Outtakes Online: More with Michelle
BY MIKE GORDON / firstname.lastname@example.org
I talk to people every day for stories I write, but more often than not my interviews are brief and superficial. We’re both going so quickly through our day that a real conversation seems nearly impossible to have.
But every now and then I have an opportunity to really talk to someone. And better still, that person opens up and shares stories I’ve never heard before and certainly never expected. Surprises are still the best part of this job.
That’s how it was a few weeks ago with actress Michelle Borth, who stars as a Catherine Rollins on “Hawaii Five-0.”
She’s been a working actress for more than a decade, starring in HBO’s controversial show about intimacy, “Tell Me You Love Me,” and ABC’s war-inspired drama, “Combat Hospital.” Both were short-lived projects. “Five-0” is the first hit show she’s been a part of and the experience is a definite thrill.
I wrote a print story after my interview, held at the Modern Honolulu in Waikiki, but did not have anywhere near the amount of space for the bulk of our chat. So I transcribed nearly all of it and that’s what appears below. It’s an honest and frank conversation with a talented actress who also happens to be a very nice person.
Star-Advertiser: Why did it take so long to become a regular on the show?
Michelle Borth: It was actually by choice. What happened was I was offered the role and I was happy to take it but I always knew it would be sort of a small recurring guest star.
In between that though I was really ambitious about getting my own show. I really wanted to try, as opposed to saying, OK I will have a small role on their show. I really wanted try to go out there and hit the pavement when it came to pilot season and just see if I could do it. And that’s where “Combat Hospital” (from ABC) came in. And Peter (Lenkov, H50 executive producer) is my biggest cheerleader. He has been pitching me this show since the beginning and trying to get me to come on board. But I was like, let me spread my wings. It was just more personal, career-wise wanting to try and see if I could get my own gig.
And for that reason alone is why it took so long. I just needed to go out there and give it a shot. And I’m glad that I did because had I come on sooner, I think I would always be wondering what could have happened if I had tried.
SA: That’s an interesting tattoo on your wrist.
MB: It’s sanskrit and it means “heal.” It’s a very interesting story. It actually came from “Tell Me You Love Me” (from HBO). It was a story that I had told one of the writers about my personal life and she actually wrote it into the show for my character and I was so excited. And she was like, “Oh we will get a small decal and we’ll put it on.” And I was like, “What do you mean?” She said, “A decal, someone will draw it.” I said, “No, if we are going to do this, let’s do this.” And she was like, “Oh that’s brilliant, yes.”
So we got three cameras and a real tattoo artist on the sound stage and we shot it live. So what you see on television is me actually getting a tattoo. It was a parallel of me wanting it for personal reasons in my life and my character Jaime wanting it. And they were just crossing paths. It was wonderful and I was like, “Why not?” And then I have something to always remember it by. It’s my reminder and part of my mantra of just heal from wounds in the past and move on.
SA: What did Peter Lenkov say to get you on the show? What as his pitch?
MB: To be completely honest, I would say the pitch was … it was offered. We’re always very grateful and blessed when we don’t have to audition for something. It’s always a compliment when someone just asks you and says, please come and be a part of our show. That’s always really flattering.
So that was the initial request. For me to come on full time … the show had now become such a huge success and in my experience I have unfortunately never been part of a successful show, so that was the biggest draw to me. I just wanted to be on a show that people wanted to watch and that I believe is a great show.
(“Hawaii Five-0″ is) a quality show and I hadn’t really had that experience since “Tell Me You Love Me” and I was really, really just craving to be part of something I was proud of.
SA: “Tell Me You Love Me” aired in 2007. There was a gap.
MB: I was lucky and so grateful that I consistently worked. I’ve been able to support myself acting for over a decade now but nobody knows my name because I have been on shows that nobody watches and they get canceled after one season.
I have been doing the grind for a while and finally I was like, “I want to be on a show that people know the name of.”
