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Red was put through the ringer this season on Orange Is the New Black.
After setting up a power struggle between the inmate-in-charge and Litchfield’s head guard last season, the fifth season charted Red’s (Kate Mulgrew) obsession with bringing Piscatella (Brad William Henke) down to disturbing proportions. After spending nearly half of the fifth season of the Jenji Kohan prison dramedy (now streaming on Netflix) hopped up on speed, Red grew too paranoid for any of her prison family to listen to her warnings that Piscatella had infiltrated Litchfield, which was under the control of the inmates. As a result, a chagrined Piscatella kidnapped Red and her most-loved pals and proceeded to emotionally and physically break her down, while they watched in horror.
For Mulgrew, one scene in particular was one of the most difficult to shoot in her storied career.
“Over the days we shot it, I felt debased, I felt reduced. Mission accomplished,” Mulgrew tells The Hollywood Reporter of experiencing her own feelings of pain when Red, with her signature hair, was nearly scalped by Piscatella. The scene, which went down in a janitor’s closet while Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), Piper (Taylor Schilling), Alex (Laura Prepon), Big Boo (Lea DeLaria) and Blanca (Laura Gomez) were forced to watch, took two days to film and was directed by Prepon. “I’ve been beaten up a lot and have done a lot of physical stuff in my lifetime, but something about this very quiet, precise debasement was absolutely harrowing to me.”
Below, Mulgrew speaks with THR about the demanding torture scenes; how, despite opting to not kill Piscatella in the end, Red will be forever altered; and why the chances that the 10 women left standing in the finale will all emerge unscathed is an unlikely choice for season six: “There has to be a price to pay.”
How would you describe Red’s mindset at the start of this season?
It was an intense season and a long ways to go back. When it all begins and Daya [Dascha Polanco] is holding a gun to one of the CO’s heads, I say to Frieda [Dale Soules], “Here it is.” Meaning, in all of my 15 years of being in prison, I had half-expected this moment to come, but it never had, and suddenly here it is. I know that not only the demise of Litchfield is at hand, but also possibly some of people I have grown to love. I also know, given my experience and street sense of prison, that we’re all going to split off and a split atom is not a good thing. It creates a rupture and that’s exactly what happens. The riot ensues and everyone goes on her path. Mine takes me rather unexpectedly down a dark alley of revenge and that light wanes very quickly. We go down the rabbit hole with Red in a way we have never before gone down with this woman.
What was it like to shoot the scenes where Piscatella is torturing you in the janitor’s closet?
I have been beaten up six times, I have been abused in every conceivable fashion, but that was nothing to compare to my drive for revenge vis-a-vis Desi Piscatella, who is a monstrous figure, and I am going to bring him down. But in the face of my fearlessness there is a terrible kind of gruesome — if not altogether grotesque — hubris that takes place. Red is so convinced she will take him down, but of course in the end, as is often the case with evil, he triumphs in that really sort of inimitable scene when I was scalped. Shooting that scene far surpassed anything I’ve ever done from a physical nature. Laura Prepon directed that episode and she was very generous and patient, but of course this is Laura Prepon anyway. That was tricky business and she did it quite well.
A lot of castmembers have spoken about how they end up merging with their characters. After playing Red for five seasons and being so close to her, what was it like to play out the abuse?
Just as I think she would have, had it been real. It was very hard because there’s only one way to go and that’s total. I couldn’t act it in a way that I am accustomed to doing. I couldn’t step outside of myself and let it rip. I had to be utterly and completely in the moment and devastated by what this monster was doing to me, and surprised. In order to do that, I had to clear yourself and that’s what I did. I didn’t talk a lot to Brad Henke. We were extremely polite, we were maybe ultra polite. We set the stage for the kind of suspicion that existed between us, blowing up into something far more grotesque than that. They had to find a way to take Red down that would be so effective, so unspeakably bad, and this was the most cogent way. There always a price to pay for that and I think I paid it, too.
How many times did you shoot the scenes where he was cutting your scalp?
We did that a lot. You imagine that you have to survive for the girls in that room whom you love, but at the same time, you are losing a part of yourself with every flick of that knife edge. It was diabolical, it was evil. And that’s exactly what it was meant to be. But Red also suffers from a big egotism where she thinks she can take a guy like Piscatella down. He’s a psychopath and she’s not, which is beautifully depicted I think in the scene when we have him in the hold in the pool. I could kill him, I could torture him, but I elect to let him go. You could say it’s an epiphany, but it’s a sort of a remarkable moment and a shift back to the reality of who I really am. I think that is Red’s essential decency and her craving to survive prison as a decent human being, her desperate need to have retained some measure of character, that’s exemplified in that scene and I liked that very much.
When you read the scene, was there any part of you that wanted Red to kill Piscatella?
No, I loved the choice. I loved the writers’ choice and I love that they made it on behalf of Red. Nobility is far too strong a word. The reason she has survived on a level at which she has survived is because of an essential need to be her most excellent self within the confines of this impossible situation, whereby everything is reduced to monochromatic nothingness. She has attempted time and again to lift herself out of it. She has elected herself to be a vivid survivor of this bleakness and so I think in this stroke of humanity directed at Piscatella, she reveals once again her longing to rise above it.
Do you think that Red sparing Piscatella’s life would have had an effect on him as a person, if he had survived?
I think that in that moment when I let him go, I’m not thinking about him at all. I’m thinking only about myself. That’s why I call it an epiphany. If I cared about what was going to happen to Piscatella, I would have shot him in the head in that moment. I’m fully armed, I’ve got the vest and the grenades and all the equipment that I need. But I don’t hurt him. So what happens to him going down, there might be some schadenfreude when I find out he’s been shot by his own men. There might be a moment, but it will be briefly lived. What we see in this journey of season five is that Red’s great interest is in her own humanity, versus her own evil. She will overcome it. She must. Although Kate Mulgrew found it absolutely terrific that he got shot in the head. I was thrilled!
