In the Netflix drama series ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, the spotlight is typically on the colorful antics and lives of the inmates of Litchfield Penitentiary. But those stories are mirrored by the quiet, and sometimes just as humorous, lives of the guards and administrators assigned the task of managing the inmates, both keeping them within the prison and maintaining their safety and quality of life. It is a tricky task being employed by Litchfield and not finding one’s life touched and sometimes embroiled by the lives and plight of the inmates. Looking through the eyes of correctional officer Wanda Bell (Cathy Curtin), the more notorious inmates of Piper (Taylor Schilling), Alex (Laura Prepon), Red (Kate Mulgrew) and all the other women rotating in and out of Litchfield, it is job of perhaps a circus tightrope walker. Yet, Wanda seems to bear it all with grace and dignity. It is a credit to actress Cathy Curtin for bringing that undercurrent of humanity and compassion in a character caught in a tough predicament. Wanda may empathize with the women under her care, but she cannot really befriend them or interact with them; instead it is Wanda job to watch them and ensure their compliance with rules and to maintain boundaries for everyone’s safety and quality of life. Unfortunately, with the changes in management in Season 3, even Wanda found herself caught up in events beyond her control and found herself suddenly unemployed.
In an exclusive interview, star Cathy Curtin talked about the challenges of bringing the character of Wanda Bell to life and what she has loved about portraying Wanda admits the outrageous world of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK.
How do you see Wanda? Who is she at her core?
CATHY: I think she is very complicated. I’ve always felt like Wanda, but for the grace of God, would have been one of the bad girls. Wanda was always one decision away from being an inmate at Litchfield prison and I think that is a little bit where her attitude comes from — a little bit where she is really feeling like, “I didn’t mess this up. I made it to a CO (correctional officer). I made it to a decent job, a decent place and I feel on the right side of the law.” I feel that is a lot of where she is coming from, especially like characters like Piper, where she sees people who have had chances. I think Wanda grew up very blue-collar and did not have a lot in life. I think that is what is so special for her with O’Neill (Joel Garland) and this thing they have going on. I think it is the first time she has allowed herself to having something like that and she is finding joy in her life, and it is remarkable for her because I think the journey of Wanda gave her a really bitter attitude for a middled woman who doesn’t have a lot of patience for people who made mistakes, and now she is a little demigod in her own world. So I think she is really softened by having someone special in her life and she is seeing life in a bigger way. I think she is seeing the joy of domesticity, like the most important thing is she doesn’t have to live the drama of the prison as much, since she now has her own life to live too. It’s a really nice, gentle curve. I don’t know where they are going to go with it, but I think the show is softening her.
It seems like Wanda’s relationship with Scott has empowered her, like it has given her permission to enjoy life.
CATHY: Exactly. It has given her permission to fight for her boyfriend’s need to have red velvet cupcakes.
In her position, Wanda could abuse her position, but she seems to have found the secret to life, like, “Oh, there is joy to found and I can be happy and I don’t have to be obsessed with these people I have to work around and with.”
CATHY: I think that is what we all hope for. I don’t think Wanda ever wanted to be abusive. I think she had absolutely no patience for people like Piper, who grew up with every privilege and totally messed it up. I think Wanda grew up with very little and yet she has fallen on the right side of the law. She has a lot of anger issues in her life and she has a lot of people who didn’t take care of her, and she has a very complicated and upsetting past and yet she made it out. So I don’t see her as abusive as much as I see her as impatient — impatient with people who have thrown away their lives for a mistake — a mistake that Wanda could have made at least twelve times over in the neighborhood she grew up in, which was probably not a great neighborhood with very little opportunity. So I think she has no patience. On one level, I understand that in her and on another level, I think her learning patience with these women in prison who had made mistakes is a big learning curve. I’m not sure Wanda will make that curve or not. I think she learned by the end of Season 3 really what it feels like to no longer be a privileged god in your own protected world, and “you’re out on the street, baby” and “you’re disposable.” I’m not sure she had experienced that before. I think she really felt very protected as a CO. I think she felt like she had a good job and everything was going really well, and it’s great that she has a meal now that she doesn’t have a job.
What is the one quality you most admire about Wanda?
CATHY: I think she is a survivor. She’s got tenacity. Wanda is somebody who you could slap in the face and she would turn and look at you, and she could slap you back or she could just walk down the hall because she has been slapped before and she’s still walking. I think it is lovable that she is a survivor. What I love about her is she didn’t end up in prison and she has taken the right road. She believes in “right and wrong” and I think she was exposed to a lot of wrong growing up. I love that she wants more in her life, but I don’t know if she knows how to make that happen. I also love that she has a “code” — a code of behavior, and I think that is why she likes being a CO. So I think she stands for something, even though she is messy and angry and she’s got a lot of loose strings and issues, she has a “code.”
