What goes into portraying one of the most terrifying villains on TV? Lorraine Toussaint explains the psyche behind Vee, the Orange Is the New Black character we love to hate. [Warning: Spoilers]
TV fans are a bit like storm chasers. We get a rush from witnessing an agent of chaos whip through our favorite TV series, stirring up a maelstrom of trouble, complication, and drama. Few things this TV season, then, have been as thrilling as the introduction of Lorraine Toussaint’s Vee on Orange Is the New Black.
A new inmate with prior connections to a few of the Litchfield prisoners—she practically raised Taystee (Danielle Brooks) and has a complicated relationship with Red (Kate Mulgrew) from a past stint behind bars—Vee is “like a cross between Lady MacBeth, Nurse Ratched, and Stringer Bell from The Wire,” to cite The Daily Beast’s Marlow Stern. With her shock of wild hair and calculated, menacing eyes, she’s the complex villain the hit Netflix drama desperately needed to add a jolt of suspense into its sophomore season.
When she’s not enlisting the help of Taystee, Crazy Eyes, and a gang she eerily refers to as “her girls” to start up a smuggling ring, she’s waging a turf war with Red and the rest of the inmates. Oh, and she’s a sociopath.
As Vee, Toussaint is so terrifying. And so good.
Now that we’ve had enough time to binge through Orange Is the New Black’s second season, we couldn’t wait to pick Toussaint’s brain on what makes Vee tick. What’s the story behind the year’s most chilling TV performance?
So…everyone is loving you on the Orange Is the New Black.
You sort of do the work in a vacuum, and then it’s kind of locked away for a while. Then suddenly it’s out! I feel a little like Sally Field. “They like me! They really like me!” And not Vee, but me. [Laughs]
How did this come about? Who do we thank for you being cast as Vee?
I was in L.A. and my manager said that they were looking to add a new character. He put me on tape and we sent it off to New York. They responded very quickly, and liked it. It happened really, really quickly. Within a week, I was in New York. I had managed to pack up my life and was suddenly going to be in New York for six months. So it was really fast. So fast that Jenji Kohan, the amazing Jenji Kohan, we kept playing phone tag! Because I hadn’t really read a script, and the script that I read didn’t have a lot of Vee. I was getting it in bits and pieces. So I get to New York, long story short I get to set on the first day and I still haven’t talked to Jenji.
“She does see herself as a maternal figure. She has a capacity to eat her young. But she’s see herself as a mother nonetheless.”
You made it all the way to set without ever meeting the show’s creator?
Yeah! Then I’m in hair and makeup for however long that takes—for this show maybe eight minutes collectively—and I go on set about a half-hour before I shoot and Jenji and I finally connect. We’re chatting, and I had scenes that day so I wanted to get an overall sense of how she sees the character more specifically. And she says, “Oh, and by the way, Vee is a psychotic! Vee is a sociopath.” I went, “Huh!?”
Oh my gosh. So how did you see her before Jenji told you she was a sociopath?
Troubled. You know, troubled and certainly having a different kind of wiring that lends itself to conscience and consequential behavior. Because, in a way, that’s the first thing I look for in a character. There’s always reasons why we do what we do, that’s what’s brought us to this point in our lives. My job as an actor is to cover and expose in varying allowance that, so that the audience can peek through the window to the people I create. So I had not anticipated Vee being a psychopath. A half-hour before we started shooting, I had to make some adjustments and mostly just shift my perspective on her, on Vee.
I feel like part of the reason why audiences connected with Vee—or at least enjoyed watching her—is that, on top of her being a little bit of a villain and a sociopath, she does appear to have a maternal instinct, with the way she interacts with Taystee, Suzanne, and the girls. Or at least a desire to be maternal.
Absolutely. She has a desire to be a lot of things. One of the qualities of a sociopath is that they are very good mimics. They are really good emotional mimics, and sometimes it’s very difficult to tell what’s actually part of their wiring and what isn’t. They’ve learned to survive with a certain level of emotional mimicry. That was why I had to walk with her, because one of the things that is so complicated is that she can believe her acting so well at times that it doesn’t feel like acting. So is it not acting, or is it acting? As a character. And then I’m acting a character who’s always acting!
There’s a great scene at in the finale when she tries to ingratiate herself again to Taystee and when Taystee spurns her, Vee says, “You break my heart.” In response, Taystee says, “It might be true if you had one.” What do you think about that? Does Vee have a heart?
That’s actually one of my favorite scenes, because of that line, that very line that I got to walk with Vee. Where is her heart? And who can access it? I know for a fact that Taystee, more than anyone probably in her life, has accessed as much heart as she has available to be accessed. I think her capacity is different. Her availability is different. There are more layers in front of that heart space to peel away. Does Taystee get to the core of it? Maybe. She gets as close as Vee, I think, has ever let anyone. But it’s very relative.
She tells Taystee, “You’d be 10 years dead now if it wasn’t for me.” It seems like Vee thinks she’s genuinely doing good for these girls.
Oh yeah. Vee does think she’s doing good for these girls. She’s giving them, she thinks, a good alternative to even rougher, tougher lives. So she does see herself as a maternal figure. She has a capacity to eat her young. But she’s see herself as a mother nonetheless.
“Eating her young.” That’s interesting. Does she have a conscience when she does thing like convince Crazy Eyes to take the fall for her for attacking Red? How can she do something like that when she’s convinced herself that she’s a mother to these girls?
