From Emmy Award-winner Jenji Kohan, creator of the hit comedy series Weeds, comes the 13-episode dramedy, Orange is the New Black, available through Netflix on July 11th. Based on the popular memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman, the series stars Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman, an engaged Brooklynite whose decade-old relationship with international drug-runner Alex (Laura Prepon) results in her arrest and year-long detention in federal prison. Piper trades her comfortable New York life with her fiancé (Jason Biggs) for an orange prison jumpsuit, and is quickly forced to question everything she knows while she serves her time, surrounded by an eccentric and outspoken group of inmates.
At the show’s press day, actress Kate Mulgrew (who plays tough Russian prison chef Galina “Red” Reznikov) talked about how much she knew about her character’s backstory when she was cast, that she didn’t want her character to ever be dull, the research she did for the role, finding the right Russian accent, her favorite scene this season, working with show creator Jenji Kohan, and why she thinks the Netflix format is so popular. Check out what she had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
KATE MULGREW: I knew next to nothing. When I went in for the audition, I was given a scene, but I knew nothing. And then, when I got the pilot script, I understood a little bit more. And then, when I got the second episode script, which defines my character, I thought, “Okay, now we’re on to something.” Even at the end of 13 episodes, no backstory is completely revealed. But, there’s enough about Red to make it very compelling.
Not knowing who she was supposed to be, were there things you did or didn’t want her to be, going in?
MULGREW: Yes. I do not want her to be dull. I do not want her to be predictable. I do not want her to be what anybody thinks they’re going to see. I want her to be something entirely different. And I really want her to be Red. She is Galina Reznikov, on every level.
What sort of research did you do for this role? Did you visit any women’s prisons?
MULGREW: This is not the 19th century, where actors are expected to play completely opposite roles. We’re not typecast, but we’re brought in because somebody thinks that it’s a good fit, so you make it a better fit. Over the course of my career, which is about 40 years, I’ve visited plenty of prisons and I know what they’re like. My comparison, this minimum security prison is what one might almost call rather decent. It’s livable. There’s a terrible feeling that you get when you watch Locked Up. You can breathe in this prison, but only just, which is why you have to find your own way to survive. That’s why Red has to have the kitchen. She must have the kitchen. It is her spine. It is what she does well. As long as she can keep that part of herself alive, she has triumphed over this system, which will try to deaden you. That’s what’s great about having the kitchen, and the kitchen must never be taken away from her.
How difficult was it to find an accent that you would be comfortable with?
MULGREW: It was interesting about the accent. When I went in, they said that they wanted just a light Russian. I said, “That’s an oxymoron. Have you ever met a light Russian?!” So, when I got into it, it just seemed so natural that nothing more was ever said. And it fits her. It’s her signature. It’s who she is. She’s come from Russia. In the prison, that is not only her stamp, but her cloak. It’s a guard. It protects her. There’s something very good about that, that can make other people stand away from her. I’ve loved using it, as a tool. I don’t think it’s too heavy.
MULGREW: I have a scene with [Pablo Schreiber] that’s great. Because of something that he’s done with the girls, I have a scene with Natasha Lyonne that’s beautiful. It’s about grief. Red is full of feeling. You see that, when you see the flashback of her, as a young girl. She was a guileless, innocent young girl. She’s had sons, she’s lived life, she loved her husband and she’s paid this heavy toll, but she cannot stop herself from loving, in prison. She gathers them to her, under the pretext of helping them, but in fact, I think that it’s very much about love. Of course, that can be easily snatched away by someone in power. She’ll be devastated.
How was it to work with Jenji Kohan?
MULGREW: I’ve done a lot of television in life, and I don’t remember the last time that I felt so consistently happy. This is a true thing that I’m saying. The writing is so above the norm, so surprising and so lovely, with unexpected turns and the chances to go deeper. She writes like a dream. They all do, on this staff. I’ve had a marvelous time.
After so many years in this business, do you still find yourself surprised that you find roles like this, that are so appealing and so different from what you’ve done before?
MULGREW: I think most actors get so cynical and tired because it’s just the same thing. I’m so delighted that Red exists. And then, a love affair really happens between the actors and the character. So, all I can say is, “Thank you, Jenji, for a really beautiful character,” at a time in my life when I really want to play it.
Why do you think this Netflix format is so popular now?
MULGREW: It’s the digital era. What makes it exciting is that it’s both the Golden Age of television and the Wild West of television. Something is happening now that’s unprecedented, and we know that we’re a part of it. What could be more exciting or better than that? You can’t lose because you’re on the pony and you’re staking the claim.
Orange is the New Black is available on Netflix on July 11th.