Q&A: How Britt Robertson thinks her ‘For the People’ character is different from other Shondaland leads

Actress Britt Robertson sat in legal classes to prepare for her role as public defender Sandra Bell in "For the People." Above, Robertson after her 2015 movie "Tomorrowland."
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Britt Robertson has abandoned her quirky ’70s outfit from the short-lived Netflix series “Girlboss” and is now in business suit attire for ABC’s new legal series, "For the People," in which she stars as Sandra Bell, a passionate and noble defender. The show is the latest entry in the slate of dramas from the factory of executive producer Shonda Rhimes.

The drama, which premieres March 13, revolves around Sandra and five other young attorneys starting their professional careers in one of the country’s most high-profile federal courts, New York’s southern district, also known as the “Mother Court.”

“For the People” creator Paul William Davies says he believes the series provides a more realistic and balanced view of the judicial system than other shows in the genre. The young attorneys grapple with moral and personal dilemmas as they showcase arguments in controversial cases, and "not in a gimmicky way,” Davies added.

"The federal judiciary has been more prominent in the news in the last year since Trump was elected, and that to me is something that’s important for us to contend with," said Davies, who formerly practiced law. "We live in our own universe on TV, but a lot of these real-world issues that are coming up are ones we have an opportunity to engage with."

In a phone interview, Robertson, who also starred in Disney’s “Tomorrowland” and “The Longest Ride,” talked about her new role, being part of “Shondaland” and her “sad” love for reality television.

What was it like switching gears from playing a character like the unruly and brash Sophia from Netflix’s "Girlboss" to Sandra?

Sophia has a lot of energy. She's constantly exerting herself emotionally, and she’s always driving every scene. That was a lot of fun to play, but also totally exhausting, and I didn’t anticipate that. With this project, it's a little more grounded and the character is obviously more mature. She’s not at all invested in herself, she’s mainly prioritizing the clients in her life, and the main focus always is her job.

How did you find out you got the role?

I auditioned, and I felt not great about it. It was a world I was not comfortable with. I thought these people would look at me and laugh at me, just the fact I was presenting myself as a lawyer. They had to powder me at one point, it was kind of a mess. I thought, “There's no way I’m getting it,” and when they told me I did, I was confused. One of the directors [Tom Verica] called me to congratulate me, and I said to him, “I promise I'll be better when I show up to work.” Even then, it was still one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done.

Did you have much of a legal background or knowledge of the judicial system? What research did you do for the role?

I didn’t have a ton of time. They gave me a lot of phone numbers of public defenders in the southern district of New York, so I was able to have them as a resource. My main tool was this attorney, Christine Lewis, who I used a lot and did a lot of my research for me. I have a very good friend who is studying to be a lawyer, so I dropped in a lot of her classes and I try to read a lot, which sometimes became overwhelming.

What was it like being part of Shondaland?

It's incredible what Shonda has been able to create in the last decade. She has some of the best crews working for her, and being a part of that was so cool. It was such a diverse group of people. Six out of our 10 directors were female. It felt like an honor to be a part of this process.

What makes Sandra different from other Shondaland characters like Annalise Keating (“How to Get Away With Murder”) or Olivia Pope (“Scandal”)?

Something I find phenomenal about my character Sandra Bell is she’s seemingly asexual. She has some interest in humans and finds them attractive or useful, but for the most part, her entire world and focus is her job. Sandra is not anyone’s girlfriend, she’s not in a love affair — not to say she won’t be in the future — but at this point, she’s so focused on her work, and I think that's a cool element of the female existence to capture.

What have you been watching recently?

I’m really sad about watching lots and lots of reality TV. I was in the group of people who were watching "The Bachelor" recently. And I’m so excited for "American idol. "

‘For the People’

Where: ABC

When: 10 p.m. Tuesday

Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for coarse language)

Twitter: @r_valejandra