March 16, 2020 Interview – Laila Robins
Growing up with a keen appreciation for art, Laila Robins always seemed to be right at home within the confines of theater. Following her instincts, she would go on to study fine arts, soon making her way as a theatrical actress, before eventually landing on Hollywood’s silver screen. Known for feature films such as 1987’s Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, 1989’s Innocent Man, plus more, later in her career, Robins continues to shine with roles in hit televisions series such as Showtime’s Homeland and NBC’s The Blacklist.
All the product of her dedication to the craft of acting, recently she stars in the compelling new Thriller Impossible Monsters which hit theaters on February 14th, prior to a VOD role-out on March 3rd. An exciting time for Robins, she recently took the time to chat about her path in entertainment, learning from diverse experiences, joining on for Impossible Monsters, plus a lot more.
Cryptic Rock – For over three decades now you have worked in film, television, and theater. Tell us, how would you describe your career as an actress to this point?
Laila Robins – When I got out of school, Yale School of Drama, things were much more separate. If you wanted to do theater, you really wouldn’t go into TV; in fact, we kind of looked down our noses a little bit if you went to TV. (Laughs) Now people crossover all the time, whether it’s TV, films, musicals, straight plays; everyone’s now allowed to crossover. When I got out, I had to sort of choose initially, and I wanted to be a dramatic, straight actress; I could do musicals, but I didn’t want to get pigeonholed. I had some opportunities early on in film, not so much in television, but I kept doing plays. I guess I was never really like the girl next door, ingenue, young lady. Maybe I’ve always been a character actress down deep, even when I was younger. (Laughs)
Early in my career I did a lot of classical and new plays in New York that I loved. I would go to the regionals, as well; to the Guthrie Theater, Baltimore Center Stage, the Arena Stage down in D.C., and the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey. I got to do a lot of the great classics such as Shakespeare, Chekhov, and Tennessee Williams. I really loved all that, although, I was always a little frustrated thinking, “Why can’t my film or TV career kick in?” That seemed to happen later. Lately, in the last five years, I guess since Homeland, I’ve been doing a lot more television.
Cryptic Rock – It is interesting how everything developed for you. Seeing you have done theater, as well as your share of television and film, do you have a medium you enjoy most?
Laila Robins – I really love both. I’m enjoying the screen work more and more as I get more opportunities to do it. I feel like I’m learning a lot about the camera and how to communicate things through that lens. I think, initially, I was a theater rat; I just love the theater and feel really at home there, it is sort of what I was brought up on. A lot of people when they’re younger grow up watching old movies, but my family would go to the theater, so that was more ingrained in me.
I love the theater, in that, I love to rehearse for a long period of time and really explore my character very thoroughly; I really love that part of the process. You get really close to a cast because you are spending a long time with them as far as a long run or rehearsal process. But it’s also nice to be paid well of course. (Laughs) With film and television obviously it’s a much more lucrative job, so I’ve been enjoying the paycheck. Also, I’m learning more about how to work rapidly; in television especially you have to make choices very quickly. I’m enjoying learning about that. But in the theater you have the live audience, and I really love being in the room with them. Every night it’s different; it’s different when the audience is different, it’s different when your day has been different. I love that kind of spontaneity and aliveness in the theater.
Sometimes with film and television you are at the mercy of the editor. At times they need to make the show shorter, so then certain things are cut or certain transitions you made when you were filming are suddenly gone. As a result your performance can look different from what you actually did while shooting. It is a matter of letting go of that control, whereas on the stage you really have control of that evening.
Cryptic Rock – Right. Different mediums with different challenges.
Laila Robins – Definitely. I also love the stamina required in doing a long run of a play. The longest run I did was with Uta Hagen, a very famous actress and acting teacher. We did a play called Mrs. Klein for nine months, and I just felt like I really learned so much about keeping it fresh and alive. I learned about changing it, letting it grow, and if it’s good writing there is always more to discover. There’s always room for exploration. Sometimes that’s the frustration with film or television, in that days after you’ve shot, you say to yourself, “NOW I know how I would want to do that.” Sometimes it just takes a little longer to find your way.
