One of the many talented women on the rather unprecedented ‘Orange Is the New Black’ is Alysia Reiner, a woman who is so very immediately and ever unlike the character she plays on the Netflix series. Eternally optimistic, generously charitable, and environmentally conscious, Reiner has appeared on stage and screen, in front of the camera and behind.
Her role on the Netflix original ‘Orange,’ created by ‘Weeds’ alum Jenji Kohan, is raising her profile, and rightfully so. Not only is the drama part of a new wave of programming that has seen shows released en masse, a season at a time, but the show is a compelling blend of comedy and drama, and led by an especially diverse and predominately female cast.
Reiner chatted on the phone from her home in New York, following a lovely fall weekend in Vermont, and if I hadn’t known already, just talking for five minutes about food and the weather cemented the notion that she isn’t anything like the mean-spirited and ruthless assistant warden she portrays. We would talk about Natalie ‘Fig’ Figueroa, but not before addressing the curious case of Netflix.
TVRage: What is it like to be a part of something that is released all at once, that there are people who can consume it whenever they like, and that there are some people who haven’t seen it? Is it at all strange?
Alysia Reiner: I have multiple answers to that question. People have been [binging] with TV more and more, and DVR was the beginning of that. Netflix really changed the game simply by having seasons of TV available. Most people I know watched ‘Breaking Bad’ or ‘Sons of Anarchy,’ or even ‘The Sopranos’ as a season, and that’s sort of the way people do it now. Netflix has changed our viewing habits.
Having said that, it’s a fascinating phenomenon being on one of their shows. It’s only been just four months since the show came out, and people still aware of it, and it’s absolutely surprising to me. Additionally, the people who binge it feel like they know you in a very different way. There is a different quality to watching 13 hours of TV and becoming part of the world and what happens to the watcher and their experience of the characters. I think it’s what it must have been like, though I haven’t been there, for people to watch soap operas. I’ve friends who’ve done that, and people would walk up to them, and now people feel like they know me.
TVRage: How do you recommend people watch the first season of ‘Orange’?
Reiner: It depends what your appetite is, what you need at a certain time. There are times in your life you need to eat an entire pint of ice cream, other times you need a box of chocolates, but maybe you have it in your house for an entire year and just have one every so often. It’s really what you need at a certain time, what serves your soul, because it’s art, and the way we consume art is so personal. I think it is specific, and it is always my hope that art fulfills a need.
TVRage: How did you watch the first season?
Reiner: We had a viewing party at my house, bunch of the cast came over, and we got to episode six or seven. We stayed up until 2 o’clock in the morning, and people slept over and we had a pajama party. Then for episodes 8-12, I took my time, I really wanted to savor it. I didn’t want to be over.
TVRage: So not only are you on this 13-hour movie, a show that doesn’t have a pilot and guaranteed a whole season, but you get renewed for a second even before the first show is available.
Reiner: It was Christmas on top of Christmas…Christmas in July. It has been a really amazing experience, and it’s very rare in our profession. We feel so, so lucky. We’re just having so much fun.
TVRage: Well, I have the fortune to talk to other members of the cast ahead of the release, and they too expressed camaraderie and excitement on set. I think you get that feeling watching it too because it’s such a different show. It’s an incredibly diverse cast and it’s predominately female. Can you speak to being a part of something decidedly unlike other shows?
Reiner: We all do have an amazing relationship. It feels like school, [the first season] felt like our freshman year. There was just an incredible sense of support. Jenji [Kohan] is our amazing show runner, but on the ground, day-to-day, Lisa [Vinnecour] oversees, and she really feels like our RA in college. There is just a lot of love and a lot of support.
In reference to the diversity, I am not a woman who looks like everyone else and I never have. I’m exotic looking, I’m tall, and I feel so lucky to be appreciated by the show. We have so many different, beautiful women, and so many different characters. We have a transgender woman playing a transgender woman. I’m a little awestruck about it all.
TVRage: So you’re talking about all the fun and the love, but your character is not especially fun and lovely. What sort of preparation had to be done, and to what extent is it easy or difficult to get in and out of your character?
Reiner: That’s a great question. I did visit prison, I did interview a bunch of people in the system. For me, it’s very sort of painful to play this character, because I am that girl who feels like if I were to do what this woman does, I would be the one who builds the gym and make sure everyone gets their G.E.D.
The way I rectify that is that I’m working with a lot of amazing organizations that in fact do that. With the Women’s Prison Association, I’m seeing how I can help there, and actually designing a beautiful piece of jewelry that will go on sale for holidays with some of the proceeds going to the WPA. I’m working with Rights 4 Girls, who for instance are helping to ensure women are not shackled when they’re pregnant. That’s sort of how I rectify it.
In reference to who she is, in every character you play, you have to find that part of yourself that believes what that person believes. I think there are things that I can connect to in Fig. I certainly have that part of me when I’m dealing with people who aren’t listening and aren’t doing things the way I think they should be done. I get frustrated, and if we take that to the nth degree, there’s Fig. She has an agenda. I think she does want to change the world, but her way of doing it is a little different than mine.
TVRage: You’re filming the second season now, so I have to ask, and I think I know the answer, but what can you tell us about what we can expect?
Reiner: I can tell you that if I tell you anything I'll end up in orange myself (laughs). We never know anything until we read the next script. I am constantly surprised. I bow to our writers as I just think they are doing amazing work. They keep on writing these amazing stories that are surprising and really make you think and feel and laugh. Rarely is there a script where I don’t go ‘no way!’ or laugh out loud. It’s really insanely delightful.
'Orange Is the New Black' returns in 2014.