Obsessing Over Orange… and Screwdrivers, with Lea DeLaria
I was lucky to catch a few moments with Lea DeLaria, who stars as Carrie, a.k.a. “Big Boo,” in Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black.” If you missed our prior commentary on the lesbian-plot-heavy show (based on the memoir by Piper Kerman) this series follows an upper-crust, NYC-yuppie woman’s immersion into federal prison after a female ex rats her out for drug smuggling 10-years after the fact.
DeLaria didn’t hold back, discussing everything from the show’s portrayal of cultural elitism and racial separatism, to how to creatively make DIY shower shoes, this adept comedienne, actress, musician and activist, takes us a little further behind bars, showing us why orange really might be the new black.
Shera St. Clair: Can you talk a little bit about how you became a part of Orange is the New Black and how you landed the role?
Lea DeLaria: Well I’m an actor, so I auditioned and was cast.
SC: Did you read ahead of time and think ‘I wanna do Cary, I wanna do Big Boo’?
LD: Oh no, you don’t have any control over parts. I just went in. I mean I went in actually on two different roles and they didn’t cast me on either of them and the truth is I went into my manager’s office and I said if they’re making a television show that’s taking place in a women’s prison and there isn’t a part for me, then I fucking quit, basically. And I got on a plane and flew out to my house in London, because I was at the time living in England, and when I got off the plane my manager called to say they’ve actually decided to craft a role specifically for you, so come back. And here I am!
SC: Since they actually made that role for you, how did you prepare for it? Did you spend any time in prison?
LD: No, I’ve never spent any time in prison. I’ve been in jail certainly for political protest. Anybody who knows who I am knows that’s my whole life. But I watched a lot of ‘Lockup,’ and I called different psychiatrists that I knew that worked a women’s prisons and I spoke to Piper personally.
SC: Since this role was created for you and aside from the whole preference of vagina, how personally do you relate to Big Boo?
LD: There’s a lot of me in Big Boo. I would never break the law, I just wouldn’t. You know what I mean? When it comes to that, that’s where Boo and I part ways. But her humanity and her sense of humor and her toughness and her butchness and her realness is all very much me.
SC: How is it working with Little Boo?
LD: Ohhh Little Boo!! I miss Little Boo right now. We stopped filming in March and we don’t start filming for a couple of weeks and I just miss Little Boo. I looove Little Boo. Her real name is Adrianne and she’s the cutest little dog. She comes from a loving home and she’s always really happy on the set and she and I bonded almost immediately. So, she’s a good girl.
DeLaria with ‘Little Boo’
SC: You said before that everything you do, you do to further positive perception of queers. So how do you view OITNB as continuing that mission of yours?
LD: I think I’ve been misquoted there, because I think that I say that everything I do is to put a positive perception on butches. Because that’s a particular thing that I’ve been involved with for a very long time and that to me is what’s great about OITNB, is that here is this really three-dimensional butch. She’s not the butt of every bitch joke, she’s a real human being and she’s got dimensions and emotions and she feels things and she makes jokes about things, she’s smart-aleky and she’s funny, she’s all of those things. She’s a real butch and you never see that. You don’t see that anywhere on television, anywhere on American television.
I am very excited about that so doing that and then also being a part of this show, which is ground breaking and it speaks to society in a really interesting way. I mean people are really into this show. I get stuff on the street everywhere I go, it’s really enlightened people’s perception, I think, about women in general. It’s very surreptitiously feminist, this show. I think you are about three or for episodes in before you start realizing how really feminist the show is. They sneak it right up on you. And you’re enjoying it! It’s not like some god-damn Gloria-Steinem-droney-Adrienne-Rich poem that you just want to kill yourself at the end of it. It’s really interesting and human and real and oh my god I’ve actually just been given a feminist lecture without knowing that it happened. It’s great.
SC: And it has this way of going from topics like racial separatism and white privileged and then it talks about how to creatively make shower shoes out of duct tape.
LD: My favorite is when, in the chicken episode, when Taylor says, when Red says, we have to get the chicken before the black people do, and Piper says why, because all black people like fired chicken? And Red says, don’t be racist, they think it’s full of heroin and they are all on drugs. It’s hilarious!
SC: And I think that is why it’s able to create the common ground, because you laugh, it’s humor.
LD: There’s one episode where they go from white table to Asian table to black table and everything just raises them, it’s hilarious.
SC: Has there been a favorite moment of yours on the show so far?
LD: Well, I hate to be a spoiler, and I don’t know how much people have read, but I’ll just say the screwdriver episode. That’s probably my favorite moment, although the big dance sex show was a pretty particular favorite of mine as well.
SC: Why was the screwdriver one of your favorites?
