If Orange Is the New Black viewers could build their own time machine, they may want to go back a few episodes and save Lolly Whitehill.
Lori Petty’s Lolly first entered the Netflix prison dramedy shrouded in mystery. After being introduced in season two amid Piper’s (Taylor Schilling) transfer to Chicago, she then served as the source of Alex’s (Laura Prepon) season-three paranoias thanks largely to her NSA ramblings. But in season four, the fast-talking paranoid schizophrenic proved herself to be one of Litchfield’s most loyal of friends.
After saving Alex’s life in the greenhouse, a twisted buddy-inmate story ensued as Lolly and Alex covered up what they’d done. But a combination of events mixed with Lolly’s illness sees her going down for the garden murder and being shipped off to the psychiatric ward in one of the season’s most heartbreaking developments.
“We treated it so seriously,” Petty tells The Hollywood Reporter about shining a light on mental illness. “Even though Lolly is funny and lovable — and half of a murderer (laughs) — she’s very relatable and people see her as a friend. She even says, ‘I’m the good friend.’ Because she is. I think it grows compassion and empathy and the more people can see it, the more they can get a handle on it.”
While Orange has followed inmates down the hill to “the SHU” (Security Housing Unit) and “Max” (Maximum Security), Lolly is the first to be shipped off to the psych ward. Creator Jenji Kohan and her writers only began production on season five last week, but Petty has a conspiracy theory of her own as to whether or not her character will return. [Orange has been renewed through season seven.]
Speaking with THR, Petty explains why she “absolutely” thinks Lolly will be back, why the mistreatment of mental illness needs to be discussed — along with the show’s especially timely Black Lives Matter storyline — and how love for Lolly after season four has catapulted the longtime actress into new Justin Bieber levels of fandom.
What attracted you to the role of Lolly and to Orange Is the New Black?
When I saw it on Netflix, the only thing that came into my mind was, “Why am I not a part of this show?” To see all these extraordinarily talented women not talking about, “Did he call you?” But to see women with lives and children and stories; with problems and husbands and girlfriends. It was just a revelation to me, honestly. I was super impressed with the acting and writing, so I called them and asked and they said yes. We’re used to it now, because Orange has been on for four years, but when it first came around, it was similar to A League of Their Own. People said to [director] Penny [Marshall]: “No one’s going to watch a movie with all girls.” And she said, “Watch this, they will.”
You took a break from acting before Orange. Was that because you weren’t finding the right roles?
Yeah. If you look at my career, it started in ’85 and I’ve never done anything I’m embarrassed by. There’s a lot of things that are important to me, but it just wasn’t the right time, it wasn’t coming to me. Also, I’m a writer and a painter and a director, so these are other parts of me that needed attention.
Lolly was a mystery when we first met her in season two. How did you react when you found out where your storyline was headed for season four?
Alex is her friend, so [the half-murder] didn’t shock me. When we cut up the body, that shocked me! I was like, “What now?” It’s funny that the writers wrote for Lolly: “I ain’t cuttin’ up no body.” Like: I might do a lot of crazy shit, but I ain’t doin’ that. In the killing scene when Lolly says, “She was trying to kill her to death — do I need to say to death?” (Laughs.) It really shocked the writers, director and the crew that Laura and I could make this horrific event extremely funny. It didn’t have to be played that way. They’re like Abbott and Costello, but actually cutting this man to pieces with a four-time murderer. But Laura is so damn talented and no one knew how funny it was going to come together. After Lolly stomps the living hell out of [Aydin] and assumes he’s dead, and goes, “[Sigh] There’s a big hole in the fence and everyone’s going out and I thought you might wanna go.” Alex is just sitting there like, “Dude.” Lolly’s the best person to cut up a body with, she will help you. She’s a good friend.
That scene was funny and Lolly is funny in general. Is it a fine line between being humorous and not poking fun at her mental illness?
They’re two completely different things. Uzo [Aduba]’s the same way with Suzanne/Crazy Eyes, where she’s very intelligent: Lolly’s very intelligent and they both also have mental illness. We have very different mental illnesses, but it doesn’t mean you can’t be funny or smart just because you have paranoid schizophrenia. I find everything funny. I’ll be in scenes and I’ll say something and they’ll say, “That’s not supposed to be funny.” And I’ll say, “Sorry, my bad!” People have brought that up to me now that the season’s out and I never thought about it once. I didn’t feel people were laughing at her mental illness at all — and they aren’t — so it didn’t occur to me that that could be in play.
Did you do any research to play a paranoid schizophrenic?
