Norma Romano, Orange Is The New Black's resident non-speaking mystic, had quite a season last year, going from tribe-leader Red's gentle, voiceless sidekick to the...conniving?...head of her own cult. But Annie Golden, who plays Norma on the show, is anything but silent—she was once a badass punk-rocker who was discovered at CBGB in the 1970s, and has followed up with a storied career on Broadway and in film and television. We caught up with Golden to try to get some intel on Season 4, and learn about the OITNB cast's work with the Women's Prison Association [W.P.A.]—the country's oldest advocacy group for incarcerated women. (Piper Kerman, who penned the memoir on which the show is based, serves as Vice President of the Board.)
I'm not used to hearing your voice! I know! Well, it’s my pleasure to talk about W.P.A.
They've been working with the show since the beginning, right? Oh yeah, day one. Because they’re Piper’s charity. She became involved with them after she was incarcerated. She brought us along.
What kind of work do they do with the cast? Actually, I feel really guilty saying this, because I’ve been too busy lately to be involved. But the first season, I was hands-on involved with community reach-out. We actually do it usually around every August before school starts. The children of the incarcerated, we go to the W.P.A. base on 2nd Avenue and we pack knapsacks, book bags, backpacks with supplies and they have it setup there at W.P.A. They have it setup for different grades and you put the supplies in a fresh new bookbag for some lucky kid. You have from kindergarten to eighth grade into high school. So we’ve done that.
They do a Christmas party every year for the kids. The women get to be with their children for that day. We wrap the gifts, We show up and we help Santa. We decorate before the party. Sometimes we serve. So it’s that kind of thing. I purge my closet—we used to have a big drum at the end of the hallway on set if anybody had discarded clothing. We put stuff in there with tags on it, since sometimes when you do a Broadway show, you get doubles of your costumes, so it wasn't hand-me-downs, it was fresh new stuff.
Now we don’t have a bin on set because it was so popular that the bin would overflow. [But we still donate clothing] because the women need to go to parole hearings. They have to go to family court to get their kids back, and to job interviews. Now I pack a suitcase at my home in Brooklyn and I get on the F train and I get off at 2nd Avenue and I wheel it over. Norma shows up at the door and they know Norma always has good stuff.
Did you meet with any women prisoners while preparing for your role? I don’t really have to be method that way, because my family are bikers. They ride. They’re members of motorcycle clubs, men and women. There are people with outstanding warrants at barbecues that we would do for the motorcycle clubs. When you go into a motorcycle clubhouse, or barbecue, or party, there are no cameras because people might be hiding. I have that in my life. I have that it in my extended family.
So I didn’t really have to investigate very far from my own backyard. It’s a sad situation. I’m not boasting that I’m a badass. I’m not. It’s my siblings who are the badasses and I just play one on TV. I had that story in my life, that so-and-so got arrested, so-and-so got convicted, who’s taking care of so-and-so’s kids. I don’t know if the other girls [on the show] did, but I didn’t have to investigate in a method actress kind of way. Also, when we went to W.P.A. with Piper, we were able to see the facility. We got a tour of the facility, which has been on 2nd Avenue since 1845, in this brownstone that’s been there forever.
We looked at the log books where women would sign in. In ink, it was written what their occupation was, what they were incarcerated for, what their offense was. And it would be like, "She was a domestic and she was from Ireland and her offense was intemperance, public intoxication," and then her sentence. Many women were incarcerated for prostitution. There were a lot of stories at that time, from 1865 when W.P.A. first began. There were a lot of situations where women would be back in the old country, Ireland, Poland, Italy, from wherever they were, and then their husbands would come over and send money to bring them over. They would come over with the children and the husband would be set up with a new wife and a new life. The children would be absorbed into the family and the old wife would be kicked to the curb when she got here. Those were some of the stories we heard.
What have you learned about women in the prison system today from your time on the show? I’m just relieved that they don’t think that we’re misrepresenting them. Also that they don’t think that we’re glossing anything over. Of course it’s television. Of courses it’s entertainment. But when women who have been in prison or women in the prison system, tell us that they feel that they’re being represented in an authentic way, that makes me really happy.
After the first season, I was once walking on the street and this guy was walking beside me and going in the same direction for almost a mile. Now, my radar is up if somebody is walking with me, I make a turn, or I duck in somewhere. Because it’s usually a stalking situation. But this guy was walking with me, he was well-dressed, he was in a suit, he was obviously on his lunch hour and we were walking in the same direction in Murray Hill. He eventually got the nerve to speak up and he said, "I'm a child of an incarcerated woman and I was raised by my grandmother and I just want to thank you for what you and your show are doing." I was just like, "Oh, well, your grandma did a really good job."
