Mackenzie Phillips Experienced a "Reawakening" With Personal 'Orange Is the New Black' Role

OITNB season 6 - Mackenzie Phillips - H 2018
Courtesy of Netflix

[This story contains spoilers from the entire sixth season of Netflix's Orange Is the New Black.]

Mackenzie Phillips was busy with the new role in her life when she got a call from her agent that Orange Is the New Black was interested in her for a key character in season six. The actress and recovering addict, who rose to fame with breakout parts in 1973's American Graffiti and '70s sitcom One Day at a Time, is now an addiction counselor in Los Angeles and was out of town at a behavioral health conference.

"I was in my hotel room with the clinical director of Breathe Life Healing Center, where I work playing my other role, and I thought, 'I will never get this job but let’s just try, let’s go for it,''" Phillips, who is director of referral relations and a counselor at the center, tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I guess the universe had a plan that I wasn’t aware of. I’m very happy to have been asked to come play on Orange Is the New Black."

The pitch for the character was described to Phillips as "a brutal drug kingpin who’s a lifer and has nothing to lose." The character, as viewers have come to learn after bingeing the newest season of the Netflix dramedy, is Barb Denning, one-half of the villainous Denning sisters duo who proved to be a deadly combination in the season six finale. The season also sees Barb going from a drug addict to sober — a Litchfield journey layered in personal parallels for Phillips.

When OITNB sent its inmates down the hill to Litchfield's maximum security prison after the riot for season six, Barb and her sister Carol (Henny Russell) were introduced as the bosses of Max. The finale delivered a handful of cliffhanger endings for its main characters, but many of the inmates are alive heading into the already announced seventh season thanks to the long-feuding Denning sisters — who were imprisoned as teenagers after killing their 8-year-old sister — murdering each other in the finale. After plotting a gang war between their respective cell blocks, Barb and Carol shiv each other while fighting over a story they stole from a black waitress when they were young and had been claiming as their own for decades — a fitting ending to a season that tackled white privilege in the country's criminal justice system.

Below, Phillips opens up about how her own public history with addiction and personal path to sobriety inspired Barb's performance and why the OITNB role was a "reawakening" that proved she can be more than just one thing when it comes to life's roles.

Your guest arc on Netflix's One Day at a Time reboot marked your first major acting role in years. Did that job help you land Barb Denning on Orange Is the New Black?

I wondered that myself. I really switched gears, as far as careers go, five or six years ago. I work full time in behavioral health at a drug and alcohol treatment center in West Hollywood. I haven’t really been auditioning. So when [One Day at a Time creator] Norman Lear called, I looked at my phone and it was like, “Oh my God, Uncle Norman is calling!” He asked me if I would be interested in playing the therapist on One Day at a Time. I hadn’t acted in a while and I’m sort of enmeshed in this career that I have in behavioral health, but of course I’m going to go when Norman asked. I don’t know if One Day at a Time propelled this, but according to one of the executive producers on Orange, it didn’t. I got a call from my agent who said, “I know you’re not really acting anymore but, c'mon — Orange Is the New Black wants to see you.” I said, of course I’ll put something together. Then the next day I got a call saying I booked the job. I packed my little bag and headed to New York for three months and had the best time ever.

How was Barb pitched to you and was she written with you in mind?

No. Apparently the whole plot of the season with the arc of the sisters was already planned long before I came on their radar. I think the breakdown for Barb said "A brutal drug kingpin who’s a lifer and has nothing to lose." I was like, “Bring it on! I can do that!” I wasn’t caught up on the show, but as soon as I booked it, I just started watching and I brought myself right up to the brink a couple weeks before we started shooting. The scene I used for the audition, I found out much later, was actually from flashbacks from young Barb and Carol [played by Lauren Kelston and Ashley Jordyn, respectively]. It was funny because I have very white teeth and Barb has very yellow teeth. They made an Invisalign, like a 3D-printed thing that popped over my own bottom and top teeth, so that I could have those horrific teeth that you see in the show.

OITNB tends to bring in new antagonists with each season. How do you compare Barb to previous villains? 

Barb is without conscience. Even when Barb gets sober, the sobriety thing is sort of an annoyance that gets in the way of her master plan of revenge. I’ve been in recovery for a really long time, and one of the things we say is that resentments are the number one killer for people with a substance use disorder. With Barb, it's a classic thing. You take away the drugs and alcohol and that’s the only thing missing. All the other behaviors are still in place, she’s just not loaded anymore. Which makes her lethal.

