Elisabeth Röhm On Her Harrowing New Lifetime Movie Girl In Room 13 - Exclusive Interview

Viewers of film and television will certainly recognize Elisabeth Röhm from her numerous acting roles over the years. As Röhm's IMDb credits demonstrate, she launched her career in daytime drama "One Life to Live" in 1997 before TV guest spots (including a recurring role in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" spin-off "Angel") led to what remains her most recognized role: playing A.D.A. Serena Southerlyn in "Law & Order" from 2001 until 2005. You might also have seen her in recurring roles in such TV series as "Heroes," "The Client List," and Netflix dramedy "Flaked," while her big-screen projects include "Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous," "American Hustle," "Joy," and "Bombshell."

In 2021, Röhm's career took a detour when she stepped behind the camera, making her directorial debut with Lifetime's "Girl in the Basement," the harrowing true story of a teenage girl whose father imprisoned her in a makeshift prison cell. For her third outing as a director, Röhm returned to Lifetime for "Girl in Room 13," which tells the tale of a mother (Anne Heche, who tragically died shortly after this interview was conducted) fighting to rescue her teenage daughter after she's sold into human trafficking. 

During an exclusive interview with The List, Röhm discussed the importance of her new film, her transition from acting to directing, and whether she'd ever consider making a return to "Law & Order."

What she learned about trafficking from making Girl in Room 13

This is the second film now that you've directed for Lifetime in the "Girl In" series, and you're tackling some pretty dark subject matter. What toll does that take on you when you're directing it and you're immersed in these dark stories?

Maybe that has a lot to do with why I feel very hooked into directing these days, because having been an actor ... [I have] a big sense of responsibility to the actors, to protect them, to surround them with support, to help them be specific in very difficult circumstances.

To come together as collaborators — to tell stories that are hugely important in drawing light to these topics in a way that's truthful and elegant and real and raw — has been something that I will be forever grateful to Lifetime for, for lighting that fire in me. They are very difficult topics, but the actors that I've worked with, Anne Heche included, have brought their A-game to these incredibly important topics.

I get the feeling that a lot of people know about human trafficking, but they don't know the actual ins and outs of it and how prevalent it is. Movies like this certainly do a good job of presenting that. Did you learn more about the subject matter as you delved into it for the movie?

I did. I spoke to representatives at Polaris Foundation that we are working in partnership with. We're launching a PSA with them in conjunction with this movie to draw attention to the human trafficking hotline. There are so many different aspects to human sex trafficking and labor trafficking that I couldn't begin to speak to the vastness of that topic. But our film specifically does deal with sex trafficking, being recruited by somebody you know and believe you love that you believe loves you.

That element is sometimes, statistically, a part of these scenarios. We did research what we felt was necessary to this storytelling, but it's a very big topic. It's a $150-billion business. There are no right statistics to talk about how many people worldwide are imprisoned and being recruited for sex or labor trafficking, so it's hard to speak to the biggest element of this topic, but the film does tap into the small part of it that we can tell.

We hope that it's not just a movie, but a movement — and that afterward, people can get information on this topic. That's one of the many reasons I love working with Lifetime, because they have a real sense of responsibility around these tough topics.

You're definitely educating people about trafficking, but you're also telling a story; you're also trying to entertain. Is that a fine line to balance those aspects of storytelling?

In this case, what it comes down to is helping actors to portray — in a very truthful, subtle, nuanced way — incredibly complicated characters in very complicated situations and circumstances. Luckily, I had great actors, Anne Heche, and Larissa Dias, and Max Montesi. They brought their A-game, not only because they wanted to portray characters in these circumstances, but because they were behind the mission that "Girl in Room 13" is. Again, it always comes down to fine acting, and my entry into directing is all about the actors.

On her transition from actor to director

There's a great tradition of actors transitioning into directing, and we're seeing that's becoming more prominent with female actors getting into directing roles. Can you tell me a bit about how you transitioned from acting to directing?

I was very lucky ... I'm passionate about the Broader Focus Program or Female Forward programs from networks and studios to put women behind the camera into leadership positions. [I] luckily also have benefited from that. I think actors want to direct because they are committed to storytelling, but it doesn't always end up being that that's for them. Maybe they direct one movie, and they decide they really are better off portraying the story as opposed to leading the charge and holding the flame for the entire storytelling.

