Lori Petty On Lolly’s Grim ‘Orange Is The New Black’ Season And What She Taught Jennifer Lawrence

This interview contains spoilers about Season 4 of “Orange Is the New Black.”

In Season 4 of “Orange Is the New Black,” Lolly built a time machine out of cardboard boxes and tinfoil. She squeezed a potato in hopes it would power her departure, barreling toward a day when she hadn’t killed a man. Like most things at Litchfield, Lolly’s plan didn’t work. The murder was pinned on her schizophrenic shoulders, and she was condemned to a psych ward that may be the most brutal setting “OITNB” has ever introduced. The last we saw of Lolly was a brisk transition from innocent optimism to savage anguish. 

A large part of why Lolly was such a standout character this year is owed to Lori Petty, who imbues her with wide-eyed wonder and dopey paranoia. Lolly doesn’t deserve what life has handed her, and Petty ensures her character’s virtue through a cocktail of goofiness and pain. The Huffington Post hopped on the phone with Petty — otherwise known for “A League of Their Own” and “Tank Girl” — to discuss this season and her career.

Do you binge the episodes like everyone else?

Oh yeah, I went to the premiere and then we had the party, and luckily the party was in my hotel. It was so packed, oh my God. We couldn’t even find each other hardly, but it was wonderful. Then I went downstairs, took a shower, got in bed and stayed up all night and watched the show. We don’t get to see it until it comes out. 

You first appeared at the start of Season 2, on the plane with Piper. How did you find out you’d be back for more?

So Season 2, Episode 1, when I did that episode that Jodie Foster directed, and I’ve known her for 20 years, it was great. Then I thought, “Well, why haven’t they asked me to come back next week?” Like I’ve said before, a closed mouth don’t get fed. I’ve been doing this long enough to know you’ve got to speak up, so I said to one of the producers, “It’s Episode 1, what’s up? I want to be on your show.” And they said, “Oh, we shot out of order, Lori, this is the last episode of the year.” They shot the first episode last. But then when they started on Season 3, they called me right away. They don’t know until they get into the writers’ room what they’re doing.

Did the writers tell you anything about Lolly’s backstory?

They don’t really tell you much about it. It’s really about me saying yes to being part of this ensemble. I didn’t know she was going to be a paranoid schizophrenic. That’s just how they wrote it. So the more they wrote it, the more I did it. The more I did it, the more they wrote it. And then I start seeing shit, so it was like a snowball that never ended. It was great.

Did you decide on her mannerisms and tics before knowing she was a paranoid-schizophrenic conspiracy theorist?  

They have to be very specific. You can’t just be randomly crazy. I knew she saw stuff and heard stuff that wasn’t there. I knew that because she kept saying “the NSA, the DEA.” So I knew she had a parallel life going on there. The writers take cues from each of our behaviors, like they’ll see a speech pattern or a quickness or a slowness or whatever, and they expound upon that. 

When we first see the younger Lolly in your backstory episode, I was convinced they’d aged you down.  

Yeah, [Christina Brucato, the actress who played younger Lolly] knocked it out of the park. She was great. I came to work the day after she worked and the crew said, “We thought that was you!” They thought it was my voice. They thought they were dubbing my voice into her mouth, which they did on “A League of Their Own” with Geena Davis’ older person. Geena looped her voice into that lady’s mouth, so it makes people go, “Wow!” But no, that girl just did her homework. I had nothing to do with it. We didn’t work on the same days. We never had a discussion. I said hi to her one day real quickly, but we were never in the same place at the same time. I give her a lot of props for being such a good actress and nailing it.

Let’s talk about Lolly’s relationship with Mr. Healey, who is one of the show’s most conflicted characters. She tells him she killed a man, and he wants to protect her, yet he’s a prison guard who doesn’t take an inmate’s murder claims seriously. Then he sells her out, and they share that beautiful moment where she says they’ll just try harder to travel in time.

I thought Healey had a lot of empathy with these women, and maybe it crosses the line a little bit. He’s like a compadre where he’s maybe supposed to be more of a boss. But I think the two of them had a real special connection where maybe he saw his mother or maybe he saw himself in her. I don’t know [actor Michael J. Harney’s] process, but I know Healey really connected with Lolly, so I think his first instinct was, “Of course you didn’t kill a man. We would know if someone got killed.” I think he went there right away. “No, no, no, that’s in your brain.” But as an actor, I just love Michael so much. He’s just the best. Period. We shut everything else out and do what we have to do, and we love it. It’s like holding hands on a roller coaster. It’s great.

When you read the script where Frieda said she and Red would have to kill Lolly, did you think Lolly would die by the end of the season?

No, my ego’s too big to think that. You can’t kill me! You already killed what I think is one of the greatest actors on our show, Samira Wiley. You can’t kill everybody in the house!

