'Orange Is the New Black' Star Taryn Manning on Her "Fragile" Final Season

The actress speaks to The Hollywood Reporter about the unexpected ending for her character, Pennsatucky.
Netflix
Taryn Manning in 'Orange Is the New Black'

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

Taryn Manning was surprised when she found out how things would end for her Orange Is the New Black character.

As a gift for the final season, creator Jenji Kohan and executive producer Tara Herrman called their main cast to tell them the scope of their season seven story. This was the first time the actors had a sense of how the season would end at the start of filming and the ending would also couple as the character's final sendoff.

In the penultimate episode, Tiffany "Pennsatucky" Doggett (Manning) would overdose on fentanyl. "They said that it was just going to be too heavy for her body," Manning tells The Hollywood Reporter, recalling when the news was first delivered more than a year ago. Months later, the actress would come to terms with her character's fate when filming her final scenes: "It's meant to leave you with such a feeling. It was very sad. I still get sad. We all die. Nobody's getting out of here alive. And for people to just grasp this notion, I think the world would be a better place."

The overdose is especially heartbreaking given how much the character turned her life around since season one. These final episodes followed a redeemed Pennsatucky as she helped others and focused on improving herself. But when the inmate's learning disability goes neglected and she believes she failed her GED exam, Manning says Pennsatucky had a "fuck it" mentality and turned to drugs out of utter frustration. Ultimately, her death has a reverberating effect. Tutor Tasha "Taystee" Jefferson (Danielle Brooks) finds the will to live again when she discovers Pennsatucky actually passed the test. And her memorial, held by Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren (Uzo Aduba), is a well-attended sendoff.

"Sometimes, as much as we want to grow, it’s very hard to escape past trauma and some people make it and a lot of people don’t, especially in prison," Kohan told THR of Pennsatucky, who has a history of sexual assault, addiction and abuse. Below, in a candid chat with THR, Manning looks back on the professional and personal evolution she experienced while playing Pennsatucky — which included going "fully method" to start — and unpacks her final days at Litchfield and that spiritual goodbye: "She's going to go to the light."

[Editor's note: This interview took place ahead of the premiere event for OITNB, when Manning said her Instagram account was hacked. Manning could not be reached for further comment by the time of publication; reps for the actress declined to comment.]

From the start, Pennsatucky was one of the more challenging roles to cast. Casting director Jen Euston said no one was hitting the mark. At the time, in 2012, you were in the tabloids, but she said she brought you in any way.

Well, I would find out later that they had been auditioning many, many girls. And that's because I would be walking down the street in New York after it came out and a random girl would come up to me to tell me she tried to get the role. But I had no idea they had this whole run before I got the offer. So I got the offer and, oh my goodness gracious, what a person to play. Netflix was new at the time so it was kind of a leap of faith. But Jenji Kohan had done Weeds, which I had loved. I had to be a local hire, so I was kind of hotel hopping the first season. It was a tiny role, for one or two scenes at most. Her name was Tiffany and then in parenthesis it was "Pennsatucky" and they explained how in prison you get nicknames. So everyone had a real name, a character name and a nickname. I've never seen a call sheet like that before in my life. (Laughs.)

How did you create her look and voice?

The teeth [in season one] were because she had a terrible meth addiction before she came in. And she was probably a heavy smoker and drank a lot of Mountain Dew and all these things. But I have to say that going into costume helped very much to have Taryn go away for this girl that you really love to hate, hate to love. I like going into costume. I'm a character actor — which by the way took many, many years, almost a decade, to accept. Because I wanted to be the girl next door. One fine day I accepted that I was a character actor and that it wasn't bad to be that, and that I could make a good career. There's a lot that came from her.

Pennsatucky begins as an antagonistic and controversial character. What was your life like at the time when OITNB came to you and what made you want to take the leap of faith with her?

I've never really stopped working. I've had an awesome career. And I think that's because my heart is somewhere else; I'm a musician first and foremost. Sometimes when you do an audition and if you don't put too much pressure on it, you get it. It's like when you don't want something and it comes to you, almost like a boyfriend. Just ignore him and then he calls. 

