Lorna Morello and Nicky Nichols are two of the most important characters on Orange Is the New Black.
Played with such warmth by Yael Stone, Morello is the first Litchfield inmate that Piper, and therefore we, meet on the series, and, with her ceaseless optimism and genuinely kind demeanor, she makes her (and, again, us) feel like that maybe everything will be OK. And brought to life with the wry wit and wisecracks of Natasha Lyonne, Nichols is the first person we meet who seems like someone we’d actually enjoy being friends with outside the prison walls, who gives us hope of a semi-normal social life while incarcerated.
It’s never clear, though, what’s going on between them. They have an intense sexual relationship, but it’s abruptly stopped by Morello, who suddenly feels guilty about how her sexual trysts would impact her relationship with her beloved fiancé, Christopher—an act that frustrates Nichols. So were they in love? Are they in love? Is it just sex? Are they friends with benefits, or is more than that?
What becomes abundantly clear, in one of the second season’s most heartbreaking scenes, is they do have immense love for each other.
The scene comes after a shattering emotional for Morello. We learned earlier in the season in the episode that contains Morello’s “backstory” that her relationship with Christopher—a name always so lovingly sing-sung in Morello’s musical Brooklyn/New Yawk/New Joisey accent--was a delusion. They had one date and she became his stalker. After learning that Morello managed to break into his house again (it’s a long story, but you know it if you watched this season), he visits her in prison, only to verbally berate her.
And Nichols sees the whole thing.
In the scene that follows, a devastated Morello cries to Nichols, “I’m crazy. I’m a crazy person. There is something really wrong with me…Nobody’s going to love me.” Nichols’ tender response: “I do.”
We recently had the chance to sit down with Yael Stone and Natasha Lyonne and talk about what it was like to shoot that scene on the stairwell, and why it was such an important moment in the development of their characters.
What was that day of filming like for you two?
Lyonne: First of all, I just thought that Yael was so brilliant in that scene. I had very little to do than just sit and listen to her and be there for her. But I do think it is an interesting culmination of what our characters have been through together. They have been through a battle where I’ll be--literally--inside Lorna, and she’ll say, “Hey, hey! Back off! I want to make sure I stay tight for the wedding.” It’s like, “Whoa with the mixed messages, lady." There’s been so much push-pull. They’ve been through so much at this point. They’ve both had very obsessive-compulsive years. Me, dealing with my demons and every time I shut one lid it pops out another door. It’s sex, it's a cookie-eating contest, it’s always something. I’m just crawling out of my skin. She’s been going through her shenanigans and this stalking business. Finally they come together like this and it creates a deeper intimacy.
They seemed closer than ever at that point.
Lyonne: It’s a moment that's very true to life. Even if it’s not a romantic relationship, you can say, “I really love you unconditionally. I see who you are completely. I’m here for you, and I love you.” Whether it’s just as friends or romantically. At this point, they’re forever bound. There’s not much fence-straddling in their relationship. They’re now linked and accountable to each other.
After being yelled at like that by Christopher, is it comforting or horrifying for Morello to run into Nichols immediately?
Stone: I actually was just thinking that. Because it’s not her point of choice. It gets exposed for her. I mean she comes clean for what she’s done, but Nicky actually watches Christopher shout at her and say she’s a psychopath. So she’s forced into a place of honesty. It’s really uncomfortable when you’re exposed like that and it’s not even in your time to say, “Hey, OK, I did this crazy thing…”
And Nichols seems completely understanding.
Stone: It’s amazing to just be accepted when you’re at your deepest humiliation. There’s nothing to gain. They’re at their lowest point. They’re in prison and she's batshit crazy and somebody with nothing to gain says, “I love you.” I think that’s important. Taking a step back in an acting sense, those moments that you seek and chase after as a performer are those places where you’re actually hovering in the present and responding, not thinking about the next moment or the screw-up of the last moment. You’re just like, “I’m actually breathing. I see you and you see me, and we’re just clicking.” It’s one of the few moments that’s very positive. A lot of the time we’re neurotic people and deeply insecure. That’s why you become an actor. So you can spend a lot of time getting caught up in the other stuff, so you do a scene that’s really enjoyable, where you dig down into the character and motivation. It’s deeply pleasurable to do that with someone like Natasha.
We'e seen these characters have sex with each other, but that scene is really the most naked we’ve ever seen them.
Stone: That’s a very potent comment, yes. You do feel like that when you’re doing those scenes. To be physically revealed is one thing and certainly physically challenging. But to be open in that way is very exposing, but it can be liberating, too.
Those moments are important for Nicky. She's wisecracking and tough, but these moments show her heart.
Lyonne: It also speaks to this idea that Nicky is really grounded in, which is that this prison is her reality now. For her, because her life on the outside has been so treacherous, it’s almost a comfort that she’s got these real relationships in prison. So it’s kind of a moment for her to hunker down and realize that these are the most significant relationships in her life: Lorna and Red. Telling the truth to these people and being there for them.
Stone: She’s very good with Piper as well, gives very good advice.
Lyonne: Yes, and I guess I had that moment with Poussey this year, too.
Stone: Oh yeah, on the floor with Samira.
Lyonne: But I do think, for her, she is very invested in these relationships. It’s always wild. Because it always felt really hollow in a way. Because it’s so much, wanting to tell Lorna that it’s going to be OK. Historically, as a person, it’s like all those situations in your life when you tell your friend that it’s going to be OK. Ultimately it’s that hollowness of being a human being, which is that you can only reassure somebody so much in a life. You can only give yourself. To realize that’s ultimately not enough, that nobody can fix someone else’s pain completely, when all you want to do is take that pain from them and that self-loathing from them and that beating-themselves-up from them. And you can’t! You're only human. So I think that’s why, as an actor, I felt the heaviness of that. You know? Like, “Did I love you back to sanity enough?” Because you just can’t.
That's what makes the scene so heartbreaking, and so special.
Lyonne: It’s the emptiness of that magnified by the fact that we’re still in prison. At the end of this conversation it’s not like we’re leaving the coffee shop, or whatever. We’re sitting on a stairwell in prison, let’s go back to our cells. It’s really crushing. All we’ve really got in there is those human relationships.