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Back in 2017, Robinne Lee dropped by a local L.A. news station for an interview promoting her role in “Fifty Shades Darker,” the second film in the steamy series based on books by E.L. James.

“You’re venturing out a little bit now with a new novel…” the KCAL anchor said to Lee, whose filmography already included “Deliver Us From Eva,” “Hitch” and “13 Going on 30,” teeing the actor up to mention her career pivot. “I have a novel coming out this spring called ‘The Idea of You,’” Lee replied, grinning.

The premise was unique: A divorced mother and art gallery owner, living in L.A. on the precipice of turning 40, takes her daughter to a concert meet-and-greet and the 20-year-old lead singer of the band falls in love with her. The story, Lee explained, was “as much about a love story complicated by celebrity and the underbelly of fame” as it was an exploration of what it’s like to be a woman facing middle age and challenging society’s problematic notions that you’re no longer “sexually viable” or “multilayered” past that point.

“Might we see it on a big screen?” the reporter then prompted. “I hope so!” Lee replied. “I feel like it could play really well in a theater.”

Well, fast forward to 2024: “The Idea of You” has become a massive bestseller (surging in popularity amid the pandemic in 2020) and now, it’s been adapted into a movie starring Oscar winner Anne Hathaway and Nicholas Galitzine.

“It’s been a long journey, so there hasn’t been on moment of ‘Ah, this is wonderful!’” Lee says, chatting with Variety over Zoom in the days leading up to the film’s release on Prime Video. “All these little things have been keeping me busy, so I haven’t had tunnel vision on the adaptation.”

That moment came a few days later at the film’s New York City premiere, where Lee posed on the purple carpet and took it all in. “Last night was like a dream ten years in the making. Completely and utterly surreal,” she captioned her Instagram post, adding the hashtag “Proud Author Moment.”

Gabrielle Union was there, too, but not in her usual movie star capacity. She’d been part of Lee’s journey from the beginning: the two played sisters in the 2003 rom-com “Deliver Us From Eva,” so the budding author sent Union an advanced copy of “The Idea of You” to write a blurb in support.

Union says she realized almost immediately — “when I kept stopping along the way and I’d cry and write notes” — that Lee’s story was special. So, she slipped the book to her husband, Dwyane Wade. “He had similar responses, but also dramatically different responses, and I was like, ‘This Is a movie, and this has the potential to be huge,’” she recalls.

Armed with that information, Union asked Lee if she could option the book and introduced the author to Oscar-winning producer Cathy Schulman, who led the charge to get the film made, with Hathaway signed on to star and Michael Showalter as its director.

“Robinne was kind enough to allow me to produce the first project that I wasn’t going to be starring in, and that was a huge vote of confidence on her part,” Union says of shepherding the movie via her I’ll Have Another banner. “As a friend, I wanted to do right by her because I love the book. I am a stan of the book. I wanted the movie to be close enough, but also different. So if you’re a fan of the book, or if you watch the movie first and then read the book, it will still feel like discovery.”

And Union’s instinct was correct. “The Idea of You” was the No. 1 streaming movie of the May 3-9 viewing window with 714.2 million minutes watched in its first full week of availability on Prime Video, per Luminate. (Disclosure: Variety and Luminate share a common owner in PMC.)

Read on as Lee and Union reflect on their experience with “The Idea of You” and the impact they hope the film has on Hollywood.

Robinne, if you could go back to 2017, what would you tell yourself about the journey that you were about to go on? The Robin who’s a debut author wondering, “Is anybody going to read my book?” to having a bestseller – the “sleeper hit of the pandemic” — that now has another life as a movie?

ROBINNE LEE: Probably something about my readers. Publishing this book has brought people into my life that I could not have imagined, and relationships and friendships that I could not have expected. That has been the biggest gift and was completely unexpected.

It’s always like personal connections, when someone said, “I read this and it really meant something to me, and this is why” and “You’ve touched me in this way.” I never imagined that would be what would resonate the most, years later.

What themes have readers connected with most?

