Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: When Lori Petty sees people recognize her, she plays a little game with herself to see if she can figure out what role of hers they have latched onto. Is it a guy who is still harbors feelings for her from when she played surfer girl Tyler in Point Break? A woman her own age who adores the empowering feminism of A League Of Their Own? Or some tatted-up “awesome babe” who is really into Tank Girl? These days, Petty is most easily identifiable as paranoid prisoner Lolly on Orange Is The New Black. Lolly’s upsetting fate contributed to the overall sense of dread that hung over the most recent season of the show. Petty spoke with The A.V. Club about appearing in iconic movies like the above, as well as collecting celebrity anecdotes about everyone from Mike Nichols to Whitney Houston.
Orange Is The New Black (2014-16)—“Lolly Whitehill”
The A.V. Club: When you came on OITNB, Lolly appeared in just one episode. What made you sign on to the show and that character?
Lori Petty: I had seen the show on Netflix and the first thing that came to my mind was, “Why am I not on this show? It’s just irritating me right now.” So I made some phone calls and told them, “I want to be on your show.” And they found a spot for me. When I was only in the first episode, I’m thinking by lunchtime I’m ready for my contract, like, “What’s up?” I finally just spoke up and said, “What’s the deal? This is the first episode. I’d love to be on your show.” And they said, “Oh, Lori, we filmed out of order, we already filmed the whole season two.” So I had to wait six whole months to come back again.
AVC: What has it been like to see where they took Lolly, especially this season?
LP: There’s so many of us that we each have to kind of take turns getting a storyline. So I was really fortunate [this] season that I got a good chunk of the writing and I got to explore Lolly and do this dance with the audience and the writers and the actors. They’ll catch you doing something and then they’ll put it in the next episode times a hundred, you know? “Oh, she’s good at that. Let’s make her do that.”
AVC: Is there an example of that with you and Lolly?
LP: I think that Lolly revealed her mental illness more and more as the show progressed. That might—I don’t know, I’m not in the room—have had something to do with the fact that [as] Lori the actor I find things funny that other people don’t find funny. I’m very hypervigilant, hyperaware. I see everything all the time. That can come off as crazy. So they may have run with a few of my idiosyncrasies, but Lolly’s definitely a creation of the writers and of myself. It’s not me at all. But it’s just that they’re good at picking out what you can do well.
AVC: Were you surprised when you got her backstory?
LP: I wasn’t surprised at all. I live in Venice Beach so I see this all day, every day. Some people just ignore people with mental illness, pretend they’re not there. They don’t say “good morning” to them; they don’t act like they’re human. They’ll get locked up, or just ignored. It’s just awful. And then there was a guy yesterday in the middle of the street just yelling and hollering. I have a number that I can call—it’s not 911—to tell them, “You need to help this man get out of the street.” But you have to be that person, you have to pick up the phone, you have to do it; you can’t just walk by and act like they’re not people. They’re somebody’s kid, somebody’s dad, somebody’s brother.
So, no, I wasn’t surprised when that was her. She thinks everything’s making sense and she’s trying really hard and she’s got a good heart and she’s doing her best. You’ve got to give people the benefit of the doubt. They’re doing their best. Sometimes even if they’re messing up, they’re doing their best. I have a lot of love and empathy for her. Everybody’s only, you know, one step away from something.
The Equalizer (1985)—“Hooker”
AVC: According to IMDB, your first credit—
LP: Yeah, what is it?
AVC: An episode of The Equalizer in 1985. Your character was “Hooker.”
LP: That’s what they do to whatever I was—19 or something. You’re the baby hooker. You can ask any woman my age and we’ve all played baby hookers.
AVC: That’s really depressing.
LP: It gets worse. You just made me remember it. [My character] was sitting at the bar. I’ve always had an athletic build, always kind of tomboy[-like], but I was wearing hooker clothes, or whatever they thought were hooker clothes. And the director came up and handed me a padded bra.
