OITNB season 4 spoilers ahead!
Some of my favorite parts of Orange is the New Black are the backstories. Some are shocking and completely change the way you look at a character. The others act as evidence to support our previous perception of who someone is. Alan Aisenberg’s character, Baxter Bayley, had his backstory episode this season. Everything seemed pretty normal. But just when you were liking him the most, Bayley becomes one of the biggest fuck-ups in television history. Alan’s performance was gut wrenching. The whole episode was. Whenever I want to ask a fictional character, “How could you?” that inevitably means I want to ask the actor, “How did you…?” In this interview, Alan takes us through how he performed that pivotal scene, how he booked OITNB, and how he’s been a producer since age 19.
When did you catch the acting bug?
I was kind of a ham when I was a kid. My sister and I would put on these shows when my parents would come home from work everyday. We would you use little dolls. I feel like everyone did this. We’d make a little stage. My dad bought tickets at Staples that we would give out. When family would come over we’d put on these far too elaborate productions at a very young age—probably about three or four. Then at about five or six I remember my parents asked me, “Hey do you want to take an acting class.” I didn’t really recognize this as an actual field or anything. I said, “Sure, it sounds like fun.” I signed up for a class and then just got hooked. There was something super fun about playing around and being able to try different things—not be stuck in a routine of daily life. Every day was something different. Every week I looked forward to Sunday. I spent all day Sunday there for three or four years doing plays and musicals, stuff like that.
Then I slowly started working professionally. We didn’t know but the acting class we signed up for had a reputation for churning out kids into the actual professional world. Agents came to our shows. I got signed to an agent; my sister signed with an agent. I slowly started working in commercials and now 18 years later, here we are.
What other training did you do to help set you up for success?
I kind of jumped around a bunch because I was working. When I was in high school, or even middle school, it felt like a hobby. I would learn by working. In the last five or ten years, the thing that really opened me up was improv classes. I went through the program at UCB. I had no interest in performing long-form improv or anything like that. To get yourself to a mindset where you can feel comfortable doing anything was incredibly informative, especially with my success on Orange I think. When you’re on stage and the scene calls for something you have to do it. I talk to a lot of my improv team members now and I thank them. I could get onstage with those guys in front of thirty people in the basement of a bar and then the week after that go audition for Orange and feel comfortable doing whatever—improvising, listening to the words. It [makes] you become a better actor. I think you become a better person. I think everyone should take improv classes, whether you’re a doctor or a cop. It teaches you to operate at a speed that most people don’t work at. It’s obviously easiest applied to acting. It feels like this superpower in the back of your brain…I think it was very influential especially with my early work on Orange—using those principles in a more scripted world.
How did you get involved with Improv Everywhere? You’ve participated in almost all aspects of the filmmaking process with them.
I started in 2012 a production company with my partner Andrew Soltys. Our first big project was this documentary on Improv Everywhere. We took it to South by Southwest and it sold. We started working a lot with Charlie Todd, the guy who runs Improv Everywhere. For the last four and a half years we’ve produced every piece of content that Improv Everywhere has created. That’s where I go every morning. If I’m not on Orange, if I’m not working, I have an office, a desk, and employees. I like having a place where I go everyday at 10am. I think as an actor you can easily sit around all day. Producing interests me. There’s a lot in producing that interest me more than acting just because you can make it yourself. If I want to do something I can put it together as opposed to waiting for the phone to ring. I consider myself a producer who acts.
Improv Everywhere was this thing I’d loved since I was very young. It was the epitome of, “Just go out and play.” From very early on, like ten or eleven, I got hooked. I slowly started working with Charlie and now he’s a producing partner of mine. That’s a crazy thing. If I’d told ten or eleven year old Alan that, that I get to help run this thing that has 10,000 people taking their pants off in the subways, it’s pretty cool. I get to use a totally different side of my brain. I love that.
Improv Everywhere video produced by Alan
Let’s talk about Orange is the New Black. How did the job come about and what was your audition like?
