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'Swimming With Sharks' reboot reminds viewers Hollywood can be as cutthroat as it is glamorous

The Roku show, which stars Diane Kruger and Kiernan Shipka, follows an assistant who turns the tables on an abusive boss.
Kiernan Shipka as Lou Simms in "Swimming With Sharks."
Kiernan Shipka as Lou Simms in "Swimming With Sharks."Roku

Kathleen Robertson is no stranger to Hollywood horror stories.

Robertson, a veteran actor, alum of "90210" and screenwriter, has been in the industry since she was 10 years old. Her husband, producer Chris Cowles, worked for Scott Rudin, the powerful theater and film producer who faces multiple allegations of violent and abusive behavior toward his staff members.

But Robertson's new show, "Swimming With Sharks," isn't just about the toxic nature of Hollywood. The series — which debuts Friday on Roku — is a reboot of the 1994 film of the same name, which starred Kevin Spacey and Frank Whaley.

But this time around, the story is female-driven. Robertson wrote the show; the leads, studio head Joyce Holt (Diane Kruger) and assistant Lou Simms (Kiernan Shipka), are gender-swapped; and the story is centered more on the complex relationship between them than on the chaos of the industry itself.

"I’ve had so much proximity to this world. It was a natural space and world for me to explore," Robertson said of Hollywood. "But I didn’t really have interest in rebooting the movie as a female version and having it be the same theme."

The themes from the original movie “are more about young guy starting out and taking over, wanting to surpass his male counterpart,” she said.

“That didn’t interest me. ... I wanted to explore kind of this weird female love story. That was always my entry point.”

That's also what drew Shipka and Kruger to the project.

"I love stories about women written by women ... [and] I'm a sucker for a messed-up young lady," said Shipka, who rose to fame as Don Draper's daughter, Sally, in “Mad Men.”

Her character, Lou, does anything to climb to the top of the studio ladder. And as the show unfolds, her motives become clearer.

Kruger said she gravitated toward playing a woman in a position of power in the industry.

I love stories about women written by women.

-actor Kiernan Shipka on "swimming with sharks"

The fictional Holt terrorizes her staffers. She makes them, for example, concoct a specific tea — then fires them if they get it wrong. In one scene, she even stops her car in traffic and forces a development exec who didn't fulfill a promise get out.

But behind the scenes, Holt struggles to get pregnant as she waits for her own terrible, aging boss and abuser, Redmond (played by Donald Sutherland), to die so she can call the shots.

"We as women have struggled for many years, tried very hard, to be in these positions of power," Kruger said, adding that she was interested in portraying "what it takes to get to the top."

Women in power, no matter the industry, "still struggle with other stuff going on," she said.

As for whether Hollywood is as toxic as it was when the original film was made, the women behind the rebooted show say some things have changed for the better following the #MeToo movement.

But Hollywood as an industry remains as cutthroat as it is glamorous.

"It's still a place where everybody goes in thinking they can reinvent themselves and become part of this dream," Robertson said. "I think that it’s ultimately one of the hardest industries to be successful in. ... That is why it’s so cutthroat and corrupt. It’s dark, for sure."