‘Orange Is the New Black’ Star Michael Harney Talks Healy’s Friendship With Lolly, Whether He’ll Return for Season 5, and That ‘Deadwood’ Reunion
Warning: This interview contains storyline and character spoilers for Orange Is the New Black Season 4.
Season 1-3 of Orange Is the New Black might have left viewers with the primary impression that Litchfield counselor Sam Healy isn’t always so great at his job. Season 4 took a well-deserved deeper look at the character, though, as we learned how Healy’s painful childhood with a mentally ill mother led to an even more painful, lonely adulthood that left him personally and professionally disconnected from pretty much everyone in his life.
Enter Lolly Whitehill (Lori Petty), the inmate with a colorful history of mental illness herself, and the merging of their stories and backgrounds sparked a genuine, sweet friendship that shed light on the realities of dealing with mental illness issues, and turned out to be one of the most compelling — and tear-inducing — storylines of the season.
Related: Read Our ‘OITNB’ Season 4 Recaps
Healy portrayer Michael Harney — a stage veteran and former acting school teacher who’s also known for his roles on NYPD Blue, Deadwood, and Weeds — talked to Yahoo TV about bringing compassion to both his character and the topic of mental illness, how he taps his own experiences to bring humanity to Healy, bonding with Petty, and why he thinks Sam admitted himself into a mental institution at the end of the season.
He also reveals whether or not we’ll see Sam again in Season 5, and whether or not we’ll see him in that much-anticipated Deadwood reunion we’ve all been waiting for.
Sam’s backstory and how it merged with Lolly’s was my favorite part of Season 4. It’s such a thoughtful, powerful portrayal of mental illness, incredibly moving.
Wow, thank you for sharing that with me, that’s very meaningful. I appreciate that.
We had gotten pieces of Sam’s history, his history with his mom, earlier in the series but when did you know that we were going to get this much fuller backstory?
I never know. I have a… I feel very comfortable with the writers. They give me things to do and then I just kind of… for me it’s like riding a wave in the ocean. I just get on it and I go with it. As I go on in my career, I prefer having a freshness to things. I didn’t really know until I got the script for those episodes.
What was your reaction when you saw what was ahead for Healy?
Oh, I loved it. If you liken acting to painting, I had an opportunity to paint with such rich colors this past season. I also was able to speak for a lot of people that are struggling with very real, invisible problems… you know, mental illness, where that comes from or depression, where that comes from. Hopefully people will be able to see that and say, “Hey that’s nothing to be ashamed of, other people have that.”
Do you feel any special or extra responsibility when you’re portraying a character that is in this kind of storyline? Especially, as you said, these characters represent problems most people, unless they have direct experience, don’t necessarily understand.
I feel responsible with every character that I embody, because that’s what I’m being given. To me it’s like grace. This is part of what’s showing up in my life, my path, so it’s my job to do them justice. It’s my job to live that life honestly so that whoever is viewing it will be able to experience the meaning of that life. If I’m being true about it, if I’m not phoning it in, I’m really living through it, then there’s a chance for people to take something away from it. What that is is totally up to the individual.
You just explained, I think, why Sam’s story and Lolly’s story, and their friendship was so moving.
It’s a tough topic, again, especially if you don’t have experience with it personally, or know someone dealing with it on that level. It’s also often played for comedic effect, as OITNB does sometimes, but allowing those characters to tell their stories, and to each other, in a sincere way, is a fresh take on it, and gives the audience the chance to understand it and empathize with the characters in a deeper way.
Yeah. That’s right. You know, the whole issue of mental illness and depression, we, for some reason, our society is really still in the dark ages when it comes to acknowledging and including people, and accepting without judging, people that are struggling with mental illness. I hate to throw out diagnosis — I’m not real big on them — but people that are just struggling, that are having a very private, invisible struggle in their own life, having to do with their own personal perspective, whether it be psychological, emotional, or spiritual, and/or physical… I’m talking about more invisible problems like mental illness, like depression… I think this population needs support. I think that the programs that support these folks struggling with this need support. Just on an artistic level, on a humane level, it really impassioned me to do this in a way that I did it. It gave me great passion, because it was like, “Wow, man. That’s deep suffering. This is heavy duty suffering.” We don’t talk about it. There’s this whole [aspect of] shame involved. I don’t want to belabor it, but I just think we need to get rid of the shame and the judgment. Some of our most brilliant people in the world struggle with mental illness, great artists, great scientists, great inventors. We’re still in the dark ages. We exclude instead of include, you know?
