'OITNB' Star Defends Guard's Fateful Mistake: "Good People Do Bad Things"

Alan Aisenberg talks with THR about his character accidentally killing a fan favorite in 'Orange Is the New Black's' most shocking episode yet.
Courtesy of Netflix
Alan Aisenberg on 'Orange Is the New Black'

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the entire fourth season of Orange Is the New Black.]

It's no surprise that Alan Aisenberg was anxious for Orange Is the New Black viewers to see the new season: In the penultimate episode of season four, his character, CO Baxter Bayley, became an accidental killer.

During a prison-wide protest that turned fatal, Bayley inadvertently suffocated Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), a beloved character since the start of the Jenji Kohan-created prison dramedy. Poussey's dead body remained on the floor for an entire day as the prison debated how to handle her death before ultimately covering it up to the public and referring to Aisenberg's guard as the victim.

Given that Orange had yet never killed off a fan-favorite, Aisenberg prepared himself for a backlash. But since the season debuts June 17 on Netflix, the actor says it's been the opposite.

"I was so convinced that 95 percent of what I was going to get was going to be negative, and I'd say it's about five to 10 percent," Aisenberg tells The Hollywood Reporter. "He made a mistake and I’m really conflicted, but I feel for him. There’s a very small percentage of people who are not understanding the complexity of the situation and are blaming him specifically. I’m very surprised and very happy that I can walk into a bar and not get a beer bottle thrown at me."

On social media, the actor says fans go from being excited to seeing Bayley's flashback, to hating him in the death scene and then feeling for him after the finale. Despite experiencing a roller coaster of emotions since he first found out about the storyline six months ago, Aisenberg says he feels honored to be a part of the message of Poussey's death, given the direct parallels to the Black Lives Matter movement and overall unjust.

"People come up to me on the street because Bayley has made them cry and made them think," he says. "Bad people do good things and good people do bad things. Just because someone did something wrong but they didn’t mean to, what does that mean for the consequences of their actions? If there’s still a body on the floor."

Here, Aisenberg talks with THR about what it was like to film more than 100 takes of Poussey's death scene — which was directed by Mad Men's Matthew Weiner and written by Wiley's real-life girlfriend Lauren Morelli — and his journey from a one-episode role in season three to becoming a pivotal character.

How nervous were you for the season to come out and for the fans to react?

Going into the season, the line I kept using was: “Just because I look and sound like him, doesn’t mean I’m him.” No one really understood until now. This could change in the next week, but so far, people recognize the broader context. This is a mirror of what’s happening in society today, so I think the fans can see the bigger picture and create a separation [between me and Bayley]. 

How did you react when you first find out about the death and Bayley's hand in it?

From the time that I got the script to today, a week and a half of it being out, I’ve felt every single emotion. The initial reaction was excitement. I thought, “This is amazing, we’re going to get to learn who Bayley is and flesh this guy out into a real character.” Everything that I had been thinking about for the last season and a half, I was seeing on paper. And then I got to those last five pages. There was about an hour of just crying and mourning Poussey and mourning Bayley, and then it became excitement again. The writers are using the incredible platform they have to tell this story that needs to be told. I had to be excited to tell this. If I was going to be nervous, then I wasn’t going to be able to do it justice. That got me through the month of prep and into production.

That’s interesting that you found out by reading the script. Did you immediately have a conversation with Jenji or Lauren afterwards?

First I got a call. I was at a bar with friends watching the Mets in October of last year, and I got a phone call from a number I didn't recognize and it’s Lauren Morelli saying, “Hey, I wrote a backstory episode for you, and there’s a pivotal scene at the end that Bayley takes part in. I’d love for you to read it when you have a chance.” I said, “Great, this is so exciting.” Then she ends the call by saying, “And I’d like to starting talking it through with you. I’m going to be in New York this weekend. I’d love to have lunch.” That threw me that this is not just a normal thing. I was going to read it when I got home that night, but I went across the street to a park, sat there, just totally in shock, and then once those last five pages hit, just tears. Tears, tears and crying. I immediately texted Lauren: “Holy crap, this is incredible.” I read it through it two or three times that night.

How did Lauren explain it to you?

