For its November issue, V honors the leaders shaping popular culture and carrying it into the future. Next up is Kelly Rohrbach, the model-turned-actress bringing new dimensions to her ‘Baywatch’ character.
For someone who’s first modeling gig was the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, Kelly Rohrbach has a markedly healthy attitude when it comes to our world’s obsession with beauty. When she was cast in next year’s tongue-in-cheek film reboot of Baywatch as C.J. Parker—the character made famous by Pamela Anderson—she was determined to revamp and modernize the role. “I didn’t want to just be a wax figure hot girl,” she says. “I sort of made her anti-perfect. Goofy, fun, and awkward at moments.” Sounds like an accurate description of the original Baywatch itself, with its infamous montages of lifeguards running in slo-mo, but Rohrbach has only fond memories of the show from her childhood in Connecticut. “It was too risqué to watch when my parents were at home,” she recalls. “So me and my two sisters would wait for them to go out. We thought it was the coolest thing.” The program stuck with her through adulthood too—just three years ago she posted a selfie on her private Instagram account wearing a red bathing suit and captioned it, “Watch out C.J., I’m coming for you!” Prophecy fulfilled, and she’s a shoe-in to make C.J. funny after flexing her comedic chops with a guest appearance on Broad City this year as a woman who somehow became even more gorgeous after getting hit by a bus.
It’s odd to think that someone who embraces that style of absurdity evolved out of a scene not exactly known for its levity: golf. “I was a really good amateur,” she says. “I got recruited to Georgetown to play on the team there. I had no idea what I wanted to study because I had chosen the school based on the team and the coach. I hadn’t thought much about what I wanted to study because I was more of an athlete.” In between her time spent swinging at balls on the fairway, she took an acting class to fulfill a humanities requirement. “I fell in love,” she recalls. “I continued taking classes at Georgetown but their drama department isn’t strong. So I went to a drama conservatory in London for six months. That was sort of my crash course in acting. I ended up deciding to major in theater and when I graduated, I moved to Los Angeles the next day.”
What came next is a scenario straight out of the aching dreams of every struggling actor. Rohrbach did a Google search for ‘’top ten talent agencies,” selected one, and got signed on her first meeting. “I just rolled the dice,” she says. “And I was very lucky.” Her first couple of years in L.A. were filled with auditions and small guest spots on television. (To give you a sense of the roles, her character’s name on two different shows was Amber, and a third credited her simply as “Young Hottie.”) Playing to some of her obvious strengths, she decided to give modeling a whirl. After booking the aforementioned SI shoot, life sped up and she landed Baywatch.
Despite the film’s hyper-awareness of itself (all signs point to a vibe goal similar to that of the 21 Jump Street reimagining), Rohrbach says that she didn’t play C.J. entirely for laughs, and strove to bring her some emotional weight. “She’s super grounded and unaffected. She doesn’t see herself the way the world sees her on the outside.” The same can be said of Rohrbach herself, whose philosophical musings break model-turned-actress stereotypes. (Except the one about dating Leonardo DiCaprio—she totally did that.) Consider her thoughts about entering the entertainment business: “The opportunity arose and I took it,” she says with a shrug. “It took me down a really cool path, and I learned to not limit yourself to something because you think you are that thing. You are nothing. You are everything. Ride that wave.” Spoken like a true lifeguard.