Cynthia Addai-Robinson hates handling firearms. “Your palms sweat. It’s terrifying,” the actress explained. As Nadine Memphis, the badass FBI agent she portrays on USA Network’s hit series Shooter, Addai-Robinson shows no fear. Based on the 2007 film starring Mark Walberg, the series centers on Bob Lee Swagger (Ryan Phillipe), a former Marine Sniper who finds himself entangled in a plot to kill the President. This isn’t her first foray in the ballsy woman category. In 2016’s The Accountant she played no-nonsense analyst Marybeth Medina. Her breakout role in Starz’s Spartacus was as the Roman slave-turned defiant-warrior Naevia.
Ahead of the season premiere of Shooter, EBONY.com sat down with Addai-Robinson to chat about the series, why she’s obsessed with musicals and what’s next.
EBONY.com: On Shooter your character Nadine was originally written for a man. How did you snag the role and what changes did you make to ensure that this was a role befitting a strong and powerful woman?
Cynthia Addai-Robinson: The series Shooter is based on the film. It was Michael Peña that played the role of Nick Memphis. I wasn’t as familiar with the movie and I went back and forth and asked myself, “How much do I want to take of what was established in the movie and apply it to this version of a character who is now a female FBI agent?” It was a nice opportunity to be able to create my own interpretation and put my own stamp on the character. She becomes the person on the inside who helps [Ryan Philippe’s character]Bob Lee Swagger. Someone within the U.S. government frames him and he has to find a way to be on the run and clear his name at the same time. In the first season, you essentially see almost a reluctant partnership between these two characters. What’s really great is getting the opportunity to play a really strong female character opposite a really interesting male character and have it go beyond something as straightforward as a love interest. It’s a meeting of the minds and they challenge each other and they help each other. I was excited to get that chance. What’s great is moving forward to season two it’s an extension of what you see in her character in the first season. Now there is time to go a bit deeper and see a little more of her personal life. Who is this character when she’s not on the field as an agent? It’s nice because sometimes, I feel like you have two extremes when it comes to a female character. You either have the woman on the side —the love interest, the wife or you’re the fierce, strong woman and you have no life [and] no sex appeal. Certainly, when it comes to the women in my life they’re all of those things and more. You get to show all sides of a woman’s character and personality. That’s really compelling to me.
EBONY.com: What have you learned about yourself from playing Nadine?
Addai-Robinson: I’ve never had to handle firearms before. It’s a really intense experience. I have a lot of respect for people who work in fields where that is part of their job. It’s not something that I take lightly. We have someone on the show who is a former Marine Sniper and he’s our weapons and military advisor. It’s something that is an extension of the character who has an intention to fire a gun. But your body has its own response. Your palms sweat. It’s terrifying, but you get into a hyper-focus. Even if I do have this nervousness when it’s time to get behind the gun and aim with the intention of whatever I’m trying to do, that has to go away because the camera picks up everything. As Nadine I have to be focused and tough. It’s also been nice in this particular project to play a character that is a little grounded in reality. A lot of the other projects that I’ve worked on, which have been absolutely amazing opportunities and really fun roles that have been larger than life, they are big epic dramas with crazy costumes and lots of moving parts. This feels a little bit closer to what I actually am. They’re a lot of big moments on our show. Things are exploding and [there are] stunts, but there are also a lot of intimate moments as well. I feel really lucky that a lot of my scenes are just with one other actor whether it be Ryan or Omar [Epps]. It really feels like you’re able to lock in with the other actors and really just explore the dynamic of what’s going on with these two characters and what they want from each other. That to me is the top thing for actors. You just want to feel really present.
EBONY.com: Have you deliberately chosen powerful characters?
Addai-Robinson: I think I’ve been very fortunate. I would love to say that I’ve been in a position to cherry pick my own roles. The reality is that these are the roles that come to me. Whether it’s casting directors or producers, they must see something in me that they believe I can inhabit this type of woman. That is really flattering. I don’t feel like I’ve been pigeonholed. In my day-to-day existence I don’t know that I am the easiest person to read. I try to use that to my advantage. In my life and growing up I’ve always had an interesting relationship to identity. Having to adapt to different environments and different groups of people, maybe even being a version of myself to fit within whatever situation I’ve been in as a means of survival. As an actor you get the opportunity to put on all of these different identities and personas, but the through line from a lot of the characters that I’ve played is strength coupled with real vulnerability. If I’m lucky I’ll get to keep going in the direction that I’ve been going in. I’ll always have the opportunity to have a role that feels multidimensional and has a sense of intelligence whether that’s book smart or street smart. They don’t exist to just serve another character. They get to have their own sense of agency. They get to use their own brain. That feels to me like it’s not just a trend; it gets to be closer to what is out there in the real world.
EBONY.com: We are in a renaissance of film and television for people of color. Have you found that you are receiving more scripts or that you’re being sought out for certain roles?
Addai-Robinson: I’ve definitely had the odd audition here or there where I’ve thought, “Maybe not.” Or I’ve tried to make the case to be seen for certain things and they just weren’t going in that direction. They have a lot of these subtle phrases where at the end of the day you understand that they can’t open up their definition of what they think the character looks like. That’s always challenging for me. In the last few years I’ve been really fortunate where I felt like nothing was ever tied to my background. I’ve gone from a sword and sandals Roman epic to a comic book story to a western to Shooter —this contemporary geo-political thriller, to The Accountant and never did I feel like there were any limitations on me. So that feels like some sort of progress. There is no going back from that in my mind so I’m excited about moving forward and continuing to see representation not just for African Americans or any other cultures that I know, but even being able to watch something like Master of None that it feels so universal. It feels like these are people that I know in my real life. That feels not just exciting but really appealing.
EBONY.com: What does a dream role look like for you?
Addai-Robinson: A dream role is a role that you can’t even picture for yourself. Everything I’ve ever played I never pictured I would get a chance to play. It [has] gone beyond my wildest dreams. One thing I would love to do in my lifetime is a movie musical. I’ve wanted to do that since I was a kid. That’s what made me interested in acting in the first place. I would do any type of musical, but I love the Harlem Renaissance era. I think a dream role in something that I probably can’t see and I don’t know when it’s going to come.
EBONY.com: What’s next for you?
Addai-Robinson: I’m really inspired right now by a lot of the actors and actresses who are pursuing storytelling outside of just acting. They’re writing, producing, they are creating their own material. That’s really exciting to me. It feels like the possibilities are endless as far the things that you can make and even where they can be shown. It’s not just limited to watching a movie; web content is out there, anything that just comes from a genuine creative place. I very much wanting to get into that realm. If I have a platform and there are certain stories that I feel are important and that need to be told, how can I facilitate that? Maybe it’s acting, or maybe it’s developing or producing or writing. There are actors who are absolutely doing that. I think it’s an exciting time. I’m also really excited for Shooter to be out there in the world. In the second season we are going in a direction that feels really relevant to what’s happening. We never set out to be a political show. This was a show that was in development before the election, and even the film is based on a series of book. How it plays in the world is really interesting to me and allows for the opportunity to explore it in a thoughtful nuanced way. I would love to keep exploring especially as the news changes daily in real life. Who knows where we are next year? It would be great to get a change in further seasons to keep exploring it in this parallel universe. We had a really great response during the first season and we really want to build on what we started.
Shooter returns July 18 on USA Network