Red doesn’t get to see Piscatella’s flashback, but when you read it, did you understand Piscatella more and why he was the way he was?
Yes but don’t forget that when he tortured and examined me in season four under that harsh light in that little back room, his homosexuality is revealed to me and I laugh at him. From Red’s point of view, she finds him altogether a despicable article of being. He is repulsive to me on every level but foremost, because he is capable of taking with him all that is good, and this is represented by my daughters, I cannot allow this to happen. I love those girls. That’s what gets you though the scene. That’s how you find the arc from the beginning of the scene to the end. As long as they live, I have something to live for, I can survive the next nick of the knife, and even when he goes after my sweatshirt and it looks like he might be thinking of raping me, I could survive that too, if only he wouldn’t touch them. It’s the choice of love.
How do you think this will forever change Red?
That’s the interesting part, because there is no question that it is an irreparable kind of change. We are altered by trauma, the best among us are altered by it. It remains to be seen. Red is strong, multi-dimensional and quite capable, but I’ve been hurt now in a way that I hadn’t before. It’s one thing to be beaten up by Vee’s gang and all that stuff, but this is to be traumatized within an inch of one’s own life. So I think going forward it will be fascinating to see how the writers deal with it, and how I deal with it in the dance with them. And I hope that born out of this are the terrible shadows that follow us when we have been badly, badly devastated.
It’s almost hard to picture Red dealing with PTSD.
I think you’re right. And you know what happens to people. You’ve seen it in vets, psychopaths, criminals, young children. When you really start, you must respond in a survivalist sort of manner. How she’s going to do that? I don’t know. Is it going to have a forever a negative impact? I don’t know. I would guess that it’s got to have a serious, serious repercussion. At any rate, I would vote for that. Let’s see it, emotionally. Let’s see what happens. What has been imperiled here, what has been sacrificed and what has really been lost or scarred?
How do you describe Red and Nick’s relationship and how do you think what happened will impact Nicky?
This already very frightened person will have been introduced to a kind of terror that she really thought she might escape, but she didn’t. Because to see Red reduced in that manner would mean that she could be snuffed out just as quickly. I am her hope. I am the buttress, the solace and the anchor for her. To see that so threatened and so fragile would be frightening. You see that in children all the time. She’ll never sleep again. But neither will I.
In the final moment of the finale as Red stands with Nicky and nine others facing the unknown, what is going through her head?
“I’m with the people I love, win lose or draw, so bring it on.” I know in that moment — Red’s not a fool — that the riot has decimated the reality of Litchfield, but what I don’t know is, will we all survive, the 10 of us holding hands in that empty pool flanked by Blanca Florez and Freida Berlin, are we all going to survive this? What will this mean going forward? We’re all culpable and complicit in many, many interwoven plots, murder not the least among them. There has to be a price to pay, I don’t know how it will be made manifest, I don’t know what Jenji will choose. She is absolutely a master of the unexpected so for me to speculate would be silly because I would be 100 percent wrong.
What do you hope Red’s future will look like, given how riots historically end up for prisoners — from extended sentences to harsher punishments?
I think all of that will be very interesting. There has to be some kind of reckoning with our respective sins. There has to be a confrontation with our own darkness. Each one of us in season five has done something less than great. And in season four leading up to it, of course. So what does this mean? I don’t know. My instinct says that we will be separated, which will in itself be a terrible kind of punishment, punishment enough for Red would be that kind of isolation. But we will really just have to see. I have learned the hard way not to guess.
What regrets do you think Red has at the end of this season?
I think Red is somebody who understands regret in a way the young ones don’t. I live with regret. I wouldn’t say it’s ennobling or elucidating, but I understand that it is a companion to my humanity. I’m not ashamed of it. I have a lot of regrets. I’ve lost my three sons, I’ve lost my husband, I’ve lost the world I once knew. So what I have in this prison, which are my daughters and these relationships, I cannot lose. And yet we will see what kind of fruit this severe trauma bears. Because I know if it had happened to me certainly there would be terrible, terrible ruptures and boils now. You’d see the ugliness of what this breeds.
How did you react when you found out Jenji Kohan was making Red the vehicle to tell this story of injustice and do you think it has the power to effect change in the real prison system?
It feels mighty. It’s a powerful weeping tool. It is skillfully, not to say masterfully, deployed by Jenji Kohan and to be the channel is thrilling when it works. Bringing awareness is what television — good television — is all about, and certainly what pop culture is all about. You’re hoping to convey a larger message. God only knows what the greater metaphors are but we are talking about a prison situation so it is a Petri dish of life and Jenji is emboldened to bring to the floor issues of great moment. The privatization of prison, the bureaucracy of prison and incarceration alone. Our prison system is in tattered and in desperate shape right now. She’s just illustrating all of it quite beautifully and to be a part of that is a wonderful thing.
What did you learn about Red with her flashback this season?
I loved it. A lot of men! But she’s a social activist and I loved that. That made a lot of sense. The fact that she’s a soldier says it all. She s a tough one and she wants something more than an escape. She doesn’t need to go to America for this reason or that reason, she doesn’t need to sleep with somebody for that gain or that loss, she needs to find a purpose and a value and that is the thread of her life. The thread we always see is her striving for a deeper kind of meaning.
What did you think of Red’s season five journey and what do you hope to see from her in season six? Tell THR in the comments below and keep up with Live Feed for Orange Is the New Black cast interviews and full show coverage.
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