Warning: This interview contains spoilers from the second season of Orange Is the New Black. Proceed at your own risk.
Natalie Figueroa, or “Fig,” — the assistant warden, and for the inmates and officers, the ultimate authority at Litchfield — had a rough go of it in the second season. She caught her politico husband canoodling with his bespectacled male aide, and she quietly resigned (with a commendation, of course) when she felt the noose tightening around her neck. Vulture caught up with Alysia Reiner, who plays Fig, on the patio of the Bowery Hotel at the after-party of the premiere of Begin Again. She spoke with us about how she gets into Fig’s mindset, whether she thinks Fig is good at her job, and about the the “beer can” scene. You know the one.
How did you get the part of Fig?
I auditioned for Alex and I auditioned for Polly — so I auditioned for her lover and her best friend. I got neither role. I had 24 hours of sadness, and then you have to forget about it. Part of your job is you have to shed and forget about it. Later my agent and manager called and said, “Orange called and they just direct-offered you this role on the show. It’s a new role.” Not knowing anything about the role, not having a single line, I was just like, “Yes!” because I loved that script so much and I loved Jenji [Kohan] so much. I did a happy dance with my daughter and my husband. She’s a 5-year-old. She was like, “Momma’s doing a serious dance. I must join her now.” And she did.
What part of yourself do you access to play Fig?
I access the part of myself that’s too hungry, too angry, too tired, and maybe some hormones are involved. We’ve all had those moments where you think everyone around you is stupid. Being who I am, I try and pray my way or meditate my way out of that, but when I play Fig, I don’t do any of those. I just go, “What the fuck is your problem?” And that’s how she feels about pretty much everything. “What the fuck is your problem? Why can’t you just handle this?”
In season one, we had a very specific idea about Fig as this domineering, ruthless character; and in season two, we get a lot more depth and intensity.
Today a fan stopped me and said, “She’s so mad, but she’s so sad.” I said, “Yeah, she’s so mad because she’s so sad.” I really do believe when you’re in a ton of pain, you tend to take it out on other people. If you deal with your stuff, you don’t take it out on everybody else. Girlfriend has not dealt with her stuff.
Like her husband? Do you think she really didn’t know?
I do believe that she didn’t know about her husband, because she is a woman who closed her eyes to a lot. And maybe this is an interesting moment in her life. I’m so curious where they go with her, because when one is forced to open her eyes about something, fascinating things can happen.
Exactly! I don’t know if they’re going to go there. Or maybe she’ll just stay a power-hungry woman who wants to be president someday.
What is going through Fig’s mind when she’s at the party for her husband and Caputo keeps calling her about the prison?
I just want my husband to be senator. I want to do everything I can to make him the king. There’s a Game of Thrones quality to that episode in a deep way. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and she is just single-minded. She is deeply focused.
What happens to her psyche when she’s confronted with the truth that her husband is having an affair with another man?
I can’t believe it. No no no no no no. I think she probably has blocked a lot over the years that she chose not to see. That one she couldn’t not see.
She’s so Lady Macbeth. It seems like moving forward, she’ll just be like, “Let’s put that in the closet.”
Let’s put it back in the closet! I think that’s probably best for everyone. She is a very pragmatic woman — unlike a lot of people on the show. She makes very calculated decisions. She is a very pragmatic woman, so I’m very curious what will happen.
Let’s get to that scene.
The “beer-can scene,” as it’s been titled.
What is Fig thinking about when she’s finally taken down? She looked destroyed.
I think Fig was deeply vulnerable. She was having one of the darkest moments of her soul, possibly in her life. And he threw her a bone. When you’re feeling that deeply sad, and as a woman, I can say, when someone says you’re hot, which he does, it’s like, “Oh, my life might not be over.” Which is — as I’m saying that — horrific, because it’s not like he said, “You’re a valuable human being.” He said, “You’re hot.” Which says a lot about women and our culture as well. But that was enough to bring her back to “herself,” who then went, okay, how can I manipulate this situation? How can I see if I can get my claws back in?
So that’s why she gave him the blow job?
I think so. I mean, who knows. As an actor, in the moment, the writing is so good, you just let it … it’s like riding a wave, it’s like surfing. When I have amazing writing, I try not to plan anything.
What was difficult about shooting that scene?
Just having to be there emotionally. As funny as people may find it, I couldn’t find it very funny. I had to just go for the experience and not the comedy. She in her own way loves what she does. She loves power. And the idea of something being taken from her is heartbreaking, and I think she was willing to do whatever it was that she needed to do.
Do you think she’s good at her job?
That’s such a great question. As Alysia or as Fig?
Let’s start with Fig.
I think as Fig I’m fucking awesome at my job. I think I keep that place running and if it were not for me, it would close the fuck down. I have eyes on the greater good, and I’m really good at my job.
I suck! As Alysia, I would have so many plans for really truly rehabilitating these women and educating these women and giving them possibility for the future. I personally am very active with the women’s prison association, and I designed a locket and 100 percent of the proceeds go to the women’s prison association. Were I in her position, I would hope I would do things differently, but I do believe she has helped keep the place open. I think it would have closed down and there would have been a lot of women on the streets, or there would be a lot of women in prisons very far from their spouses or their children, and that wouldn’t be very good for anybody. Keeping a prison open is good for everybody.
Would you love to see her in orange?
I would love to see her in orange! I’m a karmic girl, I believe in karma. I would love it. I think it would be a fascinating character study. Anyone campaigning for that, I would be like, “Yes!”