'Orange Is the New Black' Star on Surprise Season 4 Return and Jon Snow Comparisons

After disappearing in the beginning of season three, Litchfield welcomes back one of its most-missed inmates in season four.
Netflix
'Orange Is the New Black'

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the first eight episodes of Orange Is the New Black season four.]

After nearly an entire season without her, Orange Is the New Black brought a fan favorite back in a big way during its newly released fourth season.

After disappearing from the Netflix prison dramedy during the beginning of season three, Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne) returned in the fourth episode — a storyline that was kept under lock and key by everyone involved with the Jenji Kohan prison dramedy.

"This is a real high-stakes Jon Snow situation I’m in: This whole year, I cannot tell you the relief of the albatross of spoilers being off my back," Lyonne told The Hollywood Reporter. "I love this show and the people on this show so much so I’m just really happy. I feel very buoyant about the whole situation — it’s out, the secret is over! — and just excited that it’s next phase."

And next phase is, to hear the actress tell it: Dark.

Nicky was sent down the hill to the maximum-security prison after being busted dealing heroin with Luschek (Matt Peters). In Max, the recovering addict assimilated quickly — and perhaps even more impressive, achieved three years of sobriety. Nicky's time at Max also offers an update on Sophia (Laverne Cox) — namely that she's barely hanging on in SHU — and Stella (Ruby Rose) — with whom she had a one-night stand.

THR caught up with Lyonne to discuss Nicky's return, her relapse ("So much of Nicky’s personality is that she is a self-destructive, hope-to-die junkie"), her love for Morello (Yael Stone), that crack-smoking scene with Alex (Laura Prepon) and Piper (Taylor Schilling) and more. 

How does it feel to be the Jon Snow of Orange Is the New Black?

I love Game of Thrones, I watch that show every week. Maybe [Kit Harington] does not identify with me as much as I identify with him, but I’m like: Man, this is a real high-stakes Jon Snow situation I’m in. This whole year, I cannot tell you the relief of the albatross of spoilers being off my back. It was such an uncomfortable weight. I’m such a heart-on-my-sleeve, truth-be-your-guide kind of a person, to a fault of many awkward situations — being honest doesn’t necessarily go with being the most-mannered, or anything. But it is a very what-you-see-is-what-you-get operation I’m running over here, so it was very uncomfortable for me to have such a big secret to carry around. But I also love my TV shows and I wouldn’t want to know, either. I only watched the first episode at the premiere, I’m waiting to binge-watch it all. Did they leave in the scene where the witch brings me back to life?

No, they must have cut that …

Really? This woman was a knockout, a really hot redhead. But she was also sort of ancient. There was a whole thing, they cut that? So weird. It was a great scene. But who am I to say? Did my wolf make it onto the show? Sorry, I’m glad to be back.

How hard was it to keep quiet about your return?

Believe me: I’m captain of non-sequiturs, but it was even excessive for me. I just kept deflecting and deflecting. I really had to hide behind my own gibberish-speak in a way that was, even for my own taste, a little much. Because I also would have been like, “God, just give me a straight answer already.” 

When we first see Nicky, it seems she’s been doing pretty well in Max. She gets her three-year sobriety chip and she even tells Sophia when she finds her in SHU that she’s been trying to “stay on the straight and narrow.” How would you say Max has treated her by that point?

There’s also the scene of me walking into the yard, and it’s not like Litchfield where I kind of can do whatever. It definitely feels more like Stranger in a Strange Land. I do think that Nicky is self-aware enough to know that the same mouth that is her asset at Litchfield is also the very thing that can get her into very serious trouble in Max. So it’s a slightly more intentionally humble Nicky than we are used to seeing. It does seem like her sobriety is in good shape and in a way, because she doesn’t have as many friends around, it probably functions for her as a bit of a rehab environment. In the lockdown facility, she can really think about her life and get serious about her recovery.

Then we see in her interaction with Stella and phone conversation with Luschek (Matt Peters) and that things aren’t so great.

