'Orange Is the New Black's' Natasha Lyonne: Inmates Are "Bound for Life" in Season 6

Lyonne calls season 5, which ended with the Netflix series' biggest cliffhanger yet, a growing-up season for her character, Nicky.
Courtesy of Netflix
Natasha Lyonne on 'Orange Is the New Black'

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

Natasha Lyonne doesn't binge-watch Orange Is the New Black. In fact, she has seen very little of the total 65 hours that make up the entire Netflix series. 

"The nature of going to work every day for six months of the year — for what’s now about to become our sixth year — is much more involved than I’ve ever had in any other work experience," the actress, who plays Nicky Nichols, tells The Hollywood Reporter. "The amount of life that we’re spanning together as a cast does make it all start to blend, where you think: Where do we end and where does the story begin? Where is it a fictional show versus a mirror of the news?"

That's why, Lyonne says, save for premiere events and cast screening parties, she opts out of watching the Jenji Kohan-created prison dramedy.

"I have a hard time sitting down doing concentrated, focused binge-watching in the way that I do with NYPD Blue or Law & Order: SVU. I’m really using those shows to check out, whereas with Orange my goal is to check in," she says. "I happily watch other people, I read the scripts diligently and I’m super-involved in everyone’s backstories. There’s just an element of me that wants to live it and that is fearful of watching it and feeling like it’s surreal."

In the fifth season, streaming now on Netflix, Nicky maintains her sobriety — "It’s worth noting that [the season] happens in three days," she clarifies — witnesses the debasement of her chosen mother, Red (Kate Mulgrew), and ends up putting the safety of a pregnant Lorna (Yael Stone) ahead of her own, though Lyonne debates whether the latter was a selfish or selfless act. 

In the end, Lyonne's Nicky is one of the 10 castmembers who cross race tribes to face the future of Litchfield together, unaware of the consequences that next season will bring after the cliffhanger finale (Orange has already been renewed through season seven). Below, the actress discusses with THR the series' real-world parallels and how being so close to her character and co-stars informs how she brings Nicky to life; describes the accidental method acting that went on during the most harrowing scenes of the season; and hints at possible outcomes when she gets back in uniform next month to start filming season six. 

Have you watched the whole season?

I haven’t. I do not binge the show. I love to run into it. We sometimes have these barbeque viewing parties and I like to show up mid-way through and then spend a lot of time on the balcony, pop back in and check out the scene. I think it’s just hard for me to watch myself. But I do love what I see. I’m going to watch them all. How many hours is it now?

Well, there's been five seasons...

65 hours?

You haven’t seen any?

I’ve seen some. I watch it at the premiere events. The truth of the matter is that I find the experience a little surreal because of the sweeping size of it. I’m in love and obsessed with Orange Is the New Black, all the creators and everyone in it. I love this show. But selfishly speaking, when I make a movie and it’s an hour and a half and I hate a choice that I made, it’s kind of spilt milk because the movie is locked. But it’s tricky when it’s an ongoing extravaganza, like Orange. I’m not sure that I would have the automatic ability to self-correct. When we do these viewing parties, I’ll watch everything and when I come onscreen, I’ll usually say I have to go to the bathroom or need to walk the dog. It’s usually just myself that I have no interest in watching because I have such a self-critical mind, I think like so many people on the planet, let alone in this business, so I’m not really able to sit there calmly while watching. I’d rather have the live experience.

How does not watching help you to better separate yourself from the character you play?

It’s an interesting concept of where that rubber meets the road of that break in reality, to be able to watch 60-plus hours of one’s self on a television show and simultaneously suspend disbelief effectively enough to have the actual experience of being the inmate Nicky Nichols in Litchfield prison, with all of these people who are now my best friends for life, who I adore to death. It ends up where you have to separate the personal experience with them and their characters as well. There are many meta levels of disconnecting and being able to plug into actually embodying that character on a daily basis for six months out of the year. The biggest concern is wanting to keep some distance from turning everybody into characters on a TV screen when I have to continue going to work. 

When talking about Poussey’s (Samira Wiley) death, Jenji Kohan spoke about how the people on this show have merged with their characters. Is that what you're also suggesting?

Yes. This is definitely a really unique and special experience and has been from the moment of time it arrived in. It’s an interesting thing to be a part of a show that is so of the times. Of course, it’s groundbreaking on so many levels initially and then as it lives and time shifts and we’re suddenly in this new political era, it becomes relevant in this whole other way. For us, we’re also having this experience as an ever-deepening process of us personally as a team. Like a band that’s been on the road for years or something. It’s just been very unique.