(“Five-0″) has a cache to it. I’m an actress. Oh really? What have you done? In the past it was, ok there was this show on ABC that nobody watched and a show on CBS. Now I can just say “Hawaii Five-0.” I don’t have to try and explain myself. No I am an actress for real. No I am not waiting tables. I swear I am an actress.
I would say I am really lucky and I’m really grateful. But I definitely got no passes. I did it up the ladder, step by step… I did it the hard way. But I love that. I’m really proud of that.
SA: What’s the hardest part about being Steve McGarrett’s girlfriend? You work a lot with Alex O’Loughlin. I’m sure fans are jealous.
MB: The hardest part is having to spend all day with Alex on set. Honestly it’s a dream job. There is nothing hard about it. I love it. And I really adore Alex as a person and admire him so much. He has taught me a ton. He doesn’t really even know how grateful I am for him. He is a family man. He is No. 1 on our call sheet and he conducts himself so professionally and he is so much fun and he has it all.
As a woman, I don’t know if I can have it all, if I can have kids and be married and handle the work. And I watch him every day and think if he can do it, I can do it. He is a huge role model to me. So there is nothing bad about it.
SA: What does Alex bring to the scene for you? He told me recently that he liked what you brought to a show.
MB: He brings so much authenticity. When we do a scene together… it’s funny he almost makes me want to work harder.
Sometimes you can get to a point, especially on TV, where it is really easy to phone it in. You just read the lines that day. You get your lines that day, you’re in make-up. You memorize them. You hit your marks and the day is done. I’ve caught myself doing that in the past, maybe not caring enough or putting enough work in because it was easy to do and it’s a little bit of laziness.
But what I realize working with Alex is he is in this 100 percent all the time. He is never phoning it in. For me that makes me work harder and brings me in the moment and allows me to go to different places I wouldn’t have before. We would have gone out there and said our lines and made it look natural. But with him it goes a little bit deeper and I think that’s why so many people really love the relationship because with what we can show on a network I think people buy it. I think people really love it and believe it. He kind of brings that out in me. We have these little moments that are really genuine and really sincere.
SA: You’ve had several action scenes this season. How much training is involved?
MB: It’s definitely the most physical role I have ever been in. I’m not in a gym every day working out. Not by any means. But definitely the first three months I was here I was doing three to four days a week with Danny Kim (my trainer).
We kind of do more kick boxing. But it’s an insane workout and I learned how to throw a punch properly — it comes from behind and the hips — so when we get on set it is believable and they don’t have to use the stunt double. That an elbow or a high kick or a roundhouse, I can actually do it and it looks like me.
But I never had to train physically for anything before. And it’s fun. This is the first show where I have to make sure my body is in intact.
SA: Are you one of those people who love to work out?
MB: No, I don’t like it. No, I don’t like it at all. I wish I could be that person that loves it and it makes me feel amazing. But I hate every moment of working out. I don’t like it. I am exhausted afterward.
I don’t know where the high comes from. I don’t get it. Somehow people feel amazing but I don’t. I’m tired and I want to go eat. I don’t get that high from working out. But I do consider it part of the job and that makes it easier. It is not a choice I have.
SA: I saw photo of you surfing. Was that on the job training?
MB: That was me trying to find stuff to do in Hawaii, learning different hobbies. And if they ever wanted to write a scene — Catherine does surf — and if they ever wrote a scene where she surfs, I could do it.
SA: What conclusions have you reached about your character?
MB: I would say she is not as serious as I thought she was. At all.
I only do so much work into character building and then I have to do what is given to me from the writers. And I trust our writers. So whatever they give me, I embrace. And they give me a lot of one-liners and these snarky little remarks that I don’t think I personally would have predicted.
SA: So you moved to Hawaii full-time for “Five-0.” That’s a big commitment.
MB: Yeah, it is. It’s a huge commitment. And it’s kind of the nature of the beast. I have done it for the last couple of shows I have been on. I haven’t actually lived in L.A. for a while.
