Therapy Session: Interview with Orange Is the New Black's Michael Harney

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Actor Michael Harney

Police detective, SWAT commander, Blackjack pit boss, FBI agent, assistant district attorney, U.S. Marshal—these are just a few of the many roles that veteran stage, feature film and television actor Michael Harney has portrayed in his long career. Currently, he can be seen as Sam Healy in the new hit Netflix series Orange Is the New Black. The job came about as a result of his prior role of Detective Mitch Ouellette in the Showtime original series Weeds.

“My initial involvement with Orange Is the New Black actually began with my collaboration with Jenji Kohan [series creator/executive producer] and her crew when we all worked together on Weeds,” notes Harney. “The 13 episodes I did on that show wound up being my audition for Orange Is the New Black, which is a wonderful thing for an actor when your work is received in such a way that makes people think, ‘He’d be really great for this other part,’ and then they just bring you in for it. Honestly, auditioning never gets any easier. As I get older, I much prefer, as I’m sure 99.9% of actors do, to just get offers, so this turned out to be a fantastic surprise for me and has been a terrific experience.”

Orange Is the New Black is based on the book of the same name by Piper Kerman, which is a memoir about her own experiences in prison. The Netflix series stars Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman, a woman who ends up in prison for carrying drug money for her ex-girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon), who is also serving time in the same correctional facility. Despite her incarceration, Piper’s fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs) has pledged to stand by her while she serves her sentence. Harney’s character of Sam Healy is a correctional officer and social worker/prison counselor who is dealing with issues of his own. From day one, walking in Sam’s shoes has been a joy for the actor.

“I remember walking onto the set for the first time and seeing my character’s office. That was really something,” he says. “It was great, too, seeing my old friends from Weeds. That was just heartwarming, and it was also nice to meet Taylor and everyone else who I’d be working with this [first] season as well as the upcoming [second] season. I’m a journeyman actor and a character guy. I’ve done dozens of roles, so when a new one comes along, I just kind of get my actor’s ‘bag’ together and off I go. It’s almost like being in the circus. With this particular series, I’m able to participate in friendships I’ve already established and work with artists who I really respect, so in that way it’s quite special.

“As far as my character of Sam Healy, there are so many obstacles, personally as well as professionally, that stand in the way of him having a life-affirming experience in both realms. That’s always a neat situation for an actor to participate in - to work to achieve a solution when obstacles present themselves to your character. On this show, we have a team of writers who are at the top of their game, so what they’re doing is giving us a series of hurdles that we have to then create movement and/or action in order to surpass or try to surpass those hurdles. It’s the same in the real world. The greatest challenge in life for me and, I think, everyone is to overcome obstacles, embrace the realities of existence and then move forward with whatever inspiration, abilities and talents that we’ve been able to obtain.

“So Sam is not really in a fun zone, if you know what I mean. He’s embracing very problematical circumstances. Professionally, my character is having a hard time on the job with his superiors. He’s having difficulty learning how to communicate and successfully have relationship dynamics with the inmates that he is in charge of. In those areas and with the onscreen development of the character, it’s all about learning how to cope with such limitations or restrictions. In doing so, that will then help him attain his desired goals. At home, Sam would love to work out a successful dynamic with his wife and her mother and bridge the gap between two completely different cultures. As you can see from the writing, which I think is tremendously funny, Sam is struggling to create a happy marriage with someone who dislikes him entirely,” says the actor with a chuckle.

Among the prison inmates that Sam interacts with is Piper, and their relationship is another one that has plenty of emotional peaks and valleys. “Sam is attempting to communicate with Piper and connect with her on a level where she would be a kindred spirit with him,” says Harney. “He feels paternally towards Piper and is attracted to her as well. My character also feels that Piper is special and that she could really make something of her life as opposed to following in the footsteps of so many others that come through the system. She rejects that, however, which is quite an intense experience for Sam and one he takes very personally.”

One of Harvey’s most memorable scenes from the first season of Orange Is the New Black is one between Sam and Piper. The actor drew upon real-life memories for inspiration when filming this particular scene. “I had a friend of mine who was Catholic and who had been incarcerated in the Soviet Union for many, many years simply for being a priest,” he says. “They thought he was a spy for the Vatican. He was my spiritual director when he was at Fordham University in New York and the two of us became close friends.