Cryptic Rock – That makes a lot of sense. You have continued to keep busy in recent years, and you starred in this new film Impossible Monsters. Debuting in 2019, but given a broad release this past Valentine’s Day, how did you become involved with this project?
Laila Robins – I believe it was an offer through my agent; they just brought it to me, said read this and see if you’d like to be a part of it. I didn’t know Nathan Catucci, the director/writer. I read it and thought there would be something interesting there for me to play. I felt I would be well cast as a college dean and it intrigued me. I liked the storyline, it was sort of a Thriller/Film Noir type of deal and I thought it would be fun. I also wasn’t working at the time, so I thought why not?
I also enjoy working with young directors just to get to know the younger generation, the kind of work they’re doing, the kind of stuff they are expressing, and I would like to be a part of it. I was pleasantly surprised in working with Nathan. He was smart, had a strong vision, but was also open to whatever I could bring to it. I really enjoyed my time working on the film. It was well-organized and their production level was very high. Sometimes you get on an independent film and you’re just frustrated because everyone’s a beginner at their job and it can be a little soul-sucking. (Laughs) With Nathan’s film they were well-prepared and everything was mapped out, so it was pleasurable.
Cryptic Rock – It sounds like it was a positive experience. Impossible Monsters is actually Nathan Catucci’s debut full-length film. The end result is good and it seems it ran well.
Laila Robins – Yes, very well! I think at some point, like any small, independent film, they run out of money after they shoot and they need more for the post-production. I remember running into him at Fairway a year after we shot it, and I said, “Hey! Whatever happened to that film we shot? I’m waiting to see it.” He said, “Well, we’re still trying to get the funds to finish the editing, the color correction, etc.” Then you have to find someone to market the film and the advertising is expensive, as well.
I didn’t know if this film would ever see the dark of a theater and I was so pleasantly surprised to get his email saying, “Hey, we finished it and we’re showing it.” That’s a real accomplishment, and my hats off to him for making that all come together. I don’t know what the whole process was, but I’m sure it was four years when all was said and done. That takes a lot of persistence, stick-to-it-iveness, tenacity, and I really admire him for that.
Cryptic Rock – It is good it all came together and the film did see the light of day. This film has a compelling storyline blurring the line between reality and a dream fantasy. Were these elements something that attracted you to the script, as well?
Laila Robins – Yes. I have quite an active dream life myself. When I was younger I used to be a sleepwalker and would have night terrors; I’ve had dreams where I’m frozen in my body and can’t move. I’ve always been very intrigued with dreams: the things they’re telling you, what you’re processing from your life, or what it’s telling you about the future, if the dreams are at all prophetic. I’ve always been fascinated with sleep because I’ve experienced or suffered from sleep disorders, as well. That grabbed my attention when I read the script.
Cryptic Rock – It is a compelling topic and makes for a good Thriller like Impossible Monsters. You have worked in Thriller-related films throughout the years, but you have also done Drama and Comedy, etc. Do you have a favorite genre to work in?
Laila Robins – I guess the dramatic; I’ve always seen myself as more of a dramatic actress than a comedian. I’ve had the pleasure of doing some funny films, as well. There is a film I did with Brian Cox called Blumenthal (2013) – I really enjoyed that! My agent always says, “people don’t know how funny you are.” I don’t know if that’s actually a part of my work that a lot of people are aware of; I think the public sees me as more of a dramatic actress. I really just love the challenge of whatever animal we’re working on and seeing I what I can bring to it.
Cryptic Rock – It is good to have diversity and you have certainly shown that in your filmography. You mentioned how your television acting career sort of took off after Homeland and you have also had regular parts in popular series such as The Blacklist. Interestingly, in the past, as you said, television and film was almost segregated. What are your thoughts on the progression where television and film are looked at as equal platforms now?
