The actor and C cover star talks hikes, green juice and all things California
That red bathing suit—the low-cut scoop neck, extra-high waist, and oversized lifeguard patch stitched on the hip, viewed perennially in slow motion—is as iconic as TV memorabilia gets. For actor Kelly Rohrbach, a 27-year-old model, slipping into the suit and making the role of C.J. Parker her own in this month’s big-screen adaptation of Baywatch was a unique challenge.
For a generation of television watchers in the ’90s, long before the national obsession with The Bachelor or the Real Housewives franchises took hold, Baywatch was the guiltiest of all pleasures. Lead David Hasselhoff, wearing only swim trunks, a whistle and Hawaiian Tropic SPF 4, worked hard to keep the beach safe for vacationers and grappled with interpersonal dramas, buoyed by a revolving cast of sexpots that came to embody the Southern California ideal. It’s fair to say that many of the show’s most devoted viewers would have been perfectly happy to watch beauties Yasmine Bleeth, Carmen Electra and Traci Bingham bound into the surf to save yet another sad sack from drowning with the sound off (narrative wasn’t exactly the selling point). But the most famous alum, the one whose tank suit was likely the hardest to fill in the casting of director Seth Gordon’s new Baywatch movie, was Pamela Anderson.
“I spend about half of the movie in that red suit,” says Rohrbach, who squeezes in a phone call amid a daylong stretch of meetings to talk about the movie and is game to laugh at the feature-length spoof of the show.
A Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, she is no stranger to long beach days in front of the camera. In that respect, the 5’9” blonde—who projects a kind of wholesome, athletic sexiness—was an obvious choice for the cast, which has Dwayne Johnson at its center as Mitch Buchanan, and also stars Priyanka Chopra and Zac Efron. Offscreen, however, the Greenwich, Conn., native is a far cry from Anderson and her Playboy centerfold, Tommy Lee-era persona. For starters, Rohrbach was introduced to acting through her first passion: golf.
“I was on the golf team at Georgetown University,” she says. “I was recruited to play there out of high school, and I liked the team and the coach. Some of the other athletes suggested taking an acting class because it was easy and the teacher was nice!”
What started as an “easy A” turned out to be a life-changing decision. Rohrbach spent a year abroad at a drama conservatory in London, then after graduating moved directly to L.A.
“I felt it in my bones,” she says. “I just knew it was what I wanted to do.”
While it isn’t the typical trajectory for an actor to go from collegiate athlete to guest-starring roles on Two and a Half Men and Rizzoli & Isles, Rohrbach says that the time she spent on the course and traveling the globe on the golf team prepared her for the often-solitary pursuit of acting. Having the confidence to jetset on her own, motivating herself to better her last score, and finding focus and mental clarity under pressure are all traits she developed through golf that she applies to her acting.
“My dad was a really good golfer, and I started playing with him when I was about 4 or 5,” she says. “I’m one of five kids, and he would always ask us to take our tiny clubs out to play with him, and I was the one who really wanted to go. When I was 6, I started playing five-hole tournaments. By the time I was 13, I was playing with the boys on the golf team. I was just a pip-squeak with braces and they did not want to talk to me. Those were the most embarrassing years of my life, but my dad insisted that I play with them, because he said I would have the pick of the litter with schools, and that I would be able to play forever. He was right.”
No doubt there are a few former teenage golfers in Greenwich wishing they had paid more attention to the young Rohrbach, who famously dated Leonardo DiCaprio until their whirlwind fling ended early last year. These days you’re more likely to catch her on lower-profile outings, on a slow run through the hills near Los Angeles or ordering a smoothie at the Malibu Country Mart.
“My sister lives with me here in Los Angeles now, and we love taking advantage of all of the two-hours-away cities like Ojai, Santa Barbara or Palm Springs on the weekend,” she says. “Because we’re not from here, we’re more inclined to explore, and a few hours in the car can put you skiing or in the desert. I love it.”
She recently hit the links again for the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am celebrity golf tournament at the Monterey Peninsula Country Club, which she calls “the most beautiful course I’ve ever played,” and hopes to be a regular for that annual event.
Rohrbach’s relaxed personality and “one of the guys” demeanor informed her first big-screen role as C.J. She says the character was originally written as a more stereotypical “standoffish hot girl,” but thought it would be interesting to make her more lovable.
“I told the producers that she seemed a little outdated. She was ogled, more like an object than a person. I said, ‘I don’t think that’s modern. What if we just made her a super-cool girl?’ They were open to all of those ideas.”
A tongue-in-cheek performance from Johnson, some state-of-the-art special effects and Efron’s portrayal of a gold-medal-winning Olympic swimmer turned bad boy (rumored to be inspired by the real-life antics of the U.S. Olympic Swimming Team in Brazil) put a contemporary spin on the story.
Even that famous red suit was tailored—altered from a scooped round neckline to a deep V with a gold zipper—to better suit Rohrbach, who has the potential to make an Anderson-size impact as a distinctly 21st-century household name, just in a very different way.
“They kind of let me take ownership of the part; it ended up being a lot closer to me,” she says. “If you can be nice and playful and warm, it’s more rewarding to play, and for people to watch.”