II've since had conversations with the children of the incarcerated, and to be on a show that's fun and great, but to feel like disenfranchised people feel represented and in a worthwhile way, that's kind of cool.
What drew you to the show in the first place? It was actually Jen Euston who’s the casting director, she had been a champion of mine for quite a long time. I had been out of town up at the Barrington Stage, where I’m going again this summer for the same composer Joe Iconis. I had been away for the summer so I didn’t have any [Broadway shows] lined up for the fall. Jen called me in and she said no makeup please. They send you the material and then they tell you what the character is like and what to look like. All she said was, "Please tell the actresses not to bring their glamorous selves. Be plain, no makeup." So I walked in and said, “You wanted ugly, you got ugly.” She said a lot of the girls were saying that when they walked in. She was like, "You’re not ugly, I wish you guys would understand that."
So it was Jen Euston, the casting director, and it was actually Jenji Kohan, the creator. She had such success on Showtime with Weeds that I thought, "Wow, she’s riding the wave. She’s going to have another success, I’m sure." AndI don’t do the glamorous roles. I never get called for the glamorous roles, so I though this would be a good fit. I went in for Sister Ingalls, and Jenji gave me Norma, which is a gift in itself. She’s not like any of the other prisoners, obviously, because she doesn’t speak.
Norma was a pivotal character last season. Have you been surprised by how she’s become this demagogue? Yeah I am surprised. It’s really flattering to me. There are so many interesting women of all ages [on this show]. They all make up different demographics and physicality and body type and body image and age group and wealth of experience with the way these characters are written and who they are. It’s kind of interesting to be the one who seems the most mysterious, only because she doesn’t chime in, she’s just there. I do have people who come up to me and say, "Oh, you’re my favorite character, you’re my daughter’s favorite character, you’re my husband’s favorite character." I go, “Really?” Because what’s so special about Norma? That’s what’s special about her.
She’s kind of on the surface, she seems to be mousy, and she seems to be invisible, but actually that’s what these women don’t want to be, is invisible. So she has this profound effect on people. She’s also, I think the only character who can, because she is invisible and because she is not seen as a threat in any way, she slips from tribe to tribe. Like a butterfly in every tribe, in every group. She fits right in. Nobody sees her as a threat, although she is very profound and powerful.
I thought it was interesting last season how Norma seemed to have abused her power a little bit. Well it’s interesting that you say she abused her power. When you look at the first two seasons, she was the abused. She was the bullied. I saw it [this season] as she stepped up. She put herself in the game. You know what I mean? She didn’t say she was a leader. They said she was a leader. And Red didn’t see it, Red didn’t see the leader. Red loves Norma, and they’ve been friends forever, since day one when they met in the kitchen. But she didn’t imbue Norma with any kind of special skill. It was the others. Red says it, "These poor incarcerated will believe in anything, because they have to." Norma was kind of like, well, thank you. That’s a backhanded compliment. Any maternal figure, they love you and they want to nurture you, but then when you start to come into your own they’re not really at ease with it.
Even the other women, all the tribes, they were totally surprised in the women who were invested in Norma and lifted her up. I just felt like she was in the game. It wasn’t really a dark side, it was that she stepped into the light, in a way, and said, "I’m the downtrodden." In here, with the housed and caged downtrodden, here she’s going to step up and she’s going to bring something out. She’s going to bring kindness and light. That’s what she was trying to do. Even in her own circle, there was manipulation, there were half-truths, there was the targeting of Brook by Leann. The people wanting to be close to the leader who had their position threatened. All Norma was professing was kindness and equality and love and light, which was a message from her heyday, we found out.
You mentioned this in part, but there’s been some criticism that the show makes prison look "fun." Can you address that further? Well, that’s why I said I was shocked when people said they found the show profound and authentic. It’s supposed to be entertainment. Those doctor shows, they go, "We’re ordering tests," and "We’re doing tests," and I go “Yeah and who’s paying for that?” In my living room I talk back to the TV. I go, “Who’s paying for this homeless person to have a private room and have all those tests?”
