Hadley Robinson on Role of Jeanie Buss in HBO’s Lakers ‘Winning Time’ Series


Hadley Robinson has never met Jeanie Buss, and certainly not the Jeanie Buss of the 70s and 80s when we meet the character of winning time, the Adam McKay-directed HBO drama chronicling the rise of the then-Showtime Lakers. But Robinson, the actress behind winning time‘s Jeanie, didn’t think she needed to meet the real woman to understand her: in Jeanie, she recognized some of her own fierceness. Like Moxie and Little woman actress Robinson said, the character has “this bubbly personality, but there’s something underneath.” Robinson, who speaks with the interwoven warmth and intensity of an ambitious 20-something millennial, might understand.

Currently the majority owner and president of the Los Angeles Lakers, Buss has yet to comment on the broadcast on the filing. (A 2019 interview with Claire Rothman, former general manager and vice president of Lakers arena The Forum, suggests that Buss was not thrilled with the series: “I certainly respected Jeanie, whose opinion was not to not cooperate [with HBO]“, she revealed. “And she sent me the script, which they had sent to her. Only the first episode. And she thought I would get a kick out of it. ‘) While Robinson doesn’t need the Lakers legend’s praise, she still hopes to do the real woman justice. As a young woman in a predominantly male-dominated front office led by the likes of her affable but womanizing father, Dr. Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly), she stages a slow but steady battle that leads directly to the owner’s headquarters.

“I hope,” says Robinson, “that she sees herself as the hero [of the show].”

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Ahead, the actress discusses the unique challenge of playing a living person, the powerful yet (sometimes) special relationship between Jeanie and her father, and the future of her involvement with the HBO series.

What did you know about the Lakers organization before accepting this position?

I do not have [know anything]. I grew up in Vermont and all we have is skiing, which isn’t much fun to watch, in my opinion, so I didn’t really grow up around the sport. I knew nothing of the NBA and very little of Jeanie Buss; I had just heard his name. I think I knew the least of everyone, including the casting team, but it was fun for everyone trying to educate me. I think Jeanie was in a similar position where she wanted to work for her father. She had studied commerce and it was something that interested her, but it was not yet her passion. She learned this as she went along.

So how did you catch up, research-wise? More specifically with Jeanie, where did you start?

There are so many balls in the air in this role, and I love the challenges, but it’s really crazy because you play someone who exists and, moreover, he is still alive. Then you’re also thrown into the 70s, so you want to consider everything about what’s going on politically and culturally and how people were moving around in 1979, how people were talking. It is therefore not only [playing] a person that exists, but that person subtracts 40 years from their life.

Her parents divorced when she was just 11, and then she plunged into work almost immediately. Even at 13, her father would take her to meetings and she would sit. So psychoanalyzing and trying to understand her under what she is presentation-wise – because we see, through interviews, a very politicized version of her. So my research mainly consisted of watching interviews, reading articles, finding out everything she has done, what her full background has been.

I learned at school not to fall into the trap of imitation. Because then you end up watching yourself, and that’s not why people are going to watch TV and movies at the end of the day. So I just learned to [focus on] three things: the big, bright smile, because I think that’s a big part of who she is and what people know her to be; how she stands and her ticks and how she walks; and… there was a picture of her that I saw, and it’s of her biting her lip while watching a game. And it feels like such an intimate moment where she’s just alone in her head. I included that a lot in this first season. It’s that alertness and insight that she has on the sidelines as she watches everything happen and plays this internal chess game, figuring out what moves she’s going to make next.

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Much of what we see on the show is her relationship with her father, Dr. Jerry Buss. She idolizes him, of course, but it’s also her role to fulfill his “needs”, however inappropriate they may be for a teenage daughter. How did you think about this relationship during filming?

[The real-life Jeanie] speaks publicly about how much she loves her father on a fairly consistent basis, and I believe her when she says it; you can see the love there. You can really see it. I think the problem at the beginning of their relationship was his relationship with women and alcohol and power, which were these very masculine traits he had. She was trying to find a way to have a relationship with her father, his flaws and all. I can’t even imagine being 14 and having a dad dating all these young Playboy girls. We included that a bit in the show; he has this “more, more, more” mentality, like he’s never satisfied. I think [Jeanie] saw that and maybe it reflected in her like, “Oh, maybe I’m never enough either.” Which makes her want to push for her father’s acceptance even more. Love goes hand in hand with these tumultuous feelings.

win time

Robinson, as Jeanie, and Gaby Hoffman, who plays Claire Rothman.

Warrick Page/HBO

Jeanie is already one of the few female characters on the show, but she’s also one of the few female characters we see actively fighting the sexism around her. Lots of other women – maybe they don’t want to, but they have to acquiesce, whereas Jeanie is more active in leading. But even she is forced to acquiesce to her father’s baser impulses. How did you approach these two conflicting parts of her, keeping in mind how young she was?

Oh darn. Absolutely, because you’re so right—Jessie [Buss, played by Sally Field] and clear [Rothman, played by Gaby Hoffman]The characters nod, as you said, because it’s normal for them. They’ve adapted and they know the ins and outs of how to operate in a male-dominated world. And they didn’t give in, but they found a way to live in the system. And I think Jeanie – the interesting thing about her as a woman on the show and in her family and at work is that I don’t think she’s going to accept that normalcy. She has far too many ideas, she is far too passionate and she is also part of a new generation of women.

With Jessie and Claire, there are lines where they basically say, “It’s too late for me. I did my best with what I was given as a woman, but you can do better. And they give him clues, advice and secrets about what they did wrong and what they could have done better. I think Jeanie soaks it all up. There are a few scenes that show this sexism, and I’m glad they’re on display because that was a big part of a working girl’s life in the 70s. You see how Claire and Jessie are treated, and I think Jeanie is watching and she just says, “It’s not going to be like that with me.”

Did you have the chance to speak with the real Jeanie?

I did not do it. I decided not to reach out, simply because I didn’t want that initial bias in any way. Maybe one day we will meet; I would love to meet her. I decided it might not be the best decision for me because there was already so much in the script and story, and I had so many resources at my fingertips. I don’t know if I could bear to meet the real person.

Playing someone who’s alive – that’s such an important part [of the role’s challenge] because you have to stop thinking about what the person himself is going to think. It can be terrifying because you want to do this person justice, but you also want to stay true to the story. I think there was some anxiety about it.

[Winning Time] felt different from any project I’ve done. I felt more challenged, which I really like. And we also toured for so long. Sometimes I really fell into Jeanie and couldn’t get out of it. It was a strange experience, learning to leave someone behind who you play.

What do you think she would think of the show?

[There are] so many different parts and moving parts that I’m sure she would have different opinions on. But I’m proud of the work I’ve done as Jeanie, and I think I’m doing her a favor because I’m telling this as the story of a hero’s journey. And I hope she would see herself as the hero.

I can’t imagine watching a show based on my life, watching something that she experienced when those memories are probably so clear. But I think if she forgot for a second that it was something she had been through, and if she considered that [the show is] greatly fictionalized, so I think she could sit down and hopefully enjoy it.

save time hbo

John C. Reilly (as Dr. Jerry Buss) with Hoffman and Robinson.

Warrick Page/HBO

If this show continues after Season 1 in any form, would you like to return?

Absolutely. Because I feel like season one is all about building relationships and how Jeanie maneuvers a family setting and a work setting. But in the second season, I think there’s a turning point for her where she really finds her groove. There is so much more to discover and explore. I want to see parts of the Jeanie that we know now really come to the surface.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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