Elisabeth Röhm has spent the past decade carving out a unique resume of amazing performances. With a solid body of work behind her, she soon began turning the heads of critics and fans alike with her portrayal of the strong-willed Assistant District Attorney Serena Southerlyn on NBC’s “Law & Order.” A multi-faceted creative talent, she quickly established herself as a hard working actor who is fearless in the face of challenging new material. Her amazing run on television would also lead to roles in two of legendary director David O. Russell’s most beloved films — 2013’s “American Hustle” and 2015’s “Joy.”
While she is best known for her acting chops, Röhm has always had a passion for the written word. Exploring this other part of her creative spirit would lead to her writing blog for People Magazine and ultimately opened the door for her first book. In “Baby Steps: Having the Child I Always Wanted (Just Not as I Expected),” she opens up about her struggles with infertility and how in vitro fertilization (IVF) helped make her dreams of being a mother a reality. Her latest endeavor is no less impressive as she recently joined the cast of TNT’s critically acclaimed series, “The Last Ship.” Once again bringing her outstanding work to television, Röhm shines as Allison Shaw, chief of staff to the President in a post-apocalyptic America.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Elisabeth Röhm to discuss her journey as an actor, the struggles she has encountered along the way, her role on “The Last Ship” and what we can expect from this unstoppable force of creativity in the near future!
Over the years, you became a familiar face to audiences in film and television. Going back to the beginning, how did you start on this journey?
I went to college to be a writer, which I have continued to be. Then when I was in my freshman year, I was very socially active with a lot of theater people and I was compelled to audition for a play. During my four years at college, I did do some theater. Once I graduated, I got a job as an assistant to an agent. I knew that I needed to have a real job that paid! I didn’t have parents that were going to take care of me in that way. I felt like if I maybe saw what it was like behind the scenes, I would then have an understanding of if I felt like acting was a road I wanted to pursue. During college I grew to like acting a lot and then after the year of working with this agent, I thought, “Well, you know you never really know until you try.” You can sit around saying, “Shoulda, woulda, coulda.” You have to be willing to fail to succeed, so I did try it and I was very lucky. I worked right away and got a contract with “One Life To Live.” When I exited the show, I immediately had a string of auditions, callbacks and screen tests that were significant, so I was able to quickly land work. One of the first jobs I ever got was a pilot that I did with Dick Wolf and Kyle MacLachlan. That began my long relationship with Dick Wolf and working with him again. That is how it all started. I think if you don’t have parents in the arts, they don’t quite know what their kid is getting into! They weren’t discouraging but they weren’t encouraging either. When they saw how I was treating it like a business, trying to work for this agent and sending my head shot out for myself, they saw I was taking the initiative. They thought, “Well, it is like building any business, isn’t it?” Except for in this business, our brick and mortar is the TV and film we have done, which is tangible but ever changing, so you have to know how to go through the seasons of being an artist. Breaking in is hard but then it is the seasons of the career and how you sustain them that are also equally interesting.
You built an amazing resume along the way. What are the secrets to your success when it comes to longevity?
I think, ultimately, keeping your head clear, knowing what your values are and keeping your mental health in check does anyone of us a great service. That is to say that when things are hard and difficult, we shouldn’t lose our passion, our confidence or our hope. I think if there is a secret it is knowing from a really young age that as much as I love what I do, my spirit and my mind needs to be good in order to go through the ups and downs. That means you can’t get into your ego when things are amazing or really terrible!
You have quite a few projects happening at the moment. However, a big one is TNT’s “The Last Ship.” How did you get involved with the project and what spoke to you about this role?
I was really a big fan of the show before I joined the cast. I thought Michael Bay, Steven and Hank had really made a great, great show. Having done a lot of character driven shows and films, the latest being “American Hustle” and “Joy,” I was really intrigued to be on a show with so much big movie magic action, the way Michael Bay does things. When I heard they were going to add the part of the story, which is The White House and rebuilding of the government, I thought it would be really, really cool to see folded into this big canvas of action. I thought it was intriguing because it would be such a new feeling for the next year and a new world entirely we would be getting to see. It was interesting that we would be seeing the rebuilding of a government, a democracy, especially right now in the climate of this being an election year! Doing it for the past eight months or so, as we have been going through it in our own country, it has been really interesting to compare notes on what was written, how we performed it, how we have seen and internalized it while watching the various parts of the campaign trail. That definitely affected my interest in portraying The White House and this Chief of Staff.
It’s no secret “The Last Ship” has great writing. What did you bring to your character that wasn’t on the written page?
I remember when I first got the show, they said, “Don’t be disheartened in the beginning because you won’t have a lot to say. You will be the woman behind the president, having his back and being the keeper of his conscience and his confidant and ally.” That in itself was an interesting challenge because it is so much about how you are listening, what is behind the eyes and what you are thinking about in regard to the crisis, the president and observing all the players around him so that you can fully and successfully have his back. As we go through the rest of the season, you will get to know her much, much more. Their vision for her was to be the most supportive person that the president could have but obviously that is not a completely developed character. There were many different aspects I thought about in regards to relationships that I have had in my life where I have served as that type of person for someone I care about. I also thought about the seriousness of the circumstances and trying to be very clear headed, stable and steady in crisis moments as you make these life or death decisions. I just internalized what that would be like and obviously that includes trying to be very cool and not emotional but as we have come to see she has been involved with him as well. I guess she struggles with being objective but the humanity of that relationship and with the loss of Mitchner in the last episode, it will be interesting to see how it affects her. You will come to know her much more as this season unfolds.
