This interview contains spoilers from the second season of Orange Is the New Black, so come back after you’ve watched it all the way through.
What with Litchfield’s motley crew of prison personnel, from the embezzling Fig to the sleazy, predatory [insert male prison-staff member’s name here], Lauren Lapkus’s sweet and gentle Susan Fischer is a breath of fresh air. She’s one of the few prison employees who actually seems to empathize with the inmates — even if that soft-heartedness usually ends up with her getting walked all over. Seriously: Over the course of her two-season arc, Fischer has been choked, propositioned (by multiple people), screamed at, forced to eat penis cookies, and ultimately fired when she tried to speak her mind (but she was so close to paying off her Kia!) We spoke to Lauren Lapkus — a comedian and an improviser who is a fixture at UCB and on Comedy Bang Bang — about using her improv skills on set, being the nice corrections officer, and what it was like to be propositioned by the bassist of “Sideboob.”
Fischer seems like just the last person in the world to ever end up working as a corrections officer. How do you think she ended up at Litchfield?
I feel like, because of the way she tries to assert herself so much and prove herself to everyone in the jail, I personally felt that it was something she was trying to prove to her family. Because it seems like something she would never end up doing, like you said, and so against her true nature, but it seems like she was just trying to show that she could be tough or could do something that people didn’t think she was capable of.
It’s a shame we didn’t get to see a flashback scene. We could have seen her bagging groceries at the Fairway in Red Hook.
Yeah! I was so hopeful it would happen. What took her out of that job to go to prison, I don’t know.
What was her motive behind starting to listen to the inmates’ phone conversations?
I think it was something that was kind of giving her some entertainment, and also a way for her to not have to be mean but still be helpful. But that was another thing that was so interesting to me was that Fischer was able to overhear some really juicy gossip and was — spoiler alert! — fired before she had the chance to do anything about it. But I think that was a really exciting little moment for her, to kind of get an inside scoop without having to assert herself in a scary way that would obviously backfire. And to use some of her special skills, like speaking Spanish.
At one point she said that overhearing all those lives was like reading a Dickens novel.
Yeah, it was definitely entertaining. And in a job like that where you’re sort of standing around forever, it’s a good excuse to sit down.
There was also a pretty funny interaction where Fischer was propositioned by Nicky, and initially she seemed freaked out, but at the end, she confessed that she was kind of flattered. Do you think she really would have considered it?
I think she was just flattered that anybody would thinking anything nice about her. I don’t think she would ever really do it, but that was a really fun moment. I was curious if it was going to go that way because it would have been hilarious to watch Fischer hook up with someone. Especially Nichols, who’s a pretty forceful character.
I think I’d rather see Fischer hook up with Nicky than Caputo.
Me too, at a certain point. But I started to feel so bad for him. He’s one of those characters where they paint him in an evil way, where he’s kind of masturbating when people leave the office and stuff like that, but then in this season, we get to see him with his band and his outside life that he kind of seems so tender and sensitive, and it kind of makes it worse, the way Fischer treats him.
Speaking of the band, I’ve heard Sideboob is actually a real band.
Oh, yeah! The band is real. I don’t know what the name of the actual band is, but they were great, they were awesome, and they really played in those scenes. And Nick, who plays Caputo, he sang for real. That was really him singing. And that was really cool because he was nervous, because he’s not a singer. But I think he did really well, seeing him rise to that challenge.
When did you find out Fischer was getting fired, and how did it feel to learn that?
I found out by reading the script that week, and it was totally shocking and I was sad! It was like being killed off. I was totally sad. But it’s cool because it’s still a little open-ended, and it was really cool to get to have such a great arc with Fischer, and it was exciting to be able to take her on a whole little journey and have an emotional ending to the whole thing.
It was nice to see her come into her own.
For sure. And she left trying to take a stand for herself and for her co-workers. And it backfired again, but it was worth a shot.
Do you think she learned something?
I think so, I think it definitely was a growing experience for her and hopefully gave her some kind of feeling about not trying to prove herself necessarily in arenas that she doesn’t have to. I think that was something where she was pushing herself to be a person she’s not at heart, and it might not have been worth all the pain that it caused for herself. ‘Cause she’s just very sensitive and just in a world where no one was catering to those needs at all.
I feel like her character really forces the viewer to ask the question of what makes a good prison employee, because she’s often the only guard who shows real empathy for the women, and yet she’s not really very good at her job when it comes down to it.
That’s the thing — she’s trying to do what’s right, at least for her morals and for her own self, but it doesn’t really work with the way the system is in place, so it’s kind of not worth it at a certain point to try and take a stand because you’re not going to make the change by yourself. And I guess it’s kind of sad, but it’s what happens with her. Every time she tries to do something, it’s just totally not worth it.
She has a great line where she says to Piper something along the lines of “You and I are the same: I made bad decisions, I just didn’t get caught,” which kind of reflects the message of the show in a lot of ways.
Yeah, definitely, and she can kind of be the viewer’s perspective in a little way, because I think that’s true for most people. Most people have kind of done something that could put them in jail at least for one night. She has that empathy that most of the other guards won’t allow themselves to feel, so it’s kind of nice for the viewer to see somebody give them a little break.
Still, it’s hard for me to imagine Fischer doing something that could have landed her in there.
I don’t know. I like to think that she, like, murdered somebody. [Laughs.]
I know you come from mainly an improv and comedy background. Do you want to go back to doing mostly comedy, or has OITNB shifted your focus?
Comedy is my first love, that’s my main goal in life, to keep doing comedy. But Orange definitely opened my eyes to different styles of comedy, and I love that kind of dark comedy and dramedy stuff. I’d love to do more stuff like that.
OITNB seems pretty scripted, but were there any opportunities to use your improv skills?
Doing the show the first season, obviously I hadn’t watched it yet, so the tone was something that we all kind of decided on ourselves, and it was one of those things of being in the scene and trying to play it really serious and then they’d be, oh, that was really funny, and it’s like, oh, okay, this is funny in this world, and I’m trying to be a serious cop. But I think me being a corrections officer is naturally going to be humorous ‘cause I just have no power over anyone. So it was fun to play with those dynamics, and I think in the second season I feel like I got more opportunities to do physical comedy and stuff, like with eating the penis cookie and stuff. That was really fun for me, and I got to use a little bit of my improv training.
How many penis cookies did you have to eat to get that shot?
I had probably like eight cookies. I spit them out at a certain point.
So are you similar to Fischer in real life, or are you a bit more wild, as we might assume from some of your Comedy Bang Bang characters?
I don’t necessarily relate to Fischer that much. I often play characters on TV shows that are more sweet and naïve and just kind of puppy-dog eyes, and I don’t think I am like that as a person. My improv definitely shows a different side of myself, which is more true to what my real humor is and what my real personality is, and I think — I guess wild is a good word for it. I’m still sweet! But I won’t let anyone walk all over me.