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When Blair Brown found out that her Orange Is the New Black character Judy King was headed to Litchfield, she admits that she immediately thought of one person.
“When I heard that Judy was a cooking show celebrity and she was going to prison for some financial mischief, you think of Martha Stewart right away,” Brown tells The Hollywood Reporter while chatting about the upcoming fourth season of the Netflix series. [In the book on which it’s based, author Piper Kerman said Stewart was almost sent to Danbury, the inspiration for Litchfield.] Though they have similar jobs and prison sentences, “she’s so not her in every other way. She’s Paula Deen-like, because she’s Southern, but Judy King is another entity altogether. It’s just that those two are the ones that spring to mind.”
Viewers were first introduced to Brown’s Judy on season three, when the inmates who spent many of their TV hours watching the celebrity chef’s cooking shows were anticipating her arrival. After being convicted on tax-evasion charges, Judy self-surrendered on the finale, but there was no one to check her in amid the guard walkout and prison escape (the inmates were last seen enjoying a a moment of freedom in the nearby lake).
When OITNB returns Friday, it picks up where the Jenji Kohan-created series left off and the high-profile inmate joining the ranks. THR has watched all of season four and, without spoiling specific events, can reveal that Judy brings a lot of light to a powerful season full of darkness and plays a key role in one of the most provocative storylines — her VIP treatment shining a harsh spotlight on the mistreatment and injustice happening elsewhere in the prison.
“The trick is: You’re all locked in there together,” says the Tony Award-winning actress, who most recently starred on Fox’s Fringe. “And I think probably what Jenji was thinking is to have a character come in to unsettle that. With the fourth season of any show, it’s good to have a character that has a fresh take on the world, whatever the world is, so we can see it differently.”
Judy’s take can be politically incorrect, manipulative and bossy, but it’s all delivered in a cheerful Southern accent. “Judy’s M.O. is basically: What’s good for Judy is really going to be good for everyone else, too,” says Brown. The actress previews Judy’s upcoming journey to THR below. (Check back here for more from Brown and the rest of the cast after OITNB launches on June 17.)
Were you a fan of Orange Is the New Black before coming on the show?
I was a huge fan and being a working actress was like, “How do I get on it?!” Then two summers ago [I got the call]. All Jenji said was that we would see Judy mainly on television and the inmates reacting to her on TV, “and then we have this plan for another season.” But you never know if that’s going to pan out. I shot for a day for those bits in season three, always hopeful that something great would happen and then it did. Jenji’s always got a long view on these characters, even though you don’t know what it is, which boggles the mind given how many strong ones there are.
Aside from the fact that she landed in prison, it’s quickly clear that Judy King is a woman who gets her way. How fun is it to play her and how do you describe her?
It’s amazing to play such a cheerful survivor. Judy’s M.O. is basically: what’s good for Judy is really gonna be good for everyone else, too. She’s unabashedly self-centered, but in a way that includes everybody. I’ve never seen a character like that — where she kind of does what she wants to do and, by and large, makes everyone feel quite good about that choice. It’s also nice to play a strong woman that’s not obviously so. You could think that she’s a bit of a loony, a bit foolish. But she’s so smart and steely. She’s looking to what’s going to happen on the other side of this. But along the way, she’s going to enjoy herself as much as she can and make this situation work for her.
She’s unfiltered — something that gets her into a bit of trouble here and there — but she’s almost all-inclusive in her political incorrectness. Is that liberating to play?
My mother was Southern and my experience of growing up with Southern women is they were some of the most independent spirits I had ever met. This is a very unusual, cheerful, really liberated woman. She says things that are politically incorrect, but about everything and everybody because she’s not a snob. She takes people for who they are, not for what they might look like or what group they might fall into. So I think at this particular time of everyone being so tentative about speaking so critically about each other — or people being so appallingly cruel — it’s nice to see somebody who is kind of free of that. It’s not about their sexuality, their race, their ethnicity, their religion: She likes who she likes, and, by and large, she likes everybody, but she doesn’t like who she doesn’t like also.
Judy is certainly politically incorrect, but is she racist?
No, I don’t think she’s racist at all, it’s that certain Southern quality that is different. I’ve known a lot of Southerners who are like that, in particular Judy’s age and older, who did say things that for me, with my Northern sensibility, I blanched at. But I knew they would say it in front of one of their African-American friends. That’s the way Judy is. I think she’s grown up with a lot of African-Americans and she’s worked with and I believe employs a lot of African-Americans. So I don’t think she has any issues that way. I think she’s as at home with the girls in the Ghetto dorm as she is with any other group.
Going in, she’s obviously tagged as a character inspired by Martha Stewart (who spent five months in jail for tax evasion in 2004), and a little bit of Paula Deen. Did you draw inspiration from them?
