When someone’s been in the business for 30+ years, as Lori Petty has, they hold a wealth of knowledge that’s just waiting to be shared. Whether you’ve been a fan of her’s from the start or just fell in love with Lolly on Orange is the New Black, you know the power Petty brings to her performances. She learned from Robin Williams, taught Jennifer Lawrence, and now it’s your turn to take it all in.
MC: When did you catch the acting bug?
LP: I was eight years old and my dad was a preacher. We weren’t allowed to watch TV or do anything like that. He had a church. My mom sent me home to get something in our little house next to the church. For some reason the TV was on. I don’t know why because we weren’t even allowed in that room. I heard this sound and it was the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard. It turns out it was Michael Jackson singing “Who’s Lovin You” when he was like twelve. It was a cartoon. I was just so full of joy and happiness. Then I found out that was a real person—it wasn’t just a cartoon. My mom would let me go back and watch part of the cartoon during church sometimes and not tell my dad. I just thought, “I’m going to live in the TV because I’m going to make people feel like this.” That’s really what I do. People see me and they smile [Lori laughs]. It’s pretty cool. That’s how it happened. Luckily I’m talented.
Did anyone or anything inspire you to pursue a career acting?
No, that’s just what I was going to do. I was born in Tennessee in a trailer park. We didn’t go to the movies. I didn’t go to college. I just knew that being an artist was who I was and acting is what I do. I’m interested in writing, directing, and painting, too.
Did you do any formal training?
Not really. I did a few acting classes. It wasn’t really for me. For me it’s more about being near other artists, doing a scene with friends. That stuff’s important. Most of the lessons you’re going to learn are going to be at work. Being at work is a whole other animal than being in class. You can work on your accents, physicality, and stage presence. Those things you can learn in class. But to actually be successful, you’ve got to work at work.
Was there a specific project where you feel like you learned a lot?
Well every single thing I did I learned more and more. I’d say working with Robin Williams in Cadillac Man. It was my first movie. He was so patient. He was so loving. He would do off camera work, which a lot of big stars won’t even do—they make someone else do it. Robin Williams was my first greatest teacher.
The first day of filming the put me in a hotel. They put me in a hotel because I was homeless. They were also filming Goodfellas. I was in this hotel with De Niro, Pesci, Ray Liotta. We were all hanging out at the bar having fun. I showed them my call sheet and I said, “What does this mean? Cover set? I’m not working tomorrow, but down at the bottom it says cover set Lori Petty and Robin.”
And they said, “Oh that’s if it rains. But it’s not going to rain.” They weren’t being mean. They were being nice. We’re all partying in that bar. You know, in New York [bars] stays open until 4am, so we’re just having fun. I go up to my room at like 4:30 and it starts thunder storming [Lori laughs]! I get no sleep and I have to go to work! My first day on my first movie and it’s me and Robin Williams! He was so sweet. Of course I was nervous, but I was thrilled. I wasn’t dying nervous. I was like, “Let’s go this is so exciting!”
We started our scene and then Robin goes, “Hey, let’s take lunch.”
I’m like, “Dude it’s eight in the morning.”
And he says, “I’m Robin Williams, I can do whatever I want.” He was just being silly.
So he orders a pizza—gets a pizza for us some how. He invites me in his room and we’re just sitting, laughing, eating pizza. I looked at him and went, “You are the coolest guy in the history of people.” He knew I was nervous. He didn’t say, “You know what, let’s take a half an hour and calm down.” He just ordered a pizza and we chilled. Then I [felt] like I’ve got this.
We went back to the stage and he just gave 200%. He would be off camera crying—he wasn’t even on camera—just to help me. Just to love me and be there with me. He just taught me how to treat other actors: how to behave on set, how to be professional and kind and giving. It’s just so important to me.
I do that on Orange is the New Black. There are girls who are in their 20s and some of them might say, “Why are you calling Tony ‘sir?’”
I go, “Well, he’s the director. You call the director, ‘sir.’”
They’re like, “Oh Lori, you’re so silly.”
“No, I’m not being silly. I’m being serious.”
“Yeah but you know him, he’s the writer.”
“Yes, I know him, but he’s the director.”
When he says, “Places please,” I say, “Yes sir, thank you.” That’s just how it is. That’s just how we roll. That’s how we keep a beautiful order to what we do. Were not just messing around here. None of the girls are messing around ever. Some of these girls went to Juilliard. They’re amazing New York theater actresses. But there are some old school things that I’ve learned that I try to pass on.
