Kelly Karbacz can do it all and basically has. From her first role on stage as Louisa Von Trapp in the Sound of Music to her current role as inmate Kasey Sankey in ‘Orange is the New Black,’ Karbacz displays the acting chops of the seasoned veteran that she is. The road from Broadway to the big house has been paved with tenacity and talent, and Karbacz is living proof that if you hold onto what you truly love to do, you can accomplish anything.
I wanted to start from the beginning with what inspired you to get into acting.
I’ve been in the business since I was a kid. I started singing and dancing at a really early age. When I went to see my first Broadway show, honestly that’s what kicked it off. I sat in the audience, and I watched what was happening on that stage and truly I came alive. I just saw these amazing performers, and I thought that’s it for me, that’s what I have to do with my life. There’s nothing that would make me happier than that.
My dance school at the time actually put on a variety show competition. And everyone else in the school decided to dance as their talent, and I decided to sing. Not only did I end up winning first place, which was crazy and wonderful, but there was an agent in the audience that night and I was fortunate enough to be asked to come and audition for the agency. It’s crazy. I auditioned with hundreds of kids and did monologs and sang, and they narrowed it down and kept narrowing it down and I was offered a contract with the agency. I started auditioning and never looked back. My first big break was playing Louisa in the Sound of Music at Lincoln Center New York City Opera, and that was my first big job. I started kind of wonderfully big at the start and being on that stage eight times a week and feeling what it felt like to really do what I love, it just solidified everything for me and like I said, the rest is history. I never looked back.
What was the name of that first Broadway show?
Actually, it’s funny cause I feel like it will sound cliché, but it was Annie. I saw other kids up there who were similar in age to me and everything felt possible and at my fingertips. Being a native New Yorker, everything was right there at my doorstep, and I just felt like I could dream big and really make it happen. I think that really fed my determination and my ambition and made me wanna work even harder to achieve it because I felt like it truly was something that could happen.
How different is acting on stage from acting on television?
Funny, it really is so different. I love them both so much because they feed my passion and fulfill me in very different ways.
So on stage, you are breathing with the audience. You are in an intimate way taking a journey with them. The feedback and the reaction from them are immediate which is so exhilarating. Even though you’re doing the show eight times a week, you need the stamina and the endurance to do that, each night has to be fresh. Each time you’re telling the story for the first time. Some of these people are seeing it for the first time and you have that one chance that night to nail those moments and that performance.
And with television and film, the pace is so different and you get the chance to finesse and work a scene until you get it where it needs to be. Or you get it just right for what you’re trying to achieve in that moment. Normally you can reach a much broader audience as well with that medium. So they are so very different.
I actually had the good fortune to be part of a multi- camera sitcom on ABC called Regular Joe and it was with Judd Hirsch, Daniel Stern, John Francis Daley, and an amazing cast. What I loved about that was I felt like I got the best of both worlds because we were doing this hilarious, wonderful tv script in front of a live audience. I felt like I was doing theater and yet it was gonna be seen by millions of people. This is kinda the best of everything. I really enjoyed working on that especially.
And you were also in Rent?
I was! I played Maureen Johnson in Rent on Broadway, absolute dream role for me.
What was it like being part of one of the most successful Broadway shows of all time?
Well you know I was a Rent- head for sure. When the show first came out I waited for tickets with my friends. I sat in the front row, and I was so unbelievably blown away by what I saw on that stage. I watched Idina play that role and it was again that same feeling. It just spoke to me. I left the theater, and I told my two best friends who were with me I have to play that role, I have to play that role. And it took many years and many auditions for me to grow into it but I finally did book it. And I was able to do it on Broadway and sing that score and play Maureen who has so much confidence and is such a free spirit. She helped me tap into my sexuality, she gave me the opportunity to really lose my inhibitions and come into my own as a performer. I think it really changed everything for me and had such a huge impact on me.
The message of that show is so beautiful, love and inclusivity and cherishing every moment like it’s your last. To be able to be a part of what Jonathan Larson created and have these beautiful people as my Rent family now for the rest of life, it was truly one of the best experiences in my life.
I’m pretty sure I could sing every word to every song from Rent.
Every word to that score was so in my heart and my soul. And there’s something so special about it. It was unique and changed the game in so many ways. I feel honored and humbled to have been a part of that legacy.
And on a completely different end of the spectrum, there’s ‘Orange is the New Black.’ Were you a fan of the show before you landed the role of Kasey Sankey?
Absolutely, I was a huge fan. I was so invested in the world of Litchfield and these characters. And watching it, I knew it was in my wheel house. I knew it was a great fit for me as an actor so I’d move quick and would jump at the chance if I were ever able to be a part of it. And Jen Euston, a brilliant and wonderful casting director, has been so kind to me. Like I said, I’ve been in the business a very long time so she’s been so lovely to me, bringing me in for any projects that she ever felt I was right for.
I auditioned three times over the first three seasons of Orange to play other characters, but Sankey was the first inmate that I ever auditioned to play and she was the one I really wanted. When I got the role, I was just so over the moon. I knew that it would be recurring, but I didn’t know just how much that would entail, how many episodes, how big of a role it would be. To be introduced in season 4 and now have this wonderful evolution through season 5, it’s just an incredible blessing. To be able to be apart of it and work alongside what is truly one of the best ensembles in television is a blessing that is never lost on me.