Were you sad not to work with Matt Weiner, who directed the powerful episode with Poussey’s death? Lolly was sent to the psych ward in the previous episode, so you weren’t in that one.

Well, of course, it would be great to work with Matt Weiner. But I was there one day for something, and it was so maddening having hundreds of actors because they had the big ending. Some of these women were there for 20 hours. It was grueling, hot, claustrophobic — it was a lot, and then to have to wail and scream and fall up on a murdered Poussey. The whole feeling was so intense, and then to have so many people and so much emotion and so much sadness in real life, because how are we going to do this without Samira? In a way, of course, I’m really upset I wasn’t there, and at the same time it was like, “Wow, that would be a hard-ass day.”

So you knew about Poussey’s death before watching the series?

They send me all the scripts. I read it. We all get them one at a time. It’s funny, hair and makeup will have the script like a day before we get it because they have to know if they’re bikers or if they flash back to 1960 or whatever. They have a lot of work to do. So we’ll go into hair and makeup, and we’ll see the next script and we’ll be like, “It’s right there! Under that wig! Get it, get it!”

Reading it on paper, what was your initial reaction to Poussey’s death? It’s a topical thing for the show to tackle, since it has shades of the heinous deaths that led to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Oh, it was Eric Garner and all these men who’ve been killed senselessly, and with no conviction, no conviction, no conviction. The 12-year-old boy that was shot and murdered for playing in a park? Really? I mean, it’s time for white people to stop being so reactionary and saying that Black Lives Matter is racist. It’s not racist. I saw a cartoon that was awesome. It had a house that was burning and a normal house, and the fire department was there and it was watering the house that wasn’t burning and it said “All Houses Matter.” No, the house that’s burning matters! It’s the same with our gay and transgender brothers and sisters. The ruling class doesn’t get to decide about racism and transphobia and homophobia, which are not phobias — it’s just evilness. You’re not phobic, you’re a bigot.

But when I found out about Poussey, I thought, “You can’t kill her!” You know? You can’t kill Lena Horne! You can’t kill Brad Pitt! She’s a star. The first time I saw her, before I was even on the show, I looked at her and I said, “Look at this movie star.” There are people who just hold the screen. Her eyes sparkle, and she’s just got it, whatever that “it” is. I’ve been doing this since ’85. When we were editing “A League of Their Own” — well, we weren’t editing; I was trailing Penny Marshall, and we were in the editing room when Robert De Niro came in and said, “You’ve gotta see this fucking kid.” We were like, “OK.” So we go in his editing room, and he’s got this big screen. It was Leo in “This Boy’s Life,” and it was just like, “Wow, we’re gonna see you for a long time.”

That’s how I feel about Samira. I cast Jennifer Lawrence in her first film. I wrote and directed “The Poker House” with David Alan Grier. When I saw her tape, I was like, “Well, dammit, now I’ve gotta cast her. There’s our star.” I can small ‘em, so my point is, Samira, she’s got nothing to worry about. 

Did you know Jennifer Lawrence’s star would rise as much as it did?

Oh yeah! Come on. Sexy, blond hair, camera loves her. She has no fear of the camera whatsoever — she doesn’t even act like it’s there. The camera just eats her up. Her instincts are on point. I taught her a lot in three months. I’m not taking any credit, but I’m just saying that I had to give her a lot of things that people taught her. 

What kind of questions did a young Jennifer Lawrence ask on her first movie set?

Let’s see. “What’s this?” “You mean this record?” I don’t remember how old she was — 16? 17? But I just said, “Let’s hurry up and grab this shot,” while they were setting something else up. I needed her to open up an Isaac Hayes album, take the lid off the turntable, put the record on, put the needle on, close it and walk away. Just put the record on! And it was like, “And action.” And she just stood there. And we were shooting on film — it was like the last movie ever shot on film, right? I said, “Baby, put the record on,” and she just kind of stood there like she didn’t want to look at me. I said, “What’s the matter, honey?” She said, “I don’t know what this is.” I said, “Shit, I’m so sorry.” This is before records were cool again. She wasn’t an idiot — she was a teenager who never saw records before.

Has playing Lolly made you ponder the way the prison system doesn’t know how to handle people with mental issues?

Because they don’t belong in prison! That’s why prison can’t handle them. They belong in all those places that Ronald Reagan closed — they belong in mental health institutions. We have hospitals that deal with people’s physical bodies, so leave hospitals for people whose brains are messed up. And don’t just give them 9 million Valium and Xanax and put them in a corner, which is what they have to do in the hospital because they just don’t want to get hurt.

