The 'Waitress' actress is this year's special guest alumna at Orientation
Last fall, Nicolette Robinson made her Broadway debut and simultaneously became the first African American actress to take on the lead role of Jenna in UCLA alumna Sara Bareilles’ hit musical Waitress. Since her last performance in November, the Los Angeles native, who graduated from UCLA TFT in 2009 and has appeared on such TV series as The Affair, Hart of Dixie, Unforgettable and Perfect Couples, has been back in her hometown gearing up for her next role and enjoying time with her husband, actor Leslie Odom, Jr. (Hamilton) and their two-year old daughter, Lucille. Prior to her special guest alumna appearance at UCLA TFT’s Orientation on Tuesday, Sept. 24, she chatted with TFT’s Noela Hueso about Waitress, performing as a teenager and why she loves her alma mater.
Congratulations on making your Broadway debut!
Nicolette Robinson: Thank you! Working on Waitress was a dream. It was the best creative experience I’ve had so far. It was really special.
What made it so special?
I've loved this show since it opened on Broadway. I was incredibly moved when I saw it and I immediately bought the cast album when it came out. When I was pregnant I played the cast album almost every day in my final trimester. It helped me through some really hard times. I just loved the show, never expecting or even dreaming that I would get to play the role of Jenna — I just loved it as a fan. A year later on my daughter's first birthday, I found myself flying to New York for my final callback and it just felt so beautifully ordained. Everything about the experience from then on was magical. Having the honor of being the first woman of color and the first real-life mother to play the role came with so much love and support from the theater community. Getting to sing Sara Bareilles' music every day was a dream. The role of Jenna is so multifaceted, loaded with emotion and depth, and I was able to take quite an incredible journey every single performance. It was a role of a lifetime. The cast was phenomenal and the audience was with us at every turn — feeling their energy was like nothing I've ever experienced. I'll never ever forget it.
How does it feel to be back in L.A.?
My daughter is in preschool now and my family lives out here so it’s nice to be back home for a while. My husband has been working on an album here, too. It’s good for him to be able to do it where we live.
When did you know you wanted to be an actress?
My parents were both in the arts. My dad was a director and my mom was a choreographer and they started their careers as performers. I grew up leaning against the mirrors in rehearsal rooms watching my mom work. It was around me all the time and performing just was something I’ve loved so much from an early age.
You performed in high school productions?
Yes. I went to St. Bernard High School in Playa del Rey, a co-ed Catholic school, which is funny because I’m Jewish. My mom was the dance teacher there and she helped run the drama department with Doug Griffin, my drama teacher. The school had a really strong arts program. I did a bunch of musicals — Sweet Charity, Pippin, Once on This Island…plus dance recitals and gospel choir. I just loved it all.
You did Once on This Island after high school, too, didn’t you?
Yes, I did it professionally with the Reprise Theater Company at the Freud Playhouse! It’s the show that got me my Equity card and where I met my husband.
Did you have any professional gigs when you were in high school?
In my senior year, I booked a guest spot on CBS’ Cold Case. I had to get my GED just so I could be on set without a tutor. I filmed on the show for almost two weeks. This was around the time when I wasn't quite sure what I was going to study in college. I had such an amazing time working on set and having this experience that I was like "Ok, maybe this really is what I want to do."
Why did you decide to come to UCLA TFT?
UCLA was always on my dream-school list but I wasn't really sure if I would get in. Doug recommended me to audition for the department. The funny thing is that to every other school I applied to, I did so as a psychology major. Psychology sounded like a more reliable degree. But when it came to UCLA, I said to myself, "Let me just try to see if I can get into the theater department." I knew that my heart lived in the arts so I just applied and auditioned. When I got in, it was a no-brainer [that I would attend].
What do you most fondly recall from your time here?
I learned a lot from my peers and developed friendships that I will have forever. I loved everything about my experience. It felt like I had tricked people into letting me do something that didn’t feel like school at all — it just was fun all the time!
Who were some favorite professors?
Scott Conte and Marilyn Fox challenged me in their acting classes to be free and to push myself; it felt like such a safe space in there with my peers. I loved my one-on-one voice lessons with Dan Belzer and Linda Kerns.
What was your biggest takeaway from UCLA TFT that you still carry with you?
One of the greatest things I learned was to honor the feeling you have in your heart. Our passion lies in what brings us joy, and what challenges and excites us; I loved learning about the arts, whether it was performance or voice or diving into a certain character’s world...having the opportunity to really focus on strengthening my craft in this field at UCLA TFT was amazing...I just loved it so much.
What advice do you have for incoming theater students?
This is a safe space and there’s really no other place like it. Take risks and push yourself because you can only get better and stronger and grow from it. That’s what this experience is all about.