Every year when OITNB comes out, I tell myself that I’ll stretch it out and watch one episode a week. Then two days later, I’ve finished the entire season. It’s literally impossible not to binge watch.
So funny you say that, everyone says the same thing to me. And honestly, I am the perfect example of that. Before I was cast, as a fan, I will say I did have some willpower and I was able to stretch it out because I really wanted to enjoy it, and I took my time with it. But once being cast, it’s like all of that went out the window. And there was literally nothing in me that could make me wait and so for season four and five, I binged the entire season within the weekend.
There’s such excitement and anticipation because I knew of course what happened and what it felt like to shoot it, but I needed to see what it looked like, how it came to fruition, how it turned out, what the end product and results were. I just really couldn’t wait, so I watched the whole thing.
I feel like season five especially was so epic, and I’m so blown away by the performances of my castmates. Everyone was just so incredible and brilliant in their performances. What I usually do is, cause I finished it so fast, in a couple of months I’ll go back and start over. I’ll start from the beginning, and I’ll take my time and really try to relish and savor every moment. I feel like Netflix is the gift that keeps on giving. You can choose your own adventure. If you’re a person that loves to binge watch, you can enjoy it in that way. But if you wanna stretch it out and kinda take your time, you also have that option. And you can just keep going back to it as many times as you want.
Your character came around in season 4 as a member of the white pride movement inadvertently initiated by Piper Chapman. But in season 5, we gain a better understanding of Sankey’s backstory. What’s it like portraying someone who is so opposite to who you are?
It’s very interesting. I think in season 5 we learn more about her life. We see different sides of her, different colors that we haven’t seen before. We see her form alliances that you may not expect, and as you said, we see her struggle with her belief system and whether or not it should always dictate her behavior. I love that they’re giving me these moments of possible redemption to play. They started with it in season four, and I think there’s more in season five where she sometimes pulls back from confrontation, where she puts aside her own agenda for the greater good and tries to rally the inmates to better things for their experience. I love when she tries to acknowledge that the other women aren’t as bad as she expected them to be.
But to play her is definitely challenging because she is so very different from who I am in life. Very often she’s very aggressive in a lot of ways and she very often says and does horrific things. What I try to do as an actor is remind myself that it’s not my job to judge her because then I can’t play her. So instead I remember that my job is to tell her story in the most honest and truthful way possible. I find the ways I can connect with her so that I can breathe life into her and like I said, tell her story in the most honest way.
When I do have to behave in a certain way that doesn’t easily come out of my mouth or it isn’t something I would ever do, I remember that this is an ideology that’s been ingrained in her and that’s all she knows. She behaves in that way because this is where she’s coming from, this is what she is. I truly hope for myself and Sankey that we get to learn what makes her tick, how she got to be the way she is, and why she’s been incarcerated.
I still feel we’ve only scratched the surface with her so I’m really hoping that we just continue to see her evolve and go deeper and deeper.
When we’re first introduced to the women at Litchfield, all we know of them is that they’re obviously in prison and they got there for a reason. As the show progresses, we see them as human and the crimes they committed no longer define who they are.
I absolutely agree and I think that’s what makes Jenji so brilliant and an incredible writer. They always find the humanity and the way to show that. The other thing, of course, that’s so wonderful about our show is how they’re telling these stories that need to be told, stories that are relevant, that reflect our current culture. Hopefully what that’s doing is shedding light on these important issues and influencing change for the better. I truly have so much pride to be a part of a show that’s been so groundbreaking in so many ways and is really just so important in what it’s trying to achieve.
Being that OITNB is a predominantly female cast, do you find that you’re all supportive of one another?
Absolutely. It’s a dream work environment for sure. I’m surrounded by these incredible women who inspire me to up my game on a daily basis and truly make me want to be a better artist and a better person in the world. To be able to do what I love in an environment like that, there’s nothing better.
Not only do we lift each other up, but I think we encourage each other to truly own our swagger and shine our light as brightly as we can. There is no greater blessing than to have people in your life who do that for you. It’s been an extraordinary experience. It really has.
What’s next for you?
I’m actually going back to my theater roots a bit, and I’m working on some theater projects. I’m working on a musical and a play. We’re in the early stages so I can’t really share details about them yet, but I’m loving being able to help develop them and to be a part of the theater community as well as the world of film and television. I really do love them both so much. So to be able to do this work that really fulfills me and play these rich and complex characters with great emotional depth is so incredible to me. And to be able to do that in my hometown just makes it better.
Your success didn’t come over night; it took years of hard work and determination. What words of advice do you have for others following their dreams?
Especially because I’ve been doing this since I was a kid, there’s definitely I think some things that have stuck with me along the way that would hopefully help young, aspiring actors. Always stay true to yourself no matter what. And don’t let anyone put you in a box or try to limit your potential because you know what you’re capable of. Don’t give up until, whether it’s show business or any other industry, that industry knows what you’re capable of. Don’t ever compromise your dignity or do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable.
Especially in the business I’m in, there are so many ups and downs and there are times when you’re going to feel frustrated or stuck. Instead of leaning into that negativity, which is only going to bring more of it to you, if you can run your own life and focus on consistently doing your own best work, and really hold onto hope and faith, and that positive, good energy- that is what will propel you forward and help you end up where you’re supposed to be.
The things that are meant for you will find you.