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Blair Brown Talks ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Season 4 Cliffhanger and That Threesome

[Spoiler alert: This interview covers the entire fourth season of “Orange Is the New Black.” Do not read until you’ve watch the whole season.]

Orange Is the New Black” fans got a glimpse of Blair Brown’s celebrity inmate, Judy King, in the show’s third season, but Judy fully comes into her own in Season 4.

She arrives at Litchfield just as the guards have walked out and the prisoners are running free (sort of) through a hole in the fence. Throughout the course of the season, Judy bonds with people on both sides of the prison power divide (including Healy and Luschek among the guards, and Poussey and Yoga Jones among the inmates — ensnaring two of those four in a hilarious cell block threesome). But Judy always looks out for herself first, and the finale sees Judy seizing her chance at freedom before a prison riot instigated by Poussey’s death leaves her future entirely up in the air.

Brown tells Variety she’s having “conversations” about returning for Season 5, but doesn’t know what the future holds for either her or the character.

I understand [“Orange” showrunner] Jenji Kohan was a fan of your work on “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd.” Did she reach out to you for this role?

She did. I was at the Sundance resort working on some plays, it’s like theater camp for grownups, just working on plays with directors that nobody sees. I got a call on a Friday in July and I thought, “Nothing important happens in show business on a Friday in July, everybody’s away.” So I didn’t answer. Someone from the office at Sundance came down and said, “You need to call.” I got worried something had happened.

My agent and manager called and said, “Would you like to be on ‘Orange Is the New Black?’” I was stunned. It’s a show that I was a fan of already. The first time I saw it, I thought, “How can I be sent to Litchfield?” But there were so many characters already it wasn’t even something you hoped for.

Jenji said, “We think there’s a future to this character,” but in the third season I just had a few scenes. If you don’t take a chance with somebody like Jenji then you shouldn’t be an actor. I just said “yeah,” and the character turned into this extraordinary person to play.

Did anything about the character change between those few scenes in Season 3 and the way we see her in Season 4?

No, all they said before I came to work [in Season 3] was, “Can you do a Southern accent?” My mother was from Virginia and lived in Georgia. I know that accent and I was raised by Southern women. I’ve never played a Southerner, everyone thinks I’m East Coast, urban, Northeast.

That’s all they said. And then quite clearly she’s in prison for a similar criminal act as Martha Stewart, financial mischief. But then if she’s a famous cook and Southern, she’s a little more like Paula Deen. So I realized she’s a person entirely unto herself.

The beauty of working for Jenji is all this stuff starts to come. You don’t have big conversations about “who is this person and what is the arc of the character?” You just build. You’re kept in the present. I got used to doing that on “Fringe,” it’s a different way of working. I think it’s frustrating for some actors but I actually quite enjoy it, not knowing where I’m headed. I like being in it and then you say, “Oh, I’m that too.” It was exciting as it built over the season. I had no idea the things I’d be doing at the end. It’s always a great surprise, a gift.

Was there a turning point where you realized how manipulative Judy is?

To me it was clear she was a survivor. I didn’t know her backstory, but whatever she had been before, she was a self-made woman. There was no puppet master, no guy behind the curtain pulling strings. I knew she was a person who had a lot of resources and wits about her. She always came out ahead. She was running her own business in a world that’s very, very competitive. I knew she was very good at dealing with people. And then because she was Southern and we turned her into this cheerful person — that’s an amazing way to manipulate people, before they even know they agreed to doing something, they’re doing it. To see someone cheerful and pragmatic and successful at it is kind of nice, because often powerful women are played as tough and really deceptive. And she’s not that.

I started to see the darker side of Judy in episode six, when she helps Luschek ease his guilt by getting Nicky out of max, but then expects sexual favors in return. Did that surprise you or did you see it coming?

I liked that it was another side of her. It’s interesting that she partners with somebody like Luschek because she knows she can get him to do what she needs, and he’s funny, he makes her laugh, and he’s pretty amoral. He’s good company there. One of the things I love is Judy gets along with everybody and she’s not really in anybody’s gang. She knows she’s not going to be [in prison] long, she wants to do it and get it done with. She’s going to make this work and stay on good terms with everybody.

I love that she’s not a snob. She takes people for who they are, and she sees a lot about their natures. The bond she has with Poussey over time, I think she realizes what a remarkable young woman this is. At the end of the season, when Judy has plans to help Poussey, she’s serious. I think she saw some part of that character that was not dissimilar from herself — wanting to have a better life than the one she was given.

Judy and Poussey have such a nice bond throughout the season. At what point did you find out Poussey would be killed in episode 12?

You can tell the day the scripts are released. We’re shooting an episode and you know the day, you can see it on people’s faces. Somebody may run up and say, “My god, did you see what you’re doing next week!?” But the week that happened — Samira Wiley [who plays Poussey] I know knew before, but most of us didn’t. You could tell who read the script. It was just devastating. Samira is loved as Samira and Poussey is loved as Poussey, so it was a double hit. Shooting that episode, that day, being in the cafeteria was horrible. There’s no way around it, it was just awful. It happened so violently and so fast.

In the finale, Yoga Jones urges Judy to use her platform to tell the world about Poussey. We don’t know what might happen in season five, but what do you think of the bond between Judy and Poussey and the opportunity she has?

The trick is she’s real canny. She wants to get out, she’s on her way out. I don’t think we know what she would do once she’s out, but she’s not going to jeopardize getting out for this. Also, she didn’t see it happen, she doesn’t know entirely what’s happened. Emotions are running so high, I think Judy is trying to get through and get out and I think she would deal with it on the other side. I know everybody would like everyone to storm the barricades, but that’s different for the girls who were with [Poussey], and knew what went down.

