What it’s like to play a white supremacist on TV post-Trump
When “Orange Is the New Black” first introduced its skinhead characters in 2015, the fictional white supremacists seemed like buffoons, despite being evilly racist.
They also seemed like fringe psychos who most people wouldn’t encounter in real life. People who openly and proudly call themselves white supremacists — instead of hiding their racism or not even realizing they’re racist — seemed like a rarity. This was especially true for those of us who come from privilege or live and socialize in liberal bubbles.
But in the last two years, a lot has changed — and it’s become more and more clear that while real-life white supremacists actually do exist and pose a threat.
Donald Trump’s election as president brought them crawling out of the woodwork, and they seem more loud and proud than they have been in decades. Trump’s done barely anything to distance himself from the literal neo-Nazis who feel so emboldened by his rhetoric.
So the white supremacists on “Orange” don’t seem like quite as much of a joke anymore. In fact, it would be pretty ignorant to dismiss them as idiots clinging to an old way of life, when their real-life counterparts are actually feeling confident enough to come out of the shadows, MAGA hats and all.
We figured it must be a jarring experience for the actors who play these characters — and Francesca Curran, a.k.a. “Skinhead Helen,” confirmed that it’s changed since the election.
Francesca even receives fan mail on Instagram from real-life white supremacists these days. Creepy.
Keep reading for our interview with Francesca and be sure to catch the new season of “Orange Is the New Black” on Netflix.
So back when you got offered this role, how’d you research it?
[I had to] try to get into the mindset of someone who’s so unlike me. And then I spent some days at the library, but it was such a quick turnaround from me being offered the role to me being on set that I had 72 hours to do research. So I pretty much just locked down and went online. A lot of YouTube, a lot of Google, read some books and stuff and continued the research throughout season four.
I think it’ll be something I’ll just keep learning as I go. Even the writers too will keep us all aware and up on current events so I can use that in my performance.
Sanks & Brandy seem pissed, but I am criss-cross-apple-saucing it up preparing for my weekend #OITNB binge-watching. •••••••••••••• #DamnItHelen #HelenMcMuffin #FocusPleaseHelen #Sankey #Brandy #SquadGoals???? #June9th #OrangeIsTheNewBlack #season5 #ImFiredUp #HelenCrushesEspresso #TGIF #Season5Realness
Was it surprising for you since the election to see how white supremacists are in the news more and more?
It’s been a shock, there’s no doubt. I never thought this character would come to life so tangibly.
I kind of thought that it did seem so unrealistic. It was difficult to grasp who Helen was, because it didn’t feel in reach. I didn’t feel informed enough. But since since season four, going into season five, it’s a whole new ballgame. [Information about white supremacists] has been so easily accessible compared to before. I’m seeing it in headlines, I get news alerts, and it’s like white supremacy, white nationalism — it’s all popping up.
I definitely feel a certain responsibility to play the role right and to have it be educational. I didn’t think it was gonna be such an important role and now the writers are like, “This is the real deal.” I’m trying to put 150% into it, because it’s a big responsibility.
Is it harder to play her in a funny way, since people like her seeming to be gaining power and posing a real threat?
There’s definitely a challenge, there’s no doubt. Because it’s dark and at the beginning, it started out being so easy to be comical and funny because the writing was comical, and not so much scary and violent, more clumsy and doofus — “oh, there’s Helen again, Helen’s walking funny, Helen’s talking funny, Helen’s angry, but she doesn’t act on it.”
But now it’s dark, now it’s real. The writers have done such a great job taking what’s real and putting it onto the pages. Now I have to really seek those moments of comedy. There’s not as much, but I try to find a way to get those little moments in. There’s still comedy even in the darkest people, they still have moments of joy, of laughter and whatnot.
[I’ve done a lot of research by watching documentaries about] serial killers and neo-Nazis I can’t relate to, and realizing there is comedy in those people. As a human being, you can’t be angry and violent 365 day a year, 24/7. But allowing myself to go there and be like, “No, funny’s okay, sometimes she’s still a human being.” There are little moments in there, little sparks of it. But season five is a lot darker.
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Do you ever feel uncomfortable playing her, when she says such horrible things?
Absolutely. More in season four, when I was getting into the physicality of the character, I was like, “I can’t believe I have to say this to another human being.” We’d do a scene and the director would call cut and I’d be apologizing to fellow cast-mates, and they’d be like girl, we know you’re acting, we know it’s all good.
The day one, season one girls are so used to it now because it’s the theme of the show at this point. I was apologetic and self aware, like, oh, I’m hurting people. Now, I feel like it’s just being on-set so many days and becoming such a part of it and putting myself into the character. There were days where it was hard because in real life, I’m so sensitive, I’m so aware of how I treat other people and I’m super sensitive myself and I try to put myself in my cast-mates’ shoes and be like, If they’re sensitive, I can only imagine how they’re feeling.
