Kate Mulgrew was determined to be Red.
The actress wanted the role of Galina "Red" Reznikov, the prison cook on Netflix's "Orange Is the New Black" so much that she was willing to audition for it. That an actress of her caliber agreed to try out for a role on an unknown Netflix program is surprising; Mulgrew has enjoyed a four-decade career in the entertainment business and made history as the first woman to headline a "Star Trek" series.
But Mulgrew, 58, said once she read the part, she simply had to play her and went after the role with a "full heart."
"I really thought, this is a one-in-a-million character. 'I love her already,' I said in the audition room, you know, to myself. And you hardly ever say that," Mulgrew said in a recent interview. "In an actor's life, you don't have many of those. And particularly for a middle-aged woman, despite my experience."
It can be difficult to find a "role of this kind of size, of this dimension, so layered. I love the complicated nature of it," she said.
But once she'd won the role of Red, the canny, autocratic yet deeply caring Russian cook at the Litchfield prison, Mulgrew had one more hurdle to clear. You may have assumed that Mulgrew wears a wig for the role. She does not. The spiky plumage on Red's head is the result of much manipulation and styling from the "Orange" hair team.
Before the process began, Mulgrew said, she had long, light-brown hair, but she was "on board" to alter it.
"But when I went for the first day of shooting, we had to do it in increments, because I had to let go of inches of hair," Mulgrew said. "It went from red to deep red to magenta to eggplant, and then it was just this spiked thing on top of my head. I walked into a restaurant that night and I thought my boyfriend was going to have a bit of a massive coronary. But I love it."
Mulgrew didn't want to say too much about Season 2 -- which we already know will have cast member Laura Prepon in only one episode. But Mulgrew did hint at two things: We'll probably see more Red flashbacks, and Red's hair will have "evolved" a bit. But don't expect it to return to light brown any time soon.
"The red is crucial," Mulgrew noted. "It's who she is. She's a red light. She's a siren. She's a red alert. She's alive. ... She has to be contended with."
And prison creates an environment in which people have no choice but to contend with each other. As Mulgrew pointed out, prison rules don't allow the presence of computers, smartphones or other electronic devices, so there's not much to keep Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), Red, Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren (Uzo Aduba), Carrie "Big Boo" Black (Lea DeLaria), Taystee (Danielle Brooks), Alex Vause (Prepon) and all the other inmates distracted. They're stuck there with each other, and with the problems and personality traits that landed them in prison, and that creates "a petri dish" environment, Mulgrew said.
Red's method of dealing with her incarceration is to be useful; in the prisoner's mind, usefulness, "is almost more important than goodness," Mulgrew said.
In the interview below, Mulgrew discusses what Red went through in the first season of "Orange," and hints at what might be on tap for Season 2. She also discussed the legacy of Kathryn Janeway and what it was like to be the first woman to lead a "Star Trek" TV series. Both characters operated in confined spaces -- "I'm not a wilderness actress, I guess," she joked -- but Mulgrew said her approach to the roles was very different.
The interview below has been edited and condensed, but you can listen to the entire conversation with Kate Mulgrew in the form of a Talking TV podcast, which is available here, on iTunes or below the story. And the sci-fi nerd in me is pleased to present this chat with "Voyager's" captain the day after NASA's Voyager 1 module left our solar system. Hm, was it a prison break of sorts?
Did you do a lot of research into Red's culture or the prison system? What was your process for getting a handle on the character?
I think that I found her in my imagination first, and … the evolution of the character is different than it would be had I done a research-based shaping of the character. From the audition forward, she was in my mind. I understood something about her, and then of course, I did all the rest of the stuff. I went to the dialect coach and I went to Russian movies and I went to Russian literature and I looked at women behind bars. I did all of that, but more as a sort of framing of a character that was already on the canvas.
She's been in minimum security for a long, long, long, long time. Much longer than the others. And how has she survived? Well, she's survived because she's found a way to make herself useful. That, to Red, is almost more important than goodness. Her usefulness, her kitchen, her maternal capabilities, her ability to bring in those girls and call them daughters and make them work for her and make them serve her [is her skill], and then in exchange she gives the love. She teaches them about fierce loyalty. [There] is quite an extraordinary understanding between Red and those girls, until there is no longer an understanding.
It's heartbreaking when she's out of the kitchen because, as you said, her whole being is defined by having a purpose.