And then as Judy is on her way out, things take a very different turn with the prison riot. What was it like filming that climactic scene?

It was actually very scary. Emotions were running very high. To stand in the middle with groups running at you from four sides is on a human level incredibly scary. I know it’s make-believe, but it’s scary. People are very angry, and my character doesn’t really have any allies. There was no group for me to join. I didn’t have any trouble shrinking into the side-wall, not wanting to get hurt, because that’s how it felt.

One of Judy’s best moments is the threesome in episode 11. Talk about filming that.

How fun is that? That was the [script] when Kate Mulgrew came up to me in the hall and said, “Did you see what you’re doing next week?” I said, “No, don’t tell me!” Makeup and hair already that morning had gone, “Oh my God.” So I knew it was something really good. I didn’t see that coming at all. I thought it was such a hilarious idea that it was Yoga Jones, Luschek and Judy. It was just ludicrous. It was pretty fun to shoot.

Matt [Peters, who plays Luschek] was so worried, he kept saying, “I don’t want to do anything to offend you.” I said, “Matt, these are really whacked out characters. We’ll just play the scene and be done with it. Not to worry.” He was so cautious, he didn’t want to offend either me or Connie [Schulman, who plays Yoga Jones]. That was perfectly adorable and completely right for Luschek. I love that at the end, the two of them are completely wasted, and Judy is raring to go: “That was fun, what’s next?”

Was it all choreographed or did the three of you improv any of it?

You have to improv it a little. The camera needs to know where you’ll be and then you just kind of go for it in your own weird way. It’s not anything I imagined I would be doing at this point in my life, but the world is a surprising place. And Jenji Kohan is a surprising writer. I think everyone had big surprises this year.

When it was all done, were you glad they wrote that for you?

I loved it because it was so odd, such an anomaly. It was unexpected for us, certainly unexpected for the audience. That’s the fun of it, all the surprises. So many people had said to me before I started the show, “Obviously you and Red are going to square off in the kitchen.” Jenji touches on that for a second in the garden and then never revisits it. I thought, “Yeah, it was too likely, too obvious.” I thought that was really interesting. Don’t expect it. That’s the only constant I’ve been able to find. At the end of 12, with Poussey’s death, I thought, “This for most shows is the finale. What are they going to do in 13?” The way she turns it around completely, it just tore your heart out again in a different way. I had no idea how she would pull that off.

It gets so heartbreaking in those final three episodes after starting off so light early on.

This season was really powerful. A friend of mine told me, “I can only watch one at a time, I can’t binge watch this. It’s too intense. I’m so upset all the time.” It’s interesting to play comic relief, nothing terrible happens to me. Someone asked me, “What’s Judy’s moral dilemma?” because everybody has to face up to stuff. I said, “I don’t know, if you see Jenji ask her and then call me.” I saw Jenji later and said, “What’s Judy’s moral dilemma?” She said, “Well, she doesn’t really have one.” I said, “That’s how I see it too.” But that just means so far, or maybe it means she never has one. Both things are equally true. We’re waiting for Judy to have her comeuppance, maybe she won’t. But maybe Jenji knows we’re waiting for it and think it won’t happen, so she will. It’s quite a head game.

Going back to the unexpected moments, Judy’s kiss with Black Cindy was another highlight. What was it like filming that with Adrienne C. Moore?

We shoot upstate for the outside of Litchfield and it’s so hot there, it’s a pocket of heat. The humidity gets trapped and it’s always 9000 degrees or five below, it’s a weird pocket of miserable weather. It was so hot that day. The point was it had to happen so fast that no one is prepared for it, including Adrienne. I think I scared her to death, I hope so, flying at her and jumping in the air. She’s so tall, it’s not easy for me. I had to get a good running start and then leap and kiss her. It was pretty fun. It’s such a whack storyline. I love Judy’s inventiveness.

And Cindy says Judy tastes like strawberries.

[laughs] Yes, ludicrous, so good. I loved that it was Black Cindy of all people. It had to be. And then we had to pretend to be madly in love.

Judy has quite a kinky side to her. Did you find out if that story about the creator of “Wonder Woman” and bondage is true?

I have no idea if it’s true or not. Judy has such a rich fantasy life that I accept everything as gospel. [laughs]

Who did you bond with the most coming into the show?

Shooting season three was odd for me because I was never with the ladies. I was always on my own. The first time I came to the studio, Taylor [Schilling] leapt out of her chair and hugged me and made me feel so welcome. Everybody did. But at some point around that time I did a reading at Lincoln Center and Samira was in it as well. Of course I knew her as Poussey and she welcomed me to the show and we talked a lot about it. So when I got to the prison, Samira was really my way into the show, as Poussey was. It was this weird double layer that was going on. She brought me in, both Samira and Poussey. That was nice serendipity.

And then they had to go and destroy it for everyone.

Yes, for everyone. You know, it’s funny, when we did “Molly Dodd” there was an actor named Richard Venture who played Molly’s father and he was killed off early on. Richard worked more than almost anybody else because Molly took to having conversations with him, she would see his ghost on the roof. I thought, “You know, I could see Samira back.” People could have dreams of her, people could see her ghost and have conversations. You never know with these shows, where this will lead. Maybe there will be lots of flashbacks. There’s no way to know.

I know you don’t know anything about Season 5…

Not a thing, which is great.

But would you like Judy to have a flashback episode?

I don’t know. I’m so curious to find out what will happen. Do I carry on and leave [the prison]? Does the situation cause something else to happen? I hope it goes on, I hope it has a life. For me and for Judy.

I do hope you’re back in Season 5.

Me too, fingers crossed. If you find out before I do, tell me!

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