Doing Hard Time: Inside ’Orange is the New Black’ With Lea DeLaria
Critics and the public alike are clamoring over "Weeds" creator Jenji Kohan’s latest offering, the Netflix series "Orange is the New Black." Based on Piper Kerman’s 2010 memoir of the same name, the show follows Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a fresh-faced, thirty-something blonde who is sent to prison for a crime she committed a decade ago.
The series begins with Chapman, an artisanal soap maker leaving her sweet and soon to be long-suffering Jewish fiancé (Jason Biggs) to serve time with a bevy of lesbians, including her international drug smuggling ex-girlfriend (Laura Prepon) and one of Broadway’s favorite lesbians, singer/actress/comedian Lea DeLaria in the role of Carrie ’Big Boo’ Black.
EDGE sat down with DeLaria in a Broadway café to talk about women in prison, her role in the series and its runaway success -- "Orange" was signed for a second season before the premiere episode even began streaming. DeLaria bears the distinction of being the first comedian to ever come out as gay on network television, in 1993 on "The Arsenio Hall Show," is largely known for her hilarious role in "The First Wives Club" and as the host of Comedy Centrals’ "Out There," the first all-gay stand-up special.
DeLaria has been happily balancing her days between comedy tours, jazz albums, live theater and TV appearances, but said she will happily put it all on hold for as long as "Orange Is the New Black" continues to run. See what she had to tell EDGE about scary Russians, fisting, and the legions of young straight girls who have mobbed her since the series launched.
EDGE: Tell us about your character Boo and her backstory.
DeLaria: I think her crime might be in the second season, so I don’t want to spoil it! I think it’s okay to say that she was a bouncer at a strip club. Her nickname ’Big Boo’ came about because she’s kind of everybody’s boo, she skips through places and has all the girls in the prison. She’s a lover man.
EDGE: How is it working with Jenji Kohan on this?
DeLaria: Jenji is a genius! And Jenji’s also hilarious. Working with her is so easy, because she’s so funny, so easygoing and so willing to listen to anything that you say that’s funny. You can bounce other punch lines off her, and there’s no issue at all. Some folks are really persnickety about that. But there’s a real familial feeling about us on the set, and everybody just wants the show to be great.
EDGE: Did you have a sense that it would be well received even before it dropped?
DeLaria: We all knew we were doing something extraordinary while we were doing it. Nobody was saying much out loud because we didn’t want to jinx it, but those of us who had been around a while -- me, Kate Mulgrew, Annie Golden, people who have been doing this a long time -- would look at each other because we knew something special was happening here. We just thought keep our fingers crossed, because any number of things can happen in showbiz to destroy something beautiful. But everything came out right.
EDGE: Jenji Kohan’s last series, "Weeds," ran for eight seasons. Are you prepared for eight seasons?
DeLaria: I’m prepared for more than that! I’m hoping that we get even more than eight. If it were up to me, it would be the longest running show in television.
EDGE: You are working with a great cast, among them Kate Mulgrew, who like you, has worked in Broadway, recently appearing at The Vineyard Theatre in "Somewhere Fun." How is it to work with her?
DeLaria: Kate is great in everything she’s done. She is scary! I love her, we’re very good friends, but when Kate puts that character on and is talking to you....Red is not a nice person! I remember the first day we did this scene and Red was angry with Big Boo in the pilot - it was only a small scene, because my character doesn’t really kick in until episode four - but the first time we rehearsed the scene, I turned to the director and said, ’Mikey, Kate is scaring me! She’s scary, I don’t want to do this with her!’ But she’s just such a giving actor, so warm and when she thinks something is funny, she just puts her head back and laughs, and it fills the room. It’s lovely. She is an acting tutelage for anyone who wants to accept it on the set.
EDGE: There are a lot of great actresses on the set who can benefit from that. How is it working with Natasha Lyonne?
DeLaria: There’s a fisting scene in the pilot, and when I found out, I lost it. I said, ’Take that, fucking "L Word!" You think you’re a goddamned lesbian show! We’ve got a fisting scene in the pilot!’ We laughed, but Tash goes, ’I have to do this, Lea, and I don’t know how to do it.’ So I had to teach Natasha Lyonne how to fist. So then I went to set and Jenji’s there, Lisa Bettencourt and Michael Trim, the creative team, and I go to them at Video Village, the place where the creative types sit behind monitors, and say, ’Look, you’ve got a Russian consultant over here, you’ve got a woman’s prison consultant over there...I think I’m the fisting consulting.’ So Lyonne is on it, saying, ’I think we should go to accounting and get Lea some more money, because she’s the one who taught me how to authentically fist.’ Lyonne and I have to kind of be separated when they put us together, it’s just non-stop bouncing off each other and it’s disruptive. She’s wild, but she’s really fun. She’s been in the media, she’s had it rough, but she’s come out the other side smiling.
EDGE: How about working with Laura Prepon?
DeLaria: Prepon is really funny when she’s funny. I’m always happy when I make Prepon laugh. When I’m doing something and I look over and Laura’s laughing, I say, ’Yes, I know I’m on the right track.’ Her humor is so dry, that if you can get her to crack a smile you know you’ve done it right.
