'Orange Is The New Black' Star Alysia Reiner Can Play More Than 'Just A Bitch'

06/12/2015 09:23 am ET | Updated Jun 12, 2015
Dimitrios Kambouris via Getty Images

Natalie "Fig" Figueroa may not be very popular among the Litchfield Penitentiary inmates. But the character, and the amazing actor who brings her to life, have both become fan favorites since the 2013 debut of "Orange Is the New Black." In advance of the Season 3 debut, The Huffington Post got on the phone with Alysia Reiner to discuss her role as Fig, typecasting and the importance of seeing more women working behind and in front of the camera.

Fig is kind of the archetypal villain on "Orange Is the New Black," but she never feels like a stock "character we're meant to hate." Are there certain choices you made to make sure she comes off as this three-dimensional, empathetic person and not just an "evil woman"?
I always tease that my daughter learned the word "badass" much too early because so many people on the train, when she was like two years old, would [say to me] "You're a badass!" But I think, to me, I was always taught, you never approach any character as a villain. Every human being on earth really believes that they're doing the best thing. We all have our rationalizations. I believe that Fig thinks she's helping these girls. She really believes that if she gets her husband into office, she can make lasting change that will really change the prison system.

On a micro-level, I always say: We've all had those days where we're too hungry, we're too tired, too angry and too lonely. She's a lonely girl. She's not getting the love that she needs. I think that's her day most of the time. The other thing about Fig is she just is surrounded by stupid people and she's really smart. She's smart, I don't think she had the opportunities to go to the best schools and get the leg up that she probably needed but she's really freakin' street smart.


That's interesting that you say that, because I've wondered -- with the kind of fierce ambitions she clearly has -- why she ended up working in the prison system in the first place.
I think she's dyslexic. I think she tried to pass the bar twice and failed and ended up in an administration job, working for the government and worked her way up and found this man. Her dream is really to be Hillary Clinton: the wife of a president and then a president.

If Fig herself were to describe her own good qualities, what do you think she would say?
Oh, that's a good one. I think that would be actually hard for her. I would say the first one is strong. Fights for what she believes in. [laughs] It's funny, I don't want to say manipulative. A good negotiator! I think she sees herself as intelligent.

I loved your work in "How to Get Away with Murder" this season as D.A. Wendy Parks. I notice that the role has a similar hardness to Fig. Do you find yourself getting offered that type of character a lot after "OITNB"?
Yeah, it's funny! I do! I did a pilot this year that I was so excited about, and sad that didn't go for Amazon, called "Down Dog," where I got to play a yoga teacher and healer. I loved doing it cause I was like, "I'm not just a bitch!"

Anyone who wants to offer me as mushy, earthy, crunchy a role as they can, I will probably take it. In real life, I cry at a drop of a hat and I'm a mom and I'm pretty mushy! We all have so many colors as actors that we want to show. Sometimes it's easy for people to go, "Oh, she can just do that." I'm definitely looking for opportunities to show that I can do a lot more.

In the premium cable and Netflix age, there's been much more opportunity with shows like "Girls" and "OITNB" to have characters that don't fit into the stereotypical "likeable" box -- that aren't necessarily likeable, but are realistic. Do you think there's something valuable to seeing women in roles like Fig's?
"Girls" is one of my favorite shows of all time. One of the things I love about Lena Dunham and Jenji Kohan and Shonda Rhimes is that they're all willing to show complex, amazing women.

I work with the Geena Davis Institute a lot -- there's this fantastic piece that Geena Davis did about the importance of seeing more women in the media. Statistically, when you watch TV, even "Sesame Street," even cartoons, 77 percent of the characters are male. So your children are unconsciously getting the message that women are a minority and, hence, perhaps not as important. She talks about how the characters don't have to be heroes. They just have to be there. We watched Walter White and we fell in love with him and he was a very flawed hero. I think that the popularity of "Orange" is [due to] these flawed, complex human beings.


Your character seems to value power above most other things. Do you think any part of Fig doesn't respect the inmates because in her eyes, they've gotten themselves into these positions where they have no power, at least in the eyes of the state?
I think she's interested in anyone who wields their power well. For example, when she was in her scenes with Bennett, it was clear he had enormous power, he had outrageous knowledge and power that he wasn't yielding well and that she doesn't respect. I think with Piper -- Piper knows how to work stuff. So I think that was fascinating to her to have an equal in that way. Because here was this other intelligent woman in the system. I think we've never seen a scene with her and Red, but I imagine she deeply respects Red because Red is doing her best to wield her power. Or Gloria. Or Vee, for that matter. I think she respects anyone who takes what they have and makes the best of it.

In your research for the role, did you find specific instances of people in administrative roles at prisons who took advantage in the same way that Fig did?
I can't say yes. There was one really interesting woman and I don't remember her details, but she definitely had political aspirations and went on from the prison system to, I think, run for Senate and she won a Senate seat. Then I believe ... her father was in organized crime, and she ended up stepping down from the Senate ... She was one of my inspirations, and I researched her way before they wrote this storyline. And I totally forgot about her until just now. But it's like, oh my God! Maybe in Season 6 we'll find out Fig's father is a Gotti. [laughs]

Let's talk about the famous scene from the end of Season 2, "the beer can scene." What do you think Fig was feeling in that moment that led her to that choice?
I think the number one word really is vulnerable. We all sometimes just want to be wanted. I feel like in that moment -- I've never watched that scene, I don't really know how it plays -- but in my head, I think more than anything, someone called her pretty when she was feeling most ugly.

It's such a complex scene because, yes, she was trying to manipulate [Caputo] into getting what she wanted, like that's the obvious level of it. But there was also a level of -- he thinks I'm pretty. You know? She's at her worst feeling. Unlovable, unattractive and unworthy. And in that moment he said, "You're hot." And that's hard to admit, as a feminist, super strong woman who started a production company about getting more women in front of and behind the camera. But I think at a base level we all want that.

Even with a feminist angle on that, women in society are valued for the way they look. So if compliment is offered, it's kind of a confirmation that they have what they're "supposed" to have.
Yeah, yeah. I have a 6-year-old daughter and we never look through magazines. But when we're on a plane, that's the one time we have screen-time and magazine-time sometimes. And I do not open a magazine with her without saying: "Now remind me, are these real pictures?" And she'll say, "No mama. These are pictures that have been painted to look prettier."

That's amazing.
I'm really proud that by four years old she knew that pictures in magazines are not real. They are pictures of people who have been painted to look extra pretty.

Do you think we're ever going to see Fig behind bars?
Oh, goodness gracious! I don't know! I think it would be fascinating to see that. I would be pro-seeing that.

The interview has been edited and condensed.

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