LD: well, come on. Are you kidding? Come on! You don’t think everybody is talking about that? People are giving me screwdrivers! Which is hilarious. When I read the script, I squealed like a little girl. They want me to masturbate in front of a camera for comedic effect. What?! Every actor in the world would give their right tit to be able to do that. I was excited! And I got to do it.
SC: The show addresses many different things, how do you feel about the way they portray these story lines, and the way they portray the women going through them? Whether queer or not.
LD: I mean if you’re talking about the flash backs that give you the history of why certain individuals are in prison? Well I think it’s brilliant. I think it’s one of the things that makes the show a complete gem. The fact that we have Jenji at the helm I think helps us with that immensely. There’s nothing like it, or has there ever been anything like it. It’s a unique television show. It’s brilliant! What can I say.
SC: It sounds like you, from reading the script before hand, you originally anticipated the success that it would have because it is ground breaking.
LD: Did I anticipate it? Well, I’ve been in this business for a long time, and I’ve mostly been involved in things that suck, so, I’m gunna get in so much trouble for that. So, I could feel the difference of how great this show was. We could all feel it when we were filming it, but we didn’t want to say anything because we didn’t want to jinx it. That’s kind of the way it is.
But we could see how great our cast is, it’s an amazing cast. The writers are some of the most talented writers rooms I’ve ever seen. We’ve got Jenji Kohan at the helm, we’ve got Lisa Zinicore, we’ve got Michael Trem, we’ve got an array of A list directors, I mean Jodi Foster, come on! Did we know that it was going to be a hit? No. Did we hope it was going to be a hit and think it was going to be a hit? Certainly. And now, it’s nutty. Like I said, people are giving me screwdrivers.
SC: How many screwdrivers have you gotten?
LD: I’ve gotten two. It’s hilarious. I laugh really hard. When the third person comes, I just going to say, two people have already given me those. I think the next one, I’ll just sign it and give it back to the person. I get chased in the street by straight girls which is hilarious. They literally chase me down the street to get the picture taken with me. It’s just really funny to me. It’s opened up this whole different fan base. Not that I’m complaining!
SC: You’re being chased by straight girls, but you’re also, I’m assuming, being chased by some gay women as well for pictures?
LD: I get email, text, twitter, by dykes. Haven’t seen that many on the street, maybe three or four. Mostly the people who have been talking to me have been young straight girls and young straight guys. Occasionally, there were a couple of queens today who talked to me about it. But yea, I’m sure that I will, I just haven’t been anywhere where they are.
Lea DeLaria (L), Annie Golden (LC), Michael Harney (RC) and Yael Stone (R) in a scene from Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black.” Photo Credit: Eric Leibowitz for Netflix.
SC: You said, no men, no kids, no wrinkles, that’s the secret to youth, ladies. Become a big hairy dyke. And I absolutely love that.
LD: Yea that’s in a short documentary that was made of me called The Butch. That’s most definitely a correct quote.
SC: Do you have any other life advice that you want to share?
LD: don’t go to jail, don’t go to prison, yea. It’s a television show and I’m sure it’s very much like, I’m sure it’s very real. That’s why the women’s prison association has thumbed up our show. Don’t go to prison ladies, there’s an easier way to get laid.
SC: Are there any LGBTQ issues that you’re really focused on right now, anything in particular?
LD: I’m always focused on LGBTQ. I’m having trouble saying Q because I feel like if they don’t even know what they are, why should I have to include them. But I’m always focused on them, if there’s anything, marriage equality which is very much in the forefront right now so I’ve been doing a lot of stuff around that recently. But I’ve also do stuff for the Trevor Project, and the Patrick Martin Clinic. I’m involved.
SC: Knowing that you’ve released four jazz albums, and you are involved in the whole bebop jazz back into the gay community, do you think that Big Boo might treat her fellow inmates to some jazz and swing in season two?
LD: Well who knows. That’s never at your control, is it. In the last episode I had more singing. You’re not in control of the editing and it goes where it goes. They know that I have this talent, and they have a way of knowing what the talents are in the show and using the talents, it’s really kinda great. I wouldn’t be surprised, let’s put it that way.
SC: Do you personally have any upcoming releases planned? Albums, songs?
LD: My next record is going to be called House of David. DeLaria plus Bowie equals jazz. So my next album covers David Bowie tunes. I hopefully will have that out in the spring, it takes about six months to turn it around. We haven’t gone into studio yet, we had to push this. We wanted it out this spring, but OITNB has taken all the time.
A recent NYC transplant, I'm a writer, dancer, foodie, clothing lover, and sriracha supporter. Having lived in RVA for seven years, I completely adore the River City, and still spend as many days as I can rock-laying on the James. A self proclaimed "vintage voyeur," I think the arts scene of any city can reveal so much... not only about our past, but also our modern day, and where we need to go from here.
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