She came in that weekend and we had lunch and just started going through the whole thing, every beat. She walked me through what their justifications were and how they got to this point in the room, and really made me feel comfortable with their decision and got me on board. From that point, she was so open and available for questioning or any stupid little conversation I wanted to have about minor specifics. She was there and just the best possible person to work under for this. The script is so beautiful, to be able to do it with her was an absolute dream, her and Matt [Weiner].

At what point did you speak to Samira about it?

We saw each other in the episode before and we just gave each other a hug. We both knew where our heads were and it was never really much of a conversation. We had safety conversations and talked a lot about that during the day. But me and her, by design, just wanted to do our own things and have those worlds collide. A lot of the conversations that would have happened between me and Samira happened between me and Lauren, and then Lauren and Samira. Which was a healthy way to handle it because of Lauren and Samira’s relationship. I would get insight as to how Samira was feeling, and I’m sure Lauren would give insight into how I was feeling. So I knew what she was going through. When we saw each other a couple of weeks ago for the first time since the last day of production, we just gave each other a big hug and talked a bunch and she’s excited. She was excited for it to come out and so was I. We were ready. We had both come to terms with it and we were proud.

Most of the cast found out by reading the script, so it happened in waves. What was the reaction like from your perspective?

That was a totally bizarre experience. The script came out when we were shooting the Kukudio-Crazy Eyes fight scene in episode 11. We’d break and people would go to their phones and start reading the script and one by one, people would come up to me as they read the beginning and give me a giant hug: "We’re so proud of you, this is amazing, you’re going to kill it.” Just the best things anyone could say. We’d go back and start shooting that fight and break again, and as the night went on, people would come up to me and everyone had the same reaction. Just coming up and grabbing me and holding me. The tone would completely shift. To be there on set while I watched 10 or 15 people go through that process that I had gone trough two weeks before was absolutely fascinating.

The entire cast was on set for the actual death scene. What was the vibe like and how can you describe your headspace?

We really wanted to do this scene justice. We knew how important it was to the story and the arc of the show. There was an incredible amount of respect from everyone else, of letting us do our thing. I’m very loud and playful on set in between takes. We work very long hours and I like trying to keep things fresh, fun and stupid. That day, I was the complete opposite of that: very insular and quiet. Everyone recognized that and gave me my space that I needed and gave Samira her space, as well as Uzo [Aduba] and Danielle [Brooks]. It was a 22-hour day, which is absolutely insane, and took years off of all of our lives to have to do 22 hours of that. But the thing that kept us going at 11:30 p.m. was this responsibility to get it right. No one was not going to bring 150 percent. There was this thing in the back of my head that would trigger on and go: "Remember, you’re going to be tied to today and if you don’t give it your all, this thing’s going to live on forever. So, get a little tired and make this cool thing that people will watch 15 years from now." That’s what made the day super hard but also super easy. 

Matthew said that the first time you got into position with your knee on Samira's back, everybody just gasped. How many times did you have to shoot that and what was that moment like for you?

We did it — and this does not feel like an exaggeration — over 100 times over the course of 22 hours. The first time we did it in rehearsal, I was looking down at the back of Samira's head and I do remember hearing a gasp and looking up and everyone was just staring. No emotion. It’s this image that is already implanted in our brains and to see it recreated in front of you was super impactful. But for me, I had never seen the angle of being on top of someone like that and I had a different view. We shot it hundreds of times. If you watch that scene, it feels like there’s no one camera angle that’s used more than once, which adds to the frenetic of the situation, very much by design in the way that Matt, Lauren, Jenji and [cinematographer] Ludovic Littee imagined. Even if there was a shot of Taylor [Schilling] getting off of the table, the action of Bayley on top of Poussey was still happening in the background.

What was it like to go through that scene and those emotions 100 times?

When the close up was on me, I wanted to give it 100 percent and same for Samira. We got into this mode of it feeling constantly new and fresh and terrifying every time. When you see it, it never feels comfortable. It never feels like he knows that he’s doing or that the situation is under control for anyone. Doing it that many times helped keep it, not repetitive, but sporadic or unpredictable, because we never got into a groove. We never knew when it was going to be done, it just kept evolving and going and getting crazier.