How did that make losing Samira Wiley, and Poussey’s death driving this entire season, feel that much more personal?

Losing Samira was really next-level for us. As a cast and as a character and as a friend. That night, I remember [Mad Men creator] Matt Weiner was directing that episode and every shot is so sweeping. Those cafeteria scenes, when you have that many extras — this is no indie movie. In the meantime, it’s now 2 a.m. and we’re all loaded up in Samira’s dressing room with Chinese food, blasting music and crying and waiting to go back to set. Hugging her and giving her gifts. Then she’s on set and you have Danielle [Brooks] running over weeping and hugging her. The whole thing becomes very deep and harrowing and heavy, and this is all under the umbrella of the reality of the world and the nature of the world, which nobody on this cast is oblivious to. I say that not even as a political statement, but that it’s simply a reflection of the absurdity and the levels of injustice of the world we’re living in, vis-a-vis the prison industrial complex. How clearly that’s been illuminated more recently. Whether that’s thanks to Ava DuVernay’s 13th or the fact that yet another innocent person is dying unjustly and nobody is suffering the consequences for these murders. 

How do the timely stories that Orange tackles, in a season where the majority of it was filmed ahead of the election, play differently today? 

It all has been hitting such a fever pitch. We’re all very aware that we’re a part of a fictional television show, it’s just again one of those things like Jenji is saying about it being hard to separate. It’s hard to separate the show from the times we’re living in — just as thinking, functioning people who live in Manhattan. The layers of it start to get pretty next-level and meaningful to us. Your job as an actor is to have your heart on your sleeve, so things are registering and transmitting through the screen. You’re already in a state where you’re trying to be as vulnerable as possible at all times and simultaneously, you’re experiencing the loss of a friend and ally at work, who is everybody’s favorite with Samira. The feeling is also the end of an era, and the larger feelings of how it came to be that this is actually a mild reflection of the world we’re suddenly living in, and the minimizing factor that we’re just actors on a TV show. 

The most emotional episode this season is when Piscatella (Brad William Henke) takes you all hostage. Given Nicky’s close relationship with Red (Kate Mulgrew), what were those torture scenes like to film?

That was a real harrowing scenario because it’s about shame on so many levels. It was an attempt to disempower the most powerful woman in the prison. Watching Red, who has been my rock, break down and be shamed, I didn’t think of this at the time, but it almost reminds me of the Salem witch trials. There’s this element to women getting too powerful and women who are still hiding out in town having to watch what happened. Speaking as Nicky and someone living in her body, I don’t know what could be more devastating than having to watch that happen to my mother and feel helpless around it. So much of this season is about the abuse of power and the injustice of authority figures and reconciling of powerlessness in an un-free world. At least for the assuming near-future, it’s also going to be about figuring out what that means specifically to the conversation of being a woman and the female experience within all of that. And also the idea that this man is a seven-foot giant, like a Goliath figure, who is literally cutting hair. There’s almost a biblical track with what happens. It’s mythological in its symbolism in terms of the ties that bind and how that ends up playing out as far as these are characters.

They survive, and ultimately Piscatella is gunned down, but what will the repercussions of his actions look like on Nicky and these women?

This is again where it bleeds into reality. These women are at this point bound for life through a series of the highs and lows. Kate is just so incredibly singular and epic as an actress and human being. What we’re essentially dancing around is this element of accidental method acting that’s happening all the time. There’s certainly an element to being dropped into those characters at this point and live in them. So when you’re experiencing Kate/Red going through that as myself/Nicky, it just becomes additionally brutal. And because she’s so good, watching her arc of her falling from the top slot in the prison’s pecking order is already like when a child figures out that the parent is also flawed and human, and how devastating that is. Laura [Prepon], who directed that episode, was a champion. Because she’s in that shower curtain, she did it with one arm tied behind her back, which is just wild. In the scene, we’re watching Alex (Prepon) sitting there trying to figure out how she can work her way out of this situation, but it was only made that much more powerful by this additional storyline that was happening of watching Laura navigate that scene in this tiny space with all of us — this isn’t a bunch of 14-year-olds with lover hips, OK? (Laughs.) The floor is hard as hell, everyone is bound and gagged.

Was it too early for Nicky to be jumping back into things with Lorna (Yael Stone), given she's so newly sober?

