Few television series can be described as truly excellent and singular—and live up to the billing—the way that Orange Is the New Black managed to in its second season.
The Netflix prison dramedy, with its binge-baiting release strategy, is engrossing in every sense of word. It was dominating—it dominated our evenings with marathon viewings, our conversations with impassioned debates over the most explosive moments, and our psyches with the provocative questions it raised.
Few series, then, are as primed for in-depth dissections of its most pivotal scenes. As the guiding arc of this season was the turf war waged in Litchfield Prison between former prison cook Red (Kate Mulgrew) and mysterious newcomer Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), who frantically fought for the distinction of most powerful inmate, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to talk with the brilliant Mulgrew and Toussaint about one of their most memorable scenes together.
(Warning: spoilers ahead.)
Rather, we couldn’t resist relishing the opportunity to let the actresses talk to each other about it. The two discussed their characters’ pivotal first meeting in Episode 3 of this season. It was, as Mulgrew calls it, “the cowboy scene,” a High Noon duel of sorts when, after two full episodes of Red and Vee whispering to other inmates about each other’s respective reputations, they finally meet in the hallway.
The metaphorical gunfire viewers were expecting? Nonexistent. Instead, Red and Vee give each other a warm hug, hinting that their history together—which we assumed was exclusively adversarial—was more complicated and more colored than we had thought.
So here, Mulgrew and Toussaint dish with each other about what it was like to shoot that scene together, just three days after Toussaint first arrived on set. As you’ll discover, the actresses had about as little knowledge of the characters’ past relationship, the details of which were slowly revealed throughout the season, as we did—making the pitch-perfect execution of the scene all the more impressive. Here’s the story on how they did it, as they tell it…to each other:
Mulgrew: When I found out we’d be working together, I was delighted. Jenji Kohan [OITNB’s creator] told me they were bringing in a new character, a powerful one. And I when I heard it was Lorraine Toussaint, I was delighted, because there are only a handful who could do this really beautifully. And she would be foremost among them. That’s a hard thing to play, psychopathy, and make it as complex and interesting and seductive and funny and dark and light. But she did!
Toussaint: Thank you.
Mulgrew: We like something about each other, Vee and Red. Something about each other is good, and then it turns very bad.
Toussaint: It’s almost as if a few things were a little different, they would be very good friends. Even behind bars, this would be a great alliance.
She pays attention. She can see beneath the surface. She can peer in beneath the layers of people, and instead of using it compassionately, she uses it as a weapon. It’s about filling her arsenal.
Mulgrew: They have a creative sense of survival. Very creative, very strong, very strategic thinkers. Actually, Vee gave Kate Mulgrew more pointers as to who Red is than any other single person.
Toussaint: That’s maybe the greatest compliment I’ve gotten thus far.
Mulgrew: It’s true. She would say, “That’s not Red’s way. She’s strategic. She will not come at you frontally.” That taught me about myself. And then you said something about me emotionally: “You need your little group. How are you doing without your kitchen?” Understanding that isolation is the one thing that would absolutely disturb me. You get this. Part of your psychopathy is also your brilliance, right?
Toussaint: Absolutely. She pays attention. She can see beneath the surface. She can peer in beneath the layers of people, and instead of using it compassionately, she uses it as a weapon. It’s about filling her arsenal. But that first scene with us, when you walk down the hall, is maybe one of my favorite scenes.
Mulgrew: The cowboy scene. I was Clint Eastwood!
Toussaint: I’d been shooting two days, or something. That was my third day on set.
Mulgrew: We didn’t know anything about the Vee-Red history. But we pulled it off. We’ve been in the business for 40 years. We did it by knowing that the writing is really sublime and just opening yourself to it. We looked a lot into each other’s eyes. A lot of it was there. And then it just unfolds.
Toussaint: This ain’t our first rodeo. We also know how to create tension. What was most important in that moment was not so much the facts of this relationship, but the tension of this moment for the audience. And it has to do with having a secret. At some point, it’s not important what. You don’t have to share the secret. It’s just important to have a secret. And we’re both experienced actresses enough to have and hold a secret in that coming together, and a secret that would result in them truly embracing.
Mulgrew: That’s very good, the secret. Another thing I would say, and I know it’s true for you, and it also has to do with being a veteran: I anticipated nothing at all with you. Because there’s no point to it. So you’re absolutely present and anything can happen. You know that you stored the line somewhere. You only pull that at the last possible second.
Toussaint: If everyone could see the other takes of that scene, it would be a very interesting exercise for an audience.
Mulgrew: An acting exercise, too. An acting class.
Toussaint: Every scene, every take, was not just slightly different—some of them were extraordinarily different. Each one was very, very different, because we didn’t know where, ultimately, Jenji would take it. How she wanted to place it and use it. So our job was to give her the truth of every moment. And every single take was very, very different.
Mulgrew: And if Jenji would say something I knew that I had to mind that. For instance, if I ask, “Am I happy to see her?” All Jenji would have to do was go, “Ehh.” So that “ehh” has to go into it, into the take. How would I “ehh” something?
Toussaint: Each note we got, we ingested them. And you saw that.
Mulgrew: You don’t have time to think about it. I think that’s why it works. We’re not going home for days, going “Ahh this scene…” No, it’s there. It’s there. It’s on its toes—as is everything in life.