Before I got the part, I went to jail for fighting. I was an idiot, reacted poorly to a situation that had been disturbing me for many, many years. And sometimes I wonder if that's why I got it. Because I got out and I got the part. That's sort of what life was like before. It wasn't looking good. I was devastated at what I had done and just depressed the way the press spun it. It was hard.

Pennsatucky is racist, homophobic. Horrible. Everything that I'm not is what she was, so it was very tough. But in my mind I knew I made a mistake and thought I wouldn't get hired. I gave myself a lot of pep talks: "Just muscle through this and you're going to come out the other side. But if you’re going to do this, do it well." So, I didn't make many friends that first season. I isolated myself. "She wouldn’t talk to them anyway, she doesn't like them." As they all got along and had a great time, I was sitting over on the side in character like, "Screw them." That's when I realized that I was a little bit more method than I thought. (Laughs.) I thought that I could snap in and out. But to go to that dark of a place and to own it, to convince people that this is truly how she is, it had to be fully method. Taryn went bye. It was all this girl that I created.

When did that start to change?

In this show, Jenji has a funny way of incorporating and intertwining real lives, which is sometimes a little sinister to me but also genius. What great writing material. Over time, I think they saw that I was actually a proper person. So it stopped when she stopped writing it that way. Then Pennsatucky got very nice to where it got a little boring. I was like, "Really?" And I'm always studying all the Bible quotes. I mean, she's into the ups and downs and you're not always going to love what the writers write, but I tried to just do it all the best I could.

How did you think people would react to Pennsatucky?

I thought I'd be assassinated for this role. She's such a horrible person! But when it first came out, I will never forget. I was with Lea [DeLaria] in New York the day after and it was like the Beatles were walking down the street. Girls screaming and crying and wanting a hug. I've never hugged so many people in my life. So many hugs! It's never stopped. People just relate to this show on such another level. And I'm evolving within it, too. I was thinking, "Man, this is wild." I never got much hate. But because people also think we're really these people, they can get carried away. Sometimes you have to remind them that is is a show we are doing for entertainment and that these are characters.

Her ending drives home the point that, of all the characters, she might have changed the most while at Litchfield. Jenji Kohan and executive producer Tara Herrmann called the series regulars to tell you season seven would be the end and they filled you in on your arc. How did that conversation go?

I got a call, which is rare. My manager said, "Jenji and Tara want to talk to you." And I went, "Oh boy." That's how we think as humans, is the negative. Like, "Oh man, what have I done now?" Because, like I said, it's a wild ride through this whole thing. I asked my manager if everything was OK and he said he thought so. Then we get the call and then they proceed to tell me.

I loved hearing that Pennsatucky was going to get really into school and excel and we'd see a positive situation — and then they said she's going to die of fentanyl. They said that she's going to put it under her tongue, a pill, and that it was just going to be too heavy for her body. I researched "fentanyl under the tongue" and learned about an opioid addiction that is rampant through the nation. And I'm like, "Well, of course this is how she's going to die because they want to illuminate how bad this is." They truly are geniuses with some of the things that they could forecast.

So, that happened. And I'm like, "Really, she's going to go out like that?" It made me kind of bummed to be honest, because Pennsatucky is so much smarter now. But I'm a team player. I understood because it was really going to evoke emotion. 

When were you able to come to terms with her ending?

When we got to film it. I did the scene and it was emotional, but I think people already had come to terms. Because there's so much that happens in this season that's just a bum-rush of emotion. 

The final scene plays out a little differently than it sounds like it was first explained. But we do see her excel and then, in a moment of frustration, walk up to snort a line of fentanyl. She had just thought that she failed her GED exam. Can you go inside her head: was it on purpose or an accident?

What happened was an accident, for sure. What was on purpose was self-sabotage. As we all do where we just throw caution to the wind and say, "Hey, they're doing it. Fuck it."  I think that she was just so hurt inside. I have those moments where I'm on the highway and I'm just going to drive as fast as I can so I do get pulled over. And then you don't, or you do. I think it was everything she was against at that time. I think as she walked up to that line of fentanyl and that girl who was a jerk to her she was thinking, "What are you doing, dude?"