In many ways, I think their relationship is about loneliness and friendship. I feel oddly similar about Nicky’s relationship with Piper (Taylor Schilling) or Alex. It’s not hugely dissimilar in that those are her go-to people to distract herself, find solace and try to help her to maybe not think about herself. Surely, it’s all about self-obsession anyway. That said, I do think she’s deeply hurt that Lorna would actually get married. I think that’s really a shock. It’s very addict behavior to assume that the people that you so readily dismiss and sort of throw away will just be right there and available to you when you’re ready to turn back around to them. I think in Nicky’s mind, she assumes that Lorna was there and is starting to really get the message that in fact it’s Nicky who keeps getting hurt, strangely, in that dynamic. If the whole season is about a shift in power dynamic, certainly their relationship is also one. 

You describe Nicky as self-serving, but she calls Vinny (John Magaro) and essentially saves Lorna by telling her to surrender in the end. Now they are separated. Is Nicky really ready to let that relationship go?

It is a growing-up season for Nicky, but it’s also worth noting that it happens in three days and she made some of her decisions under duress. It's been so hectic, she hasn’t even had a chance to try and cop drugs. (Laughs.) We’re not trying to make an impression that in three days someone has found sobriety. Hopefully these are a series of catharsis that are going to stick with her in a way and provide a foundation for a new value system that is somewhat less self-serving, I just think the truth of the human experience is that it’s hard to hold onto those moments and revelations sometimes. It’s like the great Paula Abdul once said so beautifully, “You take one step forward and you take two steps back.”

How do you see that manifesting for Nicky in season six?

I do think that’s going to be an interesting thing about season six — how this experience ends up impacting all of these players moving forward. These are characters who have already endured major PTSD moments in their separate histories. This is definitely the defining moment in prison that has come to be a current PTSD experience, that now we’re going to see the aftermath of how each individual person handles it. Do they handle it with denial and avoidance? Do they handle it by sitting with their own revelations and intimacy? Do they handle it by being handed greater sentences that make them so resentful, they don’t want to participate anymore? And as far as Nicky goes with Lorna and Vinny, if addiction is a way of trying to find control while feeling out of control — whether that’s an eating disorder or gambling — ego and control are a lot in play when talking about any addiction, as well as codependency. There is probably a measure of that happening. It’s a choice Nicky is making, in a weird way, to maintain control. 

That’s how deep her love for Lorna really is, that she’s looking out for on some level what she sees is her child. She is already feeling like, “This guy cannot show up for his responsibility,” and it’s sort of a selfless act that’s conceivably selfish. I don’t know if that means that Nicky has a fantasy of being on good behavior so she can get out right away and raise that kid with her. Or I don’t know if Nicky is such an avoidant that the idea of a kid becomes an ultimate turnoff because it represents so much responsibility and the idea of suddenly having a pregnant guy’s girlfriend and raising that kid doesn’t appeal. Maybe that becomes a justification for it. There are so many roads to take, and that’s of course what Jenji and the writers do so beautifully. They’ve built such a sweeping world with so many roads to walk down that I will say it’s certainly never boring. When you get these scripts, it’s always exciting to see what’s coming next.

When you were filming that final scene of the season, what is going through Nicky's head?

I do remember that I asked [the episode's writer] Lauren Morelli and [director] Jesse Peretz if they could play the song they would be playing in the episode [The Cinematic Orchestra's "To Build a Home"]. Tonally, that was something that really helped all of us. As soon as I heard it, I remember starting to cry and I remember everyone starting to cry. Hearing the song and the boom was just the amount of swelling necessary to really get a handle and a grasp on just how intense the moment was. That immediately put me in my body in terms of how heavy these potential consequences were. It was very easy to feel the believability while holding hands with these people I have been with for five years and the feeling of not knowing what was coming through that door.

We don’t have the next script, so we genuinely don’t know. We don’t know if all of our characters die. We don’t know if some of us die. We don’t know if we kill everybody that walks through that door. There was something about the timing of hearing that song and that being one of our final days at work, and the way all of those elements combined to really create a feeling that felt very full of the fear and anxiety and loss and determination and unity. This idea that whatever is coming through that door, we’ve got each other and that’s how we’re going to figure it out.

How did Poussey's death rock your invincibility that you will all survive this show?

I think we always feel like that. Across the board I think we’re always sort of weirdly ready. I’m sure it’s probably true of the Game of Thrones cast, where you secretly do some internal thing where you brace yourself that that could happen at any moment. It certainly could. And if the show is mirroring the truth of society in any way, the reality is that insane things do happen on a constant basis. And often, consequence-free. Ultimately, it’s true to the nature of the kind of storytelling that Jenji’s doing to be truthful in her reflection of the world. 

What do you think is in store for Nicky in season six? Tell THR in the comments below and keep up with Live Feed for cast interviews and full Orange Is the New Black coverage.