With Stella and when she’s talking to Luschek, it’s more one-on-one and safe to be herself. We don’t go down a whole Nicky in Max wormhole, really, to see what her experience was like when she first got there and finding her place. Historically, Red (Kate Mulgrew) has been sort of first in command and it’s been unspoken, so as cocky as Nicky might be when she’s not around, or even in their one-on-one relationship, as soon as Red appears in a crowd, Nicky kind of gets on her back foot. There’s a lot of power dynamics at play in the prison and I think that had we spent more time with Nicky first getting there and followed that through, we probably would have seen what she’s up against.

Fans are sure to go nuts over Nicky and Stella’s one-night stand. We don’t get to see it, so can you take us through how you see Nicky and Stella getting together? 

It makes sense. The drug addict is not actually the tough guy, so it makes sense in a way of water seeking its own level. There is this other aspect of what’s happening in the prison, of violence. I don’t know that Nicky or Stella is that tough. It makes more sense than Nicky hooking up with Vee (Yvonne Parker) in Max, if Vee were still alive. The addict is a very self-obsessed creature, so the manipulations are sort of small and self-centered, whereas Vee’s manipulations were on a much grander scale of a mastermind. The addict’s primary concern is just with getting what they want and there’s different levels of depravity that exist in the soul of a person who is locked up and out of options. But I’m assuming that Nicky would have gotten off on everybody being scissor sisters, I think that’s right up Nicky’s alley — stone-cold sober or high, I think that would really appeal to her sensibilities. And also, she’s hot. We know that Nicky really likes to get it on and, especially if she’s sober, as an escapist tactic. It’s all the same stuff, really: Which way she’s going to chose to checkout. In that scene, as much as Nicky enjoys getting her rocks off to kill time, I think that she also is out of place when we refind her back at Max, that she’s not trying to sacrifice that. Once Stella is sort of risky business in the drug department, it’s no longer appealing. 

Yet she then makes the decision to trade sex for drugs with the guard, and relapses. Is everyone just hopeless in Max and is that why Nicky, especially after seeing Sophia's dire situation, slips?

The resentment and sort of futility of her situation and feeling hopeless really ends up taking her out. One thing that I identify with very closely with Nicky is the theme of injustice and how it tracks as a reason to self-destruct. That idea of looking around at the world and thinking, “Something is just not right here.” On a personal level, I’m in a very consistent place in my life, but I certainly think that for the active addict or somebody new to sobriety, injustice can become a theme that is a strong trigger or something that would really sway you, if you were already feeling on edge and that “my life is hopeless.” Nicky has this unreconciled resentment towards Luschek, so this outstanding business percolating in my psyche and simultaneously witnessing the injustice where my hands are so tied, that real feeling of helplessness, all of that ends up really feeding into it. And it is very true to life and what’s so tragic about self-destructive people. The idea that you don’t know what’s around your own corner in life. The idea that just a few steps away was hanging her release from Max and freedom, relative to Max, of course.

That was pretty heartbreaking to watch Nicky make that decision the moment Caputo is approving her return to general population. Then she returns and is still focused on getting drugs, even stealing Red's coveted mirror to trade. 

Addiction is very real. So the idea that even if she’s back and wants to stop, it’s not necessarily so easy, all over again. I really do think that so much of Nicky’s personality is that she is a self-destructive, hope-to-die junkie. That’s so much of where her ability to be funny and out of control comes from, and such a good time, is that it’s grounded in real darkness. So it feels sort of appropriate to the environment. You wouldn’t want to just be silly in prison, it would feel unjustified as an actor and like the stakes were not matching the environment. To me, it really is this sort of grounding force, and from that place of knowing Nicky’s darkness, it makes it much easier for me to go to all kinds of different and more out-there places.

How much does the role of Nicky mean to you, now that you’re back to playing her?

