Bringing his energy and passion to a role that requires a clarity of heart and nerves of steel, Branden Wellington sees the value in portraying a moral authority figure in the Netflix series ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK. In a series where a majority of the story is told through the lens of the incarcerated, it is essential that the story of those representing the prison system are just as clearly and humanistically portrayed. Branden’s performance offers that essential perspective. In an exclusive interview, Branden talks about why he chose this pivotal role and what it offered him as one who strongly believes in standing up for the rights of those caught up in the crosshairs of the U.S. criminal justice system.
What was the initial appeal for you about portraying CO J. Young and working on Netflix’s ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK?
BRANDEN: Like most people, I was a fan of the show. I even had the pleasure of interviewing Selenis Leyva about the show a few years prior when I was the In-Game host for the Mets. When the audition came up, I didn’t believe I could land the role. At this point, my career as an entertainment and sports host was beginning to take off in a way acting wasn’t. At the time I was being vetted for a few high-profile sideline reporting jobs. Even at my audition for this role, I was in the waiting room when I got a call from a big sports network. I wrapped up a quick conference call with them before being seen by Jennifer Euston. The conference call was promising, and it gave me an extra boost of confidence when I went into the room for the casting. I just did my audition with no concern for whether I would land it or not. There wasn’t any pressure for me, I felt as if life was pulling me in a different direction after the conference call, even though in my heart I wanted to act and be a part of this series.
How would you describe who your character is in the series?
BRANDEN: A no-nonsense by-the-book kind of corrections officer. He does his job to the letter, no more no less. What do you most admire about him? BRANDEN: That he has a moral backbone in the face of his peers, not afraid to take the lead in a dicey situation and will take preventive measures to protect the inmates.
What is it like working alongside such a talented ensemble on ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK?
BRANDEN: It was like an “on the job, master acting class” and I learned a lot just watching them work. My first day, I was somewhat nervous but Dascha Polanco pulled me aside and gave me advice that helped get me into my character and into the world of ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK. After that, it was about finding my own rhythm and trusting that I could give the producers and directors what they needed from my character.
How would you describe the conflict that arises between CO J. Young and Luschek?
BRANDEN: In my opinion, I didn’t look at it as a conflict of “me vs him,” but I looked at it as long-term moral understanding vs short-sighted ignorance.
Why do you think CO J. Young became a correctional officer?
BRANDEN: The script doesn’t explicitly say why, but based off of how my character carries himself, I’ve made up a story in my mind. I think he had a relative or friend who may have been hurt in prison due to a correctional officer’s oversight, so I used that story for a basis as to why he does his job by the book.
Any favorite scenes that you can share from working on the series?
BRANDEN: My favorite scene was when Crazy Eyes was hallucinating in the premiere and singing the cha-cha slide during interrogation. I also liked dressing up as an Emerald City guard in the opener because I grew up loving the Wizard of Oz and The Wiz.
What challenges did you face working on the series and how did you overcome them?
BRANDEN: The biggest challenge was just getting through my first day. It’s a big show, there’s a lot of nerves when you’re new, and you just want to do a good job and prove you belong. The other actors, the director and the producers made me feel as if I had been there before so that helped me settle into it.
Has ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK left an impression on you in your life? If so, in what way?
BRANDEN: As a kid from Indianapolis, it showed me that if you work hard, dream beyond your neighborhood, and keep going even when it’s difficult — you can get to where you dream, regardless of who you know or don’t know.
Then as an actor, what has been the one thing you have taken away from the experience of working on ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK?
BRANDEN: That I belong in this industry and if I work as hard as everyone around me, I can thrive here.
You came from the world of sports, having been an in-game host for the New York Mets and host for the NBA G-League and even a writer for “TV Dreams in a World of Sports Kids.” What led to the transition from the sports world to co-starring in a drama series for Netflix?
BRANDEN: I was working on my career as an actor before I fell into the world of entertainment, hosting and sports. It just so happened that the opportunities I landed as a host had a higher profile than the jobs I got as an actor at the time. However, I credit my career in sports and hosting for fueling belief in myself because that’s who I was hired to be every day. It’s kind of flattering when you think about it. Even though, behind the scenes, I stayed diligent and was slowly but surely racking up prime-time credits and still building my acting career.
What has surprised you most about your career so far?
BRANDEN: Winning an Emmy for writing spoken-word poetry. I got to New York on a poetry scholarship and it felt as if everything came full circle when I got one of the highest honors you can receive in television simply for doing what I did to get here in the first place. I guess you can say it was poetic justice.