When I signed on, I signed on to be full-time. So it wouldn’t be a situation where I flew in and flew out. That would be too much. So signing on full-time for me is a full commitment. I come here, I immerse myself, not only in Hawaii but in the show. And I just made that commitment.
I still have a house in L.A. I’m from New York but I have been in L.A. for 12 years. I still have a house there but I am actually going to get rid of it. For some reason I actually thought I would go back more but I really don’t. I don’t want to and that’s a good thing. That’s a good sign that I am not on a plane flying back to L.A. all the time. I only go back when I have to.
I decided for next year I am going to get rid of my place in L.A. and commit even more so that this is my home.
SA: You’ve made a real connection with “Five-0” fans in Hawaii. What prompted that? Why give up your privacy?
MB: I am going to be really honest. At first I wanted to do it because in the past with previous female characters they have had it really tough coming onto this show, especially with social media. And I knew that coming into this and I knew that it wasn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea.
So my idea was to kind of reach out first and sort of send an olive branch out. I’m here. I want to embrace you guys and I want you guys to embrace me. And then it has grown into something much more personal. So I would say initially the reason behind doing that was that I just wanted to start on a good foot with the people here. I wanted to make the effort to start out on a good foot with everybody. But now it is more personal. I genuinely care about the people I interact with online, about my fans and how much their support means to me and how much I really enjoy it.
I didn’t tweet much before. Maybe once a month I would write something. They show me so much love here that I have never received on anything else I have worked on. It is really incredible the amount of support I have been given. And why not embrace all the love that people have to give?
I understand actors wanting their privacy and some not being into it. I don’t feel that way. I am extremely open with everything in my life. So I almost feel this is part of my job. If people know who you are then your life is sort of public.
SA: Are you recognized on the street?
MB: A little bit but nothing like the others get. I can’t imagine what it is like to be in their shoes. My life is still relatively under the radar.
And when people do recognize me, they are always very nice. It never bothers me. Maybe if it got to the point where it was overwhelming I might feel differently but it’s not like that now. I feel lucky.
SA: How would you describe Michelle Borth?
MB: I would like to say this. I am not the girl next door. I think there is this perception or I feel like there is this perception of me being that. And I certainly don’t know why or where that came from. I would like to break that mold.
I think the girl next door is an idea of someone who is wholesome and perfect and I’m so far from that. Yeah I would say I am a lot more complicated than that. I have a huge, huge heart. And I do everything to the extreme. I think I love to the extreme. I think that I can be sad to the extreme. And I can be angry to the extreme.
SA: Tell us something more.
MB: I came from less than humble beginnings. We had a lot of battles and struggles to overcome growing up. Lower income, single parent.
My mom was a single mom and we moved around a lot. I think a lot of that led to me becoming an actress because when you move around a lot and go to different schools you have to learn to become somebody else all the time to fit in, to somewhat be a chameleon. So I learned how to be a chameleon really well. If not to fit in, to just hide. So there was a lot of that.
I grew up all around … I have two half brothers in my life… There is a 12-year age difference and I had a big hand in raising them. They’re more like my kids than my brothers. They call me mamina, which means little mom in Italian.
SA: How did this shape your outlook on life?
MB: I honestly don’t think that if I didn’t have the work ethic that I had from my mother and seeing how hard she worked and how hard it was, I don’t know if I would have succeeded, to be honest. You can get discouraged so easily in this business with so many rejections and all of that … You just have to keep trying and getting up and keep doing it over again if this is what you want.
And that’s the key to me: We had to fight for everything we wanted and nothing was ever handed to us. And it’s the same way with my career. No part of my career was ever handed to me. I didn’t get a lucky break from anybody. I fought for all of it and I really thank my mom for that. If I had come from a more privileged place I would have said, Oh this is too hard, forget it, I don’t want it.