I really missed playing that character, I love playing her so much. When we first started, Nicky Nichols was only in six episodes. I owe a thanks to the show, as I have a really healthy and consistent career going, but I think that character is really an outlet, in a way, for me to work through so much personal experience that I’ve acquired. I feel so close to this person but it’s also completely not me, so it’s an interesting dance. It’s a very rare role that comes along in an actor’s life — speaking to somebody who’s been doing this since I’m 6 years old, it’s not often. Slums of Beverly Hills felt very close to the vest for me, in part because I had [writer and director] Tamara Jenkins right there to articulate so clearly her experience as I was playing her and to make sense of it. But Nicky also feels really close and just not me at all. It’s a very specific gift in the actor’s life to get a role that feels like that complete artistic experience.

When did everyone find out that you were back, did you have to keep it a secret from the cast? 

We’re really tight. That bunch of us that began this ride together, we’re very much in touch. There weren’t giant stretches that I wasn’t on the show that we weren’t in touch weekly. We trust Jenji so much and love that she is our mastermind and puppet-master, so we don’t really play the game of questioning what lies ahead and how it’s going to happen anymore. We’re not trying to constantly crack the code and solve the mystery ahead of time. But I don’t know that anybody was super shocked. It was like it is with an old friend that you’re meant to be friends with, where you slip in right where you left off. It was a happy reunion.

It’s great to have her back because even though she’s always dealing with heavy issues, she provides for a lot of the show’s funnier moments.

The show does straddle a lot of different territory. It can be very funny and the tone on set can be very rowdy, and also very serious. At the end of the day, this is a show about prison and it’s our job to sort of reflect that honestly. We’re not a maximum security facility, so it’s not trying to reflect the utter darkness in that, but it definitely in some cases is, and it’s a tricky thing because of the nature of it being this cultural phenomenon. It’s sort of an odd line we’ve got to walk pretty regularly with this show and thankfully, Jenji handles it beautifully. It’s a very specific balance to strike.

One of the scenes that really shows that this season is when Nicky, Alex (Laura Prepon) and Piper (Taylor Schilling) smoke crack. It’s hilarious until you realize that Piper is actually smoking crack.

It's actually a true reflection of the nature of life, in its own weird way. That crack scene is probably a good metaphor for Donald Trump: The idea that we’re all continuing to go on with our day-to-day lives while living in a reality where this guy is a candidate. Where things continue to be hilarious when they couldn’t be any darker. It’s why I really respond to jokes and this show in the first place because it's like: What else are you gonna do? In many ways, the purpose of the joke is to shed light on reality in an honest way that otherwise would be unpalatable and unprocessable because it’s too much to handle. They could have been huffing paint — not to minimize crack — but it’s like when Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) and I have the f— off contest [in season two] and then said, “Oh now let’s eat as many cookies as we can.” In a weird way, I think that the crack is like the cookie. It’s another substitute for, “Get me the f— out of this place.” The guiding force for all the characters of the show is that they’re up against a loss of freedom. They don’t have the ability to exit that place. Within the confines of those walls, the idea of any form of escapism begins to make sense. It grounds any choice. It’s like, “Well, why are you going to keep sleeping with this person if you know they’re bad news for you?” It’s like, “Well what the f— else are you going to do to pass the time here?” The show is so exciting and it has so many fun characters, less we forget that these are people behaving with their backs up against the wall.

Nicky looks to Morello for that escape, but Morello is trying to stay faithful to her new husband, frustrating Nicky. How much does Nicky care for her: as a best friend, as a hookup or something more? 

I think Nicky makes it pretty clear that she loves her. I definitely think that they love each other. The question of whether they’re meant to be together as a couple remains. In many ways, it’s that awkward thing that we’ve all done when you sleep with someone in the beginning who ends up becoming your best friend, and then you start sleeping with them again. Where almost immediately, you’d have to be in a relationship because you know that person so well. Certainly Nicky has her own intimacy issues, let alone Lorna’s denial of her own sexuality — and I think Lorna’s probably somewhere on the spectrum. So for Lorna, it's probably a case where the person transcends gender and I think that it puts them both in this complicated dance with true intimacy. Where once they do decide to sign up full-on with that relationship, it’s going to become very real pretty quickly because they are both pretty clear on the fact that they love each other so much.

Stay tuned for more from Lyonne and the rest of the cast as viewers continue to binge the full season and follow all of THR's OITNB coverage here.

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