LEE: Women liked that I was writing for them. Women in their mid-to-late 30s through mid-70s told me, “Thank you for writing a woman’s story.” It’s not [about] a young girl, fresh out of college finding her way and trying to get a job and find a boyfriend or someone to marry. This was a mature woman. Women feel like I see them and see their worth and their value; how they want the world to see them as — and how they’re afraid that the world no longer sees them — but I see them that way. I’ve given them permission to live that reality more fully, and to step outside of the box that society’s placed them in.

“The Idea of You” also challenges Hollywood’s notions because by writing this story, Robinne, you’ve technically created an opportunity for a 40-year-old actress to have a meaty role. What has that been like for you, Anne and Gabrielle to reconcile and experience as actresses, too?

LEE: Anne was very moved by the character, in the script and in the book. She told me it was a gift to be able to kind of step into those shoes and play that kind of role. It’s not just that Solène is sexy and 40 —it’s that she’s also a mom and a businesswoman. It’s very complex and it’s multilayered, and it’s who she is in real life. She’s got kids, she’s got a husband, but she’s got a career.

Anne Hathaway and Robinne Lee at “The Idea of You” premiere, held at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City on April 29.
Kristina Bumphrey for Variety

I feel like so often — Hollywood, media, culturally — they put women in a box. “Now you’re the mom. “Now you’re the wife.” This role was like, “You can be all these things and they’re all 100% viable, and one does not discredit the other.” That’s what every actress is really looking for. And not wanting to see those roles dry up after 33.

I look at someone like Margot Robbie. Back in “Wolf of Wall Street,” she was a little girl compared to what she’s doing now. I think about the power and the intelligence she has, and I hope she continues to do things like this long after “Barbie,” into her 40s and 50s. I hope her voice remains strong and that she keeps getting those things out there, because there’s very few women in Hollywood who get that kind of power and are able to use it for good. It’s nice for us to have a force out there.

What do you hope the success of “The Idea of You” will mean for Hollywood in terms of greenlighting more projects about women over a certain age?

LEE: I want to write strong roles for women — all kinds of women, mostly over 40, but all different races, ethnicities or backgrounds. I want to give actresses opportunities to play roles that we don’t normally get to see ourselves playing — whether they’re sexy or conflicted, or dark and duplicitous. As an actor, you don’t want to do the easy roles. You like the things where you have to get dirty and not be so nice. That’s more fun. That’s where the meat is. I want to write things that aren’t just vanilla. Actors want something else going on, especially as you get older. It’s not enough to be pretty eye candy. You’re like, “Darn it, give me something good to play.”

Gabrielle, this is the second movie you’ve produced featuring a woman over 40 owning her sexuality. What did “The Perfect Find” reveal to you about the appetite for these stories?

UNION: “The Perfect Find” was No. 2 [on Netflix], because of “Extraction” — Damn, you [Chris] Hemsworth — but went No. 1 in some countries across the world. I was like “Yes!” That let me know the world wants to see it. And that’s because the world is made up of [gasps] people over 35, women over 35, and there’s a billion stories about love because there’s billions of us. So let us tell those.

Robinne, how did your experience joining the “Fifty Shades” franchise and watching those books go from script to screen translate to your understanding of what it would be for your work to be adapted?

LEE: I was really lucky that Erika [author E.L. James] was super accessible and kind. She was very involved. She was present on set. There was not a day I was on set that she was not there. She had her hand in everything. She cared about her actors and made time, and we were able to have a relationship.

I told her when the book was coming out when I was about to wrap, then we saw each other at book events and stayed in touch. When the book was in the process of being optioned, we went out to lunch and she gave me all this advice. This is what happens, and this is what you can expect. This is how it’s gonna feel. She’s just been super supportive and encouraging. I love that, especially from another woman.

I’d hoped to work with other women, not just on this project, but every project I do. Where we can encourage each other, empower each other, support each other and be genuine and honest and lift each other up. It’s really important to have strong female relationships, and I like to have them in the workplace as well as in my personal life.