And that is a big part of Lolly and Healy’s story, too. They are both isolated in a lot of ways, excluded, but they bond with each other. One of my favorite scenes from the season, the one that makes me teary just thinking about it again, is Sam and Lolly’s walk around the track in “Piece of Sh*t.” He shares a lot with her, she shares a lot with him, their discussion about why neither of them have had children… Did you do anything special to prepare for that scene, you and Lori Petty?
No, you know, that scene, I did that scene in one take. I normally like to do a few. I remember the old timers like Spencer Tracy liked to do things in one take, and I was so happy that they said they got it on the first take, on my side, I mean, when they… when I say that, they probably included some of the wide shot. I don’t watch it, so I didn’t see it, but they did, they got what they needed on my close up in one take. And Lori is so vital, so alive, and so sensitized, and we have such a great working relationship. Working with her is like working with the top thoroughbred at a race track. I’m not kidding. It’s like, it’s just, I’m around her and everything comes alive artistically. She’s the cream of the crop, the way that she works, and I really did work with her a lot. I know that she feels that way. We have a great time.
What we did was we just really understood the circumstances, and we were able… I think that the key is that we personalize everything in acting. [Acting teacher] Sanford Meisner used to say, “If it’s not personal, and it’s not specific, it’s no good.” The character and how you choose, how you play it, you know? We’ve both been very, very clear about what we were talking about. Then we show up, and the good thing about Lori is we just throw it all away and we hang out and go for the ride. We just go for the trip and whatever happens, happens. We don’t try not to push anything, we try not to make anything happen, just let it occur, you know? That’s all that we did for that. We just hung out with each other, and really listened to each other, loved each other for the scene.
Related: This ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Video Is Going to Break Your Heart All Over Again
What do you think led Sam to commit himself to the institution at the end of the season? Did he feel he hadn’t done his job in not believing Lolly initially, about the body in the garden? Does he not trust himself, his judgment, anymore?
I’m not trying to evade your question, but for me, what I crafted, was overwhelm. I just crafted very personal things that would get me to a place where I just would not be able to cope. Unfortunately, or fortunately for myself as an artist, I’ve been through a tremendous amount in my life, my personal life. I had to work at not doing too much. I had to work at just the normal structural restraints that I had built into my personality as Michael, I let go of, and I allowed things to push me into a place of being completely overwhelmed. What I used was not in the script.
Storyline-wise, it’s obvious to Sam that he has a lot of failings, relationship failings, professional failings, mistakes, making major mistakes, not talking about this person who is gone. All those played into it. My job was to find parallel experiences that are personal, that are from my personal life, and then injecting them. They have to fit. They have to give me the same thread of truth as the experiences of the script deliver.
When we last see Sam, he’s in the institution, watching Caputo’s press conference. Does he recognize Caputo? It looks like he may not, like he may have been given a lot of medication.
When I was shooting that, I remember asking [series creator] Jenji [Kohan] before, “What’s going on?” She said, “You know, you’ve been medicated.” I added that, too. I know what that feels like, having, we’ll just say, I’ve had a lot of adventures in different, you know, mind altering experiences. What I did was, Sam was watching, and yeah, he sensed that he recognized him, but he wasn’t able to respond. It’s almost like there was a blanket over him… a blanket over his sensibility in a way, if that makes sense. There was a numbness, it’s like Pink Floyd, “Comfortably Numb.” He’d become comfortably numb.
Sam has had, for a few seasons, a very interesting relationship with Red. Do you think there’s any circumstance under which a relationship between the two of them could be a good thing?
Oh, sure. I mean, we have a crackerjack writing team. It could happen at any time. Kate [Mulgrew]’s somebody I also have a great deal of respect for, and we have great chemistry. She’s a wonderful actress and a very experienced actress. She really knows a lot about the work that you only learn from doing it all the time. That’s kind of an IQ that only comes from being on a million sets over the years, and she’s got that. I respect her a lot and we respect each other, and we have a good rapport. I hope it does [happen] at some point. I could see a romance. I start dreaming the show before I go back to work. It could be anything, but my unconscious is probably onto something that I’m not even aware of consciously. Who knows?
They would be good for each other at this point in both of their lives.
