If you haven't seen Season 1 of the smash hit 'Orange Is the New Black' on Netflix, where have you been hiding? Set inside a women's federal prison, 'Orange Is the New Black' has something to offer to everyone, whether it be a big serving of comedy or a slap in the face with the nitty-gritty truth of prison life. It was announced on Monday that the series has already been renewed for a third season, before Season 2 has even aired. While this news broke, I had the opportunity to chat with one of the stars of the series, Michael Harney, who plays Sam Healy, the corrections officer and inmate counselor at Litchfield Penitentiary.
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TVRage: ‘Orange Is the New Black’ is the work of ‘Weeds’ creator Jenji Kohan, with whom you have previously worked. What has it been like reuniting with her on set?
Michael Harney: We worked together for two years. Jenji oversees our staff and does a lot of the writing. Flat out she's just a genius in terms of what she's doing and what she's capable of. It's not an easy thing to be able to create very deep, whole, individual characters in a way that's going to take the interest of the entire world. She's been able to do that numerous times, in numerous ways, very successfully. That takes a quality of genius.
TVRage: In the pilot episode your character, Sam Healy, mentions that he does not understand the criminal justice system. “I've got a crack dealer who's doing nine months, and then I've got a lady who accidentally backed into a mailman who's doing four years,” he says. That was a powerful statement to deliver in the very first episode. Do you think that this is a case of art imitating life?
Harney: Yeah, I think that it is a case of art imitating life. I think that the system is flawed and that we have a lot of problems in it. Not the least of which is that the resources are really lacking for good programs, good salaries, taking care of the inmates in different ways, and certainly rehabilitative processes are lacking. The ability to sustain someone within those processes once they've become involved in them is lacking.
TVRage: Some of your early scenes with Piper in the office provide some of the best one-liners of the first few episodes. The comedic moments in ‘Orange Is the New Black’ are a large part of the reason why I keep coming back to the series for more. Is the atmosphere on set as comical as it comes off on screen?
Harney: Yeah, the atmosphere on set is really very cordial, very respectful, very professional and most of all it is very fun. We have a really good time with each other.
TVRage: I get the impression that a lot of the cast are really great friends outside of filming.
Harney: Yeah, I always look at being in acting like being in the circus. It's really very similar to that because you become part of this troop and you travel from town to town. In our case we travel from episode to episode and we do different things. We go to press junkets, we go to premieres, we go to benefits, we go to award ceremonies together. We travel around together and there's a really nice, and very warm and caring, attitude that we all carry toward each other. It's really like having a good friend with you, and it's just a very cool feeling. I've been very lucky in my experience and in my shows over the years that I've had that several times, and this is really one of them. I'm very grateful to be part of this group.
TVRage: There are so many diverse personalities on the series that I find myself having an inner struggle over who is my favorite. Who is your favorite character?
Harney: I kind of get that question a lot and I don't have a favorite character. The favorite character is the one that I'm processing circumstances with on any given episode. I don't really have a favorite.
TVRage: There is so much that is interesting and appealing about each and every character on the series.
Harney: That's part of the genius of the writing. There really is a very excellent writing staff, and they have been able to get very deep into people's lives, which I think is exceedingly important when you're looking at this environment and surviving in this environment. I say surviving because that's really what it's about, both for the inmates and for the people working there. If we go deep enough in the writing, which our writing staff does, and we touch upon all these different things that have happened to the characters, now all of a sudden they're a whole person.
TVRage: Yes, it becomes so much easier to relate to them on a personal level as opposed to simply seeing them as inmates.
Harney: That's it, you're a step ahead of me. That's exactly what I was going to say.
TVRage: I have found it very interesting to take a look inside the correctional system through this show. There does not seem to be as much of a media focus on the criminal system here in Canada as there is in the United States.
