Even if you've only watched a couple episodes of Netflix's new women-in-prison series, Orange Is the New Black, one fleeting glance at a group shot of the ensemble of Jenji Kohan's comedy-drama based on Piper Kerman's memoir of the same name and you will remember Galina “Red” Reznikov. She's the one with the hard mouth and the permanent don't-mess-with-me expression. She's the one with a New Wave coif that looks like it was achieved with a hedge trimmer. And if you have binge-watched all 13 segments, you know she's the head cook with the easily bruised feelings who punishes newbie Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) for dissing her food by issuing a cafeteria-wide ban on anyone feeding Piper. Now that's prison power.
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?
KM: She's going to find that elusive chicken [that Piper spotted in the prison yard]. And she is going to make Chicken Kiev and it's going to be the only silent scene ever shot for Orange Is the New Black because the women are going to be so dazzled, so overcome with pleasure, that they're just going to eat the Chicken Kiev in absolute blissful silence. That's my dream.
SI: On a scale of one to 10, how bad is the food that the inmates are eating?
KM: Given what she's given to work with it's probably a 5. Everything is limited. The spices are limited. The butter is limited. The oil is limited. The stuff that makes food good, right? Within that, I would say that there's not a lot of room for creativity.
SI: Recently Nancy Grace hosted a special called Women Behind Bars. One segment featured inventively created prison food — one dish got an Asian-style orange chicken flavor by soaking chicken breast in a bath of Kool-Aid.
KM: Yes. And amazing things can be done with potato chips, with Cup of Noodles and tuna. With crackers. You can bake things, you can broil things. It's amazing. But Red would not know about those things. She prides herself on proper recipes executed only in the kitchen. Red is on an elevated scale. If she goes to her dorm room to eat anything, it's a cup of coffee and maybe a tin of tuna fish.
SI: Are you, Kate Mulgrew, drawn to the culinary arts?
KM: I'm really quite an advanced cook. What do you want to know?
SI: When you want to make your boyfriend a lovely meal, what ends up on the dining room table?
KM: I have a lot of dinner parties and I love to cook. If I want a comfortable and happy meal, I'll cook Italian. If I want an impressive meal, I'll do French because it can be hard and it's sauce-based, and that can be quite tricky. For the Italian palate, I can make any kind of pasta, I can do anything with veal, anything with chicken. I make brilliant stews. I make an osso buco to die for. It's limitless. I'm not a great baker. I'm one of those women who will serve a lovely fruit compote and some beautiful cheeses at the end for dessert. I won't bake a cake.
SI: How did you learn to cook?
KM: I was raising my children, and I'm one of eight children myself. I watched a little bit and I learned. When my kids were very young, and finicky, which all children are, I tried to devise interesting ways to seduce them with food. And that developed into my love of dinner parties.
SI: Tell us about a typical Kate Mulgrew dinner party.
KM: I like nothing better than having six or eight people milling around my kitchen, candlelight, great wine, a beautiful three-, four-, five-course meal and everybody leaving at 2 a.m. That's my idea of absolute bliss.
SI: Woo hoo! Have you had the cast over?
KM: I've had Taylor over several times. We're old pals. We did Mercy together. She loves a good dinner party, too. I've had Natasha [Lyonne]. I'll have them all, one by one. I like small groups, not a big thing.
SI: Does being a good cook make you better at playing Red?
KM: There's a pride to cooking, a generosity, and a gratification to it. You're proud of what you're producing, you're generous because you want to feed the people you love, and you're gratified to see everyone so happy because of something created by your own hands. It's a wonderful feeling. It's maternal, it's sensual. Food is life.
SI: Do you think that OITNB is popular because everybody feels somehow connected to this community of women?
KM: I think so. There are 200 in this prison and each belongs to a certain tribe — there are the blacks, the Latinas, the Golden Girls, the ghetto girls, the Christian right. I think everybody watching can either relate to it directly — or indirectly. Their family, their background, their history. [OITNB] covers the entire spectrum of humanity. Also we can't forget that these are not hardened criminals. This isn't maximum security. These are generally women who screwed up. And we're all capable of screwing up, right?
SI: You've been an actress for more than 40 years. How does OITNB fit in the greater scheme of things?
KM: This is the first time I've ever felt completely liberated as an actor. They only want me to be Red. They don't want me to be beautiful or exemplary. They just want me to be Red. And that's true of every single woman who's been cast. Jenji has exquisite taste. These girls are absolutely authentic and very skilled and they are just dazzled by it and so excited. Some of these girls of the streets of New York, fresh out of Juilliard, culled from every corner of the city. They're marvelous actresses who I think never dreamed, and overnight, that this could happen. Their energy is pretty contagious.
SI: How important is being kitchen manager to Red?
KM: It defines her. What landed her in prison is the first place is her need to be useful. To be productive. Her need to make whatever it is she's doing excellent and above the norm. She's very smart, you know. She's been in prison for 12 years and she's garnered the respect of the C.O.'s and administration. And they've allowed her to take the kitchen to a new level. That excellence and that culture of the kitchen, filled with music, with life, with color and scents, filled with food? That allows Red to put her head on the pillow at night and not want to blow her brains out. As long as she can feed this population, these girls, she am gratified. That is food for her.
Want to know how the real-life Piper Kerman made cheesecake out of eight wedges of Laughing Cow cheese and 6 oz. of Coffee Mate? Check back later…
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