When I describe this week’s installment of High Maintenance as her episode, Yael Stone is quick to correct me. “It’s not mine, it’s definitely Gatsby’s,” she says.
She’s right. Gatsby, a gangly and adorable Goldendoodle, is the protagonist of the show’s third episode, which premiered on HBO Friday night. In fact, the entire thing is shot from his perspective, a decision that could have turned into a lame gimmick on any other show but becomes an unexpectedly moving device on Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfield’s High Maintenance. We follow Gatsby as he moves from the suburbs to the city and ultimately falls deeply in love with his pot-smoking dog walker Beth, a character that Stone originally played in the web series version of the show.
Calling from New York, where she’s currently filming Season 5 of Orange Is the New Black, Stone talks about the serendipitous timing of a role that had her practically getting intimate with a dog—“I would happily smear peanut butter on my face for him, any day,” she says. She also looks ahead to Season 5 of the Netflix hit that put her on the map and explains why being Australian has not stopped her from doing everything she can to stop Donald Trump.
Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation. Warning: Minor spoilers for Episode 3 of High Maintenance and Season 4 of Orange Is the New Black.
What did you think when you found out your character was going to have this love affair with a dog?
Oh, I can’t even tell you how happy it made me. The timing was particularly beautiful and sad, in a way. I’d actually just found out that my dog in Australia, my long-term dog that I think of as my baby, got really, really sick. And I was going to try to rush back and see her and she died really suddenly. And then the next day I got this episode. I read it and was just crying. And all I wrote back to Ben and Katja was, “How did you know?” I’m Australian, obviously, and I’ve struggled to really know where I live, where I make my home. And I’ve had this wonderful experience with Orange, where I was in New York and all I’ve wanted is to get a dog. And I’ve flip-flopped about it for the last four years, so being able to hang out with a bunch of dogs and people who work so beautifully with dogs, was really so special. All I want to do now is Turner and Hooch the remake.
The episode is really unlike anything else on television. What challenges did shooting from the dog’s perspective bring for you?
Because Ben and Katja have such a unique vision it means they just do things really differently. That’s meant that our hero, the Guy, we don’t even know his name. In the same way that Orange Is the New Black has the prison as the context for all this very diverse, human interaction, in High Maintenance the Guy is the link. In this episode, we have some doggystyle interactions. In terms of challenges in this episode, Bodie, who plays Gatsby, was better behaved than I am. He got more treats than I got. And I would happily smear peanut butter on my face for him, any day. He’s a delightful dog and the people who work with him are so talented. It’s incredible what they can do. He’s a much better actor than me, that’s for sure.
Those fantasy sequences are pretty insane. What were those like to shoot?
That was like all my fantasy dreams come true. I put one shoe on that had Stevie Nicks and another shoe on that was Kate Bush and I just danced around like a maniac. There was no real plan. My greatest disappointment was that I did a full backbend in one of those takes, all the way down to the ground. I’ve never done that in my life before. I don’t know why the fuck they didn’t use that take. That’s the only thing that makes me feel bad about this episode. The one time I got over my fear and did a full backbend and there’s no evidence of it! But it’s just so much fun working with people who know what they want, but are free and are bringing you on board because you are you. And trying to create an environment where you just get to be the most you can be. So you don’t feel like a meat puppet, you feel like, “I have an essential spark that I want to share.” And even if that’s an illusion, it’s nice for an actor to feel like that every now and again.
How did you originally connect with the creators Ben and Katja for the web series?
I watched everything in one night, which I’m sure is not an unusual story. You just can’t stop. Then I found out some mutual friends knew them and I was basically like really stalk-y, heavy-breathing, like, “Hey, would you guys mind if we all had dinner together?” So my friends kindly organized a dinner together and I just creeped out on them and tried to be cool. I was deeply uncool, but I think they got the idea that I was really keen to do anything they would let me do. They kindly invited me to have a little cameo on Tracee Chimo’s amazing Stomp episode [“Esme”] where I think I promptly called her a “cunt.” But I only did it for laughs.