That's right. But Red's no fool. She accepts that she lives on the razor's edge. Some of those young girls don't know that they're on the razor's edge yet. It's horrifying for Red to not have her kitchen, but at the same time she's always held that in her pocket, that possibility. Change is the only absolute in prison, and there is an inherent instability. So she's learned to ride the wave, the current, the undercurrents.
Was it really hard to play the post-exile Red?
Very hard. I mean, I hope I don't sound too silly by saying that that despondency that Red felt upon being shunned and having her kitchen withdrawn was a despondency that I really felt.
What's great about the prison setting is that everything is much more intense when people are in an enclosed environment like that.
It's a petri dish.
Not only is it intensified, the stakes are raised. Everything happens on a kind of high level. It's like looking at, you know, crazy cellular activity under a microscope. That's what's going on.
These young girls especially [struggle]. Some of them are torn from their families, some of them torn from their own babies, certainly from their husbands. To see how they grapple with loss of self to me is just fascinating. Red, more than any of them, except for the older women who are introduced later on, understands that part of the game. Life goes on with or without your loved ones near you. You have to find another way to get through it. You have to find another way to value your own well-being and your own capacity for love and friendship.
Red seemed empowered in the prison in a way that she hadn't been in her life. She's an authority in that kitchen, whereas she had to fight for any attention or any kind of connection in her pre-prison life. Would you agree with that?
Well, she did, but don't forget that in the end, it was [Red] who had the relationship with the Russian [criminals], not my husband. So therein lies her power. She's no idiot. She's savvy and she's brave. And then what happens in prison is just more of that.
I wanted to talk more about Red's arc at the end of the season -- the sabotage that she did in the kitchen. I had to wonder if something that devastating had ever landed in her path before. I think she is savvy, and this attempt to take back her kitchen is definitely in character, but it backfired in the worst possible way.
It backfires a few times. It backfired with Tricia [Red's friend, who overdosed after being turned away]. And this, too, is essentially human, isn't it? We mustn't get too big for our britches. There's always a sacrifice and there is always a cost, and Red is aware of that. So whereas I am philosophical -– I'm speaking as Red now -– whereas I am philosophical enough to take these blows and grow with them, the deeper part of me suffers greatly, and this is of course what is most compelling. About not only Reznikov, but I would say, a lot of those women.
Right, because this is not a culture in which you can allow your suffering to be manifest.
It can't be made manifest, it can't even be revealed, nor should it be. Those kinds of things that were allowed in the world at large must be concealed within the prison walls or otherwise you're at risk. Your vulnerability could easily take you down if you're not very, very careful. So Red has found a way to not only shape all of these emotions but to contain them in way that works for her and allows her to put one foot in front of the other. But her constant goal is to be useful to that group, that body of women, because that is what is excellent for Red. It was on the outside, and it is on the inside.
There's a part of her that loves the challenge of any kind of sacrifice, even if it means momentary despair. [After that,] in her mind, it is how to overcome that despair. How absolutely methodically do I overcome this? Who do I get on my side? We're going to find a lot more of that in Season 2 -- her true mettle. Not only what landed her in prison, but what makes her tough -- we're going find out about that a lot more.
I gave "Orange Is the New Black" a rave review when it first came out, but later I wrote about how I underestimated how profound and moving and deep it would get. It just sort of blindsided me toward the end of the season, when it was just one thing after another ripping these people apart and making me feel their pain, which was great.
It is a phenomenon, what's happened to this show. And I think it's because we have watched so much television that holds up women falsely before us. The beautiful woman, or the woman who always wins, or the woman who's desirable to every man. And the standards are constantly, impossibly raised for women -- Hollywood does that.
Suddenly you walk into these walls [of the prison] and you're surrounded by creatures you not only understand, but who reside within you as well. And there's a deep release. It's almost existential. You're finally with people you get, people who could be you within two seconds, people who are you. There's something for every woman to relate to on a visceral level in this series. And that I don't think has been done ever before, do you?
No. Not to this…
Not to this extent.
Not to this extent, no. To have such an array of different kinds of people. Different in how they look, how they act, how they move, how they speak, how they think. And most of them are women. I don't think I've ever seen that before.
No. Nor I. So you could imagine how terrific it is to be a part of it. It's terrific. Exciting in the best sense of a word for an actress of my age and experience. It's so happy to find a character like this. I just want to make all the room for her.
So many characters are so rich and complicated that I wouldn't mind if some of them got their own show.