When I see a cop show, and they go, We’re going to the DA for you," it’s like, that doesn’t happen. It’s like, you give yourself up, and then you’re in the system and you’re lost. I know that this stuff is not authentic. So in my situation, that I have a TV series that people seem to like, I do get nervous when young women and young men say, “Oh my God, you guys are so fun, you make prison look fun.” That’s not the message we’re sending. No. Sorry. Don’t think that. Because this is a fictional life. There are devices that are used. There are plot turns and plot points that are used for entertainment value. You do not want to get in. You do not want to be lost forever and then they throw away the key. You don’t want to get on that radar. You don’t want to have to have that. Things I learned while I was on the show, when you’re paroled you can’t vote, you don’t qualify for public services, public housing. That’s crazy and you don’t know that. You don’t know that when you make a mistake or you make a foolish choice or you get in with bad company. I do worry about it.
I also have young kids come up to me, at supermarkets or restaurants, who tell me, "I think you’re wonderful on Orange is the New Black." I just did a musical theater workshop and the other show in the same rehearsal space was You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, with kids. And kids came up to me and told me, “We love you on Orange Is The New Black." And I tell them, "That’s inappropriate for you. You shouldn’t really be watching that." I have to say that first. Then I say thank you.
One time I was at a restaurant, this young girl came up to me, and she said, “I love you on Orange is the New Black.” The mother was sitting at the table. And I said, “How old are you?” She said, "Eleven." And I said, “Honey that’s inappropriate for you. Tell Mommy I said that’s inappropriate.” But then she went back to the table, and Mommy told her to get a picture. She didn’t get to ask me if she could have the picture, which I would have said yes to. Because I said it was inappropriate. Her mother came over to the bar where I’m sitting and said, “You don’t tell my daughter that a show is inappropriate. I know what she can watch and what she can’t.” The mother took issue with me saying that it was bad parenting.
I told her, no I wasn’t saying that I was just saying I have to say that to protect myself. I’m trying to say, “Why am I talking to an 11-year-old about my work which is not for 11-year-olds?” And she was like, “Yeah but I’m just saying you don’t tell a child that.” And I went, "Okay, well, maybe don’t send your daughter over to the bar to talk to somebody." And my friend was going, "That woman would not let up, let’s go."
I do worry about telling kids prison is fun, incarceration is fun, being in trouble with the law is not a dead end and a life-altering experience. It is. You don’t want that. So no, we’re not encouraging.
There’s also been some criticism about how the storylines make it seem like every character you meet is a good person to whom bad things happen, that there aren't any truly evil people at Litchfield. We were profoundly moved by the register book at the WPA, where those women had signed their crimes in 1865. They were domestics, or they were governesses or they were nannies, and their offenses were intemperance, public intoxication, prostitution. They were all fallen women. On our show, there are stories where people make their own choices. Like Flaca doing that whole scam with the drugs, where the kid took it too far. That kid was already obviously troubled. Flaca’s mother was a seamstress, she worked at home, she didn’t even speak English. Flaca didn’t get good legal representation. A rich kid could have beat that. You wonder why Piper winds up in jail in the first place, since she’s a woman of means. She has a family. They have resources. She made a deal. Look at Poussey. She came from a military family. She moved around a lot, the kid didn't feel like she belonged anywhere. The implications of what you’ve done, even in your younger life, could have impact upon you.
And there are still stories yet to be told in season four. The [OITNB writers] do listen to Buzzfeed. They do listen to the fans. Jenji tracks the criticism and she tracks the comments. She tracks what the fans want to see more of. She tracks what the fans are not buying. She’s a really smart woman. She’s really commanding and she’s at the helm of this ship. She knows what she’s doing.
Kate Mulgrew, Red, was saying to me, "Oh my gosh, Jenji is very smart. We were getting a little too comfortable in our la la land of Litchfield. So let’s add a few more personalities to the mix. Let’s invade our private space. Let’s turn this cruise a little bit. Let’s make it a little more crowded." Everybody knows Norma doesn't speak. What’s she going to do when new people come in? She’s got to explain herself all over again? Because when you don’t talk to somebody and somebody is talking to you, that’s a fight right there. They’re going to throw down right there. "Are you dissing me? I asked you a question." If she doesn’t respond and her peeps aren’t around, she’s going to have to fend for herself. It’s like she’s a newbie all over again. We’ll see what the fans think about season four.
It’s valid, the criticism. If critics feel that way, that’s the way they feel. But Jenji tracks that stuff. I think they won’t be disappointed with season four because things get tighter. Things get wound so tight.
Season 4 of Orange Is The New Black will be available to stream in full on June 17th. The WPA will host a premiere party with select castmembers at The Ainsworth starting at 7 p.m.; you can purchase tickets here.