How much of your own journey with addiction and getting sober did you tap into when playing Barb?

When I’m in the infirmary with Nicky [played by Natasha Lyonne] and I’m saying, “God, what’s the point of being sober in here?” For my own self, I equated that to, “What’s the point of being sober in here,” where "here" is my own body and my own home. I remember thinking that Barb’s life is Litchfield Max. So I used that as my own body and my own home: What’s the point of being sober in here, where there’s so much pain? It’s much easier to medicate that pain and to then not have to give a fuck about anything. You can always draw comparisons if you’re creative and curious about how to do it. But a lot of what I was given to do on this show was just seamless for me: Let’s see what it’s like to just be that brutal, that angry, that vengeful. It was kind of fun, because you get to play out these dark, dark things and not have the consequences for them. There were so many things I loved about doing this show. When you put on a prison uniform, you are not thinking, “How does my ass look?” There’s virtually no makeup so you don't worry about looking old — you know you look old! (Laughs.) 

Why did you want to play a character that hit so close to home? What hesitations did you have about getting into the mindset of a drug addict — what came easy and what was difficult?

It was weird to actually go through the entire motion of ingesting drugs. That was challenging. There was one day when Daddy [played by Vicci Martinez] drugs me with bath salts and I get crazy and start seeing flies everywhere. The Orange team was so kind and good. They asked me, “Is it OK to do fake drugs?” For the scene, I had to snort some powder. I was like, “Totally. It’s not real. It’s not like I’m actually snorting cocaine, or whatever.” And so I got into it. I said we needed to put it in a baggie and have a short straw cut at an angle so that she looks like she knows what she’s doing. That was interesting. I didn't want to fake snort it and pretend that it really burns. I’m glad I actually did snort it — I think it was Vitamin D powder — because it really made my eyes water and it burn like hell. That was weird and a little unsettling, but after I did it I went, “Oh, that’s OK. This isn’t real. This is the theater.” As for what excited me about it? Everything. The idea of getting to join this group of incredible actors and getting to work with amazing directors, like Laura Prepon and Nick Sandow, who are people that I have great respect for as actors and now have amazing respect for as directors as well. And getting to work with Natasha Lyonne, who is like some magical forest creature. She is so quirky, wonderful, funny, full of heart and talented. Just to be able to play those scenes with Natasha was incredible. 

After Barb is drugged, she is sent to the infirmary wing to get sober with Nicky. What was it like to film the manic parts of those scenes, and how many times did you film it?

Oh my God. All day long. There would be the master shot but then they want to get it from above, and another angle, and over Natasha to show me freaking out in the background. That was challenging for me, to be thrashing around and in restraints for three or four hours. I was definitely feeling like someone had beaten the crap out of me when I woke up the next morning. In the beginning when Daddy is in my cell and I start writhing around on the floor, I threw myself into it. I literally threw myself onto the floor, so I was sore the next day. That whole sequence was very time-consuming to shoot — but it was so much fun. By the time we get to the scene where I’m awake and eating pudding and talking with Nicky, I think it was 9 o’clock at night.

What was it like to go from playing Barb high to Barb sober — did she feel like two different characters?

It was fascinating to be able to spend many years in recovery and to then jump back into that phase where a person has given up and lost control. Barb has lost control of her cell block, of everything, and she is sort of just holding on. Then to be able to play Barb who is more clear-headed — which, like I said, makes her more lethal — was fun and challenging and exciting. Even though it was hard to be in New York for such an extended period of time and away from the clinical team at Breathe and my home and my kids, I really had a blast. It reawakened something in me that I had put aside. I had decided that I was going to shift gears and work in the clinical world and focus on being of service to people who are suffering. My passion for that hasn’t waned at all. But working on Orange made me realize that I can be both. I can have the opportunity to go play on Orange Is the New Black but still maintain my clinical integrity with the work that I do. It doesn’t make me less of a clinician to be an actor and it doesn’t make me less of an actor to be a clinician. It really opened up that space for me where I feel like, coming up on 59 years old, I have options that are born out of being a woman in longterm recovery. So it’s all kind of beautiful and I’m so grateful to Jenji Kohan and the Orange team for thinking of me.

Will you now put yourself out there for more acting roles?

I’m not averse to it. The person who is No. 1 on the call sheet is someone who is going to work probably 16 hours a day. But for OITNB, I think I was 37 because the cast is so enormous. I had a lot of time to do other things while I was playing Barb. So if I were to consider seeking acting work, it would be really nice to be part of a huge ensemble cast where I can still have time and space to do the other things that interest me. It would be cool to be able to work like that again.