Laila Robins – I love it! There is just more work for all of us and I like that these boundaries are being pulled down. There is so much great television, and that is partially because there are so many more streaming services. There is just so much more work for actors that way.
I love that someone like Al Pacino does a film and then crosses over and does the series Hunters. They’re shorter seasons too. I just did The Boys for Amazon, we did eight episodes for each season, which is a shorter time commitment. That said, as compared to a film, you had eight episodes to enjoy a more developed storyline. I think it’s great that everyone’s crossing over. There is so much talent out there, so many great shows – it’s really kind of hard to keep up with all of it frankly.
Cryptic Rock – That is so true – there is more content than ever before.
Laila Robins – Yes, when I look back at The Sopranos, which was one of the first shows that sort of stepped out and had some more intense content – I played James Gandolfini’s mom in the flashbacks – they really re-invented what can happen on TV. Then I did Sex in the City, In Treatment, Bored to Death – that was all HBO. I was doing some TV work, but I feel like Homeland was one of the larger roles I had in television. I did a whole season of Homeland in Capetown, South Africa. After that I just started getting offers and not always having to audition. I went into Murder in the First for TNT, then Deception for a season on ABC, and now I’ve been enjoying playing the multi-faceted Katarina Rostova for NBC’s The Blacklist.
Cryptic Rock – It is great how busy you have been. You said how most do not recognize you as a comedic actress, but you had an important role in the 1987 Comedy classic Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Now over three decades old, it is still as funny as ever. What do you attest that film’s staying power to?
Laila Robins – Steve Martin and John Candy were just absolute magic together. I was just the straight man, being the wife waiting at home, I didn’t have a lot of the laughs. (Laughs) They shot a lot of it before I even got to the set. I believe they were several weeks over time and budget by then. A lot of my work was sort of waiting for him at home, and then I had the one scene with them when they finally arrived.
I think it’s a story so many people can relate to, that idea of being caught in holiday traveling. It was such a sweet story about this man who is lonely and kind of an oddball. I feel in our political environment these days, there is so much meanness and bullying. John Candy is a very challenging character as far as his habits, or whatever, and he irritates the heck out of Steve Martin’s character, yet Steve takes John under his wing and brings him home for Thanksgiving dinner.
It’s ultimately a message of love, to not judge people. You don’t know what people are going through in their lives. I don’t know the hardships people are going through – I think that everyday when I get on the subway. I look around and think everybody has stuff going on, and we don’t know what it is or how intense it is. Yet there we all are on the subway looking at each other not really knowing all of the sadness or difficulties that people are facing everyday. To have more compassion and love toward each other is something we all need to work on everyday.
Cryptic Rock – Agreed. It is a film of love, and that final scene really pulls at your heartstrings. The film is hilarious and then it turns very serious very quickly and you really feel it deeply.
Laila Robins – You really do. I think Kevin Klein saw the movie in a hotel room and he said to me, “I just loved that scene where he comes home and you’re coming down the stairs.” I’ve had several people tell me that reunion and John Candy standing in our little foyer is just a beautiful, magical moment. I always feel really proud to be a part of that message. I think I’ve watched the film maybe three times in my life, and I’m always so pleasantly surprised by how all of it holds up. It’s hilarious! John Candy was such a sweet, nice man.
Cryptic Rock – And an exceptionally talented individual, too.
Laila Robins – Yes. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles was my first Hollywood movie, so it was really a baptism by fire. I had done one independent film before that, down in Mexico with Terry Kinney and Kevin Anderson, but Planes, Trains, and Automobiles was my first Hollywood movie. I was like a deer in the headlights.
I still have a beautiful silver frame that Steve Martin gave all of us as a parting gift that has his autograph and PTA. I’ve got that on my front foyer table – it’s always a reminder of what a nice initiation into Hollywood that was for me.
Cryptic Rock – Wow, that is a great way to begin such a long, extensive career. Last question. What are some of your personal favorite films?
Laila Robins – That is a tough question. Some of my favorite are The Sweet Hearafter (1997), Fargo (1996), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), The Godfather films, and Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959).