Major spoilers for season four of Orange Is the New Black ahead.
In every season of Orange Is the New Black, there’s at least one story that takes viewers down a deep well of despair. For season four, it’s Lolly Whitehill (Lori Petty), a fierce friend to everyone and no one, whose history of mental illness takes an ugly turn. When we last left Lolly, her paranoid delusions about the NSA nearly caused her to attack Alex Vause (Laura Prepon). She opens this season by unknowingly saving Alex’s life when she nearly kicks to death the hit man sent to kill Vause, with Alex later finishing the job. It’s a move that sets in motion a season of inner turmoil for Lolly, whose delusions tell her to build a time machine to take her back to that moment. In flashbacks, we learn Lolly’s always been this way: Once an amateur reporter with paranoid tendencies, she later rejects a life in a group home for a life on the streets selling coffee — ultimately her downfall when she has a psychotic episode in front of police. Despite making small progress under Sam Healy’s misguided counsel at Litchfield, the murder that haunts Lolly ultimately breaks her. Vulture spoke to Lori Petty about going back in time and why Lolly deserved better than prison.
How much did you know about Lolly’s past going into this season?
Really not much. The writers are exceptional, and they will write an episode and then they’ll watch as you bring it to life. It’s kind of a partnership where they follow your lead, but they also lead you, like a dance. They see where you take it. I don’t think it’s all planned out. It’s very much a marriage; they write on their feet. They’re good at listening, seeing, and feeling. If you watch Doggett or Big Boo’s stories, it’s not all panned out in advance.
It must be strange watching a younger version of yourself in the flashback. Christina Brucato does such a spot-on impression of you as Lolly, it’s uncanny.
Wasn’t it crazy good? Dude, she was amazing. I, of course, never had a scene with her ‘cause we were the same person. But people were telling me when I went to work the next day, We thought you were there doing the lines because she sounded so much like you.
When Lolly kills the hit man sent to kill Alex, do you think she has any idea what she’s doing, or is she just in protective mode over Alex?
She’s not trying to kill him. No, she’s protecting her friend, period. It just ended up like that. He was trying to kill Alex, so kill or be killed. And then, c’mon, she gets done killing him and goes [puts on Lolly’s voice], “So there’s this big hole in the fence, and everybody’s going swimming, and I just thought maybe you’d wanna go.” Like, Okay, I saved you, now let’s go swimming. I love it. It’s scary as hell, and it’s funny as hell at the same time. It’s horrible and it’s hysterical — that’s so difficult to write, to play, to edit, and we did it. It’s remarkable. You love her so much, but you’re like, Just don’t sit next to me. [Laughs.]
I imagine filming the body-dismemberment scene was quite the day on set.
Oh my God. It was so gross, dude. They have these bags of blood that if you cut it a certain way, the blood would squirt out. I mean, a lot of blood would come flying out. And it was really … I gagged a lot. I thought I was gonna throw up; it was just so grotesque.
Lolly obviously has a history of mental illness. Did you have to do any research to get inside her head?
I’ve been doing this since, well, before you were born, so I’ve played a lot of different characters with mental illness. I’ve done research at USC, watched movies, and talked to doctors. And I did a three-episode arc on House as a character who had Huntington’s disease, so I’ve learned a lot about many mental illnesses. I didn’t specifically study this one, but I’m sure she’s highly intelligent. She does hear voices, and like she says, “Just because they’re not real, doesn’t mean they don’t have something to say.” So she’s very smart, but she’s schizophrenic. She means well, she does her best, but she’s just not getting the help that she deserves. And that’s what happens. They put people in prison instead of in a hospital.
We don’t know the full story of how Lolly ended up in prison, but do you think she deserves to be incarcerated?
No. I’d like to see the day she got put in jail, the exact incident. What happened? Because they do just throw you in jail. I live in Venice Beach, and they’ll do a sweep and just pick everybody up. That could’ve happened, or who knows? And she’s already been in that horrible group home.
When you film the scenes where Lolly is hearing voices, is there someone speaking to you in an in-ear, or do you just have to imagine it?
Both. Not an in-ear, but sometimes the script supervisor will read the “They hate you, they’re gonna kill you” lines. And then sometimes they want it clean, so it’s not always like that. I don’t care either way. I can act like I’m hearing voices [laughs]. And I loved her stick that shuts the voices off! It was very Tank Girl. I wanted to keep it, but we ended up moving to another location and I couldn’t find it. I wanted to walk around Venice with it [laughs].
We learn more about Sam Healy through Lolly this season. Lolly unfortunately doesn’t get to see what happens to him, but were you surprised Healy ends up checking himself into a mental-health facility after a suicide attempt?
That blew my mind. A lot of times when I’m working, I’ll just read my part. Because my character doesn’t know the other stuff, so why would I? So I honestly didn’t read that part. I knew what happened to Samira [Poussey], but I didn’t know about Healy checking himself in. So I saw it like you saw it. It freaked me the fuck out. Michael Harney’s such a great actor.
Luckily, Lolly doesn’t see her time machine torn down either.
It made me so sad! Especially because Emma [Myles, who plays Leanne] is such a good friend of mine. But they just got fucked up and wrecked the time machine. I just thought, Emmaaa! You do not do this! Lolly loved that time machine.
What do you hope Lolly’s story will contribute to the larger conversations about mental illness and the prison-industrial complex?
You can’t just lock these people up! They need help. It’s true what she says about not having a moment where everything went wrong. Not one thing happened; the whole thing happened. Living in Venice Beach, I see a third of these homeless people that need mental help. And they’re just being thrown away; no one’s helping them. You can’t just lock someone up or leave them on the beach, but that’s what they do. We have to help each other. When it gets to the point where you’re locking people up because you don’t wanna help them, that’s just so fucked. And that’s what happened to Lolly. That’s why she’s so loving and kind — she needs that. People often do what they need. I think she’s a really good person who just needs help.
The most heartbreaking thing is Lolly accepts that she’s mentally ill. But when she’s put in the psych ward after confessing to the murder, she reacts as if she doesn’t belong there. What was filming that scene like for you?
It was horrible, just a nightmare. As an actor, when you’re doing it, you just believe what you’re doing. So when Lolly was taken in the psych ward, they had people that they were restraining that they didn’t show in the episode. But they were there. So to see what they were gonna do to me, that was what that reaction was. There were people being held down, people being force-fed medicine, people in cages — and that’s all true. It’s really what happens. That was my reaction: What if this was happening to you? It was just awful. And to know that everyone is somebody’s baby, or mom, or brother — these aren’t people you don’t relate to. It’s us, it’s me, it’s you.
This interview has been condensed and edited.