Myself and the other two white supremacist characters, we’d be on the top places on the podium for saying and doing horrible things. I was starting to go crazy, but now, after two seasons, it’s scary — I can get into character in two seconds and go to that dark place. Then getting out of it, everyone’s like, “Let’s go out to dinner!” And I’m like, “I’m still really depressed, I need 10 minutes and an iced coffee or a margarita.”
Do you ever feel like your character is normalizing something really dark, especially since you make her so funny?
There are definitely moments. I get comments on social media where people will be like, “OMG, you’re amazing,” which makes me feel good as a person if it’s toward Francesca.
But when the comments are directed towards my character, that’s when it starts to get scary for me. Social media has made me actually aware of how much [white supremacy] does exist. I’ve had people who are parts of power groups reach out to me and thank me. It’s terrifying. When I see that kind of stuff, I end up having to block them or remove myself from the conversation because it’s not the type of attention we’re going for. Once it starts to get into the realm of “thank you for representing us, thank you for giving us a voice,” that’s where it starts to be like, “Okay, I’m uncomfortable. That’s not what we are trying to do.”
But in the sense that it is educational, that’s when it’s important. I think that actually, a lot of people, including my family members, my friends and myself, have become so much more informed about who these people are and what they do and what it means for our world today. But there’s definitely a fear of it being romanticized or glamorized and having people think, “Oh my god, if this is what white supremacists are like, I could be these people or be friends with these people.”
There’s definitely a fear of being approached by people or having people be like, “Great work, after seeing your performance, I’ve thought about joining the force.” If you think Helen’s funny that’s great, but take it with a grain of salt. It’s me putting my personality into the character on set having fun. In no way, shape or form is it me being like, “This is what white supremacists are like and you should jump on the bandwagon.”
I’m really surprised people would think Helen is a flattering portrayal, she’s such a buffoon…
That was my first impression when I started getting messages and getting reached out to! I was like ummm, is this really who you want to be the representative for your group? No one was trying to glamorize it. No one was like, “This will be a good idea to help people jump onboard.” If anything it was supposed to be a negative portrayal to show this is real, this is going on, you should steer clear from it. These are not people we want in our world.
People are weird and everyone has a different perspective and different point of view, but 99.99% of people are like, “She’s terrible, she’s horrible, she’s disgusting.” And I’m like, there we go! That’s what we were going for, thank you. As an actor I’m like, job well done.
Do you pay more attention to the news surrounding white supremacy now?
I think I pay a lot more attention, yeah. It’s an uncomfortable subject and an uncomfortable topic. For me, as a white person of privilege, I was living in such a bubble. It was too easy for me not to read that stuff. And it definitely wasn’t as relevant even a year or two ago. I knew there was white supremacy, but it didn’t seem relevant. Which is just ridiculous.
Now, I have Google Alerts any time any of those words are tagged in an article or Google search, just so I can be on top of that stuff. These things are happening in real time. When I’m on set the next day [after something regarding white supremacy has been in the news], and we’re about to shoot a scene that’s really heavy, it’s like, “okay, this stuff is happening.”
It’s not easy to read. I push myself to watch the videos. A lot of times they’re graphic. I try to push myself to get through it because my hope is I’ll improve my performance and make it all seem real.
It seemed so weird to me when the show first came out, to see the character dividing themselves along racial lines, but obviously that’s always been happening.
It’s bizarre. I feel like Jenji Kohan [the show’s creator] just gets the world, I swear. She has an ability to see what’s going on in the world and to mirror it back with the show. For her to have the separate dorms, what they call on the show “the ghetto dorm,” the white dorm, the meth-heads and the Latina dorm and stuff — it did seem so unrealistic when I first started watching it. I was like, what? There would be so many lawsuits! There’s no way people could be separated based on their race and stuff.
Then you look around at the world today, and it’s happening. So if we can do something educational about it, and we now have the idea to have the ability to make those things more transparent, more power to “Orange.” We’re doing something. We’re getting some important stuff out there.
Who did you model Helen’s speech patterns and mannerisms after?
It’s funny, my first day on set I didn’t know anything about Helen. I didn’t know where she was from. I was offered the role and three days later I was shooting my first scene.
I didn’t have info about where she was from that informs dialect, accent, speech patterns, everything. But I knew it was a big show and I probably wouldn’t get too much attention [from producers or directors] on day one. They’re gonna expect me to come in here with my stuff figured out.
So I did my practice in that short time to have her figured out for myself. I was doing Helen with kind of a Brooklyn accent and I had no clue why, it felt organic, it felt tough. Then, they tell me Helen was from West Virginia, and that changed everything for me. Just between the rehearsal and shooting the scene, I had to change the whole dialect.