When you take on a new role, how do you flesh out a new character in your mind and bring them to life?
Part of it is intuitive. After all these years it is how you feel it as opposed to overthinking it. It is obviously knowing the arc of the character and therefore wanting to be supportive to the storytelling aspect of it so you stay on point. Then, of course, the clothes and environment affect you so much in your body language. For myself, 20 years in, it is very important that all the characters I play are very different and have distinct qualities physically that are unique and a human being you would identify with, both body and soul. I wanted to, especially in such an intellectual character, find my way in. I think that even with the quiet moments she has, you can really see the human being there who is under all the same pressure as the president is and is trying to make the best decisions to serve others to the best of her ability. I thought Chelsea Clinton gave a nice speech in regards to her mother at the Democratic National Convention recently, giving us a sense of her humanity and saying what she is like as a woman versus a politician. I feel we have achieved that with the White House and its addition to “The Last Ship” this year. I feel you get a sense of how these people are.
You have been part of incredible projects over the years. Which of them had the biggest impact on you?
Each of them gives you something different. Maybe one will give you a life changing perspective, a leg up in the world that you didn’t have before or perhaps you make a great friend or an ally, like I did with this beautiful cinema family David O. Russell has created. Working with these actors again and again and with David allows you to come away from something with deep fulfillment from a creative experience. Obviously, “Law & Order” gave me such a step into the world of being an actor but the characters I have played in some of the other movies have really deepened me as a person but also have developed my craft. Having the desire to play characters where I can transform, disappear, be unrecognizable and sort of lose myself is a confidence I got from working with David O. Russell. Then coming back into the fold of a television show and trying to implement character as opposed to plot has been interesting. “Law & Order” had a lot of intelligence, honesty, grit and a sense of place in New York but you never really knew us. I know how to be in a work environment as a character but having done these kinds of movies over the past several years, you want to bring a real human being into the work environment. So, you begin to blend after 20 years. It is not so much what you get from each role but how you blend it all. You start as a kid, then you take some Meisner classes or study with Uta Hagen, as I did, and begin to build your war chest in the sense of your tools. As you get older, everything starts to blend together. I don’t think you would say you would have one specific technique after decades of doing something. I think it has become much more organic.
You have plenty of irons in the fire. What can we look forward to in regards to your upcoming projects?
There are a few independent films I am excited to have come out — “Love Is All You Need” and “Adolescence.” I think they are both very noble stories. “Love Is All You Need” is sort of about a role reversal in this small town that deals with tolerance and bullying. In the film, the world is a homosexual world and the group that they are intolerant of is heterosexuals. So, it completely flips the whole sense of reality. Through that, we get to take a look at what that kind of intolerance and hatred does to a community, families and to kids. It is a really great film. “Adolescence” is also very meaningful. It is a true story about this kid who had fallen into the dark world of drugs, alcohol and his family background. The kid whose story it is ended up starring in the role, so for him to see part of his real life be portrayed in a movie was very emotional. I think it’s going to be a very beautiful film.
Where do you see yourself headed when it comes to the work you take on as an actor?
I would love to do another show for a long period of time, like I did with “Law & Order.” I would love to continue to work with great directors like David O. Russell and continue to tell really important, meaningful, funny and heartfelt human stories that touch people’s hearts. I love his movies and I feel like we all identify with the character’s in his films. I think that is ultimately what we need. We need more art and more things we identify with so we can feel less alone and more connected to each other. We need to be able to laugh at ourselves, heal and reflect. I love both film and television, so I look forward to doing both more!
You mentioned your passion for writing. You kept busy in that realm as well. What can you tell us about that aspect of your life?
I have written a book called “Baby Steps: Having the Child I Always Wanted (Just Not as I Expected)” about my journey with infertility, having my daughter and losing my mom to heart disease. I have continued to be on the path of bringing light to both subjects. I have been speaking publicly about heart health, heart disease, families and CPR. I have worked very closely with The Red Cross. I have really tried to continue educating people in regard to infertility and giving young women the information they really need about having their future family. I am really interested in working philanthropically in helping in those ways. Speaking of infertility and heart disease, my mother began writing a children’s book when she was living and she never finished. My daughter and I finished it this summer. We are going to be trying to publish that before Christmas. Being a mom is really front and center in my life along with being a family member to the people I love, so it is all about finding the balance. We all struggle with that but as someone said once, “At the end of life, we don’t walk away with the things that we possess. We walk away with our relationships.” Putting time into our relationships so that they are solid is very important to me. You see the benefit of that when you give the people you love your time. Personal life and work are both important and I am grateful I continue to work and I’m so grateful for my family.
From the outside looking in, you make it look so easy! I am sure a lot of hard work goes into making it all come together!
[laughs] It is nice to see women out there having great careers in addition to being great moms and partners. However, the guys out there are pretty awesome too when it comes to supporting women while struggling with all they have to deal with. Again, I always go back to art being so important. Life can be very challenging, so we need each other. We want to find more ways to connect with each other and not disconnect so we can all live the happiest life possible!
Thank you so much for your time today, Elisabeth! We can’t wait to see where your journey takes you!
Thank you, Jason!
Catch Elisabeth Röhm in TNT’s ‘The Last Ship’ on Sunday at 9/8c. Visit the official site to watch episodes online! “Baby Steps: Having the Child I Always Wanted (Just Not as I Expected)” is available on Amazon.