Exactly. I think that you will see a lot of the characters very carefully explored. I think that [creator Jenji Kohan] understands that's what the audience needs to see. That's what a prison is. It's not exclusive to one or to four or to five. It's the whole, and how the whole manages. How the collective manages. She gets it.
I'm very interested these days in shows that are about how the community functions. Not to say the characters in the story always get along or even like each other, but how do people try to bridge divides, or at least recognize them and figure out how to coexist?
And don't forget one thing -- in the digital world we live in right now, everyone is connected by some device to another person, [but in prison] all of that is removed. There are no cell phones here. There are no computers. You don't see that ever in "Orange Is the New Black." You see human interactions. There are no excuses, no distractions. These women are in one another's lives. And we don't have that anymore.
What is it like to work in that environment? Is it a different vibe?
It's absolutely liberating. It's full of excitement. Every woman in this thing is percolating all the time. We're always on our toes. We're always reaching out. ... Of course, I'm a more mature actress then most of them, but the feeling I get is one of real community, real joy. These are women who are very happy to be there. You don't often get that. And they're culled from the very streets of New York, and they're so longing to make this as great as it can possibly be.
And the show can be funny, too. I mean, Jenji's really good at comedy.
She is. That's the best part of the bleak reality of prison. Part of it is bubbling with kind of incredible humor. I mean, that's what happens when you're trapped. You start to say things. Certain dynamics breed all kinds of weird, funny situations and moments. And Red, I think, has been given this marvelous foundation of almost an eloquence, for lack of a better word. I sometimes find myself saying things that in my own life, I don't think I could find.
Speaking of enclosed environments and situations full of pressure, does it feel like there are any parallels to "Star Trek: Voyager" and "Orange"? It struck me that those two women were very powerful.
You're just drawing a very good line there. I mean, I get that. I get that that parallel is a viable possibility. But no, in my imagination, and certainly in my experience, "Orange Is the New Black" is nowhere near that space capsule. Nowhere near. My approach is different. The reality is different. The reality is real, in this case. Except I do seem to be attracted to confined spaces as an actress. My parts are always like that. I'm in a bar, I'm on a spaceship, I'm in a prison. So that's good. It tells me something about myself. I'm not a wilderness actress, I guess.
Do you feel proud of the legacy of Kathryn Janeway?
Oh, tremendously proud. I was the first woman captain. And it was a big deal when that happened, a huge deal. I knew that I was making television history. I knew because I was reminded 52 times a day. I also knew I had to raise two young sons. And I knew that I was going to work harder than I would ever work again in my life, and all of those things came true.
Just to see women in science respond to Kathryn Janeway the way they did was unbelievably gratifying. I had some small influence over a lot of these women's decisions about how they were going to approach their future. …and that alone made me feel so privileged. I'm terribly proud of it. I know that science fiction is not everybody's cup of tea, nor do I expect it to be. It wasn't mine when I took the role. But I [was] left, after seven years of doing that, with a feeling that I did my very best. You cannot say that often in life for that extended period of time. I did my very, very best for seven years to bring to fruition this first female captain. And I loved it. It was hard, but I loved it.
Science fiction is all about possibility and embracing change and about evolution. But one thing that makes me a little sad at times is that some people are not as open to a woman being part of that process. And you had to break through those barriers.
And still am. You know, I still am, when I'm sort of compared to ["Star Trek" actors William] Shatner, or [Patrick] Stewart or Picard, or whatever it is. As Oscar Wilde said, "comparisons are odious." I think her solitary success will bear itself out in time and in hindsight. And of course, I would have to say, I want to see more women. But selfishly and very honestly, it was my great, great secret delight to be the first and still be the only.
I understood the responsibility of what I was doing. I had to take responsibility and accountability for it, and I think I did. And now to be able to do ["Orange"], which is 180 degrees the other way, that tells me that when I was 12 years old and decided to become an actress, I made the right decision for me. Because I don't like anything that's safe, I've never understood what is predictable, and I know that the only absolute is change. I'm also very aware of the fact that we're all going to die. So it's heavenly to be able to go into the full spectrum of experience as an actor. At this stage, it's particularly gratifying.
Correction: This article originally said that an inmate named Tricia was injured in a kitchen fire. Tricia is the inmate who overdosed after falling out with Red, and a different inmate, Gina, was injured in the kitchen mishap. The error has been corrected above.