Emma plays Amish meth head (yes, you read correctly!) Leanne on Netflix’s “Orange In the New Black”. I talked to her about her background, how she prepared for her character’s back story, and her favorite TV shows.
Did you always know you wanted to be an actress?
“Yes. I was a competitive gymnast, but I would still be spending most of my free time when I wasn’t at the gym watching TV and learning movies, learning lines, having scenes stuck in my head. It was always something that I really really wanted to do.”
Now talking about “Orange Is the New Black”, what did you think of Leanne being Amish? It was definitely very unexpected.
“It was really unexpected. The second I found out I was like “that makes so much sense. It’s absolutely a plausible answer to where this girl comes from.” I loved it. I was really excited.”
At what point was that revealed to you?
“We don’t know a lot in advance. The writers try to keep a lot of things under wrap so that we’re surprised and things are not anticipated in your performance. I started to kind of find out in Episode 5 (of Season 3) because I speak a line in German, or what I thought was German, so I had to Skype with a dialogue coach. I was talking about it after, “it’s kind of weird that she’s speaking German but whatever” and then I was told “that’s not German, it’s Pennsylvania Dutch.” I was like “What?”, and they said “Yeah, you’re Amish! You don’t know that?!””
That’s crazy, I thought you knew it by the time you filmed that scene.
“No! I had no idea. You try to get it out of the writers but they’re very tight-lipped, they want do right by Jenji (Kohan, the showrunner) and she doesn’t want people to know all the stories. It was maybe a week and a half before we started shooting that they sent me an early draft of the script and said “All right! Start studying!” [Laughs].”
How did you prepare for that? Did you know anything about Amish traditions?
“I actually did. There is a show called “Breaking Amish”, which is really entertaining and I got really into that maybe a year ago.”
Who knew that’d be useful one day, right?
“I know, seriously. Many many things can be useful. I did as much studying as I could, The Amish are not allowed to be taped or recorded so it’s really hard to find stuff about them, but there was this documentary called “The Devil’s Playground” which is all about these kids on Rumspringa (Amish term for “adolescence”). So that was accurate. I tried to find as much stuff as I possibly could.”
You play a character who has kind of an abnormal appearance, since she’s a meth head.
“That is a very nice way to put it [laughs].”
Right, I’m trying to be nice here. [Laughs] So, to come up with that character, did the exterior look come first, did they tell you “this is what you look like” and then based on that you came up with a way to play her? Or was it the other way round?
“I think when the make-up department gets someone who is going be addicted to meth, they do their own research. They say “okay, we want her to look really greasy”. But also, I auditioned for it, so there is only so much that I could come in with, which I did. So when I auditioned I didn’t wash my hair for 4 days, I didn’t wear any make-up except for this really think black eyeliner and I wore this really dirty wifebeater. So that’s how I saw her. And I auditioned with the rap battle scene in episode 6 (Season 1), so that gave me a good idea of her personality. I just think she’s a funny character. She was a little mean this year, but she comes from a place of pain, she misses her family, you know. We all have our days.”
So how do you deal with portraying a character who is not always likable?
“It’s hard. I am very much a people-pleaser, and I don’t want people to not like me. But I think there are certain things about Leanne that are redeeming qualities. At first you think “Why is she being such a nasty bitch?” but then you see that she is trying to protect herself. People are coming at her and this is the only way she knows how to protect herself. It’s an open wound for her and I think she lashes out a lot. But it’s hard, when I found out that I would be cutting Soso’s hair I was like “What? That is so over the line! Is Leanne ever going to be nice again?” But I try not to judge my characters. I wanna try to be understanding of who they are and why they do what they do.”
I know that you and Dascha Polanco (who plays Dayanara Diaz) were friends before the show. Did you become close friends with any other cast members?
“Oh, yes. It’s like a second family. Taryn (Manning, who plays Pennsatucky) is one of my absolute best friends, Julie (Lake, who plays Angie) and I are really close, Kimiko (Glenn, who plays Soso) and I are really close. Basically every single person on set is a lovely, wonderful person. People that you want to hang out with all the time. Adrienne (C. Moore, who plays Black Cindy) and I get together and cook. I love them. It’s one of thing that’s been most life changing about this. These are people that I am going to be really close with forever. Providing something horrible doesn’t happen…”
Providing Leanne doesn’t kill everyone in the show.
If you could play any other character on the show, who would it be?
“Black Cindy! I love her! She’s my favorite. Yoga Jones is hilarious too.”
I need to ask, is Adrienne (Black Cindy) that funny in real life?
“Oh yeah. All that comes from her. I mean, in the first season, the talent show scene (Episode 13), we didn’t know what anyone was going to do. And then when she started rapping “Jingle Bells”, we nearly died. It was so funny! She’s a great person.”
Do you still watch TV in your spare time? What are some of your favorite shows?
“It’s a very known fact that I’m a crazy X-files person. I always have and always will be and I’m so excited about the reboot coming out this year. Also, Bloodline was really good. I watch everything I can get my hands on.”
That’s awesome because it’s all material that you might use in the future.
“Yeah, and it’s good to know what kind of material is out there. And all the actors, it’s so amazing to see all these really great New York theatre actors on TV. It’s a great time for TV, a great time for actors, and I hope it continues.”
The new season of “Orange Is The New Black” premieres on Netflix in 2016.