LP: Yep. Or he gave it to the costumer. But I remember he was there and I remember that I had to put a padded bra on. We were already shooting.
AVC: Wow. What was your reaction to that at the time? Did you immediately think, “This is fucked up?”
LP: Oh, I knew it was fucked up. I knew it was super fucked up. I knew it was horrible. I knew it was also demeaning and unkind and creepy and meant to make me feel bad. It was on purpose. It was like, “Let’s take the wind out of her sails for a minute.” I remember I put the stupid bra on, and I just remember rolling my eyes and thinking, “Damn. Oh, well.” I had lied to get the job because I didn’t have my SAG card, and I said I did. I didn’t even have an apartment at that time. I was just staying on people’s couches. When I first moved to New York City, I stayed at the YMCA.
The Thorns (1988)—“Cricket”
LP: I thought the coolest thing would be like if I could be in a TV series shot in New York. That’s when they didn’t shoot any series in New York. Like, none. Well, Mike Nichols—who is, God rest his soul, just one of the most brilliant men to ever live in entertainment—decided he was going to do this TV series in New York. So I auditioned and I got the part. I was just blown away. It’s Mike Nichols, for Jesus’ sake.
One day I go to my dressing room. Mike Nichols is lying on my couch reading Cosmopolitan. Mike Nichols! So I walk in, and he’s like, “Close the door.” I was like, “Oh, shit. Is this that crap that I’ve been hearing about?” I close the door, sit down: “Yes, sir? What’s up?” He says, “I’m hiding.” I mean, he was so wonderful. I go, “Why are you hiding in here?” He goes, “Nobody will look for me in here.” I said, “Well, why are you hiding?” He goes, “I’m taking Diane Sawyer to St. Bart’s and we’re eloping tonight.”
AVC: Oh my goodness.
LP: I know! Could you die? I was like, “Well, just stay, I’ll leave you.” He said, “No, you can be in your own room.” I was in awe of him, and he’s laying on my couch reading Cosmo and he just doesn’t want anyone to bother him because he needs to get out in time to sweep her off her feet and take her to St. Bart’s.
Point Break (1991)—“Tyler”
AVC: You were in Cadillac Man before that, but Point Break was your first big leading role in a movie.
LP: I got to Hawaii. There’s this big pink hotel on the ocean and it was astonishing. They took my bags up to this room and it was like walking into an Elizabeth Taylor movie. There were no screens on the windows and the curtains were billowing in the room and there were columns in the room. It was a palace. They left my stuff, and I called downstairs and said, “I’m pretty sure you put me in the wrong room.” They were like, “No, that’s your room.” I said, “Where’s the queen going to stay when the queen comes? This is crazy!” They said, “No, Miss Petty, please enjoy your stay.” I just almost cried. I just couldn’t believe it. That’s all I did all day: “This is awesome!” It’s me and five hot, wet dudes all the time. “Oh, Lori, you’re going to make out with Patrick Swayze.” “Okay.” “Now you’re going to make out with Keanu [Reeves].” “Okay. On the same day? Awesome!”
AVC: Was filming a fun experience?
LP: It was fantastic. What the studio didn’t understand is that surfing is about a billion times more dangerous than skydiving. They would not allow the boys to skydive, but they allowed us to surf in pipeline in Hawaii. Nine-hundred foot waves. So we’re out there in the middle where the greatest surfers in the world surf. They have these long lenses on from the beach, so they can’t see anything. They are just shooting our faces. I start feeling cold and I look up and there’s this set wave coming in. It’s just going to kill us all, we’re all going to die now, that’s the end of that. There were these local Hawaiian men who would just tread water all day out there. They were huge. They were like, 350-, 400-pound guys, 7-foot tall dudes, just huge. They would tread water all day, and would be our safety guys. They were locals so they knew what was up. I was like, “Dude! Dude!” He’s looking around and he goes, “Go get them!” They swim over. He’s like, “Lay on your board!” I lay on my belly and he lies on top of me. Then he says, “Okay, when I tell you, you hold your breath. Just hold your breath until I tell you that you’re okay.” I’m like, “All right.” So he pushes me down. It’s called duck diving—they push you down way under the waves so you don’t get sucked up in it. So then we come back up, but it felt like 50 feet of foam. Somebody didn’t get Keanu and, the poor thing, we’re looking for him and looking for him, and he comes straggling up the beach, dragging his surfboard. Yeah, he got dumped on pretty good. But he was awesome. He was like, “Well, that happened.”
