Photography by Kimberly Metz
Not long after landing her first major acting role in 1997 on the long-running ABC daytime drama One Life to Live, Elisabeth Rohm started building an impressive resume with roles in the 1999 BBC Northern Ireland miniseries Eureka Street, and the first two seasons of the syndicated series Angel (1999–2001). Although her five season run as Assistant District Attorney Serena Southerlyn (2001–2005) in Law & Order is often cited as her breakthrough role, she parlayed that onto the big screen with roles in American Hustle and Joy (both helmed by director David O. Russell) and 2019’s Bombshell, alongside Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie.
As a director, Rohm made her debut in January 2021 Lifetime’s Girl in the Basement, and is currently directing her second feature, Switched Before Birth, which debuts this September on Lifetime. In the near future, she is poised to direct and act in Nurturing Healing Love, about the Sandy Hook shootings. She’s also launched her own production company, Bedford Hills, which has numerous television and film projects in development including a true crime series that explores how racial and socioeconomic disparities influence how criminal investigations. For this project, she is joining forces with actor Malik Yoba, veteran reality TV executive Dorothy Toran (The Real Housewives of New Jersey) and Leslie D. Farrell’s Lauren Grace Media.
With Rohm’s concurrent commitments to an equally prolific list of marquee charities (The Trevor Project, Global Green, The American Heart Association, Go Red for Women and St. Jude Children’s Hospital, among many others), she proves that personal and professional satisfaction transcends being selective about acting roles and directorial projects. Some of her favorites, in fact, are as co-creator of “The Respect Project” panel events and offshoots, including the “Lunch with Lis,” an IGTV talk show. Introducing the public to philanthropists, entrepreneurs, academics, inventors and innovators are among her most satisfying roles.
“In these times, the ‘talk’ must speak to a new level of global respect,” Rohm says, underscoring the key points of The Respect Project’s official mission statement.
“We are at an inflection point in U.S. and world history that makes engagement in honest, respectful conversations and open forums about the most critical issues more important than ever. Whether the conversation takes place in a panel discussion, one-on-one in ‘Lunch with Lis,’ or even within my ‘Baby Steps’ blog for People magazine, the goal is always to set up dynamic topical and honest discussions with others that can be inspiring and potentially life changing for those who happen to be listening.”
Rohm teamed up with Carrie Maloney, who already had success as the U.S. based CEO and President of ‘imagine1day’ (providing Ethiopian citizens access to quality education and leadership development, and formed by Lululemon co-founders Chip and Shannon Wilson), and as director of the Sager Foundation’s ‘Hands Up Not Handouts,’ a micro-enterprise program supporting women who survived the Rwanda Genocide and others living in crisis areas around the world.
“Carrie has a philanthropic soul, and as an astute business woman, she was the perfect co-founder for The Respect Project,” Rohm says of Maloney. “Together, we built a team, and it’s now growing by leaps and bounds.”
While bigger organizations producing panels grow through the power of good branding, Rohm is setting her sights on building her audience in an intimate, organic way with topics she knows are important to her listeners and others. They run the gamut from the international (‘Finding the positives of COVID-19: What we have learned?’ ‘A conversation with Millennials about the future’) to the philosophical (‘How to find bliss in today’s world,’ ‘How does respect play a role in your life?’) to the personal (‘Finding your voice; A talk on silence and speaking out,’ ‘When have you had to find courage in your life?’) to the philanthropic (speaking with key players with The Special Olympics, The Chopra Foundation and Timothy Shriver’s ‘UNITE.’).
The approach has worked so far, with a total international audience of 2.5 million followers (combining 115,000 listeners through ‘Respect Talks’ staged live in theaters, 2.1 million through her Instagram-based IGTV channel and ‘Lunch with Lis,’ and 268,000 who follow her regularly on Instagram). However, this is just a starting point for Rohm, who is also dedicated to practicing what she and her expert guests and panelists preach.
Millennium: If an average person on the street asked you about ‘The Respect Project,’ how would you explain it to him or her?
Elisabeth Roem: I describe it as a thought forum among diverse individuals yielding helpful insights. In order to create solutions for problems in a complex world filled with complex people, we need to stir conversations allowing the exchange of different points of view while encouraging each other to build more self-respect and mutual respect. Every panel, discussion and one-on-one conversation requires deep listening and self-aware honesty. (Through this), we can help each other heal our personal wounds through shared wisdom, intelligence and ideas. The talks are also intended to create an atmosphere of tolerance that comes from understanding that we’re all individuals with different and shared needs. By actively listening to one another, we can learn from each other’s personal journey and find greater solutions for a happier and more harmonious world.
MM: How do the “Respect” programs differ from other high-profile entities organizing panel events and podcasts?
ER: We function as both a business and a non-profit organization with a shared mission to support causes and other non-profits. Other organizations (that plan) panels and podcasts are now gargantuan-sized entities. We’re a new organization launched in 2020. Our emphasis is specifically on organizations and people invested in making the world a better place. Through our non-profit arm, we are able to receive sponsorship dollars that support non-profits, and we are capable of partnering with brands and companies to elevate their commitment to respect.
MM: What are some of the things the ‘The Respect Project’ does beyond panels and talks?
ER: We regularly meet with different non-profit groups to help them elevate their message or mission and their commitment to justice, equality, diversity and inclusion. Recently, we did one such meeting with the ‘Never Alone Initiative’ and the Chopra Foundation, and others we’ve worked with include Special Olympics and Global Green. We want to encourage the non-profits to find a variety of ways to share their message. Through conversations with the organizations’ representatives, we learn about their origin story and purpose, concerns in relation to current events and their call to action. On the for-profit side, brands and companies hire us to consult with them for guidance on defining their ‘social responsibility’ goals (the environment, leadership initiatives, inclusivity and diversity) and how to get their employees or investors on board with it.