No. Obviously when I first heard that she was a cooking show celebrity and she was going to prison for some financial mischief, you think of Martha Stewart right away. But she’s so not her in every other way. She’s Paula Deen-like, again, because she’s Southern, but she is another entity altogether. It’s just that those are the ones that spring to mind. But I am a big cook myself and I actually subscribed to the first year of Martha Stewart magazine. And then when she got in trouble I was obsessed with that, and I was obsessed with Paula Deen. I had done my research, in that regard, so I could leave it all behind because it’s not Judy. But I knew enough about the world they were in, and also, what kind of a real businesswoman she was to have an empire. A lot of other people want the same thing so you’ve got to be the pick of the litter — to use a Judy term — to be the one to succeed.
Do we know Judy’s sentence?
No, in that wonderful, vague quality about Orange, where in some cases we still don’t know really what somebody’s in for or how long they’ll be there. We know Judy’s is short because it is of a financial nature, you get a sense of her coming in that she won’t be there for that long. She hasn’t killed anybody yet! I haven’t been told that she’s a murderer — so far.
Do you think prison will change her much?
No. I don’t think so. She’s pretty much who she is. This is my speculation because I don’t know what they’re thinking about her backstory, but I sense that she is a survivor. That’s what she is most of all. And however it was that she got to make this will for herself, she made it. It’s not a gift, she didn’t inherit it. She made it all happen.
It’s a dark season, but Judy brings a lot of light. As the rest of the characters are experiencing these abusive new guards, Judy gets special treatment. What was it like to go to Orange and, for the most part, not really see the darkness?
I think it was interesting for people to have a new kind of element. The trick is: you’re all locked in there together. And I think probably what Jenji was thinking is to have a character come in that unsettle this. And this was a way to do it on a lot of different levels. So I think that was the fun and the function of Judy. Also, Judy doesn’t come in with any history so probably, with the fourth season of any show, it’s good to have a character that has a fresh take on the world, whatever the world is, so we can see it differently. When I was just watching the show, I thought it was so interesting to have the Piper (Taylor Schilling) character, she was our entryway into this of thinking for most people who can’t, regardless of your race or ethnicity, imagine themselves in prison. When I watched Oz, I didn’t think, “Oh yeah, I could be there!”
Poussey (Samira Wiley) is Judy’s biggest fan and ends up being the first inmate Judy interacts with when she arrives. Were you a fan of hers?
I love the Poussey character and after I had done a little bit of season three, Samira and I [did] a reading at Lincoln Center [in New York] for a play. I walked in and I was like: “Poussey!” (Laughs.) Samira and I took every break together and she was so welcoming and said I was going to have a wonderful time. And we just talked about it. So, ironically, Samira was kind of my entryway into Orange as Poussey was, in a way, to Judy’s time in Litchfield. So it was just a little bit of weird serendipity.
Judy develops an interesting relationship with CO Luschek (Matt Peters). Does she spot him as an easy target?
I love Luschek! I love the actor as well as the character. He is just so hapless and for Judy, for him to be the guy that she meets is the perfect encounter. She can run him right away! She’s very good at running people, in a “this works for me, so it works for you” way. And Luschek is probably one of the most gullible and culpable, so that was good fortune. Matt and I have really good time working together.
Everyone anticipates a showdown between you and Red (Kate Mulgrew), the other red-headed boss in the kitchen. Were you hoping for one?
Kate and I had met years ago when we were both acting, probably when she was doing Ryan’s Hope and I was doing The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, but we didn’t know each other. After season three, there was this wrap party and I was going to go but I didn’t know anybody. So I thought, “Well, I won’t go.” And Kate said, “No, you’re coming with me.” We went to dinner and she squired me around the party and introduced me to everybody, which was incredibly kind because she knew that it was an overwhelming situation. So I was looking forward to it, as we both were, I think, to get into it. But the fans will just have to see what happens.
Judy’s roommate is Yoga Jones (Constance Shulman), who rejects the special treatment because of her hippie morals. Are they Litchfield’s odd couple?
Connie Shulman, I have known forever. The other series I did that was the best time I had before Orange [which shoots in Queens] was Molly (1987-1991), which we shot at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens and Connie was actually in that. So, lo and behold, I was like, “My God, Connie, it took us all this time and we’re back in Queens. It took us all these years to get back to where we started!” So I have a long history with her and it’s been extremely funny. I loved her character on here, just miserable and being drawn into this by Judy, the most positive and persuasive person. It’s so funny to watch, to just watch Connie not know how to deal with all her good fortune. It’s fun to torture her! It’s fun to torture her and Luschek — Judy takes a lot of pleasure in it.
Amid all the comedy, Judy will ultimately experience some of the darkness. What can you say about how the season ends?
In the same way when they do in the finales in season two and three — I never saw those coming — this is that way, too. It went to a whole other place that will launch us in season five. I mean, a whole other place. I thought it was extraordinary.
Does that mean we will we see more of Judy on season five? [The show has been picked up for three more seasons.]
I hope so! We’re talking. I learned on Fringe: You find things out when you need to know them. But, what better group to cast your lot in than with Jenji and her band of writers? What better way to go? I hope Judy commits another crime and gets to stay!
Season four of Orange Is the New Black bows June 17 on Netflix. THR‘s The Live Feed will have full coverage. For complete OITNB coverage, click here.
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