A League Of Their Own (1992)—“Kit Keller”
AVC: Kit is a very different role from Tyler. You went from sex symbol to kid sister.
LP: In Point Break, I was the only woman in there, so it was pretty easy to feel like a sex symbol. You’ve got all the naked, wet, Hot Chili Peppers, right? [Laughs.] You’ve got Patrick and Keanu and then the whole crew. It was me and 50 dudes the whole time. It was awesome! During the football scene they were playing, and I wasn’t slated to be in the football scene. I was like, “I want to play!” So they said, “Go play.” It was just a gas. There was a responsibility of being the leading lady—there’s a responsibility to that.
Then when we get to A League Of Their Own, I have to be Geena Davis’ little sister who wants to be like her and wants everything that she has and is jealous and upset and mad. Well, that was easy. I mean, she has an Academy Award. I think I can be upset about that. She’s 99 feet tall and she’s drop-dead gorgeous and she’s all feminine and pretty. I had to pretend I couldn’t run as fast as her. That was hard.
AVC: What was the atmosphere like on set with all these women? Was it like a team?
LP: It was for the most part. We all got a good per diem and then we got hotel rooms and then we thought, “Wait a minute!” Penny [Marshall, the director] rented this big beautiful house for herself, so we start looking around and we found this house that had six bedrooms and a swimming pool. We all pooled our money and it cost like half of what it cost to stay in the hotel. Maybe six of us did that. Penny did this cool thing where everybody had the same call time. She was like, “There’s too many of you, I’m not dealing with it. Everybody comes in at 7 and everybody leaves at 8.” It really worked out great.
AVC: Who did you rent the house with?
LP: Tracy Reiner. Megan Cavanagh. Tracy played Betty Spaghetti. Megan played the one that they called ugly that’s not ugly—Marla Hooch! Anne Ramsay. Some of the other girls. It was awesome. And then my makeup trailer. Penny pulls me, “I need to talk to you.” I go, “What?” She goes, “You’re going to share a makeup trailer with Madonna.” I’m like, “Are you kidding me right now?” Because 1991 was like the height of Madonna-ness, like you couldn’t get any bigger than that. Truth Or Dare just came out. I’m like, “What? I’ve done two movies, really?” [Penny] says, “Ah, you can handle her. Go on, come on. You can do it.” So I shared a makeup trailer with Madonna for four months.
AVC: Do you get asked all the time whether Dottie dropped the ball on purpose?
LP: And what do you think I say every single time? I kicked the shit out of her. No! I smashed her! She didn’t drop it on purpose. I won.
Free Willy (1993)—“Rae Lindley”
LP: It was like the first time I’d ever seen Hollywood just really not do the right thing, you know? We filmed in Mexico. I’d come in a really nice car from my hotel, and we’d have to drive around all the crew that [was] sleeping in the parking lot. People making their breakfast on the ground. It was because there was a whale there that was in a little tank. It just felt gross. It felt really bad. They didn’t free that whale for, damn… at least 10 years later. You could have freed that whale right away. The poor whale had horrible psoriasis all over him, and his fin didn’t work. But he was so cool. I would come to work, and he could recognize people’s voices. I’d be talking to somebody and if I didn’t go over and say hi to him, he’d squirt me with water from his blowhole.
Tank Girl (1995)—“Tank Girl”
AVC: Do you think Tank Girl would be better received if it had come out now?
