This interview discusses plot points of the fourth season of Orange Is The New Black.
It took Alan Aisenberg a while to get over what he was required to do on this season of Orange Is The New Black. “I would have conversations with my parents where I would just totally freeze up,” Aisenberg told The A.V. Club. “I went on awful, awful dates in December and January where the girl sitting across the table from me would say, ‘Hey, how’s the show going?’ and [I was] just blank. Nothing would come across my face.”
Until this season, Bayley was the dopey guy who helped out Piper (Taylor Schilling) with her panty-smuggling business. Now he’s the man who is responsible for the death of Poussey (Samira Wiley). As he attempts to restrain an upset Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) during a protest, Bayley accidentally suffocates Poussey, who he holds down with his knee on her back. But Bayley cannot be easily branded a villain. Flashbacks prove he’s a gullible, but well-meaning kid, and he’s also the guard that reports troubling abuse to Caputo (Nick Sandow).
The A.V. Club talked with Aisenberg about his character’s disturbing journey.
The A.V. Club: Did you have any idea when you started on the show that Bayley would go in such a dark direction? You come from comedy, right?
Alan Aisenberg: Everything I’d done before Orange and everything I’ve done since has been comedy. If Bayley were real and you talked to him, I don’t think he would ever imagine getting to the point that we saw him at. And, as the guy who played him, I could never imagine Bayley getting there or even myself getting there. So, yeah, it was fascinating to watch that character grow into a person who has multiple emotions and is not just a one-dimensional thing; he’s a real person who feels things and can be happy and can be very sad and can be very confused. Over 20 episodes, it was an honor to be allowed to play with him and build him into this person.
AVC: Can you tell me a little bit about how you found out about this plotline? Was it at the beginning of the season?
AA: No, I found out two weeks before we started shooting it. I was out with friends. I got a call from a number that I did not recognize. I never in my life before then and never in my life since picked up a phone call from a number I don’t recognize. For some reason I did. It was Lauren Morelli, who wrote the episode. I leave, I go to a park, I read the episode, and I just cry. Then I immediately start going back and forth with Lauren over text and just starting to just wrap my head around this thing and try to start to build this episode. That was probably late October, and we started shooting the first week in November. It all happened very quickly. I’m glad it happened that way. Samira had six months of knowing this before anyone else did. That sounds terrifying—I definitely couldn’t have done that. I don’t think everything I did up until episode 12 would have played the same if I had this in the back of my head. I needed to have Bayley’s innocence.
AVC: What were some of the safety conversations that you had? What was it then like to perform the scene?
AA: I had a bunch of conversations with Matt [Weiner], the director, as we were leading up to it, and Becky Chin, the AD, who is an absolute force to be reckoned with. We did a stunt rehearsal a couple weeks prior to shooting that scene, and, from the very beginning, they were all very vocal that, at any point, if anyone’s unsafe or in harm, to stop. That even applied to on the day we were shooting. There was never any pressure to keep going. In the stunt rehearsal, we walked through it slowly to start to figure out what the choreography would be. They added a brace onto Samira. It almost looked like a tiny table. When it hit the ground, I could essentially stand on it. It was made of metal. I could jump up and down and it wouldn’t touch her at all. So that made me feel really comfortable because I could put my knee on her and know Uzo’s [Aduba, who plays Suzanne] going to swing at me, she’s going to go crazy, I’m going to go crazy, but at no point do I have to worry about actually hurting Samira. Which is kind of what Bayley is going through. At no point does is he thinking that he’s hurting Poussey. So to be able to, in a way, shut that part of my brain off and say, “She’s going to be fine. She’s got this protection on her,” helped me really latch into this whole thing.
AVC: Was there an aftereffect for you following the filming of the scene?
AA: I was just blank. We wrapped at 2 or 3 in the morning. I had nothing. Everything was gone. I had never bruised like this before. I didn’t play high school sports. This was the most amount of physical activity I’ve ever had in 22 hours. It was essentially a wrestling match for 22 hours straight. I was just completely bruised physically and emotionally just from the recognition of this horrific thing over and over and over again, which didn’t really settle in until the morning after when I kind of was able to step back and go, “Oh my god, you did that over 100 times yesterday. How are you okay?” And then that emotionally started taking a toll on me. I wasn’t okay talking about the show or talking about the scene, even internally in my brain, until March.