Yeah, right. We certainly had a huge following. People kept saying they were “shipping” us. I didn’t know what shipping meant. [Laughs.] You know, the thing with Jenji and the writers is that they’re true to what they’re doing. They’re not going to just do that, I don’t think, because the fanbase is really wanting that. There might be something else that’s even more powerful that will have a greater artistic value. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m really looking forward, actually at this point, I’m chomping at the bit, to find out where we’re headed.
Can you confirm we’ll see Sam in Season 5?
Yeah. I can confirm that.
What do you still want to know about Sam?
I mean, that’s endless, that’s endless. It’s like real life. If you think of your own life, and how you are in your private moments, there’s so many things you want to do, right? There’s so many things that need to be accomplished, you’re on a certain trajectory, if you will, or path, and you want to achieve or experience things. I remember this guy I know, he’s in his 70s, he said, “I hope I have just one more romance. I just want to have one more romance.” For Sam, it’s really, as I say, it’s endless. I think that I’d like to see there be a resurgence of the reason why he became a counselor. I think that that’s possible with the way things have gone down. That would just really turn me on. Somebody asked me that a couple weeks ago in an interview, and I got really turned on by it. It’s like, “Whoa, you can be this activist that’s come back to try to help the girls out.” I’m an old activist… me, as my goal, I think that’s really who I am. Daniel Berrigan was a great hero of mine. I just kind of believe in helping people, as long as they want help. As long as they can take it and be honest with themselves and make changes, I’ll be there for anybody. So that would be cool. Resurrection is a very important theme in art for me. I was going to be a priest many years ago, and that’s still a very central part of my life. I think when I get an opportunity like this, which is really so rare, so, so rare, to be able to play a wonderful character like this for so long, and to go through so many peaks and valleys, I think the resurrection and lessons that come along with the resurrection is such a rich thing to play, it’s a very valuable thing to do.
You were such a memorable part of Deadwood, and there has been a lot of talk, more concrete talk, recently about a reunion movie, or a limited series revival. Would you be a part of that?
I believe so, yes. David Milch is a big part of my life. He’s been a mentor and a dear friend to me for many, many years, helped me in ways that I couldn’t even imagine that someone could help me. He just went above and beyond in his support of me. From what I understand, [a reunion is] going to happen. However he wants to use me in it, I’m just honored to be part of it, such a brilliant show. Everyone, all of us that were in it, we knew it. It’s like Orange, we all know that it’s just a wonderful thing, it’s just really rare, and we all feel very lucky. It’s the same with Deadwood. We knew that we were part of something very special.
There was something about the way that we all were living through the time period, through the characters that David had given us. There was an authenticity on that set that really was rather uncommon. I remember when I’d get my boots on as Steve, I’d walk through the mud on Main Street where I’d go into the saloon or wherever I was shooting that day. All I had to do was look down and see my boot caked with the mud. Then I’d look around and everything was perfect in terms of matching the period, right? You didn’t have to do a lot of imagination work to get there, for me. There was something about that character that really set me off. I used, again, personal parallel circumstances that were personal to me, which oftentimes had nothing to do with what was in the script. It was the way that we did it. I have to say the through line is David. He would talk about how we would do it, how he saw it, how he’d direct it. It always made it better.
For instance… one of my favorite scenes [from Season 3’s “A Two-Headed Beast”] was when I was going to take over the livery as Steve, and Bullock had orchestrated this deal with the bank, and Alma was there, and she was handing over the money. I’m sitting there in the bank about to [become the livery owner]. Now, Steve had nothing, he was really just beaten down to nothing. I’m sitting there, and what I was doing, I was in rehearsal, I was just, “Okay, well, I’m important now.” You know, “I’m very important.” I’m kind of pushing my chest out. David walks onto the set, and of course he looks over at Molly Parker, and she’s so beautiful. He says to me, “Now, you look at her, and you’re saying to yourself, ‘She wants me.’” Once I had that going on, if you watch that scene… I don’t usually watch my stuff, but that was really funny, because it threw in this whole layer of life that added a depth to that scene. It really made it uniquely personal and authentic. That’s one of David’s big gifts, is that he really is just so highly sensitized to the human condition. I think that’s because he’s been through a hell of a lot, and he had the balls to live. Really, he had to balls to really live a life. I respect him for that.
You sounded just like Milch there, by the way.
Yeah, I learned to impersonate him years ago. He’s a very dear friend. I’m very lucky to be part of his life.
Orange Is the New Black Season 4 is streaming on Netflix.