After all these years, I’ve played several people with several different ailments. I’ve been to libraries and to USC and I’ve spoken to doctors and patients. I didn’t revisit that again, I just let her take me where she was going. I know that sounds actor-y, but the writers are so good at feeling out what you’re doing and writing for that character, and then pushing that character along further. I’ll do something and then the next episode it will be multiplied by 400 times and I’ll say, “Oh, shit! They’re paying attention!” It’s kind of a lead-follow-lead-follow situation.
When you got to Lolly’s backstory, and found out she chose being homeless over a group home, were you surprised or did it all make sense?
It didn’t surprise me at all, I thought it was fantastic. I live in Venice Beach and I could see literally 100 mentally ill homeless people a day if I just took a walk from here to Santa Monica. There’s nowhere for them to go. In Lolly’s backstory, the fact that someone did try to help her and put her in a home and she was just like, “Yeah, I’m not staying here.” That’s what happens. If you put them in a proper health facility and figure out a proper drug cocktail, or figure out that maybe they’re addicted to alcohol or taking the wrong medicine — just figure it out, instead of just not seeing them. Do you know what it feels like, to have somebody not look at you on purpose? It’s a very sad life. I walk everywhere down here and I make sure to say hello. They don’t want money, they just want love and they light up if you just say hi.
The actress who played you in the flashback [Christina Brucato] was spot-on.
Wasn’t she great? Of course, we didn’t work together — because we’re the same person. But I came to work the day after and everybody was raving. People from the crew thought I was doing the lines, in a voiceover. Because she got my voice down so well and the way Lolly talks. She killed it, and I didn’t even help her at all!
Lolly’s time machine scene with Healy [Michael Harney] and then her being dragged off to the psych ward were devastating to watch. What were they like to film?
Michael Harney is just a gift from heaven. He’s such a talented actor. He’s so present and on your side — he studied to be a Jesuit priest, he’s got the heart of the Dalai Lama this guy. So I loved jumping on the roller coaster with him. We would take the ride and then they’d cut, and we’d go get a coke and some potato chips or whatever, and make jokes and then we’d do it again. If you’re an actor, you’ve gotta love acting and they gave me a lot to do. I think we did a great job together.
How do you view Healy and Lolly, and were you surprised to find out that he later checks himself into a psychiatric hospital?
Yes. I was very surprised, actually. I knew he had all that empathy with the women and crossed the line sometimes. But for the writers to show us why: because his mom was sick and he’s sick and he needed help. And that’s what people do, often. People become what they need. It’s like shrinks, where they need a shrink themselves (laughs). So it makes a lot of sense, but I was shocked. I don’t read everything when I get the scripts because my character doesn’t know all of that stuff and I don’t want to cloud it up. I also like to watch the show. So once I was thrown in the clink, I read Poussey’s part, but I never read Healey’s part and I was floored.
Orange has never sent someone to the psych ward. Will we ever see Lolly again?
I certainly hope so. I do think we will. I can’t say for sure, but I absolutely think we will. They are just now filming episode one [of season five] and you know how we ended season four. They have a lot to deal with right now! I’m just waiting on the phone call to get back on the plane. I’m sure it will come, but we have 13 episodes and they’ve got a lot to take care of, so we’ll see.
Did you and Jenji have any of those conversations about if this would be the end for Lolly?
No. No. Here’s what I assume — and this is because it’s all about me, right? — we go into psych and Mr. Healy was there and I’m screaming and crying. I did some looping and I saw it and it looked great. Then I realize that they built a huge hallway with rooms and a whole set. So I’m thinking it’s going to be: Psych! Starring Lori Petty! (Laughs.) I just assumed they’d go to psych, like they go to the SHU. But I’m just making stuff up right now because I don’t know. But I saw the set and that’s what I thought.
Well, how better to show the mistreatment of mental illness in prison then to go into the psych ward?
Right. But we’ll see. They know what they’re doing and I just wait for that phone to ring.
Does Lolly deserve to be in jail, let alone psych?
Of course not. She was failed through elementary and middle and high school. The city failed her and the “protect and serve” failed her. You are your brother’s keeper, period. You can’t do anything by yourself. Did you build the road? Did you get the gas to the gas station? No. We’re all taking care of each other. People don’t get it. If I can reach you, I’m going to help you. I don’t have to travel to China, I can just go downstairs. So I hope Lolly comes back and we get to see what happens to her.
If we do get to see her, she would presumably be in there forever because she goes down for the murder. Is that intimidating or are you, like, “Bring it on”?
Oh, bring it on. It’s awesome. You have to remind your brain that it’s play, sometimes. Especially when you get home and start remembering something and think, “Oh, no. That wasn’t real. That was work.” You have to do a little bit of a cleansing and sage your face. As you’ve witnessed, they can write anything. The fact that Poussey died blew my head off. I just couldn’t imagine that. I thought: “Really? Well, just kill Leonardo DiCaprio now! Meryl Streep, she’s outta here!” Because as soon as I saw Samira I thought, “Well, there goes a little movie star.”