LP: Oh, yeah, for sure. Here’s what I think the problem was. [It was rated] R. There is nothing about that movie that is R. Nothing. Except there’s a woman talking shit. That’s why they rated it R. If they were going to rate it R I should have been butt-naked all the time, running around. Tommy Boy came out that weekend, too, which is a hysterical movie, but it was rated PG-13. Do you know how many people bought Tommy Boy tickets and went to see Tank Girl? A billion. Because I would go to the theaters myself and check and there’d be all these people in there and then they’d say, “We only sold four tickets.” “You know, there’s 75 people in there.” [Laughs.] So they were buying PG-13 tickets and going to an R movie.
AVC: Emily Lloyd was originally supposed to play the role. How did you get involved?
LP: Here’s a funny story real fast. That movie In the Army Now that I did? It was me, David Alan Grier, Andy Dick. I was up for Tank Girl while we were filming that movie and so I had all the Tank Girl cartoons in my trailer pasted on the wall and just covered, right? The whole inside of the trailer was covered with these. Then [The Hollywood Reporter] comes out and says: Emily Lloyd is Tank Girl. Andy and David came in my room all serious, like, “Lori, you’re not Tank Girl.” I’m like, “That’s bullshit, I totally am.” They’re like, “No, look, they’re filming. Look. Read it. Read the paper.” I said, “No, it’s not true, it’s not true. I already know.” They said, “Okay, we have to get you a doctor or something because—” They were starting to take down my posters and my pictures and I was like, “No! I’m Tank Girl! Stop!” They were like, “Oh, my goodness, we’re going to have to give her a day or two over this one.” It actually went on for like a week. And they had creative differences and then they called me. I was like, “Told you!” They thought I was a nut bag for a week. But I already knew.
Lush Life (1996)—“Georgia ‘George’ Saunders”
AVC: You played a painter, which you are, in this show you created.
LP: Oh, I loved every second of it. I really did. It was before its time, like most everything I do. It just was, you know? But the thing is, if people get it right away, I just don’t think you’re making art. I think you’re making something they’re comfortable with. You have to challenge people. You know, it has to be new. It has to be something they haven’t seen before. Just bring them something they haven’t seen before. They aren’t going to love it right away because they haven’t seen it before. So they have to take a minute, you know? I loved driving on the lot. I felt like Gloria Swanson. The gate would go up and I had my own parking place and I had my own keys and I would go on my stage. I just loved it. When I was in the writers’ room, all these writers were like, “Ugh, another star that they gave a writing-producing credit to.” But then within like an hour, they were like, “You’re really a writer.” “Yeah, I really am. I’m a writer, and a director, and a producer, and an actor, and a painter, and I do all that stuff.” It was great. I just loved it. Karyn Parsons [The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air’s Hilary] was my best friend in real life. We met each other in life before either one of us was famous. How funny is that?
AVC: How did you meet?
LP: We met playing pool at Barney’s Beanery in Hollywood or West Hollywood. She says to me that she had an audition for this thing called Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air. And she’s from L.A., but she goes, “Where’s Bel-Air? I’ve never been to Bel-Air.” I’m like, “Are you insane?” I had this 1989 Cadillac, four-door, huge pimp car, and I’m like, “We’re going to the Hotel Bel-Air.” She’s like, “Are you kidding me?” I’m like, “Girl, you just can go.” That’s something that I learned when I was homeless. Hotels are awesome because they are going to let you in and you can use the bathroom and when you’re young and pretty you can probably use the pool. Somebody might by you a drink. I was thinking we could sit, put our feet in the pool, and have a glass of champagne or something. I had this long, really pretty dress on. I hiked my dress up and put my feet in the water. Whitney Houston comes swimming up to me. And goes, “Hi, I’m Whitney!” I go, “You sure are!” True story. She was like, “I just thought you might want to hang out with us.” She was with some girlfriends, and I was with Karyn, so it was just like, girls’ day at the pool.