‘Orange Is the New Black’s Badass Assistant Warden Talks Gender Roles- by Kelsey Meany
In case you haven’t heard, Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has become the must-watch show of the summer, praised for its strong female characters and particularly its female lead, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling). From a likable lesbian drug dealer to a sassy, fried-chicken-loving inmate named “Taystee,” writer Jenji Kohan—who made it big with Showtime’s Weeds—has created an all-star cast of unforgettable personalities based on the memoir by real inmate Piper Kerman.
Actress Alysia Reiner, a Gainesville, Florida, native, plays the queen of manipulation on the show—Natalie Figueroa, or “Fig.” As prison administrator and assistant to the warden, she makes the men (and women) around her quiver. In real life, Reiner—who is married to David Alan Basche, an actor who has appeared in War of the Worlds and United 93—is a fan-girl favorite. She spoke with The Daily Beast about how her OITNB character doesn’t fit the usual gender roles, how she adjusted to the “bad girl” part, and the show’s portrayal of men.
The Daily Beast: First off, you sound a lot nicer than you are on the show.
Reiner: It helps that I was putting my little girl to bed—I was just singing lullabies before.
The Daily Beast: Yes, you sound very soothing. What was it like preparing for the role? Are you a natural sort of badass powerhouse, or did that just sort of come with the acting gig?
Reiner: It’s funny—I’m about as opposite from my character as you can imagine. I’m one of those girls that cries at the drop of a hat. I’m oversensitive, if anything. I’m a mom. I’m very earthy, crunchy granola. I compost. I meditate, and if I were to do anything else with my life, you know, I would be like Piper, and I would try and make the whole prison system an entirely different system where everyone in the system truly is rehabilitated, so it was a very interesting role. I think as a tall woman and I have a certain look to me that I do get cast as sort of … the bitch. And both my husband and I have laughed at it a lot—making a good living as sort of something opposite yourself. For preparation, I did read the book like a lot of us did and I did, in fact, get to interview some people in the prison system like in the CO department. And I watched a lot of Locked Up. I did actually get to visit a prison, which is pretty interesting, but ironically it was with a really fantastic organization called the Council for Unity, which helps create unity and rehabilitate inmates in a really wonderful and amazing way. So when I visited it was in a very different context.
The Daily Beast: You’re sort of seen as the character who everyone is supposed not to like. What do you think that does for your role and what does Fig add to the cast?
Reiner: Well, I think what’s really beautiful and amazing about the show is we see people’s backstory and that everybody does have a reason and a story for being some place and the sort of how the choices make us and how we make choices. And the stories we tell as the tagline of the show is—every sentence has a story. I think Jenji [Kohan] and the rest of the writers have done a really extraordinary job of showing us that, and it’s my hope that at some point you get to see why Fig is this total bitch. Who hurt her? Who broke her heart? Because I am the person I am—the yogi, the meditator—I am always trying to look at, with every person I meet, if someone is cruel someone was probably cruel to them. And I think we really get to see that in this show and hopefully we’ll get to see that with Fig at some point.
The Daily Beast: So is there a real Fig in the book?
Reiner: There is no one like Fig in the book. She is one of the characters who’s been created for the show.
The Daily Beast: OK. Because I was going to say with the whole exploitation of the prison thing, we probably would have heard about it at one point.
Reiner: There’s no one like her. She’s purely fictional and thank God for that. And it’s interesting I got my first hate mail for the character today. I’m glad that there’s no actual Fig that’s getting that.
The Daily Beast: Wow, well, Orange is the New Black is really interesting in that it’s sort of a men vs. women world on the show—until there’s you and you’re sort of the baddest of the bad. So what do you think that does for the image that the show is putting off?
Reiner: There’s a really big exploration of power and what it means to have power? And is that a male thing or a female thing? What’s the power dynamic among the prisoners? And I think for me it’s really interesting looking at that exploration of power at all different levels with all different sexes. And how different people, regardless of sex, use their power, and what do they use for their power?
The Daily Beast: On the show, she’s part of this boys’ club. So how do you think she sort of deals with that? Is that part of her bitchiness? Is she just trying to assert herself? What do you think it is?
Reiner: In, I guess, Episode 3 I have that line where I say “Why would you choose to be a girl when you could have been a man?” As a girl, I’ve experienced what it feels like to be like, wow, men get treated really different and that sucks. And I have a beautiful 4-year-old, and I so hope that she always feels like she can do whatever she wants to do and there’s no limitation. I know that there are. We’ve all felt that. I’m sure you’ve felt that in the journalism world. You can see fantastic examples of that in House of Cards. I think the interesting thing for me is how she wields the power that she does have and what tools she has and how she uses them.
The Daily Beast: A lot of people are commending the show as being very kind toward women, and one of the first shows to have very strong female characters. The only sorts of male characters portrayed are the guy who hates lesbians and “Pornstauche,” and Bennett is the only one who is decent and still he’s sleeping with an inmate. So how do you think males are portrayed on the show?
Reiner: I think of course we have the guard world, which has not been portrayed in the best light. Again, I am really curious to see if we’re going to get to see their world outside and what makes them the way they are. With Bennett, Matt McGorry’s character, I see this incredible beautiful, innocent soul who lost a leg to our country and is still serving our country and still has this beautiful, big heart, and he made a mistake too and he really shouldn’t have done what he did. But he’s really to me a beautiful example of a real man, who’s this hero that fought for our country and what I think Jenji and the writers are good at is creating these really complicated people, and I’m really curious to see more about who everybody is. And that, to me, is what makes a story interesting. I did a play reading last night and one of the things we were talking about is how all of the great—when you think about Shakespeare, no character is just good or just bad. We all have a little good and bad in us and that’s what makes us interesting.
The Daily Beast: And you even see that when you’re watching the show—for about half of it I thought, Oh I love Piper, and then by the end I said, “Oh I hate Piper.”
Reiner: Exactly. That to me is what makes it really interesting. When you decide who someone is and they stick with it, it’s not as interesting. But when you really see the complexity of someone, that’s mesmerizing to me.