The episode's flashback and the following episode humanize Bayley. Samira said she thinks Poussey could find forgiveness for him. What is your take on Bayley: is he a good person who is just a victim of the system? 

It’s complicated. What Jenji and the writers do so beautifully is not make things so black and white. I absolutely believe it’s an accident. I think everyone but the girls know that. This line that they are making us think about is so not talked about enough, because it’s difficult to lock you’re head around. It’s easier to go: he’s a good person, he did good things. Or: he’s a bad person, he did bad things. Bayley is a knucklehead and young and just wants to play with pepper spray, but at the end of the day, he’s there because he sees them as real people. Unlike Piscatella, where they’re just a number below him, Bayley's interactions feel conversational. The dialogue between Bayley and Piper, the power shift doesn’t feel the same compared to Piscatella and Piper. He genuinely cares about these women and the fact that he could do something this bad, I don’t think he’s wrapped his head around it and I don’t think he will for a while. I know it’s an accident but forgiving him, I don’t know. I think that’s a question that might be answered in the later seasons. 

What happens to Poussey in the final two episodes directly parallels the Black Lives Matter movement. Does being such an integral part of a storyline with such an important message make the emotions worth it?

Absolutely. When you work on a show like Orange Is the New Black, the responsibility is there to be a part of this conversation in some way. It’s amazing that people are talking about it. If it takes a fictional 13-hour show on Netflix to start this conversation, then great. Because peoples’ lives are changing, people are dying and something needs to be done about it. I am just a very small cog: They’re the ones opening the door to that conversation and the fact that I could help to just push that door a little bit is immensely rewarding, a crazy amount of responsibility and something that I do not take lightly.

Where do you imagine Bayley going from here, can he really return to the prison after his leave? [Orange has been renewed for seven seasons and began production on five this week.]

This is obviously a life-changing thing: To accidentally kill someone would break any person, especially a 21-year-old kid who is not very well educated and just floating through life. Outside of that, any time I’ve done any speculating about the show, it’s never as good as what Jenji and the writers will do. It's like what a third grader would write compared to Shakespeare. Outside of confirming that this is going to change him a little bit, I’m going to leave it up to those guys and see what happens. I think it will be a very interesting ride.

When you watched the finale and saw Daya [Dasha Polanco] pointing the gun at CO Humphrey, do you think the guards deserve it?

I remember reading that on the subway and fist-pumping. I probably looked like a crazy person, I was so excited. Because it’s 13 episodes of these girls who we love, care and feel for just getting brutally whipped around. It might be fun to see the tables turn for a little bit. Does she pull the trigger? I don’t know, but putting Daya in that position was so smart and cool. She has such a history with the COs that she won’t take that moment lightly. 

You've been through these ups and downs of emotions, where are you at right now?

I was supposed to do one episode of this show and I just finished my 20th. I still remember the day we shot that pepper spray scene [in "Tongue-Tied,” season three, episode seven]. I thought Bayley was just a caricature and there to fuel Piper’s storyline. To see him become this accidental force in this narrative is insane and just an immense honor that Jenji and those guys trusted me to bring this story. After we wrapped, the six months of sitting around was a roller coaster of emotion. Being nervous for the fans, who love Poussey and how people would react. After episode 12, you really kind of hate Bayley. That’s how I felt for a while, until I read episode 13. When people watch 13, that’s when I see them turn and get back on his side a little, because of the conflict. But since it’s come out, it’s been pride, really. People are getting it and starting to have these conversations, and are excited to make some actual change in the world, I think, because of this fictional show.

Right now, I’m in celebration mode. We spent seven months making this amazing thing in a vacuum. I couldn't talk about it with anyone or post pictures online. The last 10 days has been me wanting to talk about it. Starting to get that third-party view and to see people react in the way that the writers wanted people to, and in one of the ways that I expected, is just such a full circle thing. I think we stuck the landing and that it's going to move people. It’s going to make people laugh and talk and yell at me on the street sometimes. To be an important thing in the cog of social rights and history. I can’t believe that June 17 ever got here and now that it is, let’s celebrate it and enjoy being a part of this amazing thing and let’s take action on it.

Orange Is the New Black is streaming now on Netflix. For more cast interviews and all of THR's OITNB coverage, head here.

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