My agents on like a Monday night were like, “Hey, we have this appointment for Orange is the New Black.” I had heard of it. My folks loved it; I knew it was my sister’s favorite show. It was a couple lines—a scene or two. It was like the pepper spray scene or something like that. I went in on a Tuesday. Memorized it on the subway ride down—worked through it a little bit. I figured, “Okay, this kid’s sort of a dumb idiot.” Wednesday I booked it, Thursday I did a fitting, and Monday I started shooting. I was supposed to do one episode. That’s all that was written for me, that’s all that I was told. Then they were nice enough to keep writing for Bayley. I did seven my first season [episodes] and then my second season did all thirteen. I think that the way that Jenji [Kohan, creator] and those guys write is if something’s working, it’s working. If something’s not working, it’s not working. They obviously have a story for the entire season, but I think they’re malleable and flexible. Luckily, they saw something in me, or maybe not, and kept me around. I’m very grateful to them.
At the end of the first week, I was saying goodbye to people. I was like, “This was fun. I’m going to show this to my friends in nine months. Look at these cool two scenes I did on this show a bunch of people watch!” I had no idea it was going to turn into this.
You learn about your character at the pace we do. Accident aside, how has your perception of Bayley changed from when you started the show to now?
I think it’s pretty in line with my thinking. There are a lot of hints about this guy in a lot of the earlier episodes and even early into the season…There weren’t really any left turns. He was always trigger-happy and a dumb kid, but inside he really did care for these girls. You see that confirmed later in [season four] when he throws the eggs at Freda. He doesn’t feel great. That was alluded to a season ago. They had a very clear idea of who this character was. I don’t think they knew what he was going to do, but I think they knew who this guy was. He’s a dumb, numbskull, but he has a heart. That’s how I felt. He’s uneducated and floating through life. The guy I thought he was and the guy I was trying to play I think is what was written…That was the cool thing about the backstory. Reading it didn’t feel like this big departure, unlike some of the backstories that are supposed to feel like a left turn. It was more like, “Let’s build him out into the human we see glimpses of—let’s flesh that out a little bit.”
You and Lauren Morelli, who wrote“The Animals” episode, broke down the entire script over lunch one day. What were some big takeaways from that meeting and how did it inform what you did when filming?
From the time I got the script to the time I met with Lauren I had read the script probably about ten times. I had this whole list of questions. The biggest takeaway was that I was in good hands. She knew the entire script. She knew the series so intricately. She’s one of the writers who’ve been there since day one. I knew that any questions, insecurities, or doubts I had were completely unfounded because I was working under Lauren Morelli who knew this beautiful script, who knew the show better than anyone else. She wasn’t going to let this thing not work. That really put me at ease to do my thing. She’s going to tell me if my thing isn’t what the thing needs to be—and if not, we’ll figure it out. I’m going to do my thing, which is why they brought me here and she’s going to guide me to get me to the end point. She was so good about taking charge and a lead on the story, but also being open to interpretation or changes. She gave me the freedom to figure things out. She had this great mix of an incredible amount of confidence and openness to conversation. I could text her a question and she would write back and say, “Great! Let’s go with that.” My biggest takeaway from that lunch was “I’m in great hands, she knows exactly what she’s doing, trust that.”
When everyone else got the script a couple weeks later, Laura Gomez who plays Blanca came up to me. She had just done her backstory episode a couple episodes before. I was like, “Do you have any advice?” And she said, “Ask questions and be open. You’re going to spend nine days with Matt [Weiner, the director] and Lauren. Don’t hide anything. If you have a question, ask if. Six months later when you’re watching it, you’re going to feel really stupid if you did something that you wished you’d asked about.” Between the lunch and Laura saying that to me I was totally open and on board with everything they wanted to do.
What were some questions that you had?
It was little things. Like in the ice cream scene, how much of this is malice? I think that’s what a lot of this episode plays with. There’s no bad intent in this kid. He’s not giving away those ice creams because he wants to screw over the ice cream shop. He’s giving out those ice creams because he only sees the ice cream and cute girls. He’s not thinking past that. That comes out to a broader form. Poussey isn’t trying to hurt Bayley when she jumps out. She’s just trying to help her friend. There was this theme in a lot of scenes making it very clear that there’s no bad intents here. I feel like a lot of my questions were based on that: finding ways to clarify that he doesn’t want to hurt anyone. He doesn’t want to hurt the guy who owns the ice cream shop. He doesn’t want to hurt Poussey.
You did over 100 takes of Poussey’s death scene. That’s some David Fincher level stuff. How did you keep your energy up?
