Doing Hard Time: Inside ’Orange is the New Black’ With Lea DeLaria
Critics and the public alike are clamoring over "Weeds" creator Jenji Kohan’s latest offering, the Netflix series "Orange is the New Black." Based on Piper Kerman’s 2010 memoir of the same name, the show follows Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a fresh-faced, thirty-something blonde who is sent to prison for a crime she committed a decade ago.
The series begins with Chapman, an artisanal soap maker leaving her sweet and soon to be long-suffering Jewish fiancé (Jason Biggs) to serve time with a bevy of lesbians, including her international drug smuggling ex-girlfriend (Laura Prepon) and one of Broadway’s favorite lesbians, singer/actress/comedian Lea DeLaria in the role of Carrie ’Big Boo’ Black.
EDGE sat down with DeLaria in a Broadway café to talk about women in prison, her role in the series and its runaway success -- "Orange" was signed for a second season before the premiere episode even began streaming. DeLaria bears the distinction of being the first comedian to ever come out as gay on network television, in 1993 on "The Arsenio Hall Show," is largely known for her hilarious role in "The First Wives Club" and as the host of Comedy Centrals’ "Out There," the first all-gay stand-up special.
DeLaria has been happily balancing her days between comedy tours, jazz albums, live theater and TV appearances, but said she will happily put it all on hold for as long as "Orange Is the New Black" continues to run. See what she had to tell EDGE about scary Russians, fisting, and the legions of young straight girls who have mobbed her since the series launched.
EDGE: Tell us about your character Boo and her backstory.
DeLaria: I think her crime might be in the second season, so I don’t want to spoil it! I think it’s okay to say that she was a bouncer at a strip club. Her nickname ’Big Boo’ came about because she’s kind of everybody’s boo, she skips through places and has all the girls in the prison. She’s a lover man.
EDGE: How is it working with Jenji Kohan on this?
DeLaria: Jenji is a genius! And Jenji’s also hilarious. Working with her is so easy, because she’s so funny, so easygoing and so willing to listen to anything that you say that’s funny. You can bounce other punch lines off her, and there’s no issue at all. Some folks are really persnickety about that. But there’s a real familial feeling about us on the set, and everybody just wants the show to be great.
EDGE: Did you have a sense that it would be well received even before it dropped?
DeLaria: We all knew we were doing something extraordinary while we were doing it. Nobody was saying much out loud because we didn’t want to jinx it, but those of us who had been around a while -- me, Kate Mulgrew, Annie Golden, people who have been doing this a long time -- would look at each other because we knew something special was happening here. We just thought keep our fingers crossed, because any number of things can happen in showbiz to destroy something beautiful. But everything came out right.
EDGE: Jenji Kohan’s last series, "Weeds," ran for eight seasons. Are you prepared for eight seasons?
DeLaria: I’m prepared for more than that! I’m hoping that we get even more than eight. If it were up to me, it would be the longest running show in television.
EDGE: You are working with a great cast, among them Kate Mulgrew, who like you, has worked in Broadway, recently appearing at The Vineyard Theatre in "Somewhere Fun." How is it to work with her?
DeLaria: Kate is great in everything she’s done. She is scary! I love her, we’re very good friends, but when Kate puts that character on and is talking to you....Red is not a nice person! I remember the first day we did this scene and Red was angry with Big Boo in the pilot - it was only a small scene, because my character doesn’t really kick in until episode four - but the first time we rehearsed the scene, I turned to the director and said, ’Mikey, Kate is scaring me! She’s scary, I don’t want to do this with her!’ But she’s just such a giving actor, so warm and when she thinks something is funny, she just puts her head back and laughs, and it fills the room. It’s lovely. She is an acting tutelage for anyone who wants to accept it on the set.
EDGE: There are a lot of great actresses on the set who can benefit from that. How is it working with Natasha Lyonne?
DeLaria: There’s a fisting scene in the pilot, and when I found out, I lost it. I said, ’Take that, fucking "L Word!" You think you’re a goddamned lesbian show! We’ve got a fisting scene in the pilot!’ We laughed, but Tash goes, ’I have to do this, Lea, and I don’t know how to do it.’ So I had to teach Natasha Lyonne how to fist. So then I went to set and Jenji’s there, Lisa Bettencourt and Michael Trim, the creative team, and I go to them at Video Village, the place where the creative types sit behind monitors, and say, ’Look, you’ve got a Russian consultant over here, you’ve got a woman’s prison consultant over there...I think I’m the fisting consulting.’ So Lyonne is on it, saying, ’I think we should go to accounting and get Lea some more money, because she’s the one who taught me how to authentically fist.’ Lyonne and I have to kind of be separated when they put us together, it’s just non-stop bouncing off each other and it’s disruptive. She’s wild, but she’s really fun. She’s been in the media, she’s had it rough, but she’s come out the other side smiling.
EDGE: How about working with Laura Prepon?
DeLaria: Prepon is really funny when she’s funny. I’m always happy when I make Prepon laugh. When I’m doing something and I look over and Laura’s laughing, I say, ’Yes, I know I’m on the right track.’ Her humor is so dry, that if you can get her to crack a smile you know you’ve done it right.