I think that we get a reputation for not always being kind to each other and catty or backstabby. I’m always going to reach out to women first when it’s time to produce or write a script. That’s who I want on my team. It’s not that there aren’t capable men out there, but they’ve had 90 years of opportunity in Hollywood, and we’re just getting the doors opened [to us].

Tell me about watching the film for the first time. Which scene were you most excited to see?

UNION: The vacation with [Hayes’] friends, because it reminds me of vacation with my husband’s friends. And they hate when I have the aux [cable]. They’re like, “No, you play old music,” and I’m like, “Because I’m old.” I was looking forward to see how it was going to be played, and Anne really brought to life that feeling of, “Oh gosh, I am very much a fish out of water, and I don’t understand all their references. But I love this guy, and I’m gonna figure out how to make friends and make the best of the situation.”

Gabrielle Union and Anne Hathaway at “The Idea of You” premiere held at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City on April 29.
Kristina Bumphrey for Variety

LEE: I just wanted to see the two of them together, and how they worked off of each other and whether it felt real. And it did.

I remember when Erika went back to write more “Fifty Shades,” I asked, “When you’re writing Christian Grey, are you picturing Jamie Dornan? Are you picturing Dakota Johnson?” She’s like, “Absolutely not. They’re still the same people I had in my head.”

So, when I picture Solène and Hayes, it’s not Anne and Nicholas. It was important for me to separate the two and realize they’re never going to be the people I’ve created, but can they portray some likeness of it that an audience will buy, be mesmerized with, and fall in love with? I think they did.

What was the moment you fell in love with them?

LEE: It was her more than him. There was a moment when she’s going to see him in New York. She’s walking down the hall at the hotel and I got choked up, because it felt that it was more than just Solène making a choice like, “Okay, I’m going to do this.” It was Anne embracing her power and coming into her agency.

Being like, “I can play this character. I can be sexy. I can be the Princess of Genovia [from ‘The Princess Diaries’] or Andy Sachs [in ‘The Devil Wears Prada’], but right now I’m going to go sleep with this 24-year-old boy-bander and I’m going to enjoy every moment of it.” I felt that! That will always stay with me; it was like watching Rocky [Balboa] win the fight.

I imagine that moment resonated on many levels — as a woman, as a fellow actor and as the author?

LEE: I’ve been acting now professionally for 30 years, and I cannot enjoy projects the same way I used to, because I’m pulling them apart. Not to criticize, but to wonder at all the decisions you make. I’m very often in the actor’s head like, “What is she thinking now? What’s she using as her inspiration?”

It’s why I got into this industry in the first place. As a kid watching it, it was like magic. It’s [about] peeling back layers and seeing how it happens. So, when an actor can make me forget that they’re an actor is one thing, but also, when I feel their joy playing a character, I love that. I felt that in that moment.

Robinne, earlier, you mentioned your intention to write for all races. That’s a very important note, because Black writers don’t only have to tell Black stories. But it’s also important that there is a Black woman behind this huge book that is becoming this huge movie. What has that experience been like?

LEE: There’s a lot of anxiety about it, and there’s a feeling of wanting to do right. Having this weight on me and having to represent everything and everyone — that’s tricky, but it’s also exciting.

I thought it was important that people knew that a Black woman wrote this book. Because if it inspires one other little girl out there with a journal and a pen to say, “I can do this. I can write a story that eventually becomes a movie with a big Oscar-winning actor,” then I want to be the person for that kid.

By the same token, it’s also important to note that a Black woman produced the movie. Gabrielle, how do you weigh the importance of those roles (as author and producer) in regard to making more pathways for Black artists?

UNION: At my production company, we center the needs, wants and desires of marginalized creators. It’s all important — especially when it’s people who have been historically and systemically held back from the opportunity to even fail. So, I’m going to scream it from the rooftops every time – I want everyone to know who Robinne Lee is, what she looks like, how important of a voice and an artist she is. Because if we don’t, who will?

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.





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