In terms of what you took away from the entire experience, was it liberating or cathartic to play Barb?

Cathartic is a word that I always turn away from. It wasn’t really a catharsis for me, but it was a reawakening of remembering, “Oh, that’s right. I’m actually kind of good at this and I like doing it.” And I have a seriously longterm foundation in my recovery, so I can do all kinds of things. Last year, my second book came out, and I remembered how much I like to write books. I tend to be a bit of an anal person and think that if I'm doing clinical work, that's all that I can do because if I don’t, then that makes me not as dedicated as I want to be. But as I went through the process of being in New York and being on location and working for months on end, I realized that there is space for both. That’s part of what being on Orange Is the New Black gave me: I am not just one thing. And I am open to the world of possibility, whatever that might be for me.

What discussions did you have with writers and producers about crafting Barb's nuances? 

I remember talking to Nick Sandow about this on the first episode that he directed. The way Barb is written, she has a great vocabulary and is very well-spoken. She’s clearly used her time in prison well, or she walked into this being bright and fairly well-educated. So I took a cue from how the writers had written her in terms of how I was going to play her. She’s not a dummy. Barb is not a person who doesn’t know how to speak her ideas in a very lucid way, and so it made it fun for me to play this diabolical person who has a serious substance abuse disorder who has literally no idea what recovery is or means. To her, all it means is not getting high anymore so that she's better at enacting her plan. I viewed her like Pinky and the Brain. She’s very smart, but her smarts are directed to a path that leads straight to destruction and she’s not smart enough to see that.

How do you view her death in the end — were you able to sympathize with her at all?

When you’re doing Orange, it’s not like they are telling you, “Oh by the way, at the end of the season, you’re dead.” Henny and I would wonder if we survive the season. I thought that would be exciting if I did survive, but I came to the realization once I found out that we both die that the gift was the season. It would have been great — don’t get me wrong — if Barb and Carol could live on. But the gift was actually getting invited to the party in the first place. I think the way it ended up was really like it was time for this battle royale to take place and while everyone else is out frolicking and playing in the field, we are in there in this death grip of a battle that had to play out and had to come to an end, one way or another. The reveal is that we’re both there dead, having killed each other for nothing. Like they say, revenge is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. What I took from it was: “What am I holding on to in my life and relationships that needs to be cleaned up so that we don’t, theoretically, kill each other? What do I need to clean up in my own backyard?” You learn from other peoples’ mistakes.

How did all of the other aspects about Barb's life also feel personal?

I’ve had a publicly complicated relationship with my own sisters, and luckily we’ve been able to get back on the same page and fall back in love with each other as sisters in such an amazing way. It’s really cool. Everything is personal when you’re creating somebody off of a piece of paper. If everything isn’t personal, then no one is going to believe it. There are some things that I drew on of my own that I’m not going to share, probably ever. But if you don’t make it personal, from my point of view, then how are you going to reach out and touch people with what you are doing and saying? It has to be personal in some way.

You came forward with your #MeToo story before the world changed. Does today feel like a safer space for you to be coming back to both acting and being in the public eye? 

When [my memoir] High on Arrival came out, I can’t remember what news magazine or TV show it was, but they had a body language expert come on to evaluate what I was saying to see if I was telling the truth or not. I don’t think that would stand the test anymore. I don’t think people would speak about women speaking out now the way they did then. I don’t really carry resentment about it, but it was really hard; some really harsh things were said. We aren't in the same climate anymore. We have to have a national conversation, and if I had to be one of the first to start talking about it in my own way and in my own experience, so be it. But I’m glad the climate has changed so that people aren’t as willing to say the kinds of things that they might have said back in 2009.

What roles are you looking to play next?

I really haven’t given it a lot of thought. It’s been more like: “Wow, what’s going to happen when Orange Is the New Black comes out? What’s that going to be like?” Right now, I’m sitting here at my desk looking at electronic medical records and charting them. In front of me I have a bunch of audits to do and a client to meet with and later I have a group. I have this very full life that has space for more acting, but I haven’t really thought about who I’d like to play. I am prepared for the Orange response. I built my Twitter followers brick by brick, with these two hands, so I’m ready for an influx and to see what happens.

The 13-episode sixth season of Orange Is the New Black is streaming now on Netflix. Bookmark for more show coverage.