EDGE: Let’s talk about the relationship between her and Taylor Schilling’s character on the show.
DeLaria: Oh, come on! They eat the screen up together! It’s unbelievable, their chemistry. I can tell you no spoilers about that! I’m even afraid to talk about the end of this season, because some people haven’t gotten there yet.
EDGE: The whole first season of "Orange" dropped at the same time. Did you film it all at the same time?
DeLaria: It’s a nine-day shoot, off on weekends. But we had Hurricane Sandy that first season and a couple of blizzards, which kind of screwed the filming up and put us behind schedule. But we just shot them all in the row, and Netflix picked us up for a second season before it was even released. We start shooting the second season on July 29. I’m assuming it’s going to come out sooner than it did for the first season, because we starting shooting last September, and so we’re trying to get it done and out quicker.
EDGE: Do you think Netflix’s strategy of having the whole season come out at once is a strong selling point of the series?
DeLaria: Absolutely! I’m experiencing something I’ve never experienced before. I mean, I have been famous for a long time, and in the limelight for 31 years. People always approach me on the street and ask to have their picture taken with me or for my autograph, but it’s nothing like what I’m experiencing now. I can’t walk from point A to point B without being mobbed. It’s everywhere I go, and it’s all straight girls. It just happened right here; two straight girls who were on line to see ’Wicked’ chased me into here to get their picture taken with me and shake my hand. It’s all straight girls! A couple of gay men, a couple of lesbians like the dyke who took her picture with me in Bushwick yesterday, but literally everywhere I go people recognize me. I bought shoes and the shoe salesman recognized me. I went into the hair salon and people knew me. I drive in the car or walk around, and people are literally chasing me down the street. I just don’t know what to do about all these straight girls...she says with a big grin...it’s crazy, isn’t it! My girlfriend thinks it’s hilarious; she knows how I love young straight girls.
EDGE: All joking aside, the series does really let people into the world of a women’s correction facility through the character of Piper Chapman. Do you think it’s good for people to become more aware of others who may not be as advantaged as they are?
DeLaria: I absolutely do! There was an interesting article in The Washington Post about our program and about the women’s prison system in America, and how much it reflects it. And apparently, Jenji got everything right. In our program, it’s predominantly white, and in federal prisons, it currently is predominantly white, and they attribute that mostly to the decline of drug crimes. As they become more decriminalized, less women of color are going to prison. That was always the kind of thing they were in prison for. And about transgenders in prison, and the discrimination and complaints about that. And the treatment of butches. There’s a line in the show where Healy says he wishes he could ’gather all the butches into a separate wing,’ and they did that in West Virginia. This article means to me that this article is having a social affect, that people are talking about it in a way that they don’t talk about "The Big Bang Theory." For me, it’s like I’ve died and gone to lesbian feminist heaven. I’m doing this positive portrayal of this butch dyke who is three-dimensional, who has feeling, who is funny and I’m doing it on a show that is having a social affect in America. I’m the happiest person in the world.
EDGE: I’d love to talk about Laverne Cox’s character, and the concept of transgender women in prison. I think people don’t realize that happens.
DeLaria: Sophia, the character, is a woman -- she’s fully transitional, there’s no penis. So you certainly couldn’t send her to a men’s prison. Laverne is thrilled to be the first transgender person to play a transgendered prisoner. I mean, we’re all thrilled! How many butch dykes do you see playing butch dykes on TV? It’s always their concept of what a butch is, it’s always a straight girl and they have makeup on. You don’t see any butch dykes with makeup on. This is a big deal!
EDGE: Let’s talk about the scene where you masturbate with the screwdriver. How was that to film?
DeLaria: It was so much fun! I screamed like a little girl when I got that script, I was so excited. I told all my really famous actor friends and they were so jealous that I got to masturbate on camera to orgasm for comedic effect. It’s the sort of thing that as an actor, you can’t wait to do. I loved doing it! We did like 10 takes, and the first take -- you must not actually think about what you’re doing -- and I burst out laughing, so that made the gag reel.
EDGE: You have to wonder, is that screwdriver going to resurface later in the season?
DeLaria: I am not going to be a spoiler! I can’t spoil this for you!
EDGE: But it’s so Chekovian, Lea! Let me ask you then to give your critique on the industrial prison system and how it treats women.
DeLaria: Far be it from me to say, because honestly I am not as familiar with that. I know that I feel our show has it right, because the Women’s Prison Association has given it a big thumbs-up, and I’m actually being followed by them on Twitter, which makes me laugh really hard. So I know we are doing something right and getting people’s awareness up. But from what I’ve seen, I don’t think that anyone gets treated very fairly in the industrial prison system. I don’t have a vast amount of experience with this.
EDGE: Have you never been to jail?
DeLaria: I was arrested at the March on Washington in 1993. A bunch of us did a protest, and we all got arrested. I’ve been to jail for political stuff, but I’ve never been to prison.
"Orange is the New Black" Season 1 is now available to stream in full on Netflix.