With Netflix’s ‘Someone Great,’ Jennifer Kaytin Robinson lays the foundation for an entertainment empire
Jennifer Kaytin Robinson has lived on the precipice of fame, always this-close to making it.
At 16, she made it to the final round of auditions for the Disney Channel show “Hannah Montana.” Certain she would ultimately land the part of Miley Cyrus’ best friend, she convinced her mom to move with her from their native Miami to Hollywood. Robinson followed the casting director’s advice, sporting a cheery sweater-vest and having her mom drive her to the audition so she’d appear younger. But when she stood next to Cyrus, their five-year age gap was too apparent. The part went to Emily Osment.
Robinson remained undeterred. She was living at the Palazzo, the apartment complex where the reality show “The Hills” filmed, and she felt like she was at the center of it all. She was just across the street from the Grove, where she had her first celebrity sighting: “The O.C.” star Mischa Barton and her then-boyfriend, Brandon Davis, fighting by the fountain. Before long, she’d befriended rising stars in that world — kids from “Gossip Girl” and “Twilight” — whose paparazzi photos she appeared in the background of.
“It was really weird to be out here grinding, but being the person holding someone’s bag while they were walking the red carpet,” Robinson, now 31, recalled. “You want to be the person that gets the rope opened, and you just feel so [crappy] about yourself.”
With her friends suddenly on the cover of Rolling Stone, Robinson decided it was time to face facts: Maybe she wasn’t meant to be an actress. She had no desire to “be the day player on ‘CSI’ and work [her] way up.” Instead, she decided to write about what was happening to her, channeling her life between fame and obscurity into her first script.
And that’s what Robinson has been doing for the last decade: writing. Her first movie, “Someone Great,” was recently released on Netflix. It wasn’t that initial script she wrote a decade ago — she shopped that project, about five twentysomething females navigating L.A., a week after Lena Dunham sold “Girls” to HBO and so it promptly died on the vine.
But “Someone Great” captures a different period in Robinson’s life — one she describes as a time of “choosing herself.” The film, which also marks her directorial debut, is about a music journalist named Jenny (Gina Rodriguez) whose longtime boyfriend (Lakeith Stanfield) breaks up with her when he finds out she’s moving to San Francisco to take a job at Rolling Stone. In an effort to cheer her up, Jenny’s two BFFs (Brittany Snow, DeWanda Wise) take her out to party on a final night in New York.
Robinson has had wild nights like this before. Once, when she was 20, she was in a long-distance relationship with a musician in New York. She flew to see him in the city for her birthday, and he promptly dumped her. (“It was ter-e-blay,” she says, as if she were French.) Her two best friends — somehow also both named Jen — suggested the trio do Molly and spend the night wandering around.
But “Someone Great” is about more than a wacky drug trip. Just as shows like “Broad City” and “PEN15” have, Robinson was interested in exploring the kind of female friendship so meaningful it almost feels like a romantic relationship. While she was a fan of HBO’s “Girls,” she didn’t relate to the way the characters argued so intensely.
“It felt like that was the contribution to the time capsule of white millennial women in this time, and that was always a bit of a bummer to me,” Robinson said. “Women aren’t always fighting with each other. I’ve never screamed at any of my friends, ever. I wanted to make something about female friendship and base-level, genuine love that I don’t see as often as I’d like to on screen.”
Sitting at the Soho House, where she gets a lot of her writing done, she was wearing a pair of earrings she had yet to return to the stylist who outfitted her for the “Someone Great” press junket. She also sported a tiny tattoo of the Star of David on her wrist. (“Yeah, first tattoo,” she said, rolling her eyes.)
Robinson began thinking about making a film after creating her first television series, MTV’s “Sweet/Vicious.” An offbeat feminist superhero tale, the show followed two friends who became vigilantes at college to take a stand against campus abuse. Though the program earned positive reviews, it got poor ratings and was cancelled in 2017 after one season.
“Honestly, it was the craziest experience I think I’ll probably ever have in this industry,” Robinson said. “Our budget was very small, and I was thrown in the deep end. I had never been in a writer’s room, let alone running a show. … Because I survived that, I go into anything and I’m like, ‘I’ll be fine.’”
Her work with “Sweet/Vicious” garnered the attention of executives at Feigco Entertainment — filmmaker Paul Feig’s production company — who asked her to meet to discuss potential collaborations. She said she wanted her next project to be a romantic comedy — “500 Days of Summer” meets “Drunk History” — and with the company’s interest, set off to write a draft.
“When I read it, I was like, ‘We have to make this. It’s so good,’” said Feig, the director behind a string of comedy hits including “Bridesmaids,” “The Heat” and “Spy.” “I thought: ‘I wouldn’t have written this character that way,’ and that’s good, because I’m tired of my voice. This is a new voice. She had a singular vision of how to do this.”
Feig set up a meeting with Netflix, where the duo pitched the project to chief content officer Ted Sarandos. Robinson showed a sizzle reel she’d made — it included clips from “Insecure,” “Mistress America,” “Like Crazy” — while Feig talked her up, telling Sarandos: “This is the future. You would be crazy not to work with her.”
She landed the gig, and to help her prepare, Feig invited her to shadow him on the set of his 2018 film, “A Simple Favor.” She came in loaded with questions: “How do you conduct a set? What’s the vibe? How do you keep everyone cool? How do you work with actors?”
“Something I saw in Paul was really letting the actors find what they want to find and live in the scene,” she remembered. “He’s just so calm. He’s never giving you, like, six notes. He’ll be like, ‘Let’s do it this way,’ and with each take, he’ll give an adjustment and build it knowing he’ll have all the shades in the edit and it doesn’t all have to be in one take.”
Rodriguez, who also served as the film’s executive producer, has worked with over 70 directors because of her role on the CW’s “Jane the Virgin.” In other words, she’s seen a lot of “varying personalities,” and has found that her favorite are the most collaborative — someone who “knows what they want but leaves time for you to fill the spaces.”
“And that’s Jenn,” the actress said. “She makes sure that people are not in spaces they are not comfortable in. I had my first sex scene experience in this movie, and it was so nice to have a female protecting me whenever it came to anything vulnerable. She was so conscious of me needing space or time or privacy.”
Asked if there are female filmmakers whose careers she admires, Robinson paused. She could name a number of women directors she admires, she said, but she has bigger ambitions.
“I look at J.J. Abrams, and I’m like: That’s the kind of career I want,” she said. “There are a lot of men that are titans of the industry, and very few empires that are centered in women’s stories. I don’t just want the empire, I want a purposeful empire.”
That means being “calculated and purposeful” about the decisions she’s making, trying to branch out with each new project she takes on. Next, she’s thinking about a horror film, or maybe a romantic comedy TV series that’s a “throwback to world of Nora Ephron or Richard Curtis.”
Anyway, this time, she’s all in. No more life on the fringes. She even recently ended a 4 [1/2]-year relationship to focus on herself.
“There’s stuff I need to do for me, and my career is in a place where I’ve just gotta do it,” she said. “There’s a level of self-love that I have not afforded myself or attained before this moment in my life. I’ve gotta know me before I can know anyone else — and I don’t know if I know me. I don’t know if I like me. I think I’m gonna travel by myself. I’m really excited. I feel really excited by what I can take from the world at this moment in my life.”
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