'Orange Is the New Black' Star Laura Prepon Goes Inside "Brutal" Torture Scenes

The actress, who plays Alex Vause, also talks with THR about making her directorial debut with season five’s most harrowing episode.
Courtesy of Netflix
Laura Prepon in 'Orange Is the New Black'

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from episodes one through 10 of Netflix's Orange Is the New Black season five.]

Laura Prepon had two days to direct one of the most impactful scenes of the fifth season of Orange Is the New Black.

The moment came in the 10th episode, titled "The Reverse Midas Touch," when the riot happening at Litchfield took a dark turn down a prison hallway and into a janitor's closet.  A multi-season power struggle between Red (Kate Mulgrew) and head guard Piscatella (Brad William Henke) played out in harrowing form when Piscatella, after taking several inmates hostage, broke down his all-mighty rival. In several scenes of physical and emotional abuse, Piscatella attempted to reduce the prison's fearless leader into nothing. He tortured her methodically, cutting the red hair off her head with a shear knife and nicking her scalp while forcing those closest to her to watch.

One of the inmates in the scene was Prepon, as her Alex and Piper (Taylor Schilling) were taken by Piscatella while naked together in the shower. The storyline called for the pair to be wrapped in shower curtains as they joined the rest of their prison pals — Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), Boo (Lea Delaria) and Red's partner-in-crime Blanca (Laura Gomez) — to sit, bound by their hands and mouths with duct tape, and watch helplessly until they were ultimately rescued by the inmates hiding in Freida's (Dale Soules) bunker.

"I’m wrapped on the floor with my legs and arms bound and with duct tape over my mouth, and I’m having to be Alex, but I’m watching Brad give Piscatella’s monologue and I’m also directing him," Prepon tells The Hollywood Reporter of pulling double duty. "While I’m sitting on the floor bound and gagged, I’m also in my head thinking, 'In the next take I want him to do this.'"

Jenji Kohan's prison dramedy is no stranger to luring actors behind the camera  — Jodie Foster and Andrew McCarthy, as well as Nick Sandow, who plays Litchfield warden Caputo, have all directed episodes — but Prepon is the first to do it while in character as a hostage victim. Alex even gets her arm broken while fighting off Piscatella during the scene.

Below in a chat with The Hollywood Reporter, Prepon explains how her Orange directorial debut came to be, talks about the balance of acting and directing her costars — while in a shower curtain — and provides insight on an episode from which many of the surviving characters will be forever changed.

How did your directing come about this season and why this episode?

I had been asking Jenji about directing for a while, because I had been directing for a while, and when I got on the show, well, it’s just such a special show. These actors and actresses are so wonderful. So many people want to direct our show. It’s prestigious, cool, fun and dangerous, so it’s a really amazing show to direct. Finally she gave me a shot and I’m so thankful for her doing that. I’m so comfortable directing and I knew that it would be a great experience. There were so many wonderful colors to play with in this episode. You care about the girls and when you see this thing happening to Red, it’s brutal. You also see what’s happening in the bathroom scene with Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) or with Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning). When I read the episode, I thought, "Yes, this is going to be exciting."

What is that like to come in and direct an episode at the end of the season when you haven’t seen the episodes prior?

You read all the scripts so you know what’s going on and you kind of have an idea. It’s the fifth season, which is incredible, so we know these characters. But I read all the scripts, so I knew exactly what was happening.

You're on a very short list of Orange stars who have stepped behind the camera to direct an episode. What kind of advantage does being on the show give you when it comes to directing your co-stars?

I’m so deep inside with the characters. I know them and because I’m an actor, I can speak that language. I’ve been acting since I was 18, so I know how I like to be spoken to and the respect I like to have as an actor, and I give that back to my actors when I’m directing. It’s a lovely kind of cohesive, openly creative environment. I think the fact that I know the characters so well and I’m not just a director coming in allows you to really tell the stories we were telling here with the camera.

Kohan said the election didn’t impact this season since you were already in production, yet the idea of fighting back against abusive power is very timely. What were some of those conversations like in regards to your episode?

That was a huge part of my episode. In the episode, the power reverts back a little bit. You see what happens to people in an environment like a prison when there is no control and no authority. You see how different personalities handle that environment. We have the backstory of Piscatella and also the scenes of the girls in the closet with him, and how he asserts his authority over the women. We filmed his flashback scenes in a men's maximum security prison. We actually shot at the same prison in Queens where Taylor and I filmed in season two, when Piper goes to Chicago. Litchfield is a minimum security prison, and to be in a maximum security prison is a very different and very serious thing. I had so much to play with and I thought it turned out to be a really beautiful episode. Jenji is so smart and nothing is taboo for her. And it is true, our show really does transcend what happens socially and it’s relevant with what is going on right now.

How did this season’s timeline taking place in three days impact how you approached your episode as a director, and also as an actor filming the entire season?

The main thing of it taking place over three days is that the last episode was five minutes ago, so it’s tracking where the character is emotionally and the energy of the scene. Where are they coming from and where are they going? As an actor, you should think about those things anyway, but especially if something takes place in a finite period of time. Those questions are even more relevant in terms of reorienting everybody to what just happened last episode, because it literally took place right before you walked in the door. It’s a fun and different kind of energy where you have to set yourself up so one episode just flows right into the next. I loved playing with that. 

