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Orange Is the New Black’s Kate Mulgrew on Embracing Red’s Spiky Hair and Russian Accent

Kate Mulgrew. Photo: Courtesy of Netflix

Trekkies know Kate Mulgrew as Captain Kathryn Janeway from Star Trek: Voyager. In the past month, though, she’s acquired an additional fanbase on Orange Is the New Black, in which she plays the Litchfield’s resident den mother, Red. From the moment Piper inadvertently blasts Red’s cooking skills in episode one, Mulgrew is commanding and often hilarious as the stern, two-strikes-you’re-out chef, who sits atop the prison’s social pecking order. We caught up with Mulgrew a week after she began shooting the show’s second season and talked about Red’s survival instincts, the character’s real-life counterpart, and subjecting her Montenegrin doormen to her accent.

Even before I started watching the show, I heard a lot of people talk about how unrecognizable you were. Did that surprise you, or do you agree?
I agree. And I have to tell you that I myself am rather surprised, because I don’t look like that at all in life. And that leads me to believe only one thing, and that is that Red must reside within me. Otherwise, it wouldn’t work. The hair, the chef’s jacket, the red lipstick, the eyes, all of that. The character has to live within, and that’s what the transformation is all about. I think. I hope. I don’t think that my boyfriend thinks I look like that. [Laughs]

Do you like your short red hair?
There was that momentary hesitation, which is merely the hesitation of vanity. I mean, I had long, light brown, lovely hair, and Jenji [Kohan] said you gotta cut that. I said okay. So I went with the hairdresser and we did it in increments, and every time I trudged back up the hill [on set to ask Kohan], she just gave me a thumbs down: shorter, shorter. So I finally said, “Just cut it, just spike it, let’s go magenta, let’s just go.”

Piper Kerman, whose memoir the series is based on, was on set while you guys were shooting. Did you get any feedback from her on your character? Was Red based on someone from Kerman’s own time in prison?
She was based on [a woman from Kerman’s prison time]. The book was dedicated to her and to Larry [Kerman’s husband], and I think it’s very much based on Piper’s experience with Red, whose real name is Papadakis. That woman took her under her wing and helped her get through what had to have been an absolutely stunning fifteen, sixteen months in that girl’s life. And she shepherded her through it. She protected her, given the condition she would be loyal to [Papadakis].

What were some helpful notes you got from Piper or Jenji?
You see that the Russian women, before she comes to prison, have shunned her completely. She’s an oddball, she’s a goofball, she’s not popular, she never was. And I think that has always directed her and been a part of her decisions and her terrific vulnerability, which is just under her strengths. Her idea of survival is to be as excellent as she can be under harrowing circumstances. So she tries to make the kitchen as superb as she can make it, and even though she’s notoriously sort of medium as a cook, she thinks she’s a great cook. I knock myself out making Thanksgiving dinner and I’ll do anything to get that chicken. Did you see “The Chickening” yet?

I did.
[In Red’s accent] “I want that chicken, do you understand? I believe in that!” She believes in the soul of the chicken, and she is gonna eat it, and she’s going to absorb the power. She loves all that.

It must be a lot of fun to play with your Russian accent.
It is fun. The whole idea of this character, you can imagine — I’m an actress of a certain age, right? I’m a middle-aged woman, and to find this kind of a role and encounter this kind of an opportunity at this stage in the game is both mysterious and magical. I’m happy. I’m really, deeply happy about it.

Did you try out real prison food to see what it actually tastes like?
I’ve had prison food because I was in a prison before.

Oh, really?
As a visitor, thank you very much. [Laughs] You jumped on that one pretty quickly. “Kate Mulgrew Incarcerated.”

What do you mean, as a visitor? Were you doing research?
I did a movie and we shot at Rikers for a few days. That was a very stunning experience because that was maximum security, and I was young and pretty, and I had to walk through — and boy, oh boy, I’m telling you, it chills you to the bone. Once you know you’re locked up and you can’t get out, I think something happens. The people who manage to hold onto their soul, their spine, their mettle, are very unique, because prison is intended to strip you of your singularity. This is what Red will not allow to be taken from her. She would rather die than be other than who she truly is.

I read somewhere that they wanted Red to have a lighter Russian accent. Did they ever ask you to tone it down?
In the audition, it said a light Russian accent. So I did some studying of the accent and it’s almost an oxymoron, a light Russian accent, because the accent itself is so deep in the throat. Anyway, it just emerged like this, and nobody said a thing. She’s [in accent] Russian and proud to be Russian. And maybe in prison it really helps her.

You really ease into it well. Do you find yourself speaking that way a lot?
I do. When I get to work, that’s it. It’s very off-putting, I know. One woman from Netflix said to me at the premiere, “I didn’t approach you for six months because you were scaring me. I thought, ‘Is she really Russian? Kate Mulgrew? I’ve heard her, I know she was the captain on Star Trek, but she had a nice accent for that one!’” So when I get to work I turn it on, because I have to stay there.

Do you use it at home?
Unwittingly I fall into it. The doormen in my building are Montenegrin, so now I come home and say [in Red’s accent], “How are you guys doing? What’s going on? What the fuck went on today?” They look at me like, What happened to you? She had a lobotomy! You went away and now you’re back and you think you’re this Russian bitch! My doormen aren’t nice to me anymore. They stand up to attention when I walk in. “How are you doing?”

Are there any Trekkies on the show?
I think a lot of them knew who I was and liked that work, but none that have come forward. That would be a little weird.

At one point Natasha Lyonne has a line, “I thought I was your Spock.”
Yes, they threw that in. I’m sure they’ll do some more of that. I think that was intentional and very clever!

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