Did the experience of shooting the HBO version of the show feel different than doing the web series?
When we first did the web series, I had just flown in on a red eye from my very first Emmys experience. So I was already in a highly altered state, so everything felt weird. I was very aware doing the web series that they had assembled a really beautiful team of very cool, laid back people that could accommodate almost anything. Obviously, now that they’re working with HBO there are different resources, but the guys are still using a lot of the same people. They haven’t done that thing where they’re like, “Oh we got a bunch of money so we’re gonna drop everyone who was there and pick up with a whole bunch of new people.” When you work with [Orange Is the New Black creator] Jenji Kohan or these guys, there’s a way of setting tone by surrounding yourself with great people. Every actor who’s in High Maintenance is uniquely spectacular. You sort of hope you could have a love affair with all of them. I’d say for all intents and purposes, it’s not different, people are just getting paid now.
You mentioned that they really let actors bring themselves to their roles, so would you say this character is closer to the real you than Lorna Morello on Orange Is the New Black?
[Laughs] Yes, I would say she’s closer. Obviously not exactly the same, but she’s definitely closer to me. I’m a great believer in actors who are able to bring themselves to a role with joy and levity and a sense of authenticity. I think that’s a really hard thing to do. When I look to Ben [Sinclair], actually, I’m really inspired by what he does. Because the Guy is a totally compelling character. He’s like your best worst psychologist ever. He brings it all out, he lets people kind of expose themselves. And he’s also funny and charming, with moments of unlikability as well and I feel like Ben manages to translate this quite elusive person in this deeply charming way.
Going back to Orange, it seemed like things were going well for Morello after she married Vince, but then we saw her return to her old jealous ways toward the end of Season 4. Where do you think she will be emotionally when Season 5 begins?
I try to keep a perspective that’s based in reality and her fantasy life is very strong. Her sense of paranoia is very strong. That has been a hop, skip and a jump to a sort of violent anger. That’s where we had her last season, and it was sad because she kind of turned on her sister. Obviously those are great scenes for me to play and I love kind of digging into that very delicate switch where her deep, deep insecurity flips over to paranoia, which flips over to violent anger. It’s very fun for me to play. It’s kind of exhausting in a lot of ways because it requires so much energy. So it’s not nice for the character, but it’s quite fun for me. And then there’s these other wonderful parts of Lorna that I’ve enjoyed, having fun with Natasha [Lyonne], my favorite scene partner. We have so much fun together and I think Lorna and Nicky have so much fun together. She appeals to Nicky in that way because she is playful and silly and kind of madly fun. All the best people in my life are a little mad too, so I definitely have a soft spot for her. I just wish she wasn’t so violent and crazy. And sometimes she’s a little racist, but we’re working on that.
You and your Orange Is the New Black co-stars recently filmed a PSA for the Ohio Democrats. How did that come together?
I’ve had very strong feelings about the election. I live here, I pay my taxes here, but I’m not a citizen and I can’t vote. I was nervous that people would think I’m kind of putting my nose where it doesn’t belong. But I do believe that this election is a truly critical moment and revealing moment for our society. And I have to get real with myself and say, you know what? The implications go beyond just the United States. The country has global implications because this is a global world power and I personally don’t want to see a man like Trump leading that global world power because I just think it’s too dangerous. Our alternative is Hillary Clinton and I’m very pleased to be supporting a woman in this position.
I know that a lot of the women [on Orange Is the New Black] feel passionately about that, and a lot of the men do too. A part of me wants to shut my voice down and I feel embarrassed sometimes to have opinions. People hate actors who have opinions and I get it. But you know what, I don’t want to look back in 10 years and say I said nothing and I did nothing. In my small, ignorant, actorly way, I want to know that I at least tried to influence people’s thinking. I do want people to vote on my behalf. I do want people to vote for a safer future, free of bigotry and misogyny. What I love about High Maintenance is its insight into connectivity and humanity. And in the context of this election and everything that’s going on in the world, anything that reminds us of our connectivity and our humanity is a good thing in my book.