Well, she hasn’t convinced herself. She really believes that. We, as balanced and driven people, it’s very difficult to perceive of a person who doesn’t have that level of consequence or conscience. Not because they’re suppressing or bypassing it. It’s not there. And most clinical sociopaths are born that way. There’s a connection that’s actually missing that connects actions and consequences. So it’s awful, awful when I turn on Crazy. But when I throw her under the bus, she doesn’t think much about it. She’s a survivor, too. More than anything, she’s a survivor and will do anything to survive. The thing that I liked about the relationship with Taystee is that maybe—and I do mean maybe—maybe Taystee is the only person she has not thrown under the bus in her life. I think even that surprises her, and she probably doesn’t even quite know why.
A lot of actors, when they talk about playing a villain or a bad guy, talk about how much fun it is to play a character like that. But was playing Vee really “fun,” when it required going to such dark places?
It wasn’t “fun,” in that traditional sense of the word. I love to act. I love working. I love it with a passion I can’t describe. At the core of playing Vee is that passion, is that love of the work. And yet, still, playing Vee costs. Vee came at a price. The way she walks through the world, she actually became an interesting spiritual experience for me.
We all have a dark side. Most of us go through life avoiding direct confrontation with that aspect of ourselves, which I call the shadow self. There’s a reason why. It carries a great deal of energy. It’s got a real energetic charge there. But I do know that I have always been interested in knowing all of myself, intimately. I’m not even interested in that—I’m committed to it. Me, Lorraine. So I realized very quickly that in order to reveal Vee, not even play Vee, but to reveal her—I thought about how sculptors get a rock, and they know the sculpture is in there. They just have to get rid of the crap that’s in the way of it to reveal it. To reveal Vee required an intimate dance with my shadow self. And a loving dance with my shadow self. I certainly used it as an opportunity to fearlessly allow my shadow self to drive the car for six months.
It was very tangible, because I knew that I would get to set and I would don the jumpsuit. And there’s something about those boots. Once I put on those incredibly heavy, lead, steel-tipped boots—they weigh a ton—I could feel the energy surge from my toes to my hair. I would be like, “OK. Vee’s here.” Then I just want to play.
Those heavy boots and that hair—when we first started talking you said that the hair and makeup process was eight minutes. That’s very unusual for a TV show. What’s it like to play a character who, because she’s an inmate in prison, there seems to be, by default, a lack of vanity?
I loved it. That part I loved. One of the reasons why this show is so successful and Vee is so successful is that it’s probably the most un-self-conscious work I’ve ever done. That makes it raw. When you eliminate vanity from an art form, and I would think that this would be any art form, what is left is an opportunity to be incredibly naked and truthful. That’s an opportunity I seized. Because it didn’t matter how you looked! In fact, the worse you looked the better! [Laughs] “Oh really? You just rolled out of bed? OK! Action!” “Oh, you’re sweaty and have bags under your eyes?” All you did was rustle your hands through your hair. They would rustle and tussle it for like three minutes and that was it! We’re done! We’re good. The whole process took less than 10 minutes. We’d be talking to each other and hanging out in the hallways while we’re getting dressed. It had nothing to do with how we looked. Absolutely nothing! That part I loved.
That said, I was obsessed with Vee’s wardrobe in the flashback scenes.
Oh yes. Then I wanted to really counter that with the animal she is in prison. Because she’s a predator, but there’s the predator on the outside and there’s a predator on the inside on prison. I loved how ghetto fabulous she was on the outside.
A lot of these actors on the show, this is their first big TV role and the first set they’ve been on. You came in with a lot of experience. How much of that maternal vibe we saw with Vee and the girls also bled off-screen on the set?
I have the stupidest smile on my face now because I love these girls. I wish you could feel how much I love them. They’re like my daughters. I’m so proud of them. They’re young and beautiful and so fiercely talented and brave and fun and vulnerable and kind and generous. I think I taught them things just because they were available. I say taught them things, but I did not have to teach them to act—that’s a fact. But there’s things that I was taught when I was their age and I was young to the medium that extraordinary people like Burt Reynolds taught me. Set etiquette things. And what camera-savvy means, knowing what lenses are being used, what the lighting does, and how to modulate the work based on how close the camera is or how far the camera is and being really fearless about asking me or the DP or the director questions.
So they were welcoming to you?
I came into a company that had been established already. They were already a little gang, to themselves. This was a company that had already melded in its first year. It wasn’t just Vee who was an outsider coming in, but Lorraine was coming into a world. And I tell you these were the most generous actresses I’ve ever worked with. And there were so many of them! I had never seen the show, by the way.
Wait—really? You had never seen the show?
I didn’t know anything about the show, really, except there were a lot of buses going by with it on it and there were posters all over town. There was a buzz about it, but it wasn’t in my psyche. So I didn’t know anything about the actresses. I didn’t know what a huge hit it was. I just loved the writing when I accepted it. But every one of those actresses—and I mean every single one—in that first week came knocking on my door. It was the proverbial “Welcome to the neighborhood, we’ve brought you cookies and a casserole.” They’d knock on my door and open their arms to me, literally, and make me feel that they were so glad to have me. It warmed my heart immediately. I can’t say how generous they were, all of them.
Hearing you talking this way makes it even more heartbreaking that—at least it looks like this—you might not be back.
I know! Listen, I’m shooting Selma in Atlanta now, and last night I’m on set and I get a long text from Uzo going, “I miss you! I miss you! Where are you?” I sent her back a long text, “Oh, I miss you, too!” And an hour later, I had a message on my phone and it’s Vicky: “I miss you! It’s so weird you not being here.” And I call her back on a break from my film. It’s so genuine, this love I think we have for each other.
Well maybe Season Three will have a supernatural element to it and Vee could come back…
Is Vee dead? Is she not? Is she dead? Is Vee dead? She’s a survivor. You never know. It’s Jenji Kohan, so you never know…