Blast From the Past

06.08.14

Lori Petty on ‘Orange Is the New Black,’ the Halcyon ‘90s, and Discovering Jennifer Lawrence

The star of ‘90s cult classics Point Break, A League of Their Own, and Free Willy opens up about her new role as Piper’s pal on OITNB, Point Break memories, and aging out of Hollywood. [Warning: Some Spoilers]

The Season 2 premiere of Orange Is the New Black, titled “Thirsty Bird,” is a pretty bleak affair. Directed by Jodie Foster, the episode sees Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) awakened after a month in the shoe, and forced onto a bus, and then a plane, with no knowledge of where she’s headed. Think of it as the U.S. prison version of extraordinary rendition.

When Piper boards the Netflix series’ version of Con Air, replete with an inmate sporting a Hannibal Lecter-esque mask due to spitting, she sits down next to a very familiar face. It looks a bit older, but once you hear that gravelly-squeaky Tennessee twang, it hits you: this is Lori Petty.

If you grew up in the ‘90s, chances are you’re familiar with Lori Petty. She was the Kathleen Hanna of Hollywood—a punk rock princess in a Barbie world. There was her turn as Lila, one of Robin Williams’ two-timed mistresses in Cadillac Man; Tyler, the surf-happy love interest of Keanu Reeves, in Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break; Kit, the tomboy younger sister to Geena Davis in Penny Marshall’s A League of Their Own; the trainer in Free Willy; the list goes on.

After the roles dried up, Petty turned to directing and, in 2008, helmed her feature directorial debut, The Poker House. The film was based on her own experience of being raped by her mother’s pimp at 14 and, in addition to receiving stellar reviews, marked the feature film debut of an actress by the name of Jennifer Lawrence. OITNB marks Petty’s first role in a major film or TV series since her two-episode arc on the Fox drama Prison Break in 2009. She plays Lolly, an affable inmate who listens to Piper recount her gruesome bashing of Pennsatucky, whom she believes she killed. “That’s some shit, man,” says Lolly, before offering Piper Vaseline from a glob behind her ear. Later, she helps feed the needy blond an apple slice.

In a lengthy interview with The Daily Beast, Petty discussed her long journey to Orange Is the New Black, Hollywood highs and lows, and much more.

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Lori Petty in 'Orange Is the New Black.' (Jessica Miglio/Netflix)

How did you end up on Orange Is the New Black?

This is a true story that people don’t believe, but it’s true. I was visiting New York to see my friends in Porgy and Bess, and Orange was this big whoop that was new, and Girls was this big whoop, too. I’m a big fan of both shows—especially Orange, which is this groundbreaking new show, and I thought to myself, “I should be on that show!” and then maybe, as a director, wiggle my way in there, too.

I found out that the casting directors were in New York on my favorite corner, Sullivan and Spring, and so I called my manager and said, “I’m in New York for one more day and I want to meet Jennifer Euston, who casts Orange and Girls.” She said, “You want me to call her and tell her you’re in town for just one day and want to see her?” And I said, “Yes, please.” So, she called her and they said, “Oh my god, we love her”—because to them I’m someone they grew up with and they probably went as me for Halloween or something. I went and visited with them to put my name in their ear, and this role came up so they gave me a call.

Did you have to audition?

I did. This is the other 21st century thing: they said, “Just film yourself.” I said, “Wait… how does someone film themselves?” I initially said no, and then I talked to my friends and they said, “Lori, do you have an iPhone 5? You have no idea how good the picture looks!” So, my friend who’s this big editor, came over and my apartment has windows on all three sides, so we waited until noon so the lighting was just right, and then we shot it in one take. It took me three hours though to figure out the Dropbox thing! I need a staff… I need some young people around.

“It was me and ten naked boys every day. I’m not kidding.”

And Jodie Foster directed the premiere episode that you featured in. What was it like working with Jodie?

We’re around the same age and I’ve known her in L.A. We have a mutual friend—Stockard Channing—and we used to go to her house all the time for dinner parties, and Jodie is super cool and sweet, but very quiet. That’s just her personality. But on the set, she’s jumping around, helping everyone, and just glowing. She doesn’t scream from her chair, she comes over to you and whispers in your ear, “What if you really were a crackhead?” It’s so inspiring to see someone so happy and engaged, and someone where you really know, “This is what you’re supposed to be doing.” She’d say, “I look at my monitor and I see you, Lori, and it makes me so happy!” She would leave every day of shooting during the polar vortex just grinning from ear-to-ear.

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Taylor Schilling and Lori Petty in 'Orange Is the New Black.' (JoJo Whilden/Netflix)

Where did you shoot that scene on the plane? And what was it like shooting that sequence?