Lolly was sent away before Poussey’s death. How did you react when you found out Poussey was going to be killed, and the way she was going to be killed?
I found out when I read the script. Samira didn’t tell anyone. She knew, the producers and her girlfriend knew. She had dinner with some of her closest friends from Orange and told them a week or so before, just because, you shouldn’t let them read that — whenever I get killed my mom is like, “Lori Lynn, you didn’t tell me that!” I was actually there, though, that day [of Poussey’s death scene]. The whole prison was there. People are sitting in the hallway, sharing rooms and piled on top of each other because there aren’t even enough rooms in Warner Bros. for all the people on our show! Everyone was super emotional. It was rough. And Danielle just brought it home, I thought that was beautiful.
It’s huge. I was tweeting after it happened and one of my fans said, “Thank you for saying all these things and for sharing all of this, you don’t have to do that.” If I don’t do it, I’m the same as a murderer. You don’t get to stand aside and wait for your group to be persecuted. We have to support Black Lives Matter because that’s part of our family. They are the people we need to help right now. When white people ask, “What about white lives matter?” — white lives matter all day every day. To the #AllLivesMatter people: It’s not true. Our house isn’t on fire. You don’t pour water on a house just sitting, you pour water on the burning house. It’s a sickness. It’s a 400-year-old sickness of fear, ignorance and this separatism and this imagination. Now that Venice has been gentrified, there will be old black grandpas playing cards in the park and the new 25-year-old guy from Snapchat will call the police and say there’s a gang in the park. Can you go over and introduce yourself? These are your neighbors, can you say hi? It’s white fear. It’s a white problem, not a black problem. To say that it’s not our problem, yeah, it is.
That begs the question of where Orange can and will go from here, since it has so much to say. Looking ahead, will you miss Samira?
I miss her so much but I’ve been in Hollywood since ’85, she’s not going anywhere and I’m sure I’m going to see her. Of course I’ll miss that beautiful smile and those happy eyes and that talented heart, and seeing her everyday. But she’s not going anywhere.
How do you compare Lolly to your other roles?
She’s not like any of ‘em, that’s for sure. Just because she’s funny, there might be a smidge of Tank Girl in there. [Pictured above: Tank Girl (left); Kit of A League of Their Own.]
The 25th reunion of A League of Their Own is coming up next year. Will you all get together?
We are doing something. It’s in the planning stages, but we’re definitely going to do something great.
With Orange, you’ll have viewers who have seen all of your films and then younger viewers who haven’t even seen A League of Their Own.
On Twitter, they tweet these memes like: “The moment you realize Lolly is Rae from Free Willy.” And they’re super serious. I guess there’s something on Snapchat that makes people look like me? It’s not supposed to but it does, it makes your eyes big and you have broken glasses. I see that, too.
What has the fan reaction been in person?
I’ve been in my house since Saturday. When I go outside, I’ve been Justin Bieber-ed! I don’t know when that happened. I think because the people with jobs have finally finished the season. There’s a little bodega across the street from me and I can’t even make it to there! They’ll see me and say, “I love you!” And I’ll say, “I love you, too, please calm down and get out of the street. You’re going to get hit by a car.” Because they’re always young, so I tell them to put their phone down and come here so we can take the picture together. It’s pretty funny. I love it and I love that they’re happy, but it’s a new thing. Act three [in my life] has been a pretty crazy one.
You directed Poker House in 2008 and cast Jennifer Lawrence in her first film. Is she a fan of Orange?
I haven’t talked to her about Orange because I haven’t seen her recently. She’s always working somewhere exotic and fabulous. It’s like I said about Samira, she’s a natural-born movie star, that one. When I saw her audition tape, I said to the casting director, “Look, I already cast Selma Blair as the mom, I can’t have a 5’9”, 130-pound, blonde sexy girl as the daughter. Selma is 5’2” and weighs 80 pounds.” They insisted I look and I did and immediately thought, “Dammit! Here is a movie star.” There was no question. The camera eats her up and she has no fear. She doesn’t even notice the camera. I had her read with Chloe [Grace Moretz] and Sophi [Bairley] and I had another three read and I made everyone stay. The one thing I hate as an actor is how they don’t tell you right away if you got the part. So I let the other girls go and I asked them, “So you guys wanna be in a movie?” They’re like, “Yeah!” I asked, “Do you want to be in this movie?” And they were like, “Yeah!” No one ever does that, you have to call the agent and I just said forget all that. You tell them so they can be happy.
Will we see you directing a future episode of Orange?
I sure hope so. I definitely put my name on the list, but they have plenty of people fighting over them. But I hope so. Put me in, Coach!