Harney: Yeah, I mean I think that one of the things that's really great about the show is that it's shining a light on a population of people that, for the most part, have been forgotten. Now, with the onset of the reality shows like 'Locked Up' that introduce the public to life inside prison, that's not so much true as it was before. Even with those shows, however, when you see the reality of it I think it might be difficult for people to identify and easier for people to say, "Well that's nothing like me." With our show, through the utilization of back-stories and really getting into the nuts and bolts of answering questions "who, what, why, where, when" in terms of the causation for why someone is incarcerated, the viewing audience is going to have a harder time not identifying with the inmate who the story is about on a given week. I can't say given week anymore with everyone binge-watching it. (laughs)
TVRage: That is exactly how I watched the show on Netflix. I think I watched every episode in less than two days.
Harney: That's amazing, I think a lot of people binge-watch. I do too, it's the only way I can do it. I hardly have time to watch anything anymore.
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TVRage: What has your experience been like working with Netflix on ‘Orange Is the New Black’? Instead of releasing episodes one by one, the entire season is available to fans on demand. Do you think this change in format has an effect on the feedback you are receiving?
Harney: I think it does because when people binge-watch things it has a tendency to become part of them in a different way. What I mean by that is I think it becomes more present as an influence in their lives because it's at their beck-and-call at any moment that they want to see it. They can binge-watch, they can go back and watch an episode they really liked. To me it's fascinating. I'm sure there's studies that have been done, which I have not read, but to me it is a fascinating phenomenon. I really believe so many of us can latch on to things that help us deal with our own circumstances. By latching on to other people's circumstances through art we work out our own, often unconsciously.
TVRage: I find it so much easier to become invested in the lives of the characters on my screen when I am "binge-watching" something, versus watching it week-by-week.
Harney: That's a very cool thing. My impression is that we latch on to these people's lives that become so much a part of our lives. There's so many parallels to what we're viewing. I think in many respects we're all feeling imprisoned in one way or another. Whether we're incarcerated in a prison, incarcerated in a job, incarcerated in a set of circumstances, incarcerated in a relationship, incarcerated by an illness, it goes on, and on, and on. I really believe one of the most profound aspects of the show is that it allows the audience to work out their own problems.
TVRage: When I watched the first episode I really did like Healy’s character a lot. He was looking out for Piper, and while he was a little bit aggressive in his beliefs, I felt like he had the best interests of everyone in mind. By the time the events of the final episode played out, however, my feelings towards Healy did almost a complete 180. Were you shocked by his actions?
Harney: I wasn't so much shocked. When I'm acting it's really like painting. The writers give me my colors for the day, so to speak, and I look and I go, "Oh wow, look at this I've got really cool colors to paint with." I get to paint this really cool landscape today, or this really cool relationship. Of course, for me, the painting is really the living it through and experiencing it. My job is to find ways of justifying the actions that I do on a very personal and honest level. That's my job, that's what I do as an actor if I'm any good. I make it so that I completely believe in what I'm doing and I have a reason for doing it that justifies my action. In this particular case I had to go some miles to do that. The things I used of course are personal, I don't talk about them, but it was kind of a cool ride to take artistically. Was it hard? Sure, it was hard to turn my back on somebody, and it should be hard, but that's part of the color.
TVRage: It is obvious that Healy is having problems not only at work, but at home as well. Are we ever going to get see the back-story behind Healy and his wife?
Harney: You're going to have to wait for that!
TVRage: As an aside, one thing I was always strangely curious about is if there is a story behind the little bobble heads on the desk in Healy’s office?
Harney: (laughs) Well, you'll have to wait. I can't really talk about that. You'll have to wait on that, but I think it's certainly a fun and interesting path.
TVRage: You seem to play a lot of roles related to the law enforcement world, (such as Detective Mike Roberts on ‘NYPD Blue,’ Detective Mitch Ouellette on ‘Weeds,' Detective Hank Smith on ‘The Defenders’ and Detective Frank Scarli on ‘NCIS: Los Angeles.’) Are these character choices a reflection of your real life experience with social work and work in the prison setting?
Harney: I have played many law enforcement roles over the years. I think it's just the way that I look (laughs). I have a certain bearing at times and people can believe that I might be a detective or working in a prison.
You can catch Michael Harney on Season 2 of 'Orange Is the New Black' on Netflix starting June 6. Be sure to follow him on Twitter at @MichaelHarney4.