At this stage of your career, what do you think you have learned from the roles and projects you have worked on?
BRANDEN: Bring your authentic self to work every day. You are not one in a million— you are one of one— and that is unique in itself.
Then what are the perks of where you are in your career right now?
BRANDEN: The biggest perk I have right now is actual evidence that I can achieve what I set out to accomplish. Even a fraction of self-belief is a perk people often struggle to find. Belief influences your actions and it’s an advantage to be working from a place that’s free of doubt and fear.
What has been your proudest achievement as a working actor at this point in your career?
BRANDEN: Humbly speaking, I had my fair share of victories before working on OITNB, but I still wasn’t yet proud of myself. The proudest moment for me was when I landed the recurring role on OITNB. I was finally able to wake up in the morning, look myself in the mirror, and know that I didn’t let the dreaming little kid inside of me down.
Has there been any great advice you have gotten about working as an actor?
BRANDEN: Michael Ealy and I got to talk at USA upfronts once back in 2012 when I was a catering waiter. He told me “whatever you do don’t quit.” That stuck with me because I just came off doing 8 episodes of a Travel Channel show, but I knew I wanted to achieve more. Lastly, my best friend Ser’Darius Blain came out to see me sideline report on NBA TV and he was fresh off of starring in Jumanji, he told me “You’re an actor and don’t let everything else you’re succeeding at make you forget that.” He and I went to acting school together and it has always been a joy of mine to see him win in acting; it meant the world to me to have him genuinely want to see me win too.
What advice would you offer to other upcoming and aspiring actors?
BRANDEN: The same advice Michael Ealy gave me, “don’t quit!” That advice sounds cliché but I if you knew in advance everything you would have to persevere through to get to where you want to be, that advice is everything you need. I would also add, save money and live below your means. When you’re getting started more than anything you need a break, but in order to get that break, you need to be available. Before hosting took off for me, there were times where I had to take off work, quit a job at a moment’s notice, or make an investment in my dreams that could move me forward. When you save and live below your means — it makes those leaps of faith a whole lot easier because you’re not living at your limits. AND if you fall while jumping — you built a cushion.
What can you share about the experience of appearing in “Take A Knee,” which just won the 2018 Webby Award for Public Service and Activism?
BRANDEN: It was great to work with Narrative again. I had worked with them on a political spoken-word campaign the summer prior. “Take a knee” was different, we weren’t in the studio this time. We went to the place in Staten Island where Eric Garner was killed and to be in that neighborhood felt eerie. You could still feel the residual energy of all of the tension that was left there from that moment. Folks from the neighborhood had memorials built in his memory, they were selling T-shirts with his face to raise money for the family, and cops stood by and watched as people would just come through to pay their respects. You could really feel that his death left a mark on the community. When we went there to film — and take a knee in the place where he was killed you knew that it was bigger than this one community — it was about putting the narrative back on why Colin Kaepernick took a knee in the first place. It was about all the communities that were shaken by police brutality. It was about seeking justice from a system that seemed to have failed the same people over and over again. That’s what I saw on the people’s face and when you looked in their eyes you knew that they respected what Kaepernick stood for and they respected us for putting the narrative back to where it should be: liberty, freedom, and justice FOR ALL.
You also received an Emmy for spoken-word poetry. Where does that fit into your wide-array of professional talents and experiences? What inspires that creative side?
BRANDEN: Since my mother gave me my first poetry book back in the fourth grade, poetry has always been an outlet for me to organize my thoughts, channel my energy, and express myself creatively. I kept writing poetry out of personal need, I never knew it would turn into a profession- let alone an Emmy. Most of my poetry is usually inspired by love, overcoming personal pain, goal reaching, and things that I’d love to open up a dialogue about. I’m always writing something new and just working the muscle. You never know when an opportunity will arise where you’ll need to use it.
Do you have any other upcoming projects that you can share that fans should keep an eye out for?
BRANDEN: I just finished up a supporting role in my first feature film called Inez, Doug and Kira which doesn’t have an official release date as of now. I’m also the star of a new pilot in development called “Payroll,” by Dennis Williams from Funny or Die, which is about three friends from New York City who quit everything to launch the biggest festival the culture has ever seen. Lastly, I’m in pre-production on a new spoken word video called “Choose Not Fear,” which I wrote as a response to domestic terrorism.
ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK Season 6 is currently available for binge-watching exclusively on Netflix. Then to see what Branden is up to as his career continues and grows, you can follow him on Twitter @B_Wellington.
ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK Season 6 trailer:
Branden’s video “Spoken Word: America In 4 Minutes”