I live in Venice Beach, and we have the hugest homeless population. I can’t even explain it to you. But I’d say about half of them are kids that want to be homeless and they’re just messing around and having fun. Good for them, whatever. But the other half are people who are mentally ill or addicted to substances, which is also something that should be helped medically and not with punishment. Alcohol and drugs are made to be addictive, like cigarettes. You don’t call someone who smokes too much a cigaretteaholic. They’re addicted to cigarettes. And then there are people who have terrible mental illness who self-medicate with alcohol and drugs because, to make the voices shut up, you’ve got to be really drunk. These people are so underserved and kicked to the curb, and there should be more hospitals where people can get help. There should be showers. We have toilets down here that the homeless people are welcome to use, and they spray them down every night. They’re very nice toilets, actually — I’ve used them. But they need homes, and they need to be in the hospital, not in jail.

From what you see from Lolly, she didn’t do anything. She doesn’t deserve prison. She deserves a hospital where she can get help.

It’s depressing that the alternative is the violent psych ward she is shoved into. What was filming that sequence like?

It was sickening. You don’t see everything that I saw. After they did the final cut, I don’t think they wanted you to see everything. They’d rather show my reaction to it, and it’s more powerful for the audience to think about what I’m seeing. I saw — and these are all real things that people do to people — people being forcefully medicated, people being held down, people in cages. Cages! People looking behind their tiny slit, saying, “Don’t come, don’t come.” 

Having made “The Poker House,” have you thrown your hat in the directors’ ring for “Orange Is the New Black”?

I have. With most shows, there’s a hierarchy in the way people get to direct. They have a lot of writer-producers, and a lot of the writer-producers have in their contracts that they get to direct. I put my name on the list, so I hope so.

Do you hope to direct another movie?

I wrote another film that I love, and it’s extremely difficult. The paradigm is that the ways you make a movie keep changing. The ways you get the money keeps changing. And then they say, “Who do you got?” And unless you say Will Smith, it’s like, “Yeah, whatever.” And then if you go to a star, they say, “Well, you got your money?” I can’t get my money without a star, and I can’t get a star without the money. It’s oddly difficult, especially after “The Poker House,” which is such a great movie and got great reviews. But I had the money from a private source, and I guess that’s what I have to try to do again. I’m working on it.

Who would you hope to cast?

It’s a love story. It’s set in New York City. It’s a very straight-up love story. I love this kid, his name is Keith Stanfield — I love that guy. I follow him on Instagram, I’m like a stalker. And then the female lead would be like Chloë Moretz-ish. It’s a young girl who comes to New York to chase her dreams, and then this guy who’s been a star his whole life and is over it, but he’s still in his mid-20s. They become real good friends. I hail from the Penny Marshall school of movies — you laugh, you cry, you laugh, you cry. It’s really just a romantic, old-school story like “A Star is Born,” because I’m over irony and cutesy and all that crap. People really, really just want to connect, and I think old-school is a great way to go right now. 

It’s interesting to hear you say that, considering you’re known for a lot of cult classics, like “Point Break” and “Tank Girl” and “Relax…It’s Just Sex.” Outside of “A League of Their Own,” did you hope another to find another mainstream star vehicle?

Well, if you look at my whole career and you look at me [laughs], I’ve never really been in the club. I’m a very, very good actress, and I’m a very, very good director, and I’m a very good writer, but I never went to college and I don’t go to those women-in-Hollywood parties. It’s not that I’m against it — I really probably need to be in it a lot more. But someone gets a great idea and goes, “Oh, call Lori Petty.” And then I’ll get a job. I’m not really having the proper lunches and all that stuff. Back then, in the ‘90s, it wasn’t about wanting to be famous or have the most followers. I really was just happy to work. Working is my funnest thing.

And were you OK not getting traditional leading lady roles? You were on a couple of shows that never took off, and most of the titles on your résumé are somewhat obscure. 

It’s funny, I’ve got like 10 godkids, but they never cast me as the mom. I’m a great mom. Or the girlfriend. I’m usually the girlfriend’s friend. But that’s OK. It’s their show and they can do what they want, so I’m not complaining whatsoever. I just think I’m happiest when I make my own or when I seek it out. I sought “Orange” and just told them, “I really want to be on your show,” and they made it happen. I think I’m better that way than waiting for someone to cast me. Even if they don’t want me, they’ll be like, “Why is Lori Petty calling me?”

Several “League of Their Own” cast members reunited last month. Were you asked to join them?

No, I wasn’t. I didn’t find out about it until the day before. Nobody asked me to come. I don’t know what happened there. I think somebody just dropped the ball. But 2017 is the 25th reunion, so I’m sure we’ll do a big, big, big thing.

Any word on whether you’re in Season 5 of “Orange Is the New Black”?

I would be overjoyed to be back in Season 5. They left off with Daya and the gun in the guard’s face, and I’m in psych and they’re about to riot, or something like a riot, I assume. They’re still writing, so I’m down to hop on a plane right now. But I don’t know what’s going on.

This interview has been edited and condensed.