SA: Well, you could make a case for “Tell Me You Love Me” as a break out part.
MB: That was a springboard for sure. Again, that was a role I had to fight for. There was a big back and forth on whether or not they wanted me because they kind of wanted a name.
SA: How did you explain the explicit content of that series to your mother?
MB: My mother is a tough, strong beautiful, Sophia Loren-gorgeous, free-spirited woman.
My mom was the mom in a thong walking around topless while everyone else at the public pool was, “What is she doing?” There was no shyness and I have always been raised to be very free and confident, especially in my sexuality and my confidence as a woman. She did a fabulous job with that. So for me there was no issue.
It’s really funny, but when I told my mom about the show and how graphic it was going to be and I told her that my brothers were not allowed to see it, she was, “OK, I understand.” She was so excited she threw a block party for the premiere of “Tell Me You Love Me” which is probably the most graphic episode of the entire series. She threw a barbecue at our house for all the neighbors. She was so proud.
To us, sex isn’t something to be ashamed of. It never has been. We embrace our bodies. We embrace all of that. And so for my mom it wasn’t a big deal. I just thought it was hysterical. I wasn’t there but I can just imagine everyone with their mouths open and my mom going, “That’s my girl! That’s my girl!”
SA: Did you h ave a rough time of high school?
MB: Yeah, awful. I was the awkward kid who ate lunch by herself reading Anne Rice books. I was socially awkward.
I didn’t mature until later in my life because of gymnastics. Gymnastics threw my whole body off. I kind of looked like a 12-year-old boy until my early 20’s. It was really awkward. I had muscles where you shouldn’t have muscles. I didn’t have any boobs. I didn’t feel female. I didn’t look female. I just hadn’t grown into myself yet. I was very introverted and I myself am just generally awkward.
It works for me now but it didn’t work for me that great back then.
SA: That should surprise a lot of people.
MB: It was a combination of having to go to a lot of different high schools where everyone has grown up together and you were the new kid. I was the new kid a lot of the time. But I also didn’t care if people liked me and I didn’t go out of my way to try to make friends. I was always a bit of a loner and in that respect.
Because I was extremely independent, I grew up really fast. So I think a lot of it came from having a lot of responsibilities at a young age that most people don’t have.
SA: If you wrote a script for “Five-0” what would you have your character do?
MB: That’s a great question. If it was a Catherine-centric episode I would probably want to gear it more toward the dramatic and not so much in a physical, action way.
I would love to highlight something that’s important whether it be child abuse or neglect or maybe even something if there was a case where a woman got raped and we would have a conversation about something difficult and maybe geared more towards women for that one episode. Have a conversation about how to empower women or how to prevent sexual abuse or physical abuse. Just tailor it more toward women on more of a conversational level than they normally have.
I think TV can be an amazing platform to talk about issues that people don’t want to talk about. We can make them into stories and affect people’s lives.
SA: What’s the workload for you on “Five-0”?
MB: For me it’s so random. For the core four they have a set schedule. But for me, I get Catherine-centric episodes and then I get episodes where I have one scene. So it all depends on what I am given that week.
The bad part is I never know what my schedule will be so I can’t pre-plan anything. But the good part is that it is always spontaneous. I can have eight days of full, intense work then it could be two scenes and I have the rest of the week off. So it leads my life into having to be a little more spontaneous which is great for me.
And in the in-betweens I have to say I have gotten a little lazy toward the end of the season. I used to surf every day. And I have a dog so I go to the park and I love to read and write so I am little bit of a nerd like that. I don’t surf half as much as I used to. I hate that.
I try to find things to fill my time but it’s a laid back lifestyle. I have embraced the Hawaiian lifestyle, completely. So there are some days where I am just chilling watching Netflix. That will happen quite often.
Mike Gordon covers film and television in Hawaii for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter. Read his weekly “Outtakes” column Sundays in the Star-Advertiser.