For me, the persona and everything is so heavy and dark and deep and rooted into the ground, so it was figuring out how she walks and how she is with other people, and then the voice came, and the rhythm came, and the writers do such a good job of giving me one-liners. I know I have these one-liners to spit off, so that informs the rhythm and stuff.
It’s interesting you went with a New York accent since the stereotype is usually that white supremacists are from the south.
Yeah, it makes sense to be more rural. That’s where they have the most forming of these groups and stuff, but some part of me reading the script was like no, this girl is very urban, this is a city girl. I was getting that feeling and the aggressiveness. Some part of me was just like, oh the aggressiveness of it makes me wanna do a very urban city girl who’s fed up, who’s had it. It felt right to me and I was like, I’m gonna go in with this.
And then the first word out of my mouth, they were like, we should prob tell you she’s from West Virginia. And I’m like, oh yeah, that helps. It was so fast, the turnaround. I was offered the role and 48 hours later I had my head shaved.
This is my ride or die guy 😍 #crushinghard on my hubby always! #mancrushsaturday #yeahiknowitsnotathing….When I got the news that I was being offered the role of #skinheadhelen we were newlyweds, and when I hung up the phone I looked and him and said “soooo….I hope it’s cool that I’m shaving my head!” And he jumped up and down with me, screaming and freaking out. He’s a good egg. Never once complains when my spiky shaved head scratches him in the middle of the night. The icing on the cake is that he has a sexy Argentinian accent!!!! Yeeeeep be jealous. And now he’s on this amazing, swirly-twirly adventure roller coaster with me, and we’re loving every second! So glad I met this guy on the corner of Times Square, so glad I stopped when he asked me for directions. Thank you for the laughs, for the quiet nights we spend just hanging out, for being as much of a foodie as me, for late night walks, for deep heart to heart talks, and for welcoming #helen into your life. I love you forever and always 💗💗
So you actually had to shave your head?!
I had waist-length platinum blonde hair before. Rest in peace.
I was a newlywed too — how sneaky was that? Now that I’ve got the diamond, see ya! No hair. But he understood. That’s part of the life of an actor. Once I heard it was OITNB, I was like, yeah right, I’m not gonna turn this down — especially as a co-star role. I was like, forget about it. It grows back.
Right now I have a pixie cut [and I wear] wigs. I’ve had some wigs made, just based on my hair from before, because I was like, if I’m gonna do this, I still wanna feel like myself.
It is hard, I’m not gonna lie. It is hard. So I just had wigs made that look like my hair from before and depending on the day, I wear them or I don’t. I’m sure my neighbors are so confused.
I went on the subway once without my wig on when I had a buzz cut and I think people thought I was sick. People were offering me seats on the subway. I was like, I don’t wanna take advantage of the system…
Do you ever feel like you’re not yourself because your head is shaved?
Oh my god, yeah, I mean I have hard days and stuff. I tell my friends this too, even when they cut their bangs and they hate it, or they’re feeling bad about weight gain. I don’t wanna sound cliche but honestly, if you feel good about yourself, everyone else is gonna feel good about who you are.
It’s all about how you own it. For me, I found comedy in it. If you own it, everyone else is gonna see that confidence and not ask questions. It’s all about how you walk, how you feel about yourself, if you’re okay with yourself inside — everyone else is gonna feel that and accept it.
Do you ever just try to rock it like Kristen Stewart?
I’ve rocked the buzz cut a few days. Every single time I go in to shoot the show, they shave it again. It grows so fast, I’m impressed with my hair. I’m like, yaaassss!
We went out one night to a really hip bar in SoHo and I had my head shaved like Kristen Stewart and I had a full face of makeup, full glam, a skintight dress with heels, and I was feeling it. Everyone was like, “oh my god, I love your look,” and I did not expect it. I was like “whoa, thanks.”
I live in a pretty chill neighborhood and I’ll go to Starbucks and rock it and people are like, “Hey, cool look, good for you. I would never be able to rock it.” You never know, people surprise you. People just lift you up. I might get back into it. It’s kinda cool. Cara Delevingne had it at the Met Gala — it’s kind of a thing right now.
I’m just not that badass in real life. I’m too feminine and stuff. I have to work up to it. Kristen Stewart can pull it off because she’s hot and has tattoos. I look like a little wimp, but I’ll work on it.
Do you have any other projects coming up?
I mean honestly, my focus will be on “Orange” until the day they kill me off. I will keep on shaving my damn head. They’re waiting for the day I’ll get sick of it and peace and I’m like, “nope,” I’ll be there as long as they’ll have me. It’s just so amazing. It’s a master class to watch Uzo and Taylor and Laura — it’s crazy. I went from watching them on TV to acting alongside them.
And it’s like being at a sleepover Monday through Friday. We have the best time. We spend a lot of time together, we go out to eat — it’s like a family. I’m not ready to leave it.