What do you think will be the next step for her? Given her situation, would she want to be a CO again?
CATHY: I don’t know. Actually, they don’t tell us. So I don’t really know. I have no idea where it is all going. They are writing it. From my understanding of how it works, they have some ideas and some blueprints, but the show writers write as they go and they develop the stories as they go, and I know they like flexibility in their scripts and they like to go, “Wait a minute, let’s develop this person.” So I think they are thinking about it and they are mulling it over and they are creating it. But beyond that, I don’t know. I am very curious myself. I am hopeful that Wanda’s story goes to some really interesting places.
Looking back, what is one of your favorite Wanda scenes?
CATHY: The one where she is asking: “What are TOMS?” I think that is the funniest thing. That was one of the funniest scenes to shoot because it was two women so diametrically opposed backgrounds standing together and the power has shifted because society has deemed it so. I think that is a classic scene. I love that scene. I also really love the scene where the JD’s are coming to prison and she is giving them a trip through and in the sense of “Hey, if you mess up, this is what is going down.” I love that episode, like when the JD’s are piling out of the bus and the CO’s are looking at them and they are telling these kids, “This is it. This is the real deal. This is not playtime.” I thought that was really entertaining. I love where ORANGE goes where you are getting a lot of philosophical, sociological, political stuff very subtly wrapped up into a scene between two people or a scene where kids are getting a tour of a prison. There is so much that is going on and there is so much commentary and dialogue about our society. I think the writing is incredibly resonant.
If you could offer Wanda some advice, what would you want to tell her?
CATHY: “Protect what she’s got.” She’s got something good, she’d better hold onto it and fight for her life.
Of all the inmates, if she ran into any of them on the street and hadn’t known them previously, do you think Wanda would be friends with any of them or would she just walk on by?
CATHY: I think there are some that wouldn’t be friends with her. I think there are some that wouldn’t give her the time of day. I think Taryn’s character Pennsatucky. I think she’d be friends with Pennsatucky. She’s such an interesting character. I also think she’d be friends with the nun and I think she’d definitely go to Red’s deli. I think it’s possible if they were people in her neighborhood. That’s what I mean, she could have been one of them. The neighborhood a lot of the inmates came out of — I think you are a product of your environment — that’s part of the dialogue of ORANGE that is so brilliant. It’s how to give people better access to better choices in life. So I think Wanda would have known many of these people in her neighborhood.
It’s true. These are the average women we see everyday, it’s just that they have slipped over the line.
CATHY: That’s right. They stepped over the line. But had they not stepped over the line, they would just be in the neighborhood. And Wanda definitely grew up and lived in an area like the Bronx and grew up tough.
Do you think that it is Wanda’s dream to come back as a CO, or would she want to move on to the next chapter of her life next season?
CATHY: I think she loves Litchfield prison. I think she loves it because it is where her opportunities have come from and she feels strongly about it. She has a strong sense of responsibility and that has been one of her guiding forces in life. For whatever reason, part of the reason she fell on the right side of the law is because she is one of these people that is always on time or she never has spots on her clothing. For some reason, there are people like that. They have an enormous sense of responsibility about doing the right thing. And I think Wanda is one of those people, and law enforcement is good for her because it has given her the ability to say, “Nope, we’re all eating right now” or “Nope, we’re all going outside right now” or “Everybody has to line up right now.” It gives her a sense of order and structure, and I think that is what she didn’t have growing up. I think she grew up chaotically and I think she craves and loves order and structure and wants to be the person who makes that happen.
I get a sense that Wanda’s legacy, even if she didn’t return to Litchfield, would be: “Make better choices.”
CATHY: Make better choices. I like that. I think that is Wanda. I could see her returning to Litchfield as a counselor or running some program that keeps kids from ending up in Litchfield. That would be somewhere she would be very challenged in her personality to do that since she doesn’t have the personal skills to do that — and where her short temper and inability to be highly empathetic would make her challenged — but I think that would be really fun. I don’t know, but I hope she gets to come back as a CO. I hope she really gets to strut her stuff. But we’ll just have to see where they are going with Wanda next season.
To see more of Cathy’s determined and dignified portrayal of Wanda Bell, be sure to tune in for Season 3 of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, which is currently available on Netflix and look for Season 4 in 2016.