Robinne Lee on What She Learned Playing a Powerful Lesbian in 'Fifty Shades Darker'

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 02:  Actress Robinne Lee attends the premiere of Universal Pictures' 'Fifty Shades Darker'  at The Theatre at Ace Hotel on February 2, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Robinne Lee on What She Learned Playing a Powerful Lesbian in 'Fifty Shades Darker'

The actress also talks diversity, "Being Mary Jane" and fighting for love.

Published February 9, 2017

You've seen her in some of your favorite TV shows and films like Hitch, Deliver Us From Eva, Seven Pounds and, of course, Being Mary Jane, but Robinne Lee shows in her latest role that she's not one to be placed in a box.

In the highly anticipated film Fifty Shades Darker, the sequel to the box office smash Fifty Shades of Grey, the actress plays Ros Bailey, the no-nonsense COO of a Fortune 500 company who is partnered and powerful.

Speaking exclusively with us at BET.com, the actress dishes on where she drew her inspiration to play a Black lesbian businesswoman of power, her past experience working on the first season of Being Mary Jane, her thoughts on colorism among Black women in Hollywood and much more.

You play Ros Bailey, Mr. Grey’s second in command, in Fifty Shades Darker. Can you tell us a bit about your character?
She is probably one of the few women in Christian Grey’s life who can stand up to him and talk back to him and doesn’t take crap from him. She is the COO of this company and she is strong and smart and kind of goes head-to-head with him all the time and it’s kind of nice to play this strong character. She’s gay, she has a partner, she’s settled in her life and she is powerful and it was really nice to play that type of character, especially in this film.

Your character is a powerful woman who’s broken the glass ceiling. How does she resonate with you and today’s working woman?
That’s a good question. For me, I’ve always been a bit of an overachiever and I was really lucky to have parents who told me, ‘You can achieve anything as long as you work hard.’ And so, I kind of, like, lived by that and I thought it was really important to get my education and get another degree and to perform as well as I could and never feel like I was less than because I was a woman or less than because I was a woman of color. And I think it’s important, especially with what’s going on in our country right now, that young girls know that they can still achieve miraculous things. They can work hard and break through that glass ceiling. That they can strive and accomplish things that people may be telling them at this point now doesn’t look so good and I feel like we’ve had a lot of setbacks these last couple of months but I want young girls out there to know the sky is still the limit and you work hard, you get your education, you double down, you perform twice as well as your male counterparts if you have to, but you can, and there are a generation of women who are willing to help you out and help you step up to take over what we’ve done and accomplished.

Ros is an openly gay woman. What did you learn from playing a lesbian who holds such power and what did her story teach you?
It was really interesting because my character is not that developed in the script, so I came to it knowing what was on the paper and I had to develop my own backstory to kind of fill in the blanks for myself just to see myself as an actor. And I thought a lot of the power I gained from just discovering what that story would be, like how a gay Black woman would end up working for a Fortune 500 company in Seattle, Washington. And kind of figuring out where I grew up, where I went to school, when I realized I was attracted to other women, how I came out to my parents, what their reaction was, all that stuff I did the research. Like, reading up on other people’s experiences and talking to other friends I have who are gay, or lesbian or part of the LGBTQ community. I’ve always been very aware of it but it was different to try not to necessarily put myself in their shoes, but to become one. To understand that’s my mindset from the time I get on the set to the time I got back to the hotel. That’s who I am. I think artists are so sensitive and considerate about other groups because it’s our job to put ourselves in the shoes of other people and so you’re always doing that. So, you’re aware of life outside of you. You try to tap into the humanity of others who might not be like you.

The Fifty Shades series is all about going to any lengths for love. How have you fought for love?
[Laughs] That’s a good question. Let’s see. What have I done? I’ve probably done some stupid things. Umm… I think every woman has, at some point in time, especially when you’re young and you’re kind of figuring it out. I don’t want to talk about this [laughs]. Giving guys gifts that I probably should not have done. I’m happy that I’ve been married for a while. I’m in a really good relationship and I don’t feel like I’ve done anything that I would regret. I feel like we both give to each other, but I feel like when I was younger, when I was dating, I definitely didn’t like being in unrequited relationships, having crushes and guys who did not see you the same way you saw them. I’ve done some pretty stupid things [laughs]. You learn from your mistakes and hopefully you don’t repeat them.

You're one of few Black women in the cast. In this era of diversity, how does it feel for this to still be the case?
My character is not written as Black [in the books]. She’s described as a redhead, and so I guess the default is to assume she is a white character and I was lucky enough that they wanted to go in a different direction and they cast me in it. They were completely welcoming, appreciative and adoring and I didn’t have any kind of backlash, so it was really nice to be able to step into this role and feel embraced by this community where it already existed and had an idea of who these characters were and they were happy to have me on board and that alone made me feel really happy. I understand that there weren’t a lot of diverse characters to begin with in the book, but I think the fact that they tried to change it up a little bit in the filming was great on their part. I hate to say, but when I’m on the set, I’m not really thinking about that. There are other Black characters on the set. The woman who plays my wife has a tiny part. She’s Black and she’s with me on the set. There’s Victor, who’s Latino, on the set and there are people who are behind the scenes, whether it’s PAs or camera crew, whatever, who are Asian and Black, so it doesn’t really feel like I’m here by myself.

