That familiar-looking actress who starts Red out as a full-on villain -- from the steely glare to the hissing invective -- before slowly revealing glimmers of her softie side is Kate Mulgrew. She's played a famous detective's wife (Mrs. Columbo, from the Columbo spinoff series) and a starship captain (Kathryn Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager), and now is enjoying her time as a scheming inmate. But she thinks of Orange's Red quite differently than you might. (She admires her for her fortitude, her keen eye for organization and the pride she takes in being the No. 1 kitchen-shot caller at New York's Litchfield federal prison.)
Recently, when we caught up with Mulgrew by phone, she had just begun filming season two of Orange Is the New Black but was ready to talk about Chicken Kiev, what constitutes a good dinner party and the origins of Red's hairdo.Squid Ink: Red is a real piece of work -- she's power-mad, scarily vindictive but secretly feels every slight and misstep. Is that what appealed to you about the part?
Kate Mulgrew: From the beginning it was very clear to me that she was a multilayered person. She's a remarkable creation although based on a real person. I think Papadakis was her real name and she was at Litchfield with Piper Kerman. But all I was told was that she has a light Russian accent and that she runs the kitchen. But I didn't know what her crime was.
SI: On the series, Red is so unforgiving when it comes to Piper's total naivete about the world inside of prison. In real life, what kind of role did Papadakis play in Piper Kerman's life?
KM: I think [Piper Kerman] developed a deep and enduring relationship with that woman. I think Red helped her through what could have been an impossible situation for a girl of her background, helped her survive the culture of prison. She promises her that there is life after this, there is hope. And a way to do it is to find something at which you can be quite useful, quite productive and quite good.
KM: My kitchen is my everything to me. I try to make it the best possible kitchen that I can. I'm very proud of that.
SI: Was there an on-set consultant who explained to you what prison food is like?
KM: I already know what prison food is like.
SI: How is it that an Obie-winning Golden Globe nominee who has starred as Cleopatra in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra is familiar with such things?
KM: I've shot in prisons as an actress. Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins was shot at Riker's Island. I've eaten that food. The food is appalling. If there's any nourishment in it, it's hidden. There's certainly no flavor. There's no flavor because it's ... PRISON. You're being punished. You're not going to be given good food. On no level are you to be gratified. Food is the only thing in prison that resembles life outside of prison. Well, food and sleep. And yet in minimum security, I think that Red is, under these circumstances, doing her level best to raise the kitchen to a new level. Even though it can never be great, [Red] thinks it's great.
SI: What are Red's best dishes?
KM: [She] excels at her gravy.
SI: And this is why at one point, as a way of intimidating Red, someone taints a vat of her lovingly prepared Thanksgiving gravy?
KM: That's right. That's why it was the ultimate insult.
SI: Does Red have a plan for preventing that from ever happening again?
KM: [in a low, menacing Russian accent] I'm sure she does. But I can't share that with you. [laughs] Nobody will EVER [taint] my gravy again. For a multitude of reasons, which you will find out later on. You will find out everything in the second season.
SI: When filming dining scenes actors often like to pick something they wouldn't mind nibbling on for hours upon hours. What is the food prop of preference in the OITNB cafeteria?
KM: It's a tricky business, that. If you do multiple takes, you have to figure it out. If it's bread, the bread can crumble and that's hard to repeat. If it's yogurt, that doesn't go down so easily. Usually it's just something you're kind of holding in your hand or a spoon or a fork. It's a skill that actors have to learn -- otherwise we'd all weigh 500 pounds.
SI: That's quite a visual. You famously played Captain Kathryn Janeway on Star Trek: Voyager. What do you think Red and the Star Trek franchise's first female captain to anchor a series have in common?
KM: A ship is a ship. One is a spaceship and one is a prison. But we're both leaders of a kind, and we're both very tough and very vulnerable. Beyond that, I would draw very few parallels.
SI: How about that both favor head-swivelingly distinctive hairstyles? Is that a crazy wig you're wearing on OITNB?
KM: [mock-insulted] That's my hair! I had to cut it. A wig may have been discussed for maybe a half a second. But even I said to Jenji, "It has to be real." Then it started, the evolution. I had long, thick, light brown hair. By the end of that day, it was spiked and magenta-eggplant red, and that's how it should be. It was short, spiky and it was something that would scream power within prison walls. In prison, colors are beige and orange. Colors are not often seen in prison. Against this canvas is this vivid magenta hair, nails and mouth, and I think Red has earned those colors and stripes.
SI: What kind of reception did your interesting new look get at home?
KM: My boyfriend looked at me -- I think aghast is a good word. I met him at a restaurant that night. He tried to get up from his chair to greet me out of politeness and chivalry. Then he fell back down. He said, "Is it going to be like this ... forever?" I said, [in a Russian accent], "Not if you don't fuck with me, pal."
SI: You had four months between shooting season one and being production on season two. Did you grow your hair out?
KM: I let it grow out. And it's still like that.
SI: That I believe is a tiny clue to Red's season two look, no?
KM: I'm not telling you anything.
SI: Reader be forewarned: This next question has some spoiler elements. What entrée plans does Red have once she is running the kitchen again?