Lea DeLaria Talks ‘Orange is the New Black’ and Diversity in Television
Inspirer is celebrating inspirational and influential women in film with in-depth interviews. This project will share the stories behind the trailblazers and pioneers who paved the way for females in the arts.
Lea DeLaria is having a moment. With a multi-faceted career that spans multiple decades as an actor, comedian, and jazz musician, DeLaria is earning a new set of fans and recognition for her role as Carrie “Big Boo” Black in the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black.” The show, and DeLaria, have helped open up conversations about diversity in entertainment, LGBTQ issues, and female-run television.
With just days until the anticipated release of OITNB’s fourth season, we spoke to DeLaria about her character, the show’s trailblazing moments, and her role as an LGBTQ activist.
Big Boo is a really interesting character, one that has definitely developed over the past few seasons. What initially attracted you to this role and to a Netflix show? Because “OITNB” was really one of the first big shows for them when they weren’t really known for original content. Now, everyone’s itching to be on Netflix.
A paycheck. [laughs] No matter what actors say, if someone is going to pay you to act, you’re always very happy to get that money — especially if you’re the kind of actor that I am. I come with a lot of baggage, so the parts weren’t always frequent, especially within the confines of show business in general. It’s not a pretty place. Or, well, that’s the way it used to be. It’s different now. It’s an incredibly great time to be a woman in our industry. I think half the reason, if not three-quarters of the reason, is because of “OITNB.”
I was also completely attracted to working with Jenji Kohan [writer and producer, creator of “OITNB”], who is a genius in this industry. We were all just chomping at the bit to work with Jenji, because she’s everything.
What some people don’t know is that there actually was no Big Boo in the show. When they saw me, they basically wrote the part for me. I auditioned for several other roles, and none of them were exactly right. I had kind of a hissy fit. I sat in my manager’s office and said, “If they’re doing a show that takes place in a women’s prison and there isn’t a part for me, I fucking quit. I quit this business.” At the time, I was living in both New York and London, and I did quit. I packed up all my bags and flew to my house in London. By the time I got off the plane, there were, like, 10 messages from my manager saying, “Glad you had your hissy fit. Now you gotta come back because they wrote a part for you.”
Yeah. It just got bigger and bigger, for whatever reasons. Some of it is that the genius of Jenji understanding that a part like Big Boo probably ought to be in a show that takes place in a women’s prison. Some of it was that once the writers knew it was me playing the part, they wrote a lot of shit for me, so it just fits me like a little glove. Sometimes I think they sit around and think, “What’s the craziest thing we can think of? Give it to DeLaria — she’ll do anything!”
What has been the biggest challenge?
There are a couple, but probably the biggest is that I’m actually acting in the show and not just being an asshole and saying things that are funny. [laughs] The fact that Boo is three-dimensional, the fact that she’s real — the biggest challenge is the biggest joy. Boo is a real human. She’s not just a stereotype of what every butch dyke in the world is when they’re presented in the media. That’s my joy, but it’s also my challenge. On stage, I do everything. But in film and television, it’s all comedic, and when I show up for work, I have to bring my A-game.
It’s one of those shows that gets included in the comedy category a lot, but it isn’t always funny. It’s just that it’s very real.
Boo’s definitely comedic relief, but she’s real. Especially with her backstory — how could she not be? Oh my God! Who knew I could cry on camera like that? I had no fucking clue! And then when I did it in different scenes, I was like, “I had no idea I could do that!” [laughs]
Maybe because part of it is because it’s so genuine — how could you not?
Yeah, I think that’s part of it. The writing was so perfect and everything. But, I was shocked at my ability to do it when it was shot. I went to catering and Kate Mulgrew was there and Kate was like, “You’re a great actress, Lea. I don’t know why you always doubted yourself. You’re a great actress!” I don’t know, Kate! I’m not asked to cry a lot. I’m generally asked to pleasure myself to orgasm with a screwdriver.
You and Pennsatucky started to have a really great, unlikely, friendship on the show. How did that work out? The chemistry is so good between you and Taryn Manning.
You have to be very careful on set because the writers on our show don’t miss a thing. If you say something on set, in front of an incredible writer, be careful, because it will end up in the next episode. Taryn and I love each other. We’re really good friends. We used to hang out all the time. They saw us hanging out in each other’s dressing room and being the pals that we were, and one of the writers probably just went “Click! There’s a great idea!” Suddenly, here we are, this unlikely friendship. Everyone talks about it, but it’s because Lea DeLaria and Taryn Manning are really tight friends, and I believe that’s why that camaraderie comes across on screen like that.
This camaraderie on the show, with every woman backing each other up, puts out a very strong feminist message. But, it’s not about using feminism as a trendy prop — you guys aren’t a squad — it’s very genuine. Is that something that is important to you when you film the show, making sure it seems real?
From Jenji on down, male and female, I believe that everybody involved in our show is a feminist. The beauty of our show is that Jenji is beyond feminist. She is a person who wants to wield her power for good. Every time she writes a show, the statements she makes in them — she’s literally trying to change the world, totally from a feminist perspective. It’s really amazing. It starts with her saying “I just want to work with people who want to create something interesting, new, unique, and unusual, something that shows women in a light that we’ve all seen ourselves in for so long, but has frustratingly not been show in in the media at all.”
