You know that cliché in movies where New York City is like another character? Well, it’s had a starring role in Emma Myles’ real life story. In 2001, Emma moved across the country ready to take on the big city and she did. That is until New York became the villain. In the ever-changing acting world Emma found herself auditionless, stuck in a day job she hated. But just before she was set to leave the Big Apple behind, in the ultimate plot twist, Orange is the New Black called her in for an audition. She booked it, stayed in New York, and has been playing fan favorite character Leanne Taylor ever since. In this interview, Emma shares her journey to OITNB and how it’s changed her life.
MC: When did you catch the acting bug?
EM: Every time people ask me that question I’m like, “I’ve always wanted to be an actor.” I don’t remember a specific time where I thought, “This is what I want to do.” It was always something I wanted to pursue. I was a competitive gymnast as a kid. Even after training six hours at the gym, at the end of the day I would go home and just watch movies repeatedly [Emma laughs]. I learned all the lines. It was always something I really wanted to do.
Did anyone or anything inspire you to pursue a career as an actress?
I had some really great teachers who were very nurturing. When I moved to New York, I had a wonderful professor at the William Esper Studio. I was like, “How do you become an actor?” Everyone sees the tabloids. They see what it’s like when someone becomes an actor. But no one actually sees the process. I was just trying to figure out if I was even going to be able to do it. I had some really, really fantastic teachers say, “Do it. What’s the harm? You might as well try.”
The reason I had moved to New York was because I was working for Eve Ensler the playwright. She was the one who really knew that I wanted to do this for a career and see if I could make it. She actually paid for my first round of classes when I was working for her. She had said, “You’re working but I know that you want to be an actor. If you find some classes that you want to take I’ll pay for them.”
How did you choose the William Esper Studio and what training did it provide you with to help set you up for success?
One of Eve’s other assistants—her best friend—had gone to the Esper studio and was having a blast. I went in and interviewed with Bill [Esper]. I took the six-week summer intensive. I was with my teacher Barbara Marchant who ended up being my teacher for the entire program. At the end of the six weeks they do a sit down with each of the students and talk to them about where they see their career going, is it something that they really want to do. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know if I was going to stay in New York or move back to California. [Barbara] asked, “So what are your plans?”
I was like, “I don’t know I’m still trying to figure that out.”
Then she said, “Okay, let me help you. You’re going to take my two year program and then you’re going to work.”
I was like, “Okay!” [Emma laughs]
It was funny because I remember she said it in the bathroom. We were in the bathroom stalls. And she’s like, “This is what you’re going to do.” I was like, “Okay, you sound like you know what you’re talking about. I’m just going to follow you.”
I took the two-year program, I got out, I got a manager. I started working almost right a way. I booked the first audition that I got, which was an episode of SVU where I played a meth head—shocker!
And Meisner technique, what they teach at the Esper Studio, is very hard, too.
Yeah, it’s hard. The first year of the program is all about getting the technique down. It’s all about these little things you do that you don’t actually get to try out until the second year of the program. I’m repeating, I’m working on all these activities, but what does it all mean? Once you get into the second year you’re like, “Oh okay now I get it. Now I understand how to break down a scene. I see how the things we learned go into the process of performing.”
What was your initial experience like trying to get work?
I got really lucky in the beginning because it was before the business changed in New York. Like I said, I booked the first audition that I went out on. I worked pretty consistently for the next year or year and a half. I did some guest spots on TV, I did a couple independent films, I did a play. I was in this ditzy headspace of, “Oh cool I’ll never have to be a waitress! This is great!.” You assume that you’re working, therefore you’ll always be working. That’s definitely not the case. After a couple years the business in New York completely shifted. All of the projects went to LA. The projects in New York were casting out of LA. There wasn’t really a lot of work for New York actors. Not even in theater because they were casting a lot of movies stars and people who were very recognizable because they would bringing in money. Things got kind of dodgy for a good couple of years. I would probably have a job a year, which is not enough to sustain a lifestyle. If it’s a guest spot you work for two days. It’s not going to hold you over for the rest of the year.