You just go. I didn’t feel myself shutting down, but you get a little tired. There was something about when I got into the corner of the cafeteria and I knew the camera [was there], and I saw Samira [Wiley] get down on the floor. I don’t know if it was adrenaline or excitement, it just turned on. I wish I could use that part of my brain more controllably because it’d be great when I don’t have that extra kick. On Orange I never feel really tired. You’re there and you’re on. There’s no way to explain it. You’re firing at 100%. Luckily, my body has kept up with me on that show.
What was Bayley’s motivation when he tackled Poussey?
Bayley thinks about one thing at a time, in general. He’s thinking, “This woman is freaking out—Crazy Eyes is freaking out.” He doesn’t do anything. Piscatella tells him to grab her. He grabs her. He’s not thinking two or three steps ahead. He’s going one thing at a time. His focus is, “Piscatella told me I need to grab onto this girl. Wait, now someone’s grabbing me.” Now, I’m focused on that. I’m not focusing on two things at once. I think that’s true of him throughout the entire season…He’s so frazzled. He doesn’t have much. His world is really shaken to its core. He loses donuts, he almost loses Caputo at some point or starts to feel some sort of rift between them. He’s not in the best mental place. That’s why he moves at such a slower pace in this scene. When he sees Poussey come down, he’s not thinking. As tired as he is from not sleeping the night before and after seeing what he saw, he’s not thinking. He’s just reacting, which ultimately is fatal.
The set is such a social environment from what I’ve heard and people have to navigate it based on what they’re shooting. Have you had the experience?
I think because the show plays both sides of it so well—they play the comedic stuff so beautifully and the drama, the writing is some of the best on television—the crew and the cast is very hyper aware of what scene is which and what the tone is. For something like the cafeteria scene, everyone knows exactly where everyone is mentally. If they see you sitting in the corner of the floor in the middle of the sound stage, they’re not going to come up and hang out. It’s four seasons into the show. People know to give them their space. Also, Lisa Vinnecour, who’s the executive producer, runs the New York production. She’s very instrumental in giving people their space. If someone is sitting in the middle of craziness and is taking a moment and can’t muster the energy to move, Lisa will notice that. She’ll tell the people playing tic-tac-toe around the person to move and get out of their space. The show is such a well-oiled machine at this point. That’s one of the parts that people are very respectful of.
It’s interesting. There are so many people on the show and everyone comes in with their own methods.
And it changes with the scene, too. There’s comedic stuff that I did leading up to the end. I’m loud and I like dicking around. We work very long hours. You have to keep things fresh and fun when you’re shooting the same scene for six hours in a row. I think depending on the scene that helps it. But for something like my scene with Piper in the hallway, I sat in my trailer for four hours listening to [music]. You’re not going to be running around talking to people. Every scene is different. Everybody reads the script and is aware of what’s happening, so everyone knows where everyone else is at. Everyone’s very caring and understanding.
There’s been a lot of commentary about the season in terms of what it means in a social justice context. Is that something you think about on set?
Yeah, totally. I found that whenever I started thinking during production about how people were going to react to Bayley, or even to me specifically as a human being, I started getting distracted. I wasn’t focusing on the work. Especially when you’re in production, you can’t think about anything but that. You have to be completely in the scene and in the moment. I think in retrospect now, the show’s out. The show exists. People are going to talk about it. People are going to like it. People aren’t going to like it. You just have to go out there and do your best and see what happens.
What’s your advice for aspiring actors?
Make shit. Go find people who you like and who you have similar tastes with. Or maybe find people who you don’t have similar tastes with and try something different. It’s so easy today to make stuff and put it out in the world. Or not and just make stuff. You have a better camera in your pocket than all of these giant filmmakers or actors had when they were kids and look at where they are. It’s so easy to just experiment. The barrier to entry is so low. If you’re not making stuff and you want to be an actor or filmmaker, you’re just making excuses. You have to practice this stuff. You have to get good at it. The closest way to getting good at it is to keep doing it. I don’t think I’m good at this. I think I’m working towards it. I want to keep working at it to get good at it. I’m 23. I’m still learning. I’m so excited about the amount of stuff I do not know. That excites me in the morning: “What am I going to learn today?” Set yourself up to learn, set yourself up to fail, set yourself up to make stuff that you are or are not proud of. I think eventually you will get paid for it, or not and you’ll still be doing the thing that you love.
Watch Alan as Baxter Bayley on Orange is the New Black streaming on Netflix!