Is that what you want when you’re directing? What do you like to see from your actors when you’re running a set?
Well, this wasn’t really for the actors, but when I did The Poker House and I had my first meeting—we had maybe 50 people on the crew—I said, “Listen, no one talks above this level. You talk in a normal speaking voice. If you need something, you use your walkie-talkie or have a PA [Production Assistant] go do it for you. You don’t yell. There’s no yelling.” You know, if you have actors trying to do their work and all of a sudden someone is screaming it just wrecks your life.
They all said, “Whatever, Lori. That’s impossible.”
And I said, “No, we’re doing this. We’re doing this.”
After the first or second day everybody went, “This is so awesome!”
You don’t have to be upset, in a hurry, or crazy. You don’t have to be stressed to do your best. You just don’t. That was an important thing for me.
Also, it was Jennifer [Lawrence’s] first movie. She was carrying the movie. She was the star. I mean, there were a lot of great people in the movie, but she was the star. I’d see her talking to somebody over at the craft services table. I’d go over to her and say, “What are you doing?” I taught her a few things about your energy, your power, and your you. You have to protect yourself all day because you have work to do. You only have X amount of energy. Everyone only has X amount of energy. I told her about that when we first started rehearsing and gave her a few tips. I caught her hanging out talking to some boy at the craft service table—a grip or somebody—and I said, “What are you doing?”
And she said, “Being stupid!”
I said, “No you’re not being stupid at all. There’s not one stupid thing about you. But you can make a better choice. What’s a better choice?”
“Go on a walk with the PA, take a nap, read my script, eat, ride my bike.”
“Exactly! All those things are good for you. But someone taking your energy away from you [isn’t]. Because that’s what they’re doing. They don’t mean to do it. They’re not devils. But that’s what they’re doing. Because baby, you’re a star—period.”
I mean, I saw that on the tap when I first saw her. When you’ve got all that superpower, people are drawn to you and they want to talk to you. They want to touch you and they want to hang out with you. It just drains you and you don’t even know it. That’s something I taught Jennifer and that’s something I would teach any actor: protect yourself.
Its funny you bring that up because everyone I’ve talked to on Orange is the New Black says what a social environment it is. Everyone’s dancing in the halls, hanging out, so at times you really need to isolate yourself. What’s your experience with that?
It’s true. What you just said is exactly what we do. There are so many people. Sometimes you’ll be at work and not work for seven or eight hours. That’s no one’s fault. That’s just how it is. You know, Jackie Cruz loves to make those [Musical.ly] videos, which are great. We’ll have dance parties, do music videos. We’ll gossip, eat a bunch of potato chips, drink cokes, sit on the floor and be crazy. But if you have a big scene coming up and you’re like, “Oh crap, where’d Lea [DeLaria] go? Oh she’s got that big scene.” It’s a huge stage. You’ll go find a room at Sesame Street and get it together and do your work. There’s plenty of space to be alone.
If you’re not working in a scene, or you’re just background—a lot of the time your character’s in the background and has nothing to say—on those days we’ll just party all day and be silly all day. But if you have to work, you have to work. Everybody respects that. If everyone’s in my room, I’ll be like, “Alright everybody get out. I have to work. I’m up next.” [Lori laughs] It’s like, “Get out of my room.” But usually every single person’s door is open—seriously. Every single dressing room door is open.
How did OITNB come about?
I saw the show. I know everybody’s use to it now because it’s been on TV for four years. But four years ago, this was something we’d never seen before. This was like a whole new animal. It was like All in the Family or something. Like, “What the hell is going on here?” [Lori laughs] It was amazing. I saw the show and said, “Why am I not on this show right now? I want to be on this show.” So I was at this restaurant in New York City called Blue Ribbon. I was looking at IMdB on my telephone. I was looking up who the casting director was for Orange is the New Black and it was Jen Euston. Jen Euston’s office was right across the street from Blue Ribbon. Can you believe that? In all of New York City! I could see her office from where I was sitting. So I called my manager and said, “I want you to call Jen Euston. I want to talk to her. I’m right across the street.”
She’s like, “You want me to tell the biggest casting director in the world right now that you’re downstairs and want to come up? Come on.”
I go, “Yeah, that’s exactly what I want you to do!” [Lori laughs]
She goes, “Okay?”
[Jen] casts Girls, she casts Orange. She’s a big deal. They called her and Jen’s like, “Yeah! Send her up!”
Wow, that’s so badass.
