An Interview with ‘Orange is the New Black’ star Michael Harney

Michael Harney (Image Credit: Brett Erickson)
Michael Harney (Image Credit: Brett Erickson)

It’s always exciting to speak with someone who has been in the entertainment industry as long as Michael Harney has. From roles on shows like NYPD: Blue and Deadwoodto Weedsand his newest venture, Orange is the New Black,Harney demonstrates the kind of skills it takes to stay in the business. But the other half of what has made him a lasting figure in entertainment comes from his gruff voice that oozes charm and character, as well as an attitude that truly shows how much he cares about the work he’s doing.

In this interview, Harney sat down with us to discuss his previous experience, why Orange is the New Black is such an important show and just who’d he’d switch lives with on the show. Read on for the full interview…

The Daily Quirk: We like to start at the beginning, so can you tell me a little bit about what inspired you to become an actor, or when you first knew it was the career for you?

Michael Harney: When I was younger, I was going to be a social worker and I studied social work and worked with civil rights. I worked in prison reform for a couple of years when I was a young kid right out of high school. Then I went to study in upstate New York, but it was mostly sociological theory. So what I wound up doing was taking an acting class and I got very lucky and ended up with a guy from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art who kind of took me under his wing and long story short did several shows back-to-back with him. And I had done really nothing but a high school play. So I just did all these shows back-to-back and when I got out of school I decided I was going to pursue [acting].

Michael Harney in DEADWOOD (Image Credit: HBO)
Michael Harney in DEADWOOD (Image Credit: HBO)

TDQ: You also have experience in theater. Is there any chance you’ll return to the stage again sometime soon?

MH: I’d like to do theater again. It’s actually my favorite medium, though I like television and film a lot. I shouldn’t say it’s my favorite. I guess there’s just favorite aspects of each, maybe, for me. But I did over 80 plays in New York, off of Broadway mostly. I produced my own work, built my own sets, you name it. I wound up studying for seven years and wound up teaching professionally for eight years while I was directing. I had just fallen in love with the art of acting, basically.

TDQ: You’ve played so many great characters from Detective Roberts on NYPD Blue to Steve Fields on Deadwood. Is there any character that sticks out in your mind as having been the most fun to play?

MH: I actually did a stage play, I played Dylan Thomas many years ago, and that sticks out in my mind as being one of the favorite roles for me. I really learned a great deal. And actually got sober after I played him so that was a big part of my life. But that was on stage. On television, Deadwood was really a great experience for me and I think that particular [role] was a very tough role to play in some respects because of the subject matter, but I think it’s a favorite because of the meaning [the role] brought to the storyline and I thought it was really well written. I was honored to be a part of that as well.

Michael Harney and Alexander Gould in WEEDS (Image Credit: Showtime)
Michael Harney and Alexander Gould in WEEDS (Image Credit: Showtime)

TDQ: I can’t wait to ask you about Orange is the New Black, but before we get there I would like to ask you about you previous experience working with the show’s creator,  Jenji Kohan, on Weeds which she also created. How did your role on weeds as Det. Mitch Ouellette come about?

MH: Working with Jenji has just been phenomenal. I went ahead and did a reading, I remember one of the producers, Michael Trim was in the room and I believe I read over at Warner Brothers [pauses] or was it Universal? I think it was Universal. But the experience has been phenomenal. You know, I’ve been lucky. I’ve been lucky to work with great showrunners like David Welch and Jenji Kohan for many years. Specifically with Weeds the writing was so good that I was able to be funny, but I was also able to work dramatically all in the same episode, often times. As an actor, I’m not under any delusions because I’ve been at this so long, and I know that doesn’t happen all the time. So I felt very lucky and grateful to be a part of that group.

And then they came to me with this opportunity [Orange is the New Black] and I jumped at it. It means a lot when you can go to work and you’re there for work. And you work really hard, tell a few jokes and then you go home for dinner [laughs]. But that speaks to the professionalism of the cast and the crew. Everybody’s dedicated to what their doing and everybody’s committed to creating excellence from the producers to the people who just get the coffee. Everybody’s working really hard, so that’s my experience.

TDQ: What attracted you to the role Sam Healy?

MH: I did some volunteer in prison reform some years ago up in Sing-Sing. I was volunteering with a college professor and a few other people and I learned a little bit about prison and how difficult it is. And artistically, I wanted to present that to the public. About the challenges for inmates that are incarcerated so that people can look and say ‘Well, if I had dome something a little different, maybe that would be me.’ Especially comparing themselves to Piper, because she was a person that was not going to end up in jail under most circumstances, yet she wound up there after a couple of twists of fate. So I think our compassion level is very important for people to say ‘Hey, that could have been me.’

