By MARSHALL HEYMAN
LOS ANGELES — When she was studying at the London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art, the actress Kelly Rohrbach got to play roles like Portia in “The Merchant of Venice” and Nora in “A Doll’s House.” She is making her film debut in a different kind of classic vehicle. That would be the big-screen version of the long-running syndicated television show “Baywatch,” opposite Zac Efron and Dwayne Johnson, a.k.a. the Rock.
It may not be Ibsen, but the role of C. J. Parker, originally played on TV by the actress Pamela Anderson, is splashy. Ms. Rohrbach, 27, spends most of the movie in a skintight red bathing suit, running in slow motion in and out of the ocean. She also gets to wear a slinky gold number when the lifeguards hit town and during a revealing post-movie gag reel about the film’s stars and their wedgies.
“How is C. J. like Portia?” Ms. Rohrbach asked, repeating a query posed to her on a particularly steamy California afternoon. “Besides the fact that they’re both women?”
Ms. Rohrbach, who knew it was kind of a trick question, seemed happy to have a distraction as she avoided answering it. She was hitting golf balls at Aroma, an indoor sports facility in a nondescript building on Wilshire Boulevard in Koreatown that also houses a pharmacy, a fabric store and a karaoke lounge.
“C. J. was originally written as more standoffish,” Ms. Rohrbach said, speaking of the film version of the voluptuous lifeguard. “I suggested we make her more approachable. Less of a ‘hot girl’ figure. And she takes her job very seriously.”
Offscreen, Ms. Rohrbach takes her golf game very seriously. After one or two more swings, she paused to resituate herself. She looked for a hair tie in the many pockets of the nondescript black golf bag she brought with her when she moved from the East Coast five years ago. She found an elastic band she didn’t quite like but used it anyway.
“Does this pink thing look really nerdy?” she asked. “Golf wear isn’t the sexiest attire.”
Anyway, Ms. Rohrbach is not in it for the outfits. She is a serious player, or at least she used to be, having played since she was a child growing up in Greenwich, Conn.
“There are not a lot of young girls who play golf,” Ms. Rohrbach said as she looked out at the four-story, 150-yard netting in front of her. “It’s usually me and a bunch of 60-year-old men. My dad was a really good golfer, and he just taught me how to play.”
That led to junior tournaments, national competitions and being recruited by Georgetown. She played golf her first two years in college before shifting her focus to acting. The summer before her senior year, she booked the first audition set up by her commercial agent: a J.C. Penney back-to-school television ad campaign.
“I danced with a backpack,” Ms. Rohrbach recalled, demonstrating some quick and fancy footwork in her pristine white and pink sneakers. The money was good, she added, “and I thought, ‘Maybe I could pursue this as a real job.’”
She moved to Hollywood after graduation. “I did the bit parts, the guest star, the co-star,” Ms. Rohrbach said. When the acting jobs were slow, her manager suggested she meet with the modeling agency IMG. An agent there helped place her in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. More gigs followed, as did a relationship with Leonardo DiCaprio. “You go where the green light is,” Ms. Rohrbach said.
Though she enjoyed the around-the-world modeling locations, she missed acting. The producers of the “Baywatch” reboot and its studio, Paramount, were looking for fresh faces. Ms. Rohrbach remembered watching the series as a 6-year-old.
“It was one of the simpler auditions I’d had,” she said, swinging her 6-iron. (Typically, she said, she hits a ball about 160 yards with that club.) They already knew what Ms. Rohrbach looked like in a bikini. She just needed to prove she could be funny.
Filming, which took place in South Florida and Tybee Island, Ga., “was every day in a bathing suit,” Ms. Rohrbach said as she contemplated switching to a 7-iron. “The same bathing suit. I would say, ‘I hope you guys are washing this.’”
There were swim lessons and Terminator-level training. “I love exercise,” she said. “I hike, do yoga. But these trainers were next level.” To prepare, she shadowed a lifeguard in Malibu, Calif., three times a week for a month, “though there’s not a lot of action in the month of January,” she said. “We rode in the cruiser, and he showed me how to use a walkie-talkie and how to tie the variations of a rope knot.”
Ms. Rohrbach says she would like more serious roles in more important films, ones perhaps that don’t involve David Hasselhoff cameos. “I’m very drawn to subversive comedy like Alexander Payne and Jason Reitman,” she said. “But at the end of the day, if you want to do great work, you have to pay your dues.”
After the promotional tour of “Baywatch” takes her to Berlin, she planned to attend her fifth college reunion this weekend in Virginia.
But for now, she was in the moment. “It’s just fun to hit golf balls,” Ms. Rohrbach said as she packed up her clubs to head back home to West Hollywood. “It’s relaxing and therapeutic.” She put on her golf cap, pressed the elevator button and asked a rare question for a Baywatch star: “Do I look like a dork?”