AVC: What has surprised you about the reactions to the storyline? The show makes a bold move of having the audience sympathize with Bayley.
AA: Because the [episodes are] fictional and you can put a camera anywhere, they give a lot more insight than the news would necessarily show you in a real-life scenario. Not to defend either side, but I think that situations are often more complex than they can be painted to be. In situations that our show is kind of mirroring someone died because someone did something, whether it was premeditated or on purpose or not. I think the show is allowing people to maybe get some more insight into this other side of the conversation that we often don’t hear in the news. Poussey and Bayley are both people. And, while Bayley is still breathing at the end of the day, what is his story? How did he get to that point where he acted and he took someone’s life? And just having a fictional show, we can show that side. But I think people are surprised at the curtain kind of being drawn.
AVC: You have a really intense scene in the hallway with Piper [Taylor Schilling]. The scenario is so horrific, but was it still hard to get to that place?
AA: It came faster than it probably should have. I have never done a dramatic scene ever. So to be trusted with that by those writers who have only written comedic stuff for me for the most part was the thing that kind of helped me say, “Okay, if these guys think you can get there, you can get there.” A couple of hours sitting on the floor of my trailer listening to Zeppelin at full volume and thinking about awful things in the world, and how fucked up of a place it is, will get you there. And then doing a scene with Taylor Schilling—who is no bullshit and 100 percent in it—that kind of locks you in there. It was absolutely tricky and tough and [that was] part of the reason why it took me three months to recover. But, yeah, the writing is so good and the story is so good and everything feels so real that, once you’re in it, you keep going.
AVC: You mentioned that it took you months to “recover.” Was it just that you couldn’t think about it during that period? What allowed you to be able to address it?
AA: It was a mix of not being able to think about it and only being able to think about it. We wrapped in December. I’m working on one the biggest TV shows. So I go home to my parents’ house and see all my buddies from high school and they all want to know, “How’s it going? Oh, my gosh, tell us!” I can’t tell them anything, and when they ask me how the show’s going, I get sweaty and stuff because I’m still wrapping my head around, what did this guy do? How did this character who I’ve grown to love—this fun-loving, innocent guy—how did he do this thing?
I went on a trip alone at the end of February and walked 15 miles on the beach in Miami. By the end of the 15 miles, I come up with this understanding of this situation, both Bayley’s situation and the complexity of the situation as a whole, and come to terms with it. But it took 36 hours essentially of just sitting alone and thinking about what are the ramifications of this thing in the narrative of the show and what are the ramifications this thing in my life. It took three months of soul-searching. I’ve been very fortunate. I haven’t had anyone close to my family pass away. I’ve obviously never killed someone. So there’s a lot of emotion that I play on TV that I’ve never played before in real life. I’ve never mourned someone in the way that I mourned Poussey, luckily. Because I’m young and feeling things for the first time, it sometimes takes a little time to get out of that and recover.
AVC: What do you think the show accomplishes by making its audience feel for characters like Bayley and Donuts, who raped Pennsatucky last season?
AA: I think what the writers do so beautifully is show how blurred the lines are between good and bad. Good people can do bad things; bad people can do good things. Jenji [Kohan, the series creator, and the writers] have pulled back the curtain and showed, “Oh, we’re not one thing or another. We can be both things.” That’s terrifying. I think that’s why, when I talk to people on the street, they say, “I forgive you.” Or when I talk to James McMenamin, who plays Donuts, and people come up and sympathize with a character who’s a rapist. That’s the crazy thing about this storytelling. At the end of the day Donuts, I think, does care about these girls, but he also raped one of them. Bayley does care about these girls as human beings and wants them to succeed and wants them to get and have lives. But he also accidentally kills one of them. How crazy is that—that you can be both things? And how terrifying is that—that you can be both things? So I think to see that portrayed on television is so amazing. And if it takes this show to get people to open their brains and go, “Oh, there’s complexity here?”, that’s pretty cool.