It was early December 1995. The movie industry was already abuzz about the soon-to-be-released “Waiting to Exhale” and its story of four black women looking for a love so perfect that they could relax, could exhale.
But while the anticipation grew around the 20th Century Fox film and its plum roles for stars Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett, their lesser-known co-stars, Lela Rochon and Loretta Devine, were holding their breath wondering what the movie would mean for them and their careers.
Several months later, Rochon, who played Robin, the pretty, wisecracking but unlucky-in-love businesswoman, is exhaling pretty regularly.
Thanks to the breakthrough phenomena of “Waiting to Exhale” and its crossover appeal, the statuesque actress, whose dazzling smile and athletic physique had previously won her mostly supporting roles in movies and TV series as “the girlfriend” or “the siren,” is landing on the short list of rising young Hollywood stars.
Rochon, 29, has a lead role in “Mr. and Mrs. Loving,” a Showtime movie that premieres Sunday about an interracial couple who petition the Supreme Court in the early 1960s when their marriage is declared to be illegal. The dramatic turn is a total change of pace from the smoldering sexuality of her “Waiting to Exhale” character.
And she is currently shooting the movie adaptation of John Grisham’s “The Chamber,” playing a legal advisor and Chris O’ Donnell’s love interest. She won the part in the Universal Pictures production even though the original character description in the script called for a “beautiful, blue-eyed blond.”
For an actress who once was most famous for being in a beer commercial where she danced and sang around a dog, life after “Exhale” has been a frantic but satisfying adjustment.
“This movie created more work and more offers and, most importantly, more respect than I’ve ever gotten before,” Rochon said as she relaxed in her publicist’s office in Beverly Hills, taking a few days off from filming “The Chamber” in Mississippi. “I was never taken seriously before, was always shut out of the big jobs. I was always the second or third choice, behind Halle Berry or Whitney Houston. Now people are writing things for me.”
She said she was caught somewhat off-guard by the film’s popularity: “I knew people would like it, but I didn’t know they would roar. I just hoped and prayed that audiences would like me. I didn’t want to disappoint fans of the book.”
Director James Foley, who cast Rochon in “The Chamber,” said her performance in “Exhale” is what prompted him to suggest calling her for an audition.
“We had seen plenty of actresses for this role, white actresses, but when Lela read, it was a done deal,” Foley said. “She was the best, and suddenly having a black actress in that role made a lot of sense. She projects power, intelligence and ambition, plus she is incredibly sexy. When she walked in the room, I wanted to look at her.”
The timing for all this added activity was perfect. Just six months before she was hired by “Exhale” director Forest Whitaker, Rochon had vowed to give acting only another year and then quit if her frustration continued.
“I was working steadily, but I was never taken seriously, never given the big jobs,” she explained. “I just thought, ‘I have a college degree, I’m smart, I’ll write screenplays.’ ”
She actually finished a script, but her post-"Exhale” pace has kept her too busy to polish it.
The impact of what many “Exhale” fans call “the movie” on Rochon was evident recently when she entered a Beverly Hills high-rise building for an appointment. A young man who was exiting the building at the same time stopped cold when he spotted the actress, doubled back into the building and got on the elevator.
“You were great in the movie,” he said enthusiastically.
“Thanks,” she responded, with a slight smile.
“What are you working on now?” the man asked. Rochon patiently listed her upcoming projects.
“I get a lot of that now,” she said later, “people trying to be cool, trying to pump their gas next to me. It’s fun.”
But those hoping that Rochon’s upcoming roles include more revealing outfits like the ones worn by her “Exhale” character will be in for a surprise.
She wears drab outfits and goes without makeup through much of “Mr. and Mrs. Loving,” which she took on right after completing “Waiting to Exhale.” She stars with Timothy Hutton in the drama, which is based on a true story about an interracial couple in Virginia who find themselves in the middle of a landmark case that eventually ended the ban on interracial marriage in America.
Said Rochon: “I wanted to do a good film and a good character. I want to stay away from parts where she’s just the girl, where she’s just the babe. That just doesn’t interest me anymore. It’s time to do those serious roles.”
She added that audiences should not be surprised by her dramatic abilities, despite the fact that her character in “Exhale” drew many of the movie’s laughs.
“All of Robin’s humor came from a very painful place,” Rochon said. “Robin was based on the physical, but her character is every bit as dramatic as it is comedic.”
Serious roles were hard to come by early in her career. A Los Angeles native, Rochon, while still in college, appeared in videos for Lionel Richie and Luther Vandross. She then graduated to being one of the “Spuds MacKenzie” girls in Budweiser commercials.
Guest and recurring shots on “Hangin’ With Mr. Cooper,” “Roc,” “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “The Cosby Show” followed, along with notable appearances in the movies “Harlem Nights” and “Boomerang.” They were jobs, but unsatisfying.
Then came Robin.
Rochon was a huge fan of Terry McMillan’s book “Waiting to Exhale,” but was afraid to pursue an audition until a stylist friend convinced her she would be perfect for Robin. She won the role after she improvised during her audition with Whitaker.
Her dream now is to do an action movie: “I was a tomboy growing up, and an athlete. I’m just dying to do something that’s physical.”
Exhaling all the way.
“Mr. and Mrs. Loving” airs at 8 p.m. Sunday on Showtime.