That was on a set at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, and it was a hundred percent scripted. It’s called good acting, darling! [Laughs] The Chicago prison scenes we shot way out in Long Island, really far away, and it was a dude prison. When I had to make the exit from inside the prison to the playground, there would be five armed guards standing there even though all the inmates were in their cells, gawking at us from their tiny, horrible windows. So when you’re in there, you just think there’s going to be a PA, but me and Taylor were a bit startled because there were five armed guards and we were like, “Is everything okay?” But there were no problems with the inmates. We were doing our TV show, and they were doing their time. We had to wear special badges to shoot in the prison and if you wanted to leave, you had to leave the grounds, and the gates would only open at certain times. It was real.

And that scene where you’re roughed up in the prison yard and Piper fails to come to your defense is pretty intense. What was it like filming that?

I got stomped! [Laughs] And there were no stunt doubles during that scene, but no one got hurt. Jodie did say, “Okay, you need to get really messed up,” and it was minus-700 degrees out, and I had to lay on the ground getting stomped, and they couldn’t put anything on the ground because they were shooting it, so the costumers were wonderful and gave us all these hand warmers. I’d keep asking for more hand warmers, then give them to the extras who looked like they were dying, then ask for more. I became the hand warmer contraband girl. “Go to Lori, she’ll give you hand warmers!”

I saw your 2008 directorial debut, The Poker House, and people don’t really give you enough credit for “discovering” Jennifer Lawrence, since that was her first film credit.

No shit! You can quote me on that. No shit. I cast her in her first film. Look, she deserves one hundred percent of her success, period. In addition to that, I think I passed along 25 years of experience of being an actress to her. But she’s amazing and the camera loves her, and that’s why I cast her. It’s like when I first saw Leo DiCaprio in This Boy’s Life. We were editing A League of Their Own and De Niro and them were editing This Boy’s Life next door. Me and Penny [Marshall] were inseparable because I wanted to absorb everything she was doing, so I’d go to post-production with her. So De Niro comes in and goes, “You’ve got to see this kid.” So we went into the room and saw some unedited scenes with DiCaprio and both went, “There’s another movie star.” That’s what happened with Jennifer. And Chloe Moretz is in The Poker House, too! She’s going to be around forever and ever. I wrote her half-page monologues, and she’d just knock them out of the park. It was a small budget, under $1.5 million, and she was doing like eight pages a day. I went up to her mom and said, “What do we do after lunch? I don’t want her to crash!” and she went, “Oh no, she’s fine. This is what she does.” She’s remarkable, that kid.

Where did you find Jennifer?

I’ve lived in Venice since Point Break in ’91, and Mary Vernieu lives in Venice, so she cast The Poker House as a favor to me, and she’s brilliant and casts every good movie. So, I’m in Chicago and we’d already cast Selma Blair as the mom, and Selma is five feet tall and weights 90 pounds. Mary sends me these tapes of these girls and goes, “This girl Jennifer Lawrence is a star. You have to watch this tape.” But it said she was 5’9” on her resume, and I said, “I can’t fit them both in the frame! How am I supposed to have the mom be 5’ and the daughter be 5’9”?” But she said, “Just watch the tape.” So I watched the tape and was like, “Okay, great, that’s another movie star.”

When I flew back to L.A., I put Jennifer, Chloe, and Sophi [Bairley], who plays the middle daughter, read together, and afterwards I said, “Do you want to be in a movie?” And they said, “Of course, that’s why we’re here.” And I said, “No, do you want to be in this movie?” And they said, “Yes, of course we do, that’s why we’re here.” And I said, “No, I’m offering you the part, do you want to be in this movie?” And they started jumping up and down and screaming. I did that because I hated auditioning for a part and then waiting five days for your agent to tell you that you got it.

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Lori Petty and Keanu Reeves in 'Point Break.' (Moviestore Collection via Rex)

And Jennifer Lawrence’s father pops up in the film, too, as the basketball coach.

I forgot about that! He’s the basketball coach, yes. He was just hanging around. It was super low-budget and I had no producers looking over my shoulder. Steve Cannell, god rest his soul, just wrote a check and it was handled through his production company, so we were just humpin’ and making a movie. So I don’t know whose idea it was.

And The Poker House was based on your real-life story of being sexually assaulted as a teen.

It got, like, 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes and the only people that didn’t like it were old white men who would tell me at Q&A’s, “That didn’t happen to you, Lori Petty!” It was crazy. People think that just because you’re in the movies, real things like that couldn’t have happened to you. But whoever owns The Poker House should re-release it… like now. I don’t know what they’re thinking!

I grew up with your films, too. I think Cadillac Man is literally one of the first R-rated movies I saw. But with Point Break, it’s really become this revered cult classic.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences screened it! I was like, “What?!” I went, along with the cinematographer and some other people. And then there’s this Point Break Live! thing where they’ll do the movie live at a bar with a stage and everything. It’s so good. They camp it up like Rocky Horror. I heard about it and went one day, and you get wet, and waves crash on you—it’s so much fun. They pick a guy from the audience to play Keanu and have a cue card girl who follows him around and makes him say his lines, and about six months ago, they called again, and I said, “I’ll do it if I play Keanu.” So, I was playing Keanu in front of this crowd and it was so much fun. I love Point Break. And when I saw it at the Academy, I thought, “It’s so pretty! We’re all 23 and drop dead gorgeous and surfing in Hawaii and wet and naked. Really?! What’s the problem!” And I got to kiss Patrick and Keanu multiples times every day!

