Drumheller expat lands major role in Law & Order Toronto: Criminal Intent

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Not long after graduating from the University of Calgary’s theatre program, actress Karen Robinson would watch the seminal police procedural Law & Order every week, often challenging herself to guess who the culprit might be before it was revealed.

This was in the early 1990s, not long into the legal and cop drama’s 33-year-old history. Robinson was particularly intrigued by the character of Anita Van Buren, the no-nonsense lieutenant who oversaw a team of detectives starting in the show’s fourth season. She was played by actress S. Epatha Merkerson, who appeared in nearly 400 episodes of the long-running series.

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“First of all, she is a Black woman,” says Robinson, in an interview with Postmedia from her home in Toronto. “Second of all, she is a middle-aged Black woman who is in a leadership role in law enforcement. I was so taken by that. Jerry Orbach, Jesse L. Martin, Sam Waterson – they were these people who became a part of the fabric in my TV-watching week.”

Law & Order Toronto: Criminal Intent
Kathleen Munroe, Aden Young and Karen Robinson in Law & Order Toronto: Criminal Intent. Courtesy, Citytv Photo by Steve Wilkie /Steve Wilkie

So Robinson was understandably thrilled to learn that the Law & Order franchise, which has had seven different iterations over 33 years, would be expanding to the Great White North in 2024 and elated when she won the role of Vivienne Holness, a no-nonsense inspector who oversees a team of detectives. Law and Order Toronto: Criminal Intent, which debuts on Feb. 22 on Citytv, is modelled after Law & Order: Criminal Intent, a later incarnation of the series that debuted in 2001 with Vincent D’Onofrio. Robinson co-stars with Aden Young and Kathleen Munroe, who play detectives Sgt. Henry Graff and Sgt. Frankie Bateman, while K.C. Collins plays deputy crown attorney Theo Forrester. Together, they’ll be investigating various misdeeds in Toronto’s underbelly in the franchise’s trademark “ripped-from-the-headlines” storylines. Like the American version of Criminal Intent and unlike the original Law & Order, the episodes will mostly take place in cop shops and the mean streets of Toronto and will not have courtroom sequences. Nevertheless, viewers will get some insight into how the Canadian justice system works and how it differs from the U.S. The series will follow an elite squad of detectives as they investigate high-profile crimes and homicides in metro Toronto.

“We get so much of our viewing pleasure from (the U.S.) that we tend to sometimes make the error of thinking that we are the same as them, especially when it comes to law and order and the Constitution as opposed to a Charter of Rights and that sort of thing,” says Robinson. “I would say that our team of creators was really well-prepared in terms of tailoring this version to our Canadian system. By the time we got there as actors, it was like the work was already done for us. They knew the law. I think viewers will definitely recognize that this is a particularly Canadian version, not in the least because we see Toronto. We see the CN Tower and the Gardiner Expressway and Lakeshore are referenced; it’s definitely set in Toronto.”

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Robinson may be best known these days for playing town councillor Ronnie Lee in Schitt’s Creek, but she has frequently played members of law enforcement in her three-decade career. In 2012, she joined the cast of the Canadian cop drama King as Detective Ingrid Evans and she played Superintendent Edwina Shanks in CBC’s Pretty Hard Cases.

“I’ve played a captain in New York, I’ve played a sheriff in Virginia, I’ve played a superintendent in a CBC show,” she says. “I tend to play people in leadership positions, I think that’s the niche that I have. But I’ve also done stage work that has run the gamut. There is a variety there, but I will admit that I come out as a cop a lot.”

Born in England, Robinson grew up in Jamaica before moving to Drumheller at the age of 16. She studied theatre at Mount Royal before transferring to the University of Calgary where she received her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. As a U of C student, she performed in plays – the Calgary Herald did a 1991 feature on a university production of the musical The Club, which had Robinson in an early starring role – before joining the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton. From there, she performed for several prestigious theatre companies such as The Stratford Festival, the National Arts Centre, Soulpepper Theatre Company and Mirvish and has been nominated for five Dora Mavor Moore Awards, including a win in 1996 for her work in Andrew Moodie’s Riot. She won a 1998 Betty Mitchell Award for performing the titular role in Angelique and has returned to the city to perform in Alberta Theatre Projects’ Problem Child in 2000 and Intimate Apparel in 2012. But she also became a familiar face in film and television, with roles in Netflix’s Echoes, Star Trek: Discoveries and The Calling. She has been nominated for five Canadian Screen Awards and won in 2019 for her guest-starring role in Mary Kills People. In 2021, she shared a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble Cast for Schitt’s Creek.

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The worldwide success of Schitt’s Creek, not to mention this new homegrown instalment of Law & Order, suggests that Canadian television continues to evolve, but there are many more stories to tell, Robinson says.

“Canada is big and wide and multi-ethnic with many points of view that have been mined over the past 10 years with shows like Kim’s Convenience and Schitt’s Creek and Sort Of all receiving kudos beyond our borders,” she says. “I think there is much, much further to go. I think we’ve proven we have the talent here and the technical know-how here and I think what we need is financial support. I think we are nothing without our stories. I think we exist because we know where we came from and that is something to be proud of and that is something to be celebrated and that is something to be documented.”

Law & Order Canada premieres Feb. 22 on Citytv.

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