"I've had such a weird career," Britt Robertson told BuzzFeed News recently. "I've kind of done little bits of everything." In the span of only 15 years, the 25-year-old actor has played a shape-shifter (Sheena), a witch (The Secret Circle), a waitress trapped under a mysterious dome (Under the Dome), and a smattering of teenagers that range from petulant (Dan in Real Life) to perfect (The First Time).
Now Robertson is tackling her biggest role to date as the lead of Disney's Tomorrowland, a big-budget spectacle co-starring George Clooney and directed by The Incredibles' Brad Bird. Robertson plays Casey Newton, a brilliant but aimless young woman who could very well be humanity's last hope for salvation.
Whether it succeeds or fails when it hits theaters on May 22, Tomorrowland marks an important moment in Robertson's career — one that began when she was 5 years old in her family's living room in North Carolina. "I remember being super, super young … in my living room, putting on shows for people and acting out monologues," she told BuzzFeed News during a recent press day for Tomorrowland at The Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills. "I remember performing and loving it."
That early passion led to community theater and then, at 12, a cross-country move to California. "I'm sure it was so hard for my mom to let me move to L.A. with my grandmother," Robertson said. "I know that's still really hard for her, knowing that she lost me for most of my childhood." The move was equally tough on Robertson, who found herself thousands of miles away from almost everyone she knew and loved. "A good amount of my life was being spent away from my parents and my siblings," she said. "There would be times where I would get really homesick and miss my mom."
But Robertson was laser-focused on finding success in Hollywood, with which she still has complicated relationship. "I don't ever want to feel like I'm a part of this town," she said. "As much as people say, 'It's a small world,' it's not a community. It's really a working environment. I've met a lot of really awesome people and I've met a lot of really crazy, awful people. So I think [my] scrappiness is … keeping me grounded and humble and working towards something great."
Through it all, Robertson said she's learned about herself as a person, about the kind of career she wanted to have, and — perhaps most significantly — about the kind of career she didn't want to have. "I never just want to give into the work and say, 'Well, I've got it, it's easy, and it comes natural,'" she said. "I want to work as hard as I can to make something that I'm really proud of."
Below, in her own, lightly edited words, Robertson reflects on seven of the roles that have made her proud, frustrated, excited, and prepared for what's next.
Dan in Real Life (2007)
Following a dozen bit parts in film and television, Robertson landed what she considers her first big break: the role of Cara Burns, a sulky teen desperate to avoid the family trip her dad (Steve Carell) has planned.
"I don't remember a lot — ever — about anything, but I do remember the audition process for Dan in Real Life because it was down to myself and two other girls. I flew to New York and we had this six-hour workshop with the director, Peter Hedges, and two of the ladies who were cast as my sisters. I remember, in that audition, the very last thing he had us do was come into the room and have this nervous breakdown about our boyfriend leaving, which was my role in the movie.
And I don't remember what came over me, because I'm not this brave usually, but I just remember being like, This is my time. I just really need to have a nervous breakdown. I need to be as crazy and go as insane as possible. And I did. I was much more crazy in that audition than I ended up being on screen. But I remember Peter came out crying — he cries a lot, he's a big crier — after all of us went in. And then he called me the very next day — which never happens — and said, 'You're going to be Cara in Dan in Real Life.'"
In June 2008, Swingtown, a drama that revolved around the sexually liberated husbands and wives living in a close-knit neighborhood during the 1970s, debuted on CBS. Robertson, who was 18 at the time, played Samantha Saxton, the mysterious girl in town on the salacious series.
"I remember after doing Dan in Real Life, my goal was that I was going to do a pilot. And I wasn't just going to audition for everything, I was going to do a pilot that I wanted to do. I remember reading that script and thinking the character was so small, but I loved that. There's something I really love about having a standout supporting role. She was so young, but having to fend for herself and live on her own, there was sort of something rough-and-tumble about that.
I love the surprise [of working in television] because every week, when you get a script, you have no idea what's going to happen next, and that is, like, the most exciting thing. 'Cause a movie, you have a gauge of what you're doing, A to Z. Your trajectory makes sense. But television, you never know, and I love that surprise element."
Life Unexpected (2010)
Robertson went from supporting player to leading lady on The CW's critically acclaimed Life Unexpected, playing Lux Cassidy, a foster child who, in an attempt to become an emancipated minor, bonds with her biological parents (Shiri Appleby and Kristoffer Polaha).