Her higher self was like, "Come on, stop. You can still pass that test." But she's like, "Yeah, whatever." It's that angel and devil on the shoulder. And [she died] because she was so clean and pure at that point, because she hadn't been on drugs. This is what happens, where it's just too much for her metabolism. And that's why these kids die all the time, because they get clean for a minute and then they want this heavy, heavy drug and then they do it and it's just sad. It's really sad.

When the show killed Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) the writers said they chose her to pack the biggest punch. Poussey represented hope. Now, Pennsatucky represents change and the desire to do better.  

Pennsatucky would be good on the outside. People were starting to see that she might make it. That's why they took out Poussey, because not everybody can make it after you're in that system. And that's why it's a little more devastating because Pennsatucky was actually getting better because of jail, which is rare in and of itself. You’re right about that. That's what they said to me: She is so loved and adored now that we have to kill her off. And I'm like, "Why did you go ahead and make me so darn nice again!"

Were you on set when they filmed Pennsatucky's memorial?

No, I wasn't there. I know what I read about it in the script. I love Uzo. I think Jenji is a genius. This was really not fair, but the lesson it teaches is just to instill some hope. "That's what she did wrong, so I'm going to do this right." There is such a lesson to be learned. You see that with Taystee and what happens to her [and deciding not to kill herself and launching the fund] and what happens with Suzanne. It's meant to leave you with such a feeling. It was very sad. I still get sad. But it's sad because it's so good. We all die. Nobody's getting out of here alive. And for people to just grasp this notion, I think the world would be a better place.

For your final scene, Pennsatucky comes back as a spirit. You put her hood up and say goodbye. It was a rare treatment to see on OITNB. How was the scene explained to you?

I haven't seen it. I heard that they were going to have her walk away from jail and have it be an acceptance. Like she accepts in her death that she's going to go to the light and to not be stuck. That she was going to be a vapor, in a sense. I always say that the magic is in the editing because if they did that, I can see that it would be effective.

How much time did she have left on her sentence?

I don't know. She was in there for murder, but she was sponsored by the radical Christians, so it seemed like she was definitely going to get out. In the book, she only has one little half a page. They made that character much more.

This season explored neurodiversity and the spectrum of people that can include. On a larger scale, when it comes to what this season is trying to say in terms of education and prison reform, do you hope her story has an impact?

I do. And I think that it will. I I feel like she was just programmed to be racist or homophobic, I don't think that she was rooted in that. That wasn't her belief system. That was maybe her mom's or a boyfriend, someone who got into her head. With time and education and seeing more unification of people, it'll slowly change. But it's not going to change overnight. I do hope that people can see how unjust certain races are treated. Seeing some people who are so myopic who see these girls getting along on screen [on OITNB], maybe it'll slowly chip away at their belief system.

How has this role influenced you personally?

There's a piece of me in her. I learned so much from that role, it changed my life. I became very, very religious. I grew up with one religion and I switched and I think that it was all meant to be. And I've said "no" to about six roles that I've been offered since [that are similar]. I definitely need to work, but I can't continue to play awful people or stereotypes. It just doesn't resonate with me. I can't even fake it. I've been offered several roles with decent pay checks and I've said I can't do it. I'm a good person and not this horrible person that people want to send me roles for; I don't want to play it anymore. It's exhausting and it hurts. So if I have to wait for years to play something good then so be it. I don't know what to do. I'm a little bit disappointed.

What was it like to say goodbye the last day on set? And what is one thing you want people to think about when it comes to Pennsatucky?

With any movie or TV that I do, I go up to the A.D. and ask them to please not announce, "And this is a wrap." Everyone claps and looks at you and I just don't like it like that. I don’t know what that's about — it's definitely an issue within me. So I left. I ran away because it was so sad to me to say goodbye. It's goodbye to the character, and goodbye to all these awesome freaking people and the girls. But I'd email and then do it the way I want to do it.

One thing you can take away from her is that she's a very damaged person. How fragile people are, how damaging words can be, how damaging making fun of someone can be, how damaging parents can be to somebody, how damaging drugs can be. But how you saw the hope and the faith. That there’s just hope and to never give up on somebody. Stick by people. Support, support, support is the answer.

Bookmark THR.com/OITNB for continuing season seven coverage of OITNB, which is streaming on Netflix.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.