Spoilers for the fifth season of Orange Is the New Black ahead.
The inmates of Litchfield Penitentiary have endured horror after horror during their time served, be it getting branded with a swastika or beating each other to a bloody pulp. But more often than not, it’s the prison staff — not its population — that’s responsible for Litchfield’s darkest days. In Orange Is the New Black’s fifth season, as the aftermath of the prison riot spurred by a prison guard killing Poussey continues to unfold, we see several of the show’s most beloved characters brutalized by the prison’s worst villain yet, Desi Piscatella (Brad William Henke), the militant head of the guards introduced last season when Litchfield became a for-profit prison.
With the prison now under siege from within, Piscatella concentrates his vitriol on the inmates — namely his No. 1 enemy Galina “Red” Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew) — into devising a plan to infiltrate the prison against the governor’s orders so he can punish Red and all her friends however he sees fit. In episode ten, directed by OITNB star Laura Prepon (a.k.a. Alex Vause), Piscatella’s horrific torture of Red, Piper Chapman, Vause, Big Boo, Nicky Nichols, and Blanca alternates with flashbacks that of a young Piscatella that reveal he once fell in love with an inmate at his first job at a men’s maximum-security prison, and had burned to death another inmate who attacked his lover. Vulture talked to Henke — who speaks of Piscatella in the first person — about Piscatella’s humanity, the deleted scene that changes Piscatella’s story, and what it’s like having to torture your own director.
How much of Piscatella’s backstory did you know?
Zero. I just knew the stuff about how my mom treated me, but I didn’t know anything about the rest of it. When I read the rest, I thought awesome. But let me tell you what’s different: In the script, and what we shot, when [Piscatella’s lover] gets beaten up and I save him, I reach down and his tattoo [with Piscatella’s initials] smears. He had faked his tattoo. And that didn’t make it into the show. I texted Laura the other day, “I just watched the show and the tattoo coming off isn’t on there!” She’s like, “No way. I guess they cut that for some reason.” So when I was playing it, I was playing that he broke my heart. He had a tattoo of me and I got a tattoo of him, and his was fake.
That changes Piscatella’s entire motivation entirely.
I know! Completely. I liked how it was because I’m doing these things because my heart is broken. Now it’s more like it’s vengeance toward them. But because I was playing it like that, you can feel that.
Well, it’s vengeance either way. I read it as maybe Piscatella’s lover didn’t make it after being attacked, and so now all prisoners must be punished for it. It’s misplaced rage.
You think? My heart was hurt by my mom because she didn’t accept me or love me for who I am. Then, I loved this guy, and for whatever reason, I let my guard down and got hurt. And I swore that I would never let my guard down again. That’s why I have to be a hard ass, keep structure, and can’t be friendly with one person and not with another. I feel responsible.
Is Piscatella humanized to you?
He is. We all get in fights with people, lovers, or friends, and we get triggered or hurt and say mean things or do too much. He just went way, way, way too far. But I feel like that interrogation scene — these women idolize Red. They call her mom, they want to be like her, and think she’s this great person. When, in fact, if she’s your role model, she’s in prison for the rest of her life. So when I grab Nicky and I say, “You see what prison does to a person?” I’m really trying to teach them a nice lesson. A loving lesson. But I was triggered and I’m doing it in a fucked up way. And I don’t feel like they’ve gotten the point.
How did it work having Laura direct you and also be in that torture scene?
I don’t just trust that every director is gonna help me, because sometimes a director is so worried about the show they’re shooting and the puzzle that goes together. But I had this rehearsal with Laura and she had this notebook with all these notes about every line I said. I’m like, goddamn, she’s prepared. I came away from that meeting saying, “Laura, I’m gonna trust you and everything you say to do, I’m gonna do and I’m gonna try it.” It was so great. I’ve never felt so taken care of or so much like a director made my performance better.
I read you filmed some of the torture scene on Election Day and it pushed you all to go further. What was the mood like on set?
Not for me, but this is the best character I’ve ever gotten to play. I’m so immersed in it when I’m there that I’m just pacing around. I like to sit away from everyone, especially on a scene like that. They know to put a chair for me away from everybody. What was hard was there was so many people in one room, and it’s mostly me and Red talking. Sometimes it gets loud and I would just stand with my face in the corner. Natasha [Lyonne] is one of the best actors around, and she also talks and sings a lot. For me to be able to concentrate and just be present — if I’m irritated, let everything irritate me. Natasha was awesome. Red is so fun to act with because I always feel like she’s judging me as an actor. I like that. If she thinks you’re shit, you’re gonna know it. At the end of the day, she gives me a little wink, and that feels good.
How were the scenes where you’re ripping out Red’s hair filmed?
Sometimes it’s me pulling her hair, sometimes it’s me having fake hair in my hand, pulling her hair, and then dropping the fake hair. And then sometimes it’s a stunt person in a wig so I can really do it. Just the hair took six hours.
Did you ever worry about actually hurting the other actors?
I always worry about that because I’m a giant. Kate is like, “Just do it, throw me.” And I’m like, “Wait, wait, wait. How hard to throw you and how hard to grab you so I’m not thinking about it during the scene?” She’s so tough and into it, but I always like to ask if this is okay. I’m strong and I want to know what the boundary is.
Was it in the script to break Vause’s arm, or was that Laura Prepon’s decision?
It was written and we rehearsed all that with a stunt person the week before. But, as Piscatella, he’s not thinking he’s gonna break a person’s arm. That’s, she jumped on my back and I had to subdue her and then she triggered me.
He justifies all his actions.
When I watch the show, of course, I see that’s too far. But as the character, I got a lot of anger and hurt in me and it comes out. He needed a lot of therapy.
Danielle Brooks told me that the scene in the finale where Taystee has a gun to Piscatella’s head was one of her hardest to shoot. How was it on your end?
We did the rehearsal and she asked me what I thought, and I told her, “If you put the gun to my head too many times and let go too many times, I’m not gonna fear it as much.” So she put the gun to my temple and that’s when I try to talk Taystee out of it, but when she put the gun to my forehead, I thought, This is it. And I said a prayer to ask God to forgive me. But Taystee’s not a murderer, she’s just hurt. It didn’t make it on the show, but Taystee did slap me and I think it really helped getting that aggression out and added some intensity. Danielle’s awesome.
Do you think Piscatella got what he deserved in the end, to die by “friendly fire”?
I read the whole script and thought this could not be a better end. It’s poetic. But, no, because I think I made a transformation. You don’t really see it in the show, but when I see Taystee crying with Black Cindy [about Poussey], I’m like, Oh my god, look what you’ve created. And then Red lets me go. [I didn’t want him to die], especially not by some fucking idiot who’s not a trained officer when I really took that shit seriously. I would’ve been a better person.
Will you continue to watch the show?
I will watch it next year in two days just I like I do every other year. I actually didn’t see the show until year three and I binged it over a few days, and then I go the audition, and was in New York a few days later. I will always love and watch this show. It’s interesting because I was a fan of Lost, and then once I shot Lost, I never watched it again. That’s all I’m gonna say about that. Orange Is the New Black was the best acting experience of my life.
This interview has been edited and condensed.