But I have fallen in love with directing and still also love acting. It's really important to me to continue to see women in places of leadership get their chance. A lot of people have asked me, "Did you always want to direct?" The fact is, I don't know if you can dream big enough for yourself if you don't see yourself reflected back to you. Thankfully, we're seeing more women directing. I didn't, in the beginning of my career. I've been able to dream much bigger for myself by stepping into that.

In terms of your own directing aspirations, what kind of projects would you like to do in the future?

I definitely am drawn to drama, so I like the difficult topics. I am doing a film with Village Road Show coming up that is a romance. I want to be diverse in my choosing with storytelling. But when it comes to dramatic film and dramatic storytelling, you have an opportunity to guide the performance in a way that is intimate and vulnerable. I can't quite put words to what a privilege it is to share that space with an actor as they're going through that process. Having acted for so long and still loving acting, it's a privilege to be able to get in there with an actor as they craft something so vulnerable — as both Anne Heche and Larissa [Dias] did in this film.

But moving forward, I tend to gravitate toward dramas and serious topics, maybe the darker stuff.

Röhm reveals whether she prefers acting to directing

You've also got a busy acting career going on as well. Is it complicated to juggle the two? Does it require a lot of scheduling to keep that going? 

You have tunnel vision when you're doing anything. You have to be present; you have to be in the moment. I do find myself saturated in directing in a different way than you do when you're acting, but they're both very consuming. 

I don't think you have to pick and choose a lane. You can manage to produce and act and direct. You can tap into all of those parts of yourself, but directing is a newer part of my life. It's definitely captured me right now, and that's mostly what I've been doing lately.

I don't want to put you on the spot, but if you could only do one — acting or directing — which would you gravitate toward most at this point?

Directing. Again, I use the word "responsibility" around a topic like "Girl in Room 13," but directing, in general, is an incredible privilege and responsibility because you hold everybody not only to their highest standard, but you also hope to elevate them to do the best work that they can do. Together, it's like lightning in a bottle, when you all collectively come together in collaboration to tell a story. That's a very exciting process. It's felt as an actor, but as a director, you're holding it. If I had to choose, I'd say, "Filling my cup a lot," lately.

Why Elisabeth Röhm believes Girl in Room 13 is a movement

You said something earlier that really stuck with me. You said that "Girl in Room 13" isn't just a movie, it's a movement. That's very true in the case of this film, isn't it?

Yes. It's true of Lifetime in regards to not only their bucket of these "Girl in" movies, but also their Stop Violence Against Women platform. This film, "Girl in Room 13," specifically, is launching a campaign around Polaris Foundation for victims and survivors to continue the conversation, to continue educating and changing the narrative through more research and more information.

If you look at Polaris Foundation online, you'll see that it's also a database. It's a place to get information, it's a place to educate, and it's a place to connect victims with survivors. This film is not just a tough story. It's not just an awful story. It's also a story that is deeply rooted in resilience, and both the mother and the daughter have a fight in them to survive. That's the purpose of this film, I hope — to inspire survivors and victims alike to survive and to find their voice. Polaris is really a strong foundation to help support both survivors and victims.

How active will you personally be in that campaign?

Both Larissa [Dias] and Anne [Heche] participated, and I did as well, so that PSA is coming out. We're going to continue the conversation. We just announced the movie today, so this will be a longer road as we continue to tell the reasons behind why we made this film. Hopefully, we'll continue to have a platform to talk about this topic.

Elisabeth Röhm reveals whether she's open to a return to Law & Order

Before I run out of time, I want to ask the obligatory "Law & Order" question. So many actors have been popping in and out over the years — they come, they go, they come, they go. Is there any chance that you might pop back in at some point?

I'll be honest — I would absolutely say yes to being asked to the dance. I love this show. I love Dick Wolf and the whole Wolf Entertainment camp, and I loved playing that character [Serena Southerlyn]. It's smart TV; it's responsible TV. Again, it's also ripped from the headlines and all of that. But I really, really loved my years on "Law & Order," so I would absolutely consider doing that again.

"Girl in Room 13" debuts September 17 on Lifetime.

This interview has been edited for clarity.