So I became a waitress. I began to work a bunch of freelance jobs. I was working as a stylist’s assistant on commercials and doing a lot of behind the scenes assistant work. That was more my wheelhouse if I wasn’t acting. Flash-forward to 2012, I had been through a fire, I’d been displaced from my house. I was working this job that was consistent but I wasn’t passionate about it. It had nothing to do with acting. I started to think, “I feel as if New York is trying to expel me.” At that point, I’d been in New York for 12 or 13 years. I wasn’t getting sent out on auditions. I was in this place of like, “Am I supposed to leave?” My house burned down. My house actually burned down. I thought, “Umm maybe this is the universe telling me that I need to get out.” I got a one way plane ticket. I sent all of my shit to my mom’s house in California. I waited out the next couple of months tying up loose ends. At first I was a little bitter: “New York I gave you my 20s! New York you screwed me over!”
About a month before I was slated to leave, I started getting cold feet. I was like, “I’m going to have to relearn how to drive. I’m going to be living in my mom’s house for God knows how long. She doesn’t even live in LA, she’s four hours outside of LA. This isn’t actually a good idea! I didn’t think this through! All my friends are here. This is bad! This is not a good idea!” Then, I magically started to get sent out by my agent. I wasn’t booking anything, but I was like, “Maybe I’ll get something that will help me get set up in LA.” It was sort of a way of seeing what the LA market was going to be like. As I was sending boxes back to California, I got the breakdown for Orange [is the New Black]. It said that the character was recurring. I thought, “Okay, the next year of my life basically rides on weather or not I book this audition.”
I went in. I was scary dirty and there were a lot of really clean girls there [Emma laughs]…I hadn’t washed my hair in four days. I didn’t wear any makeup. I just had on this nasty black eyeliner and a “wife beater.” I see all these girls sitting in the room with skinny jeans, very clean hair, very clean faces. I don’t even know. So I auditioned, went to the post office to send some more boxes to my mom, and then the next days as I was walking up the stairs to tell my boss I was moving back to California I got the phone call that I booked it.
I’m sure dressing like Leanne for the audition—dirtying yourself up—probably helped you feel more like the character. Do you always think people should dress like the character for auditions?
I think if you can, it’s a good idea. Here’s the thing, there aren’t a lot of parts for women. Most of the parts you’re going out for, they do want you to look put together. You would be made up. You would look like you’re camera ready. But with someone like Leanne there’s nothing camera ready about this girl. Even when we’re on set now I am the opposite of camera ready for all other jobs. For this job it’s definitely perfect. I think you just have to be smart about it. Ask yourself, “What do they expect to see?” You don’t have to go in on drugs and you definitely shouldn’t [Emma laughs]. Probably not the best idea. But you want to bring the essence out. If that essence is dirt and drugs you’re probably not going to look like you just stepped out of The CW.
You bring up an interesting point. If everyone is expected to come in looking perfect, then what kind of roles are we writing for women?
Exactly. There are like four roles for women [Emma laughs]. Luckily on Orange there are like 60. That’s really great. You have all of these amazing niche actors rounded up into one place, which is really fantastic. It just sucks that there aren’t more projects out there that give you fully developed female characters who are actual people [instead of] robots.
Orange is great when it comes to representation in general.
I think I can speak for every single person on the show when I say we’re very proud. We’re very, very proud to be working on the show and be apart of something so special. People say that it’s changing the landscape of television. I don’t know if that’s true. I think that our show is our show. I think that if there were more projects about women allowed to get off the ground and we could contribute to that, then I would say, “Yes, we’re changing the landscape.” But where it stands right now, it’s still pretty much the same. The still think that Orange is a fluke. People don’t believe that women want to watch women. There’s a lot of trouble trying to get networks and producers to put their faith in a show, movie, or play that doesn’t have to do with cis white men.
We have to talk about that “White Lives Matter” scene this season. It was so disturbing and terrifying.