Many of our viewers also know you as Avery Daniels from the first season of Being Mary Jane. What did you enjoy most about your character and being a part of the show?
Being Mary Jane was a dream experience for me for many reasons. I love that character. She was so different. She was not like anything I’d played before. I thought the project was so well-written. Mara [Brock-Akil] did a wonderful job creating all these different layered subtle characters and different types of women and different women of color that we weren’t seeing. I thought Salim Akil did a great job at directing. Gabrielle Union is one of my closest friends and it was a joy playing opposite her and playing like her arch nemesis. We had so much fun. If someone’s going to sleep with your husband, it may as well be your best friend [laughs]. We really had a great time and I made such great friends on that set… I loved working with Omari [Hardwick]. He’s such an incredible force, and just going to work was a joy to be able to sink your teeth into this material that was also challenging and emotional and soul-bearing. It was exhausting. Everyday was exhausting but it was great because you had something incredible to show for it at the end of the day and I could not have been more proud of the work I did in that show and of the final product. They’re doing an incredible show and it was so refreshing to have those voices out there and people realizing that Black women are these multi-dimensional characters and we’re all different and coming with our own baggage and insecurities and weaknesses, but also our strengths and passions and our loves, and I felt like BET did such a great job of showing all these different sides of us and it was really a joy to be a part of that.

You’ve starred in several films featuring Black leads or primarily Black casts throughout your career. How do you feel about the current state of diversity, especially as it pertains to women, in Hollywood today?
I feel like if you asked me this a year ago, it would’ve been a completely different answer. I feel like we’ve had a really good year in film having Moonlight and Hidden Figures and Fences, Birth of a Nation. We had a great year for diversity. Not just diversity, but inclusivity, and seeing all these different faces. I wish there were even more. I wish there were more Asian-American films. I wish there were more Latino films and I wish there were more films that included all of us together in one project so we weren’t, like, separated — like the Black film and the white film. I wish there was more of that, but I feel like the backlash from #OscarsSoWhite has made it so that studios are more aware when they’re green lighting projects. I’d like to think that writers are more aware when they’re forming these projects and creating these characters and it’s been a good year. It’s also been a great year in TV. Yes, we still have things like Being Mary Jane, but we also have Empire and Power and Black-ish and we also have things like Fresh Off the Boat and we have Luke Cage, The Get Down. There’s a plethora of things and it’s different than it was a year ago. So I feel like we’ve made great strides and I hope we continue to. I really do. It’s great for our upcoming generation to see this.

There has been a lot of talk of the difficulties for darker-skinned actress in Hollywood versus lighter-skinned actress. What has been your experience when it comes to colorism in Hollywood?
That’s deep. I probably have, but I’ve also been this color my entire life, so I can’t get hung up on it. I can just do the best work I can in the room and if I don’t get cast because I’m too dark, I mean, what am I gonna do? I’m not going to bleach my skin. I’m not going to be something that I’m not. This is what I look like. I can do different things on the inside but this is what my exterior package is and it’s like love it or leave it. I like my skin color. I like the way I look. I’d like to think that’s not going on so much. I know it is subtly. I’m totally aware of that, but there’s only so much I can do. That’s why I also write, I create parts that are not kind of limited by that because it’s out there. There’s so many things I feel like I’m fighting against, I would get exhausted. I’m just happy to see people of color. I don’t care what shade they are. Yes, it would be nice to have more darker women because you certainly see darker men getting great parts. I mean, there are some dark women out there who work nonstop like Viola [Davis], let’s say, and she’s representing us beautifully. She’s beautiful aesthetically, but she’s also, just as an actor, she is one of the top in her field. So, I’m happy to have her speaking for me.

What do you hope viewers take away from this film, and specifically, your involvement, after seeing it?
I like that there are all different types of women in this film. I think that this movie is a little lighter than the last one. There’s more of a sense of humor, there’s more of an ease with the characters. It’s a sexy film. It’s not like a deep, deep drama. It’s an enjoyable film. It’s a night out with your girlfriends or with your husband, partner, lover, whatever. It’s an enjoyable film and I hope they go there and say they see different types of women and not feel like it’s just one type represented. This movie was definitely made for women. Men will enjoy it too but it was made for women and I hope they enjoy it and they enjoy all the female characters in there because there are a bunch of us.

Learn more about the actress in the video, above.

Fifty Shades Darker premieres in theaters nationwide now.

Written by Moriba Cummings

(Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

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