It’s arguably one of the toughest episodes of the season and especially given your acting role in it, what were some of your conversations like with Kohan about its magnitude?

It was one of the toughest, material-wise. The interesting thing, too, was directing while my hands were tied behind my back, literally! And wrapped in a shower curtain. After I did that, I felt like I could probably direct anything! Being bound and gagged and having to direct is pretty funny.

You might be the first director to be bound and gagged on the job.

Seriously. I was directing in a shower curtain! But it was really tough subject matter. Having all the women in that environment with this man doing these things to them. You watch what’s going on in the janitor’s closet with the girls and how this man is totally debasing Red in front of her daughters, essentially, and just stripping her of all her power. And then having to go into the flashbacks and making you care about Piscatella was a really interesting and dynamic thing to play. It was wonderful as a director being able to work with these actors. You haven’t really seen Kate, as Red, in a position like that before, where she is so stripped of her dignity and the fact that this one man finds the right way to strip this woman of her dignity, and then to then go to his backstory and care for him with his relationship with the inmate. It was great material. It was one of the toughest episode in terms of what was happening with everybody, but as a director, I was very excited to be able to find all the nuances and to make an audience care about someone like Piscatella in those flashback scenes where you get a sense of why he is the way he is. That’s not an easy thing to do.

Can we go back to how you were directing while wearing the shower curtain?

Yes! I was wrapped in a shower curtain with my hands and ankles bound with duct tape, and duct tape over my mouth. I was like a dolphin without fins. They would wrap Taylor and I up and two stunt guys would have to lower us to the ground. It was crazy. We couldn’t move. They bound us up and our stunt guy would literally lower us to the ground and there were times where I needed two people to help me get down because we couldn't. Then every few takes someone would come in and pull the duct tape off my mouth so I could talk to people.

Did you shoot the scenes in the janitor's closet in one day?

It took two days to do all the janitor’s closet stuff. I knew that it was going to be really intense. I told my awesome first AD, Becky Chin, that the scenes were going to be so intense that we needed to do it on a Friday and a Monday so we could have a weekend in between. Luckily the schedule worked out and it was really, really nice to have that reprieve. 

How many takes did you do of Piscatella cutting Red’s hair and scalp?

It’s tricky because everything takes time. So, to get one wig on it takes an hour and a half. You can’t actually put a knife that cuts on actress Kate Mulgrew’s head, so only specific cuts I can put on a stunt double, and then I have to come back with Kate. Figuring out how to shoot that was really fun because it was like a puzzle in terms of timing. At the end of the day, doing a show like Orange, one of the things is that there’s a lot of people to cover in the scene and they’re all very integral to it. Also, as an actor, I don’t want to wear anybody out and it was very emotional. Physically, we’re in these situations where we’re tied up on the floor. Taylor and I, as I said, are wrapped in shower curtains, bound and gagged. Kate is being debased. There’s a lot of physical fighting and movements and Brad's having to maneuver around the space. As a director, that’s wonderful, because you want all of these things going on, but on the technical side, it was a lot of scheduling and being highly efficient. First and foremost I wanted my actors to be comfortable and making sure they have enough time to get to where they need to get emotionally and be present. But when you have to deal with stunts and knives and people getting hit and punched — my arm also gets broken — it's all very delicate and just takes time with so many balls in the air. 

As Alex, you’re worried about Piper. As Laura, you’re trying to support everyone. How did you balance that?

This is going to sound odd, but you just do it. It’s something that I’ve just been able to do. It’s like interchangeably changing hats: Now I’m an actor, and now I’m a director. it's about having that kind of double brain where you're acting but also observing everything around you. You’re watching where the camera is and what it’s doing, making sure that they’re doing what you want, looking at the actors and making sure the emotions are tracking and the moments are there. All of these things are going on in your head at the same time. That’s what I thrive on. 

The flashback really sets up what is likely to be a polarizing reaction to Piscatella's journey this season. Do you hope fans are ultimately mixed in how they feel about him?

I hope so. Or even if the flashback gives you a little more understanding of why he is the way he is, and just a little more empathy for a character like that, then I’ve done my job. Brad is so wonderful to work with and he was so open to working with me. I knew it was going to be a tough episode for that character, because he goes through a lot, and we really took a lot of time to find the moments and figure out the best way to go about it and really break it down. He was totally open to so many things and we just trusted each other.

What can you say about Mulgrew’s performance?

Kate is just a pro. Truthfully, all these women are. Kate is game for anything. If it serves the scene and it serves the character and it makes sense and it tracks emotionally and is a smart decision, she’s game. She’s very elegant and powerful as an actress, so to take someone like that, who plays a character like Red, and make her weak on camera and see her break is a very hard thing to watch for the audience. She did a very beautiful job and totally trusted me. She was even game for the stunts. She wanted to do her own stunts to the point where I was telling her, “Kate, I legally can’t let you be dragged across the floor by the hair!” She told Brad, “Just grab my hair.” She is hardcore. It was obviously difficult because of the subject matter, but as a director and as actors, this episode was a wonderful experience. Everyone is really proud of the episode, as am I.

Tell THR what you thought of the 10th episode, "The Reverse Midas Touch," in the comments below and keep up with Live Feed for cast interviews and full Orange Is the New Black coverage throughout the week.

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