MM: What is it about charities you worked with prior to founding The Respect Project that made you want to take your philanthropic activities to the next level?
ER: I was raised by a mom with ‘hippie’ outlook. She made it abundantly clear that it was important to always to be looking out for others. As she saw it, to make the world a better place, rather than be a renter during your time here, you need to buy into life by investing your time and ideas in leaving it better than you found it. Following this philosophy, I became involved with organizations that spoke to me in terms of my personal life, and there’s always a story behind how I got involved with every one. The American Red Cross helped my mom at a time of disaster, rebuilding her roof when her house burned in a fire and she didn’t have the money to rebuild. The fact that my mom died of a massive heart attack led me to the American Heart Association’s ‘Go Red for Women’ so other women like her could become more proactive in their own health and future.
MM: Are there any specific television or film roles that made you realize you could make a greater impact on the public?
ER: I felt that Serena Southerlyn on ‘Law & Order’ echoed aspects of my true personality, as she always had a heart of gold even when faced with the realities of crime. However, the origins of ‘The Respect Project’ came organically and on a grass roots level. A few years ago, when I owned a clothing store in Venice, CA along the trendy Abbot Kinney shopping street, I thought it would be interesting to bring customers into the store for something other than shopping. I invited some experts to speak on a panel about attaining joy, and then invited customers to participate in the conversation. Even back then, I wanted to be sure the panel and the audience was diverse yet invested in the topic. Based on the success of that event, which drew 100 people, I found everybody wants to talk and everybody has wisdom to share. Soon after, I approached Carrie about building out the idea into a viable entity that could do this for both non-profits and for-profit firms.
MM: Has the work you’ve done so far building ‘The Respect Project’ informed what scripts or roles truly ‘speak’ to you?
ER: Some actors pick their scripts carefully because they want to make sure they’re sending the right message. However, for me, this is a hard question. I think we as actors should have the ability to be multi-dimensional in our work and play a variety of different roles in stories ranging from pure fun to serious think-pieces. If the material is good, I want to (play) a variety of characters in comedies and drama. My real-life roles as an activist and philanthropist, on the other hand, are separate from my acting roles.
As a director and thought leader, I want tell stories in a collaborative way, especially as Switched Before Birth deals with infertility along with the other timely subjects. Girl in the Basement, the first film I directed, was loosely based on a real-life crime in Austria where Josef Fritzl imprisoned and tortured his daughter for years. It was graphic and tragic, yet a story worth telling as it could generate a conversation about why we should never ignore signs of abuse within a family. The podcast, “Killer’s Vault,” which I host, released June 28th, focuses on couple named Barbara and Richie Dickstein who maintained a morbid hobby of writing provocative letters to serial killers. While it could be read as sensational, it is also a call to action about mental health and our understanding of the criminal mind.
MM: How do you develop themes for “Respect Talks” events, and “Lunch with Lis” podcasts? From there, how do you vet potential candidates to be a ‘Respect’ panelist or podcast guest?
ER: I come up with topics that are evergreen and yet connect with current events and social trends. It is important, however, that the topic is applicable to how we confront various challenges in our daily lives as well as how we future. For example, one topic we recently did for a panel, ‘How do I choose love over hate or fear,’ begins as broad general subject. I will build the panel with diverse people who can speak to the topic from their specific points of view. Their different experiences and perspectives expands it and makes it more concrete and relatable.
On the ‘Choosing Love’ panel scheduled for July 11, we brought in Scarlett Lewis, who founded the ‘Jesse Lewis Choose Love’ Movement, to honor her son, who was murdered at the Sandy Hook massacre and whose last message to her was, “nurturing, healing, love,” and whose actions during the shooting saved nine of his classmates. The panel also includes award-inning film and documentary producer Fritzi Horstman (founder and Executive Director of Compassion Prison Project, dedicated to bringing compassion, childhood trauma awareness and creative inspiration to people living behind bars), Ryan Chiaverini (a Chicago/Midwest Emmy Award winning television producer and host) who lost a close friend and brother-in-law in the 2017 Las Vegas massacre) and grief doula Dianne Gray. While they all have had differing experiences of loss, they share an unquenchable love of life and humanity and thoughts on how they chose to find positivity out from under the tragedy.
MM: How do you go about structuring the panels and podcasts once the topics and the panelists or experts are selected?
ER: I create questions on a topic that allows speakers to discuss the philosophies they live by and what they do to stay on that path. I also try to build questions to make the resulting conversations user-friendly for everybody who listens to the talk. The structure of the ‘Lunch with Lis’ is more about having a relaxed and spontaneous conversation with the guest about a project or cause. True to the brand of The Respect Project, the focus is still on how the guests set out to change the world in one way or another. Ultimately, I think what the world needs now, besides love, is inspiration. When I’ve been down, I have turned to my best friend, my partner or even a stranger whom I happen to admire to inspire me. Even a casual lunch and fun conversation with a friend with interesting ideas can work wonders. It’s that type of conversation that I am advocating for.
MM: In many ways, you’re providing many teachable moments…that all tie into one universal theme: We can overcome adversity and find joy and meaning in life.
ER: There’s a reason why life should be treated as a journey, and a reason we all are who we are as individuals. And there’s also reason why we’ve found our own ways to navigate, ‘this thing called life,’ which can be oftentimes harrowing. Choosing to be as positive as possible, however, is healing to yourself and others. By overcoming pain and struggle, and deciding to be one of the lights in the world, you can inspire others to persevere in tough times. Ultimately, you have a choice to make everyday you wake up: You can choose to be apathetic, or you can choose to be somebody who wants to light the way for other people. If you choose the former, you’ll respect yourself in the morning, every morning.
For more information, visit the respectproject.org.