Michael Harney in ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK (Image Credit: Netflix)
Michael Harney in ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK (Image Credit: Netflix)

TDQ: Was it different filming a series for Netflix than for traditionally aired television?

MH: No, no. The days are pretty much the same. They’re really long days with pretty much the same structure. I feel that we shot it with a lot of professionalism involved and it was more like cinema. But that has always been my experience working with Jenji, like on Weeds. It’s definitely a different feel, obviously, but it’s still about the storyline.

TDQ: The show’s set is really impressive. Did it feel like being in a real prison while shooting?

MH: Yeah, it sure did. When we do the exteriors and we do some of the other shots, we go to upstate New York and they use an old children’s hospital which really gives you the feel of being in a prison, and then there are the sets in the studio. It’s like when I did Deadwood. It wasn’t a big leap for me to feel like I was in an 1800s town because of the detail. And it’s the same with this set. It’s not a big leap to see myself walking down the hall in a prison because everything is to detail. So that really helps us as actors. It just feeds us and we can work off of the environment as well as each other to fuel our performances.

TDQ: Speaking of the set, Healy has an interesting bobble head doll collection on his desk. Was that something the set designers came up with or a personal touch on your part?

MH: [Laughs] Yeah, it actually was the writers and the set designers. There’s actually this scene – well I don’t want to give it away. But they came up with that and then I incorporated it into my character development.

TDQ: Most of you interaction on the show is with Taylor Schilling’s character Piper and your characters have such a great, almost father daughter chemistry on screen. What’s it been like working together?

MH: It’s been really good. I think the dynamic is really rich and I do think that there is an element of [Healy] being a paternal figure, or wanting to be a paternal figure in her life as well as feeling like she’s very special. So I think it’s complex. It’s not just that I feel paternally toward her, because there are other levels as well, which will be exposed as we move on. But I think that the relationship dynamic is very rich and it’s showing up on screen.

TDQ: The series has gotten such a strong, positive response from viewers. What do you think it is about the show that appeals to such a broad audience?

MH: I think there’s sort of a natural inclination, if you look at all the shows about being locked up – locked up in this place, or that place – people are fascinated by a life that is completely different from their own. That’s number one. Number two is the feeling that ‘Well, this could have been me had things played out a little differently.’ Number three, it’s also that I think human beings have a tendency to look in places of great conflict. And what greater place of conflict is there than a prison? They’re drawn to watching every week to see what’s going to happen. It almost fills a void in certain respects with certain folks in our society, and that’s not a negative thing. It just sort of fills out the landscape for certain folks and it’s educational. Hopefully it’s going to be educational in a good way and in an informative way in order for people to learn about the prison system and to learn about that process.

Michael Harney and Taylor Schilling in ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK (Image Credit: Netflix)
Michael Harney and Taylor Schilling in ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK (Image Credit: Netflix)

TDQ: For all us none marathon watchers myself included who like to make the season last as long as possible, can you tell us a little bit about what to expect in the second half of the series?

MH: No, I can’t. I can’t tell you that because I don’t even know anything. We fly by the seat of our pants when we’re shooting. Things happen very quickly, and I’ll find out a little bit before when the scripts are released, but I don’t find out way ahead of time. And I kind of prefer not to. I guess the business changed about 15 years ago, and we used to know things about characters. But nowadays it’s different. And I think it’s because the writers are really committed to creating something great, so they don’t want to get pinned down to something too early in case they come up with something better.

TDQ: What was it like finding out the show was picked up for another season before the premiere?

MH: That was just outstanding. It was really great, and I was really grateful for my part. I’ve been doing this 35 years and it’s my first series where we got a second season before the first even premiered. It was a big deal. It was great.

TDQ: And just for fun, if you could trade characters with anyone from Orange is the New Black for a week, who would you choose?

MH: Who would I choose? I’d have to choose…let’s see…I’d have to say Matt McGorry [John Bennett]. To help in that situation, that would be an interesting role to play. To try having a kid with someone who’s incarcerated. I think that would have a lot of depth and dimension to it.

The Daily Quirk would like to thank Mr. Harney for speaking with us. Check out Orange is the New Black on Netflix now!

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I'm a book-addicted, TV-obsessed, Ohio University Bobcat for life who majored in smoothie consumption, Netflix and, oh yeah, journalism.

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