Oh yeah, are you kidding? We were terrified, too. I read the script and I was like, “Oh my God!” I remember Julie [Lake, who plays Angie] and I went up to one of the writers and he said, “I don’t even know why you guys are in this group.”
Why do you think Leanne participated?
I think with Leanne and Angie, they’re joiners. For Leanne specifically, she definitely has the group mentality. I think also at a certain point, they just get bored. Sometimes they’re on drugs, sometimes they’re not on drugs. When they’re not on drugs, they need something to focus on. At the end of the day, I don’t think that they care. They’re not white supremacists. They’re like, “Oh a group of people who kind of feel the same way that we feel. Okay, let’s join in.” But if you noticed, we were not a part of that in the later episodes. Leanne and Angie broke off [from them]…You could kind of tell that Leanne and Angie were like, “We’re done. We’re just going to find some booze and we’re going to be by ourselves.”
Other than that scene, Leanne and Angie provided some much needed comic relief this season. Did you enjoy that role?
I loved it. Julie and I were actually talking about this last week because we started filming season 5. This was the first season where people were actively like, “We love you!” I think it’s the first time that we’ve actually been likable characters. I think it was really great for Julie and me because we enjoy being playful. We enjoy being funny. We enjoy being ridiculous and crazy. We enjoy all the shenanigans. If we can provide that break in all the very intense [storylines] we had going on this season, then I’m all for it. I love it. I think it’s great.
What’s it like trying to get other jobs now that you’re on the show? Do you have freedom to pick and choose what you go out for and what you do?
No [Emma laughs]. I mean, kind of. I still audition. I’ll still be in the audition room and there will be people who recognize me. That’s great and people are really nice and cool. But it can be an awkward situation because we’re all going out for the same job. It can be a little strange. However, I am in a place where I’m not working just to work. If I have a problem with the text, if I find it to be, let’s say, misogynistic or offensive in any way, I’m not wasting my time working on something I don’t want to do—that I would not be okay doing. I always want to live up to my [beliefs] as a person and try to match that through my work.
It must be nice to know you never have to sell out .
The thing that’s really strange is that unless you’re an A-List movie star or you’re Uzo [Aduba], you’re not getting offers. I’m not getting things handed to me left and right. I still have to audition. I still sometimes don’t book those auditions. I’m still an actor within the community and just because I’m on a show doesn’t mean that I’m going to go in there and kick everyone’s jobs away. If you’re right for something, you’re right for something.
The show must have changed your life in other ways though.
Oh yeah. Part of it isn’t even about having a job. It’s about being creatively fulfilled. When you’re an actor who really loves what they do, it’s hard to reconcile when you’re not working. All you want to do is feed that beast. If you can’t feed that beast it starts to eat away at you. I think that for me personally, the biggest reward has been being creatively fulfilled on a consistent basis. I think that’s probably the most important thing.
What’s your advice for aspiring actors?
Be persistent. Do your work; do as much work as you can. Do your homework. Be prepared. You can be trained—that’s my suggestion. A lot of people think that you can just go to LA and start getting work. Some can do that and there are definitely parts out there that will call for someone to do that. But if you really want to push yourself and try to be in the same game as the people you really respect, you’ve got to do your work. You’ve got to train. You’ve got to be a pleasant person to work with. That stuff gets back to people. If you are not pleasant to be around, people start to talk. That’s how people start losing jobs. I think the most important thing is to not give up. There are going to be a lot of times when you feel like you’re not doing what you set out to do. It can be incredibly frustrating for someone with a creative brain to have to go to the [day] job they hate most of the time. People who aren’t actors and people who aren’t artists can deal with that a lot better. But I think that people with a creative mind, that’s the stuff that inherently starts to kill them. I think that the best thing is to not get discouraged, know that there are 100 other people going out for the roles you’re going in for. The chances are that you’re probably not going to get it. You might as well have fun. If you’re not having fun, then what are you doing? You should be having fun and it should be making you happy. If it doesn’t make you happy, you have to take a look at why it’s doing that. ♦