’t take the tips …
Are you that kind of actor, who always prepares in that way?
I’m not really a method actor. I do like to do all the background homework and then forget about it. I remember Larry Moss taught me that there are fifty questions you need to ask, starting with: “What was [the character’s] birth like?” I thought, “What does he mean?” but then I was thinking about the births of my three children and their personalities are so similar to the way they came into the world.
Well I’ve never thought of that before but it fits for my two kids as well!
The way they came here is really significant!
This is a daft question but I can’t remember my own bloody name half the time …
How do I remember the lines? Can I tell you it’s so easy with film … I had forgotten after doing theater for so long where you’ve got to memorize pages and pages and you can’t say, “Can we do that again?” Some very famous actor said, “I’ve retired from acting,” and someone said, “But you’re doing a million films,” to which he replied, “Yes, but I don’t do theater anymore.”
How do you react to reviews?
I try not to read them.
How about auditions? And the inevitable rejections?
You know what, I don’t take it as personally any more. I really don’t. You throw the dice and you just say, now we will have to see if it comes up my way. When I was younger it was really hard but what I’ve realized as an actor is the work of acting is auditioning. And every now and then you get a job.