Well, you know what, I’ve been doing this long enough. The closed mouth doesn’t get fed. You have all these people who you think are working for you, and they are. But they’re also working for themselves and other people. If you want something the only person who’s going to get it is you. So I met with her even if she didn’t want me on the show. I’ve been doing this since 1985. I’d never met her. I’m sure she was like, “What the hell does Lori Petty want?” People are going to see me, so at least I get my chance. At least my 30 years weren’t in vain.
And she just happened to have the part of Lolly waiting to be cast?
No I had to wait a couple months for something to come up. I didn’t start work that day—it was like a few months later.
Do you know if they were planning on integrating Lolly in anyway or if because you had expressed interest they wrote her in?
I honestly don’t know. Didn’t ask. Don’t care [Lori laughs]. I really don’t know. Then I was only in season 2, episode 1. By lunchtime I was thinking, “Why haven’t I been asked to be a regular? What’s going on? What’s up?” So about lunchtime I asked one of the producers that. They said, “Oh Lori, we filmed out of order. It’s the first episode but it’s the last one we filmed, so we’re not filming for six more months.” So I had to wait another six months. I had to wait another six months to be back on the show [Lori laughs]!
OITNB season 4 spoilers ahead!
We got Lolly’s backstory this season. With that new information, How has your understanding of her changed since you started on the show until now?
Well that’s exactly it. It’s more information. It’s what the writers and producers and Jenji [Kohan] do. They make it and then we kind of raise it. They make a baby, give it to us, and they we’re like, “Okay let me put clothes on it.” [Lori laughs] It’s a real collaboration in a way. They’ll watch us and see what we do best or what we do well, what is heart breaking or what sticks. They make that bigger. I didn’t know I was a paranoid schizophrenic two years ago. It’s so fantastic to get that script every week and go, “Yes!” You’ll do something and they’ll multiply it by 500.
Lolly’s mental illness and the characters response to it was one of the many social issues explored this season. How did you approach playing Lolly’s paranoia and schizophrenia?
I mean it’s pretty black and white. She hears voices, she’s paranoid. It doesn’t mean she’s stupid, it doesn’t mean she’s unkind, it doesn’t mean she’s selfish. She has a brain disorder. She’s still intelligent, and loving, and helpful. At the same time, she hears voices. It’s just acting. It’s just believing. It’s just being that.
Is it difficult to play a character who nobody listens to or takes seriously?
Yeah, it is. It’s difficult because that’s what we all want. We all want to be recognized. Not like as a famous person. But I mean we all want to be recognized as a human: “Hey, I’m here.” The homeless people in Venice Beach where I live, people just walk past them. Can you imagine if people just diverted their eyes every time instead of checking out how cute your outfit is or [saying] “Good morning.” Not even a “good morning.” Nothing. People go out of their way to not look at [homeless] people. That’s the most heartbreaking thing. When I’m walking on the beach, I’ll be like, “Good morning!” Their face will light up because when was the last time someone recognized them as a human being?
It was incredibly painful to watch Lolly be dragged into psych. Can you talk about filming that scene?
They had a lot of actors back there who were playing people in a psych ward. It was devastating to look at it. It was devastating to think that this was my home—this is where I belonged. This is where they think I belong. What you’re seeing is my reaction to real stuff that they just didn’t show you. It was more powerful to see my reaction to it than to see what I’m really seeing I suppose.
What’s your advice for aspiring actors?
Move to Paris, marry a very wealthy man or woman, study painting, and read books [Lori laughs]. I mean it’s a grind. When I first started doing this and I was successful it went Point Break, A League of Their Own, Free Willy, Tank Girl back to back to back to back. I thought, “Great! I’m good at this, people like me, I’m talented and intelligent. Cool, I did the right thing. It’s great.” Well, no [Lori laughs]. You think, “This is my life.” No, it’s not!” You hit thirty or forty and see the hustle never ends to get a job. I’d say if you really want to be an actor, go to New York and do theater and Off-Broadway. Make sure that you just want to create art, entertain people, and love people as opposed to trying to stay in an ever-changing Hollywood, in my opinion. If you’re starting out that’s what I would do. Get into theater. Make as many plays as you can, be in as many plays as you can, write as many plays as you can. If you get three episodes on Game of Thrones it’s a great year. Well, you need to do more than that in a year. There’s a lot more hours in the day. That’s what I would say to do. Or like I said, move to Paris, marry well, read a lot of books, and have fun [Lori laughs]. ♦