During her long career, Kate Mulgrew has portrayed an impressive gallery of strong women, ranging from movie legend Katharine Hepburn to Capt. Kathryn Janeway on "Star Trek: Voyager."
Nevertheless, the veteran actress says she has a special place in her heart for Galina "Red" Reznikov, the tough but vulnerable inmate she plays in "Orange Is the New Black." Netflix begins streaming the entire 13-episode second season of the critically acclaimed prison drama on Friday, June 6.
"Red is a broad, wide and deep canvas," Mulgrew tells Zap2it of her current role. "There is none of the patina of the other characters I have played. She is not particularly gracious. Her attractiveness does not leap out. What grabs you by the throat is her absolute lust for survival and for what she considers her level of excellence. That is what you see within this very bleak environment of Litchfield Women's Prison."
Adapted from Piper Kerman's memoir of the same title, "Orange" is packed with rich, fascinating female characters whose personal histories are only gradually being revealed. In the first season, few of them were more powerful than Red, the prison kitchen manager who ruled her culinary fiefdom with an iron fist. Cross her, and you risked being starved to death, as prison newbie Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) discovered to her dismay.
By the end of Season 1, however, Red suffered a major reversal of fortune, losing her kitchen job and falling out of favor with the other inmates. As Season 2 opens, she is grappling with loneliness even as she lays plans to make a comeback somehow.
"You must always remember one thing about Red: She never gives up," Mulgrew says. "There is always something strategic going on. ... If you remove the component of loneliness, which is very real, Red is determined to scratch her way back up. She is no kid. Time is passing quickly by, so her brain is always turning, turning, turning."
Fate throws another wrench into Red's plans, however, with the arrival of a new prison inmate: Yvonne "Vee" Parker (Lorraine Toussaint, "Any Day Now"), a charismatic newcomer who shares a history outside the prison walls with Tasha "Taystee" Jefferson (Danielle Brooks). She also has some past relationship with Red, who watches with concern as Vee moves swiftly to divide and conquer by applying heat to the long-simmering racial tensions among the ethnic factions in the prison.
"What is at the root of this relationship is what Red has always hoped was an alliance, a friendship, because she is absolutely matched by this character in every respect: the capability, the intelligence, the strength, the humor, the capacity for popularity," Mulgrew says. "Red finds all these elements intriguing, but there is a part of Red that understands that on the most base level, they are entirely different people, and this is what is revealed as the season unfolds. More than that I cannot say, but it's chilling."
Vee also rocks the world of Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren (Uzo Aduba), the eccentric yet weirdly endearing inmate who ardently pursued Piper last season and instantly becomes infatuated with this newcomer in Season 2.
"Suzanne is very intelligent and very aware of the world around her, and she wants to be around like-minded people, even though the way she accesses those emotions may be off-putting or different from the people she is drawn to," says Aduba, a theater-trained actress who became a breakout fan favorite almost as soon as "Orange" premiered last July. "Ever since last season, I've always been interested in exploring the question of 'How far does one go for love?' We saw examples of that with Piper. Suzanne will cut someone for [a loved one] or write poetry for her.
"This season, in the relationship with Vee, here's another person she has met who is so strong that she feels a kinship with Vee. She's in love again, in a different form."
These new episodes also include a remarkable hour devoted in large part to Suzanne's childhood, which fills in a lot of the blanks as far as understanding the character. Aduba adds that she and the writers are still "pulling back some layers" surrounding this complex role, however.
"I think what we're looking at with Suzanne is someone who had some hyperactivity and social anxiety from a very early age," the actress says. "I like to think of her as someone who stood out, not necessarily was pushed out of the group. Suzanne has a lot of things going on, and I've never thought of her as just one thing, with one dimension. She's always been so rounded to me and has so many sides to her that she is very easily misunderstood, because of being so socially awkward.
"Suzanne just processes things in a different way than most people do, but that doesn't necessarily mean she has no value or a strong opinion. I think Suzanne has shown time and time again that she has a very clear opinion on everything."
Aduba's performance has resonated so strongly with fans that some of them are starting to recognize her in public, she says, although Aduba looks very little like "Crazy Eyes" when she's not wearing her prison jumpsuit and signature hairstyle.
"But more and more, I'll be sitting on the train and notice someone sitting across from me is just really starting to digest my face," she says, laughing. "It's really funny to watch the thought process as they start to recognize me."
Photo/Video credit: Netflix