"I never thought, like, OK, I'm the lead of the show now. This is going to be way more difficult for me than anything else I've done. Luckily, I did an independent film right before then where I was the lead, so I'd gotten a bit of a taste for it. I knew what to expect, but I didn't think about it so much until we started making the show, and scripts were coming out, like, two days before we were filming. And you know, there were times when I'd get so lost, and I felt like I wasn't able or capable of leading a show. But those moments are such a growing experience. It's part of why I'm here today, honestly. Because it's like actors' boot camp. It really prepared me for the rest of my career."
Scream 4 (2011)
Along with Kristen Bell, Anna Paquin, Shenae Grimes, Lucy Hale, and Aimee Teegarden, Robertson was one of the young actors tapped to appear in the franchise's iconic opening sequence. While the script didn't offer Robertson much to work with, she jumped at the chance to follow in the footsteps of Drew Barrymore, Jada Pinkett-Smith, and Liev Schrieber.
"I loved the Scream movies, and it's the only reason I did it. I was like, OK, there's no character here. I have no idea what I'm saying. This makes no sense. I don't know what to do. And I don't necessarily regret that experience. I just wish I would have taken advantage of it more.
They offered me that part and I had to do it during the weekend of Life Unexpected that I had off and I didn't have any time with the material, and I just kind of... I didn't build a character, I wasn't thinking about who this girl is or the story. They wouldn't give me a script. I had no idea what was happening in the movie. I haven't seen Scream 4 because I'm just afraid of watching myself in it, but I remember being so sad afterwards and just thinking, like, Oh my god. This was a total opportunity to be a part of the Scream franchise, and I was just like, Oh, I'll figure it out when I get there. I'm an actor. I'll take it one day at a time. Jerk."
The Secret Circle (2011)
After the cancellation of Life Unexpected, Robertson returned to television, The CW, and the lead role with The Secret Circle, a supernatural series about witches in a small coastal town. Filming in Vancouver turned the young actors — Phoebe Tonkin, Shelley Hennig, Jessica Parker Kennedy, and Thomas Dekker — into a makeshift family, according to Robertson.
"I adored that cast, and they have become a huge part of my life. I live with Shelley Hennig, Phoebe's one of my best friends and she still has stuff in my garage. I'm so grateful for them because it was a really tough shoot. It was a really grueling shoot, and sometimes the experiences aren't as great as you want them to be. Or, you know, you don't have time with the material, and you feel lost. But when you have good people around you, it just really elevates it.
It's a similar thing with Scream 4; I wish I would have made something out of nothing. It's something I've learned. It's about working harder than you think you can work because there were so many days where I would just be exhausted and not feeling like I had enough in me or, like, OK, well, I don't know what to do with this, so I'm going to do nothing with it. And, I'm being honest with you, that was my approach some days. And it's not like I regret that. I just learned from it so much that now, even when I feel like I'm on empty, I just have to work that much harder so that I can make something out of nothing."
Under the Dome (2013)
Robertson struck gold with her next series, CBS's hugely popular adaptation of Stephen King's novel. She played Angie McAlister, who, after being trapped under the dome, was kidnapped by Junior (Alexander Koch) and held prisoner in a fallout shelter. Which meant that Robertson was acting solo for most of her scenes.
"I knew going in that that was going to be my character. That's actually what was appealing to me because it's something that I'd never really done before. I knew that it would be a smaller role and there's something really juicy and meaty about having a supporting role, because writers aren't afraid to write for you because you're not the hero and you're not having to represent certain ideas or concepts. And going into it, I knew that I'd be able to do some really fun stuff down there, and that they would ask crazy shit of me. I was excited for it."
In an odd twist of fate, Robertson believes her short-lived role on Dome — she was killed off in the Season 2 premiere — helped her land the part of Casey Newton in Tomorrowland.
"I think a partial reason why I ended up being a part of Tomorrowland was [Under the Dome executive producer and director] Jack Bender worked with Damon Lindelof [who co-wrote Tomorrowland] on Lost. I think he was a huge part in saying, like, 'She's a professional and she'll do her job right and she won't give you a hard time.' I think it definitely paid off having experience working with Jack, and the timing worked out really nicely.
I was supposed to die Episode 10 of the first season, but at the very end of the season, I was testing for Tomorrowland, and they were like, 'Well, even if you get this movie, it doesn't conflict with the end of the show. Do you want to do like another three episodes? Do you want to finish the season with everyone?' And I didn't have anything to do at the time. I still hadn't gotten Tomorrowland, so I was like, 'Definitely.'
Regardless of what happens or if people see it, working with people like Brad and George and Damon really means something to me. It means that people might take me seriously or might want to put me in another movie. So hopefully it just means longevity."
Robertson's "Swingtown" character was not a new girl in town. An earlier version of this post misstated that she was.