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Orange Is the New Black’s Barbara Rosenblat on Playing Miss Rosa and Being ‘the Meryl Streep of Audiobooks’

This interview contains spoilers up through the second season of Orange Is the New Black, so come back after you’ve caught up. Hurry!

Barbara Rosenblat is something of a celebrity in the audiobook community: Over the years, she has recorded over 500 audiobook titles, not to mention being named Voice of the 20th Century by AudioFile magazine, among numerous other accolades. But while you may recognize her voice (or indeed, you may have seen her face in one of her many TV and theater roles over the years), few parts have been as rich and unusual as her latest: that of cancer-stricken inmate Miss Rosa on Orange Is the New Black. Over the course of the show’s two seasons, the no-nonsense bank robber evolved from being a bit player to becoming one of season two’s most fascinating breakout roles. We talked to Rosenblat about the epic final scene, prosthetic headpieces, and being “the Meryl Streep of audiobooks.”

Your character had such a minor part in the first season. I didn’t expect to see her grow so much.
Neither did I!

When did you find out that your role on the show was expanding, and how did that feel?
Well, it was around the time my agent let me know that they were going to be doing my backstory, and I thought: Really? I’m going to matter? And I was terribly thrilled and very excited, but I still wasn’t sure where I fit into this crazy quilt until about three-quarters of the way through shooting, and then we had a better idea of how this was all going to play out. It’s very cleverly written.

Were you excited when you realized that Miss Rosa would be the one to tie up the season?
Well, if you must know, when I found this out, I ran into the bathroom, shut the door, and screamed for five minutes. Then I thought: What? Me? Are you kidding? After all this effort to get rid of this woman, just evil incarnate, you know, and then I stroll along in my van. [In Miss Rosa voice] “So rude, that one.” Amazing.

That final scene was really great.
You know, I have never seen a response to anything in my life that I’ve done since I think J.R. got shot [laughs]. It was a very, very cold morning when they shot it, I think it was four degrees or something. And you know those little heat patches you can pull off the the plastic and rub it to get hot? I was shedding them everywhere, like 70 of them from four hours of shooting. So cold. The director, he was putting each of us, Stephanie [Andujar, who played young Miss Rosa] and myself, back and forth behind the wheel to make that filmic transition as well as they did, which I thought was magical.

I think I read in another interview that when you first got the part of Miss Rosa, there was very little information about the character, and that you kind of had to come up with it all yourself.
I knew nothing. I auditioned, like hundreds of other women in New York, and I left hoping there was something in this show with my name on it. And my agent called me up a few days later, saying, “They want you to play the part of Miss Rosa.” And I said, “Oh, great, who is that?” “Don’t know.” “But she’s an inmate — what’s her last name?” “No idea.” “What’s she in for?” “Haven’t a clue. But she’s really sick, she’s got cancer.” “Oh, what kind?” “Haven’t figured that out yet.” “Oh … okay.” Because I think they only had episode one in hand at the time, so I was using dialogue from that that they had available for the audition process. So I said “Okay, I’ll take it.”

The second season focused a lot on all of the elderly characters, which I thought was a really cool choice.
I was just so pleased that Jenji decided to push more envelopes than Staples this season by taking these demographics, especially the Golden Girls, and letting us in to these stages of life that aren’t addressed normally on television, and I just think it’s delicious when that happens, and I was utterly thrilled at all of it.

It was nice that this season moved away from Piper a bit to showcase some more unconventional characters.
I think the magic of the show that Jenji’s created is the fact that [it’s] this cesspool of womanhood that you would normally avert your eyes from — you are forced to not only notice it, but to take it in. I just think that it’s magical, because don’t you always find you only make a first impression once and it’s usually very superficial, but after you spend a little time with whoever it is, whether a pauper or a prince, your brain takes in [more] and you start to connect on a human level.

