“Just reading it, I was weeping,” says Kimiko Glenn, who plays hippy Asian-American inmate Brooke Soso on the hit Netflix series, before quickly stopping herself. “You’re putting a spoiler alert in this article, right?” Right: SPOILER ALERT! Specific plot points to the final episodes of Orange Is the New Black to follow!
In a haunting art-imitating-life arc channeling #BlackLivesMatter, #ICantBreathe, and the systemic prison injustices that have led to the mistreatment and deaths of inmates around the country, Samira Wiley’s Poussey Washington is accidentally killed by a correctional officer during a prison riot gone out of control.
“Any time I thought about it I just burst into tears,” Glenn says. “I’ve never felt so emotional from just reading something.”
It was an especially tragic loss for Glenn and her character. After two lonely seasons of sulking around Litchfield or having her chatty monologues shut down with a hand to the face—Brooke is so talkative that Natasha Lyonne’s Nicky Nichols once stifled her during sex by forcing her face into her crotch—Glenn had finally gotten a real scene partner to work and evolve with.
That’s because Poussey and Brooke had begun dating, a puppy-dog romance that provided the emotional heart of an otherwise harrowing and brutal season of OITNB—as gifs celebrating the most aww-worthy moments of their budding relationship attest to.
The last time the two characters speak to each other before Poussey’s sudden death, they’re fighting because Poussey doesn’t think a peaceful protest against the guards’ treatment of the inmates will accomplish anything. To avoid making things more heartbreaking than they already are, the two share one last glance of loving forgiveness as Poussey stands on the cafeteria tables with the other prisoners and joins the protest.
The scenes have had a profound effect on Glenn. “It’s sad that it was just a look, you know?” she says. “But now I always think about that. Like, if my boyfriend goes out to get some ice cream or something, like I need to say ‘I love you’ before he leaves. It’s a little crazy and irrational. But who knows what could happen?”
It’s the most irrational—although arguably hardly irrational at all—thing Glenn says over the course of an hour-long lunch interview in Manhattan.
Dressed in short overalls with her bobbed hair pulled into a half-ponytail, she’s incredibly petite, something she mocks herself for when recounting the story of getting cast on Orange Is the New Black.
She was actually mid-binge in Season 1 of the show—about five episodes—and thinking “they must be having so much fun, but how could I ever be on it? Look at me. I’m like 90 pounds.” But when she paused her binge to check emails, she saw an audition appointment for Orange Is the New Black. “I thought I was hallucinating.”
She’s also surprisingly measured when talking about her early-in-her-career success. While certainly borrowing some of the “it’s all such a blessing!” talk that her colleagues recite like Bible verse, she’s completely candid about the toll it’s taking on her physically and emotionally, and the amount of work that goes into being, well, a working actor.
When she rushes into the midtown Le Pain Quotidien, she apologizes for being late. She’s coming from an audition. A few hours after we pay the check, she’ll be a few blocks west at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, where she stars in the Broadway musical of Waitress eight times a week as Dawn, the gawky, obsessive confidant of Jessie Mueller’s Jenna who must learn, through song, to let down her guard and believe in love.
Oh, and 48 hours before, the new season of one of the most popular television shows in the country, in which she has a major role, went live on Netflix.
“I think to look at it from far away, it’s amazing,” she says. “If you list the things that are going on that are really cool. But it’s also a lot of pressure. The realities of it are a lot more difficult.
“The thing is I’m so grateful. One hundred percent grateful,” she stresses. “In hindsight it will be like ‘those were the days,’ when I’m old and unemployed and can’t get work.”
Glenn is part of a theatre boom among her OITNB co-stars. At the same time she’s performing in Waitress, co-star Danielle Brooks (Taystee) is down the street taking audiences to church in The Color Purple. Samira Wiley just finished a run in Daphne’s Dive off-Broadway, directed by Hamilton’s Tommy Kail. Uzo Aduba was overseas starring in The Maids on the West End.
It’s no wonder that to shoot the cafeteria protest and, ultimately, death scene, the show’s production had to call for shooting on a Sunday—the first time they had ever done that—in order to get the entire cast on set at the same time, given their crazy schedules. The shoot took about 21 hours, a schizophrenic roller coaster that involved tears and slap-happy joking in between cat naps in the bunks on the show’s prison set.
As for how the death of her girlfriend will affect Brooke, whom we’ve seen weeping in the arms of Norma (Annie Golden) and turning to Poussey’s old hooch stash, Glenn is certain that she’s not going to handle it well.
“She finally found someone she could confide in,” she says. “Now that’s been torn from her in such a horrific manner. And she’s still trapped. It’s not like something like this happened and you have the world and places to go and people you can reach out to. She’s still confined. That just magnifies the emotion and the impact of what happens to you.”
When it comes to the two characters she’s playing at the moment—OITNB’s Brooke and Waitress’s Dawn—there’s one that she clearly relates to more than other. “It’s not that I don’t like Brooke,” she says. “I understand her. I know people like her. I just don’t know if I would choose to hang out with her.”
But it’s in her blood to empathize with the over-analytic, fretful Dawn. Her sister was an accountant. Growing up in Phoenix, her father was a software engineer. Her mom was a tax preparer.
“My dad taught me to be wary of everything before I get into it,” she says. “I calculated everything that could go wrong at any given point, and I had to get out of that when I moved from Phoenix because it didn’t serve me. But I related to that type of person who analyzes everything to death.”
Growing up in Phoenix, Glenn was a musical theatre nerd. There were several productions of Annie. Yes, she played the title role, and yes, she did it with the red hair. She attended the Boston Conservatory for a year to study musical theatre, but dropped out after she landed a role in the touring company of Spring Awakening.
When she got the call that she had booked the job, for which she had auditioned seven months prior, she thought she was being told that she had been hired at Starbucks, where she was in the middle of applying for a barista position. “It was not Starbucks,” she laughs. “I didn’t know 212 was a New York number at that point.”
When Glenn gives interviews, she’s often asked about being an Asian-American actor on a popular TV show, one of the few in such a visible role. Her father is of German, Scottish, and Irish descent. Her mother is Japanese.
“I grew up very American,” she says. She was exposed to her Japanese culture, even spending two months every summer studying in Japan. “But I didn’t realize that I was different from any other person until someone told me.”
The first time was when she was 16 and was told she was the best person for a part, but wasn’t cast because they wanted a blonde. It started a cycle of similar rejections. “That’s when I started getting into this ‘oh, I’m different’ mindset. Accepting it, I guess.”
She remembers growing up and never seeing herself in any of the stories she saw on screen when she was a kid. With age and wisdom, she reflects on that: “If I only see myself as secondary in the roles I’m being cast, I will view myself as secondary in life.”
She credits OITNB with sparking a rise in more progressive casting, and with it the realization that people want to see real-looking people’s stories told with honesty and truth and grit. The extent to what we see in media, whether it’s a TV show or even just commercials, seeps into your subconscious is deeper than you might realize.
“That’s why I think it’s so important to cast people of color, and people with disabilities, and people of all different shapes and sizes because they want to see themselves reflected up there,” she says. “So you know you can be CEO. So you know you can be Superman. You don’t have to be a beautiful white man to be Superman.”
She, again, very candidly begins talking about how hard it is to be an actor, even wondering aloud whether, because of the rejection and the pace and the stress, it’s something she’d want to keep doing. But then she thinks of a little Asian girl watching Orange Is the New Black and, finally, seeing someone who looks like her on screen. “That’s what keeps me going.”