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article imageQ & A with Michael Harney of 'Orange Is the New Black' Special

By Mindy Peterman     Jul 26, 2013 in Entertainment
Michael Harney is one of those fortunate people who discovered his niche early on, stuck with it and eventually found creative satisfaction and success as an actor.
“I had fallen in love with the art of acting,” Michael Harney told me as he talked about his early years. It still surprises him that his love of the craft has taken him to places he never dreamed he would go.
You may not know Harney by name but if you’ve watched NYPD Blue, Deadwood, Weeds or any number of hit television dramas and theatrical films, you will recognize the face and the distinctive resonant voice. Harney’s most recent project is the hit Netflix dramedy Orange Is the New Black, in which he plays Sam Healy, a compassionate yet troubled prison counselor. Harney spoke with me by phone about his career and his thoughts on a subject dear to him: the acting life.
You began your career in New York before venturing out to Hollywood. Could you talk a bit about those days?
I worked in social work years ago. I was going to be a social worker when I was in college. I did a lot of volunteer work in civil rights and prison reform for the first two years. And then once I went to my third year of school, which was in upstate New York, most of the work was theory, book work. I had been used to doing hands-on work in the community and the institutions. So what I did was, I took an acting class. I lucked out, I got a guy from New York, John Barrett, who taught dramatic arts. He was actually part of the Manhattan Project. He was one of the theorists who worked on that.
We hit it off and I ended up doing seven shows back to back largely under his tutelage. And I just took to it. My dad was a performer in the service. He didn’t have an opportunity to pursue it. So I had it in my bloodstream. I believe things are genetic. I did two years of reperatory company and the guys and gals who were in the company were all pros and had a lot of experience. Then when I came back to New York, I just started studying and I really took it very seriously. I studied for seven years. Little by little I tried to get out there, working on television and film and professional stage work. But I couldn’t get arrested.
So I probably did eighty plays that I either produced, directed, or built sets for. [It was at that time] I threw my hands up and said, “You know, I love acting.” I had fallen in love with the art of acting. [Drama teacher] Phil Gushee had offered me a teaching job. I thought if I teach I’d be able to keep working. That was and still is my main priority. I started teaching and it just took off. I loved it. So I did that for eight years.
It was while I was teaching, and I had basically given up on pursuing an acting career at that point, I got a call from Junie Lowry Johnson, who was casting NYPD Blue in those days and they hired me [to play Detective Mike Roberts]. So I flew back and forth for two years doing that show. I recurred on that show for about six seasons.
You’ve done many guest shots as well as recurring roles. Which is more challenging for you?
It depends on the guest shot. I think in the beginning years for an actor or actress just getting their feet wet doing guest star performances it’s very difficult. You have to come into a group that’s already used to working together. They’re in rhythm and you have to come in and fit into that rhythm. Thank God, I would say that 99 percent of all crews, producers, directors are just wonderful. Very rarely have I had a bad experience. They’ll support you.
It’s difficult in the beginning. My thing to this day is that I’m amazed I’m even working. It’s the old Spencer Tracey thing: I got away with another one. And that’s very true of many actors I know.
You’ve worked on critically acclaimed shows such as Deadwood, Weeds, NYPD Blue and now Orange Is the New Black. Do you have a favorite role out of all the ones you’ve played?
They’re all my favorite when I’m doing them. Every one is my favorite. Looking back I’d have to say I still feel that way. It’s an opportunity because of my background, which is largely humanistic and rooted in compassion, for me to explore a person’s life other than my own. To develop a different point of view through the craft that I learned. It becomes a kind of experience of being in the now with each of them. I don’t mean to be Pollyanna or anything like that. Each one is a favorite.
You seem to have something in common with Sam Healy because of your experience in social work and your work in institutions. Did Jenji Kohan have you in mind from the start for the role of Sam Healy because of this and your role on her show Weeds?
I don’t know if that’s so. I don’t ask a lot of questions. I was actually was speaking with an old friend of mine prior to working on the show. I said, “Gee, I’d really love to get to New York to see my folks”. My folks are getting older. All of a sudden I get a call that said, “Hey, they want you for this show.” So I don’t know how it went there. I kind of look at the terrain and say, “God’s my employer.” I follow the steps that are in front of me. I feel really blessed to be with Jenji and the crew that she creates. They care about the work first. And along with that they care about the people. It’s really about the work and it’s about creating a quality production. And in this case to fulfill the meaning of what it’s like to live inside of a prison, what it’s like to work inside of a prison. To explore the dynamics of the relationships between the inmates and also between the people who run the prison (I use that term loosely) and the people who are incarcerated with them.
Sam Healy is initially one of the most likable male characters on Orange Is the New Black. He treats the inmates with empathy and seems to want them to better themselves. How do you see this character and the challenges he has to face?
I think in that regard, Healy is like me in terms of an essence or core of who he is. I think for myself in approaching this and fleshing out this character, it’s really about doing the most life-affirming, compassionate thing with the inmates. But there are a specific set of obstacles that Healy is dealing with personally and also professionally, which are coming to light in this first season. They make it difficult and cause his, let’s say, pure intentions to be skewed and come out in ways that are not the most life-affirming. They come out in ways that are manipulative, in ways that are perhaps harmful to others. I think that’s probably one of the most rewarding things artistically that I can do, which is to embody what all of us go through: this is what we mean to do and now with the circumstances that are presented to us, this is what we can do or this is what we are doing unconsciously. So it becomes a trip in a good way to live through that painting. We can paint in that way, use those colors in that way, if that makes sense.
The show is unusual in that Piper is the center of this universe but there are so many other stories to be told. We are given glimpses into the former lives of the inmates as well as Healy’s outside life, which serves to enhance Piper’s story. How do you feel about this method of storytelling?
I like it because it gives steps to a nowness of circumstance by giving backstory. By actually allowing the audience to visualize what has happened before gives them more depth of experience in witnessing what’s happening in the present circumstances of the storyline. So I think that that is something that is really important to look at as a real plus and something that is not easy to pull off. You have to have a whole team of writers. You have to have an idea of what you’re trying to achieve in each episode. I think of it as a really positive experience.
“Blood Donut” is one of my favorite episodes of the series. You offer your inmates donuts and listen to their demands. You really do nothing for them, although they think you do. Do you have a favorite moment on the show, so far?
Well, again, they’re all kind of favorite moments. The way I came up, every moment has a meaning. There are no ordinary moments. Every episode is special to me.
If I could say one thing about that episode: I think that within the confines of the prison system, the budgetary limitations, the limitations that are placed on them in terms of the resources they have at their disposal and what they can do with them, oftentimes the people who work there are forced to do things that they would rather do in other ways. I think that scene was a great example of that. Because basically it was a manipulation on my part to get [the inmates] to do [what I asked] and also took advantage of their not really understanding what was happening.
I think my actions in that particular scene is a great example of someone trying to do the right thing within limitations that are terribly stacked against them. So they wind up doing this. I’m not justifying that. I’m saying in order for them to keep up with the case load, in order for them to keep up with what they have to do each day, it would be impossible for them just to drop it and say, “I’m not going to stand for this. If we’re going to change this we’re going to do this, this and this.” So I think that particular scene is a great example of what I was talking about.
What do you think about Netflix making the entire series available to stream? Do you think they’ve set a new standard?
I think the standard’s already been set. I think we’re moving steadily in that direction. I think that’s going to be the standard as we move forward. The rest of the ‘machine’ will catch up to that format in terms of being able to fulfill goals within that format. I think that’s really where we’re headed.
More about Michael Harney, Orange Is the New Black, Netflix, Jenji kohan, Drama
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