You’re a voice actress by training. How did you come up with the voice you use for your character? It’s very distinctive.
My inspiration was reading the script and letting the lines indicate to me what was necessary. Because as you may remember, I didn’t know a lot about her. And when I finally put that costume on and had that wig cap on and that first day and I looked at myself in the mirror and said, “Okay, Rosenblat — who is Miss Rosa?” And I had to find what every actor looks for when confronted with a new role, and that is an internal life, an internal biography, something that would give legitimacy to her presence and her being. That’s what I sought to do. And when we got to episode two or three, when I’m lying in bed and I’m trying to explain to Piper how we deal with problems in prison and I said, “I could have been the jefa, which means in Spanish I could have been the chief, and I said, “Aha! She’s Hispanic, okay.” I wasn’t sure from where, could have been Puerto Rican, could have been Dominican, could have been Cuban, could have been anything; but I had to make a choice, you know. And because as an actor, my first responsibility is to be understood, I wanted to give her a dialect of some sort that would be indicative of something Latin, but clear. And because she’s sick, she’s a little labored, so … it seems to have worked.

It certainly worked. On a related note — what was it like being bald?
Did you know, every time that I worked on that set, every time I appeared on that show, somebody, whether it was crew or a fellow actor sitting opposite me or an extra, somebody would say to me, Did you shave your head? Or you’re so lucky, you have a great-shaped head. And I’d bend over and say, “It’s silicon, feel it!” But that’s a testament to [makeup artist] Josh Turri, who is utterly brilliant and a perfectionist. I would get in that chair at sometimes half past dark in the morning and sit there while he very carefully applied this appliance to my head. Appliance is what they call it. It was a separate appliance that was attached to my neck, so you got this entirely organic sense that I was utterly bald and suffering [from] cancer. He covered my eyebrows and would put fake ones on top of those, and then the airbrush work. Just amazing. And then it was another 45 minutes just to get the whole thing off at the end of the day.

There was a lot of not-that-glamorous stuff your character had to do. I think you plucked your nipple hair at one point?
That was a great Jodie Foster episode, yes. In fact, she had a little chat with me and Miss Rosa, to go over the logistics of this moment, which I was happy to do, but then I’m thinking to myself, I’m standing here in a room with Jodie Foster, trying to explain how much we’re going to reveal in this scene, and I look like a sick, bald cancer inmate — this is unreal.

How does the experience of acting for a show like OITNB compare to your audiobook work?
They’re very different disciplines. I’ve been recording audiobooks for more than 30 years. I’ve recorded over 500 titles on all sort of things. I’m a sort of genre-free recording artist — classics and romances, I just finished a sci-fi book, self help …  just all kinds of things. And if you’re prepared and you’ve done your homework and you’ve read through the book and figure out what the authors intents are and bring your A game, it’s a very immediate, intense kind of acting where you are in effect creating the entire audio landscape for the author, and it’s a new way of ingesting a book. Nothing taxes an actor more thoroughly than a good audiobook.

I’ve heard you’ve been called the Meryl Streep of audiobooks.
Astonishing. You know, to be spoken of in the same breath with her, one of my heroes, is remarkable in and of itself. Because I’m always telling students when I do a master class on audiobooks: Watch Meryl Streep, watch her disappear into a role, watch what she does. Of course, she’s only responsible for one character; I do 4,700 in a book [laughs].

You must be well read at this point.
That’s one of the joys of doing this work: You get to learn so much. Not only about the way the author writes, so that you can integrate his dramatic arcs into your own set of recording skills in order to give the listener a wonderful audio experience — or should I say, sonic storytelling — but also you learn so much about the various plots and vocabulary and people and language and dialects. And I’ve been doing tons of different dialects for decades now, and I teach it as well, so yes, it makes you a much more well-rounded artist. And it gives you options when, for example, someone gives you Miss Rosa, and you say, “Okay, I have to make some decisions about her because its rather thinly sketched out, and I need to give it some blood.”

Barbara Rosenblat on Playing OITNB’s Miss Rosa