I spoke with Keanu last year about the homoeroticism of Point Break, and he said everyone was very aware while they were making it of just how homoerotic the movie was.

I would crack up laughing and say, “Are you really shooting this?” to Kathryn [Bigelow] in the scene where they’re walking and Patrick asks Keanu out on a date. That shit was hysterical. And there’s a love scene with Keanu and I in the water and he says, “I don’t know why it’s so hard,” and I never thought it was funny until I was sitting there were a few thousand people laughing.

That must have been a really fun movie to shoot.

Are you kidding? It was me and ten naked boys every day. I’m not kidding. And they didn’t care, and we had to go surfing every day for three months, so we’d be in Venice or Huntington Beach with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Patrick, Keanu, and me, and they’re just wet and crazy twenty-something boys, and it was a blast. Then we went to Hawaii to shoot and they gave me the key to my hotel room and when I walked in, I called back down to the front desk and said, “Are you sure this is the right hotel room? Where’s the Queen going to stay when she comes?” I’d never seen anything like it. And every morning before work, all the boys—Patrick, Keanu, etc.—would go skydiving against the rules of the studio. They’d say, “Lori, come on!” and I’d say, “You could give me a million dollars cash, and I wouldn’t do it.” They’d go, “Oh, you’re such a pussy!” And I’d say, “Call me that all day, I’m not going!” And that’s really Patrick in the movie doing all that skydiving/ballet shit in the air.

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Lori Petty and Co. in 'Free Willy.' (Everett Collection)

Was there any hooking up on the set of Point Break? Like you said, surfer dudes surrounded you all day.

I’m trying to think of I did… I don’t think so. We were tired surfing and working all day for six months.

A League of Their Own is also such a classic. What was it like working with Madonna in that? That was really peak Madonna, in 1992.

That was the height of all Madonna-ness. They cast her pretty late and I said to her when she got there, “What are we supposed to call you? Because calling you ‘Madonna’ is like calling you ‘The Empire State Building,’ and I can’t do that.” Everyone laughed. But she was the hardest-working woman I’ve ever met. She’d get up in the morning, run eight miles, and then come to work. She was never a diva. Ever. And she gave me a very nice vibrator for a wrap gift.

Was it engraved?

[Laughs] Well, it was one of those back-massagers, and that was my wrap gift. She was very cool.

“Tupac was the sweetest man in the world. That whole thug thing was an act—it was silly, and dumb.”

You also got to work with the late Tupac on Poetic Justice.

I worked with Ice-T, Ice Cube, and Tupac! But Tupac was the sweetest man in the world. That whole thug thing was an act—it was silly, and dumb. He was a complete gentleman and one of the kindest men I’ve ever met. We went to this party and my friend at the time Karyn Parsons, who was on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, was all, “I HAVE TO MEET TUPAC!” and was freaking out, and Tupac was over in the corner with all his dudes, so I walk over and go, “Tupac, will you come meet my friend please?” and he went, “Of course!” and hopped up to meet her. He was a sweetie-pie, a genius poet, and a great actor. I loved him.

There was a big moment in your career in 1993, when you were cast in Demolition Man and then the film’s producer, Joel Silver, fired you after a few days and replaced you with Sandra Bullock.

It was the most uncool day in Hollywood for me. I just treat people the way I want to be treated, so I’d rather not gossip about his unkindness.

Why do you think the roles started drying up after Tank Girl?

Well, because I was thirty-something and I hadn’t married my agent, married any guy co-stars, or gotten fake titties or Botox. I never wanted to be a bombshell; I wanted to be an actor. I would much prefer to be a woman than a man, but if I was a dude, maybe I’d have Johnny Depp’s island because women in this industry after a certain age definitely don’t get to do Pirates of the Caribbean. Poor Keira [Knightley], they even airbrushed huge tits on her on the poster, and she’s flawless! I was trying to play football with a baseball, and you can’t really do that.

The thing I enjoyed about seeing you in those movies in the ‘90s, is that growing up, I was also really into punk rock. You didn’t look like other movie actresses. You looked punk rock.

The first things I did was I was a writer, painter, and photographer, and we grew up very poor, so even though I could get into any college I wanted, there was no way to pay for it. I was watching TV one day and thought, “I can do that!” so I flew to New York on a one-way ticket, lived at the YMCA, and then I was working after a year. I think many actresses want to be famous and want to be the prettiest, and that wasn’t my trek. I was thinking, “I gotta get out of here… how do I get out of here?” I like acting, but I like directing more. That being said, I had a blast doing those big hits. I had a great time.

Well, I was really excited seeing you in the premiere of Orange Is the New Black, because it really took me back.

Oh, thank you so much! Would you take Vaseline from my ear glob?

Totally.