Interview: Lorraine Toussaint On Commitment To Characters, The Bechdel Test, And Baring It All For 'Orange Is The New Black'
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Interviews

Interview: Lorraine Toussaint On Commitment To Characters, The Bechdel Test, And Baring It All For 'Orange Is The New Black'

Orange is the New Black

 Within the past week, fans of TV and film actress Lorraine

Toussaint have seen ups and downs with news about her projects. Drama series

"Forever," in which she co-stars as weathered police lieutenant

Joanna Reece, was recently cancelled by ABC. Meanwhile, Toussaint scored a Critics’ Choice award

nomination for her role as the devious Vee Parker in Season 2 of Netflix darling

"Orange is the New Black," and there’s been buzz about the

performance earning an Emmy nod as well.

We spoke with Toussaint about her recent work and outlook on

the industry.

JAI TIGGETT: Vee was

easily the most terrifying character in "OITNB" Season 2. Can you

tell me about creating the character?

LORRAINE TOUSSAINT:

I really created that character out of myself. Jenji Kohan gave me a great roadmap and points of destination for

the narrative, and then left me alone as to what roads I took to get there. I’d

get the point of destination from the script and then I would say, "Okay,

how off-road can I go to get to this point? How much mud can I stir up, and who

should I take along?" Sometimes I took some really dark back roads.

That was the fun part of creating it, because for the most

part I was left alone in that creation, as to how. There was no one saying no

to me and I love to work that way, because then I get to challenge myself and

be surprised at the same time that you do.

Some of your

castmates who are new to TV have mentioned being able to learn from you as a

veteran actor. Can you share any wisdom that you might have passed on to them?

I’ve heard Uzo

[Aduba] and Danielle [Brooks]

talk a little bit about that, but here’s the thing – when I joined the show I

didn’t know they were first-timers. I just went in assuming that we were all

peers, equal peers. And they certainly behaved that way. I never once had any

inkling that anyone was new to this, not even close. Those girls rock. They are

hard-core, amazing talent that keeps me sharp. They made me better. So there

was none of that, certainly not from my perspective.

Lorraine Toussaint

The series is unique

in a lot of ways. Even the aesthetics of a mostly female cast, in prison

uniforms that have been described as feeling like pajamas. What was your

experience like on the set?

The uniforms did feel like pajamas. The whole hair, make-up

and wardrobe process took maybe 10 or 15 minutes altogether. And with that

pajama feeling, you weren’t thinking about foundation garments or manicures or

any of that. And so we just hung out. It was like a big sleepover in many ways.

I loved that atmosphere, because you also knew that as fun

as it seemed, every single actress there was going to bring their A game. And

when we get to the scene and the cameras are rolling, prepare yourself.

And it was so safe. The feeling I remember most was that we

were in each other’s care, so that we could jump off of very high structures

and know that we were going to be caught. It was a very safe environment to

take a lot of risks.

About risks, I have

to ask about the nudity.

What nudity? [laughs]

But we know that it’s

rare to see this many women of all ages, backgrounds, body types on TV. And

there was a lot of talk about your partial nude scene and what it meant to go

nude after age 50. At the time that you were shooting it, were you thinking

about the impact it would have?

Not at all. I was too scared to think that way. I remember

one of the early episodes where Kate [Mulgrew]

and I were in a big shower scene and there were a lot of background actors with

varying levels of nudity all around us that day. And Kate and I stood there

sort of whispering to each other, "Did you sign the non-nudity

clause?" I said, "You know I did."

We had kind of a veteran actor chuckle about the whole thing

like, "Thank God nobody wants to see us naked, that ship has sailed."

And then come Episode 12, I read the darn script and what does Jenji have me

doing?

In all fairness they said, "You’ve signed the clause and

we can find a way around this." But by then, I was in. I was in Litchfield

and I committed to a journey with this character with as much authenticity as I

could muster. I didn’t want to jump ship because of things like vanity or fear.

Vee is a character that wouldn’t care. She would be naked in that bed. She

would not care. And so Lorraine had to not care.

Your performance is

getting a lot of acclaim, but you’ve been at this a long time. What’s it like

to gain such recognition at this point in your career?

It’s great. You sort of labor in the vineyard and there are

no guarantees that you will get the recognition for the work. And I’m one of

those journeyman actors that, the best part of it for me is the bit you don’t

see. I creatively inventory every day that I work and I’m always listening for

when I hit a note and it’s true. It’s fleeting, and no one knows it in that

moment but me; maybe the director or if someone else is present. But you always

know when you hit something magical, because it pings in a particular way.

And then I just go on to the next day. So to be recognized

for a particular project or a body of work, it’s very gratifying. This work is

a gift. We do this work to share it. We give it away. So when the gift is being

valued it makes you want to give more.

Tell me about "Selma,"

where you play Civil Rights leader Amelia Boynton. We’ve learned that the movie

is coming

to classrooms across the country. What kind of influence do you hope it will

have?

I love Ava DuVernay.

She’s my friend and my hero. Just as an entity in this business, she’s got it going

on man. And so whenever Ava calls, I feel lucky to pick up the phone and I say

yes to whatever that woman asks me to do, big or small.

“This work is a gift. We do this work to share it. We give it away.”

So with "Selma," President and Mrs. Obama had us

for a private screening at the White House, which was the moment of a lifetime.

And one of the things we talked about was the initiative to make sure that this

film became an educational tool in the hands of young people, because that’s

how we change minds. We get in there early and inform and educate and empower

children with a different perspective of history, looking at history from a

different point of view. And that’s certainly something that this film does,

and one of the reasons I’m so proud of it.

You have a brief but memorable

scene in the movie, where Boynton is encouraging Coretta Scott King and to

paraphrase, is telling her about how they can do anything because of the

resilience and the legacy of black people that they come from.

That was an interesting scene for me. Ava wrote it on the

road while we were shooting, and when I read it I called her and said, "Ava,

I just want to ask you. This is the first time that we see two women speaking

to each other in this film. Is there another level of conversation that they

can be having? Coretta is having a hard time in her marriage, Mrs. Boynton is

widowed. It’s woman to woman."

And she says, "I thought about that. That was my first

instinct too, but here’s why I scrapped that. I want this scene to pass the Bechdel test."

She said, "I don’t want these women talking about the men.

The men are covered. I want these women to be as passionately involved in the

movement as the men are."

I said, "Well Ava, I should have known that this was

intentional. Let me shut up and shoot the scene." So that’s the Bechdel

test.

You’re doing both

film and television right now. Can you talk about some of the new projects that

you’re working on?

Three days ago I just finished shooting a wonderful film

called "Island in the Sun," which is a very sweet love story. And

then I’m starting a new film in South Carolina called "Sophie and the

Rising Sun," which is very woman-centric, written and directed by a woman.

And the three main women in this, all of us are over 50.

A lot of fun things are coming my way, and there are more

fun things that I want to come my way, some of which I want to produce. I’m

hoping that this window also opens to me as a producer, because there are so

many stories that I want to tell. I love to work and shows like "Orange"

are breaking that glass ceiling for women. The lie that women are not

marketable and are not marketable overseas – "Orange" has blown that

out of the water. So I think more than any other time, this is a really

terrific time to be a woman of color over 50 in this business. The tides are

changing and I’m going to certainly do my part to assist in that.

Orange is the New Black: Season 2 will be available on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD May 19.

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