She had these goals, and she wanted it to be entertaining and she wanted it to be smart. Here we are, doing all of that. If that isn’t the very definition of feminism, I don’t know what is.
It is, 100 percent, and it’s so well-received, I think, because for a very long time, realistic female characters were here and there.
Right? Good luck finding them. I’ve been in this industry a very long time. To find actual women, real females of all races, all shapes, all sizes, all sexual orientations, in this little fishbowl together, being portrayed as real and honestly as they could be — that never happens in television. Never.
No, and there’s a lot of talk right now about how theater is leading the entertainment industry towards diversity, but TV is really starting to make headway, too. It’s not perfect by any means, but there’s such a great mix of diverse — across sexualities, body types, races — characters on “OITNB.”
I remember when we won the SAG Award this year. Laura [Prepon], who accepted for us, said, “This is what diversity looks like.” Our cast is what diversity is.
Do you think Netflix made that more possible than just being on cable TV?
Absolutely. We get away with things on Netflix that you would never have been able to do on Showtime or HBO or any other cable show. We have a fisting scene in our pilot! Who the hell else can say that? And it’s not just about the sex — it’s about no boundaries. It’s about keeping it real with no boundaries in a way that HBO was when HBO first hit the airwaves. It’s yet another frontier that we’ve surpassed. Netflix and Hulu and these other streamers make it possible.
Personally, I feel like Netflix really does it because of Ted [Sardanos, chief content officer of Netflix]. I think Ted goes out of his way to ensure the most interesting programming on Netflix, all the way around, not just our show. I feel that Ted really gets what people really want to see. He gets how important it is to make these statements in the world. He understands how to work that with business and making money, but he never compromises in a way that he can’t look himself in the mirror every day and like the guy he sees. It’s a great marriage of these things, Netflix, Lady Prison Productions, our cast, and the writers.
Is there anything you would like to see more of in television?
I’d like to see more of what we’re doing. The shows out there like ours are few and far between. I think we’ve proven something to the industry that nobody realized was possible before. We’ve shown real people having their real lives being real. We’ve shown the world, in this microcosm, exactly as it is. Before, it was the industry’s concept of what being a real woman was instead of just being a real woman. So, this show, viewed by over 80 million people in 190 countries is huge. [Ed. note: Netflix is available in 190 countries, however, exact ratings for series have not been publicly disclosed.]
I’m hoping that the rest of the industry will see this and understand that people want to see real. We’re more real than a reality show! Reality shows are fake. We’re fiction, but we’re real. I’m hoping that this industry realizes, “Wow, you can actually make money, and still be smart, innovative, diverse, and have a strong sense of community and politics.” I’m excited to be at this point in our industry. I hope it just moves forward from here.
You’re really involved with the LGBTQ community, and there have been a lot of horrible events that have happened in the past several months, but particularly in the past week with what happened in Orlando. Would you like to share any of your thoughts?
My heart goes out to friends and family of the deceased in Orlando. I feel so strongly for them. It’s hard for me to talk about, even today. I’ve been crying since I woke up on Sunday morning. As we obtain our rights and get more and more of what is ours, that’s when the people who hate us are going to fight more and more. We have to be prepared for this. I think that’s a lot of what is going on — this backlash from the extremely conservative haters out there. It’s big. More than anything else, what happened in Orlando has only strengthened my resolve to be as visible as possible for the fight for our rights.
I want to be very clear: this was a gay hate crime. He chose this place so that he could take out as many queers as he possibly could. It was against us, and the worst of it is that he went into a place that has always been a safe place for us. It’s where you go to be who you are, to be with your community, your friends, your chosen family. He stole that from us on Sunday morning. But, the beauty of my people is that they get past things. He’s not the first person to do this to us, but I hope with all my soul that he will be the last. We will get past this. We will have our rights. They can’t stop us.
I just finally today got in touch with every one of my friends in Orlando and they’re all safe, but it’s taken this many days. And, I can’t even tell you how many times I have been dancing in that club at 2 in the morning. I know there’s a lot of us who feel that way. As a gay performer who has been an openly gay performer for as long as I have, I have performed in Orlando so many times. I have danced in that club so many times. It’s frightening.
It really is a scary thought. Thank you for putting it so eloquently.
I have to say, in the face of this hatred, we will survive. Sorry, but we will. The backlash that’s happening? The conservative assholes saying, “I wish they killed more gay people, these sodomites and pedophiles” — again, it just strengthens my resolve to stand in the face of that adversity and that bullshit and cry bullshit. They all preach in the name of their God, but Jesus never said to hate. Jesus is all about love. You’re perverting what Jesus said to further your own agenda. It’s crap.
Knowing what you do now, then, on a lighter note, what’s one piece of advice for young people that you would share as parting words?
Love yourself, no fucks given, and everything else will fall into place.
This interview has been condensed for clarity.
All 13 episodes of season four will be available for streaming on Friday, June 17 on Netflix. Seasons 1-3 are also available on Netflix.
Keep up with Lea on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.