Lela Rochon has had lots of luck — both kinds. Last year her portrayal of man-hungry Robin in Waiting to Exhale raised the 32-year-old’s profile, but the ”really heavy stuff,” she says, ”like Robin’s parents dying, was cut because the movie was just too long.” Getting cast opposite Chris O’Donnell in The Chamber was a coup — the part of Nora Stark had been scripted for a white actress — but rewrites whittled the full-fledged love interest down to her job description, legal aide to the governor of Mississippi. If, as Goldie Hawn postulates in The First Wives Club, the three pigeonholes for a woman’s acting career are Babe, District Attorney, and Miss Daisy, then Lela Rochon is fighting cliche on two fronts.
”The hardest thing I’ve faced is convincing people I could play a young professional,” says the 5’9” L.A. native, who cheered on Spuds MacKenzie in Bud Light commercials and served as window dressing in Eddie Murphy’s Harlem Nights and Boomerang. She went after Nora Stark at the urging of her agent, Paradigm’s Chuck James. ”If I waited for roles specifically written for an African-American, then I wouldn’t be working,” says Rochon, who doesn’t admit to regrets about her screen romance being junked. ”I’m glad it didn’t go there,” she says. ”It would have been inappropriate. [The hero’s] grandfather has 28 days to live — and we’re going to go have a passionate affair? But I think Nora may have had a little crush on him.”
Rochon insists her next picture, Gang Related, in which she plays Jim Belushi’s stripper girlfriend — another part originally for a white — is not a step back: ”She’s very raw and strong and street — everything people have said I couldn’t do.”
The only role she says she couldn’t do is the 40ish heroine of her friend Terry McMillan’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back. Fox has the film in preproduction, but Rochon laughs off the opportunity. ”I’m not old enough,” she says. ”Thank God.”