“In Orange Is the New Black, I did a scene with Taylor where Sam goes to see Piper in the SHU [Special Handling Unit]. It was very interesting, and this is a good example of how the work has become for me as I get older. When I walked onto that set, I remembered my friend and the hell he went through when he was incarcerated. He spent five years in solitary confinement. He said the Rosary three times a day in three different languages and did spiritual exercises that he had learned in his order. Fortunately, he came through it and made it out the other side, but I remembered him when I was filming that scene with Taylor, and it was very moving for me. It just kind of happened. It was kind of in the ethers, you know, but the foundation had been laid because of the work that Taylor and I had done personally and what we brought to the table in terms of the relationship dynamic.”

Long before he ever took on the role of Sam Healy in Orange Is the New Black, Harney considered pursuing the same line of work as his TV counterpart. “I was going to be a social worker years ago,” says the actor. “During my first two years of college I was very much involved in civil rights and actually worked in prison reform for a while.

“I was a pretty wild kid—I probably lived 42 years in my first 20 years—but after that cycle was over and when I was in my early 20s, I really contemplated becoming a Catholic priest. That’s where I met the fellow I just spoke about. I also wanted a family, though, and knew that celibacy wasn’t an option. I loved women too much to go down that road,” jokes Harney.

“Those were the two other things I considered doing with my life, but when I finally chose acting, I hit the ground running and worked very hard at it. I studied for seven-and-a-half years and must have done 70 or 80 shows in New York, including off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway, and I did them for no money. I’d produce them, I used to paint sets, take care of tickets, and when I was teaching, I always directed my students.

“So I fell in love with the art of acting early on and I really had a tremendous experience of personal transformation. I met a number of teachers, in particular Bill Esper and Phil Gushee, both of whom worked with Sanford Meisner at The Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York, and Richard Pinter, who I believe is still there and was influential in my life.

“I was just a blue collar kid from Queens [New York] with some smarts, but I was like this big brick wall. Then, however, I began to realize that I could have an organic experience emotionally as well as psychologically onstage by living truthfully through imaginary circumstances, and that really changed my life on a personal level.”

Having spent several years onstage honing his craft, Harney turned to the other creative outlets of film and TV. Turbulence, Sonic Impact, Erin Brockovich and Ocean’s Thirteen are among his big screen credits, while on the small screen he has appeared in countless made-for-TV movies as well as guest-starred on such series as L.A. Law, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, JAG, Without a Trace, Deadwood and NCIS: Los Angeles. One of the actor’s earliest and most substantial TV roles was Detective Mike Roberts in NYPD Blue.

“That was fantastic,” enthuses Harney. “I worked with [series creators/executive producers] Steven Bochco and David Milch, both of whom I have a very deep respect for. They’ve helped me tremendously in my career. David, in particular, has been a very dear friend to me and my son since we’ve been out here in California. Steven and David gave me material to do on the show that was outstanding and where my character had an incredible story arc.

“There’s a funny story about my time on NYPD Blue. I was doing a scene where David Caruso’s character [Detective John Kelly] was interviewing my character.  I had to do a speech and I ended up putting my fist through a window.  Dennis Franz [Detective Andy Sipowicz] was there, too, who by the way is probably the guy I learned the most from in terms of carrying myself as a professional in this business. He’s very kind and I just picked up a lot from him about how to go about doing things as an actor out here in Hollywood.

“Anyway, I wound up punching out a window, but I didn’t tell anyone ahead of time that I was going to do that. They told me, ‘We’re going to leave the camera rolling. You just take off and do what you’re going to do.’ I had a stage background, so I didn’t know about breakaway glass or the fact that the producers might get mad at me. So I put my fist through this glass and it shattered all over the place. The teamsters gave me kind of weird looks, and I turned to Dennis and asked him, ‘Did I do something wrong?’ He said to me, ‘Well, next time, you might want to tell someone before you do it.’ Then Dennis [jokingly] said to me, ‘I’m not going to do any rooftop scenes with you.’”

Of all the roles he has played throughout his career, is there one that the actor found especially difficult or challenging to have pulled off?

“Several years ago I played Dylan Thomas [Welsh poet and writer] onstage in a play called Dylan by Sidney Michaels,” says Harney. “I was a young guy and looked like Dylan Thomas. In fact, I still kind of look like him. Alec Guinness played him on Broadway when he was in his 60s, I think, and I’d love to play him again at some point as get I older.

“It’s a very demanding role, and I lost five pounds a night when I did that show. On top of that, I was drinking very, very heavily at the time, and I actually got sober after that experience. The role drew a lot out of me personally and helped me confront my own demons, which back then were heavy addiction and irresponsibility. I was doing a number of things in those days that were extremely destructive, and if I’d kept doing them I probably would not be around today.”

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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