Interview with OITNB actor Emily Althaus: acting, race and politics
Recently I had the chance to interview Emily Althaus, the actor who plays Maureen Kukudio (Crazy Eyes’ love interest) in OITNB. We made plans to meet at a café in Harlem. As I exited the subway, I couldn’t tell whether I was sweating from nerves or the summer heat. When I finally arrived at the café, Emily was sitting at a small table outside wearing a red top and bellbottoms.
Awkwardly, I smiled and nodded to let her know it was me. She extended her arms for a hug. My nerves scattered, and then melted away into the Manhattan heat. Emily exudes a rare sense of warmth that makes you feel like you’ve known her forever. The next two hours flew by as we became immersed in conversation. Her intelligence and acute self-awareness became apparent as we discussed a broad range of topics, from her upbringing and politics to racial inequality and beauty standards. Emily is in the know about the complicated world we live in. These fragments from our conversation should give you a glance into her bold, nuanced and effortlessly humorous mind.
ACTING CAREER & OITNB
Pam: Did you always know you’d be an actor?
Emily: As long as I can remember. Even as a kid, I was always interested in being somebody else.
Pam: What does pursuing an acting career look like?
Emily: Being perpetually unemployed [laughs]. I’ve always said that my plan would be to move to another country and work at a bakery in my mid-to-late 40’s if acting didn’t work out.
Pam: But acting seems to be working out for you?
Emily: It’s a grind. There were years of no work. Sometimes, you sit for a year and nothing comes up. And you bartend and nanny and keep your head down and think something will happen. It’s some sort of a delusional hope thing, that something is coming. That something was OITNB for me. It was my first TV gig.
Pam: How did you land it?
Emily: I was originally meant to play Pennsatucky’s mom in a flashback. Then the writers said they wanted to write something else specifically for me. There was a moment when I thought, “That’s so sweet of them. They must just feel sorry for me.”
Pam: Tell me about your initial experience on set.
Emily: The character of Kukudio wasn’t fully described. I showed up and they said “these are some lines, go in and say some”. When they kept letting me return, I thought “well this is good feedback! I’m coming back, it’s ok.” Five episodes in, the writers asked if I knew about the character. I said “I’m making this up!” It seems from the lines she could be somewhere on the spectrum. It felt very collaborative. The writers are smart masterminds in the way they write so I’m sure they saw this all coming together long before I did. They don’t tell you how to do it exactly. It leaves room for each party to be creative. It feels like a safe space to mess up. What is messing up? It’s a playground.
Pam: Is there going to be a back story on you in Season 5 of OITNB!?
Emily: I don’t even know. I couldn’t even spoil the surprise.
Pam: Are you friends with the cast?
Emily: I always joke…it’s like joining a funny sorority that you didn’t know you were pledging. All of a sudden there’s your little family. Nick Sandow, who plays Caputo, is so grounded and wonderful at what he does. I think he was one of my favorite characters this season. There’s moments when I want him to come back from the dark side but you can see his heart is in the right place; you can tell he’s trying.
Pam: Totally, it’s one person fighting a system.
Emily: Yes, he becomes the everyman.
Pam: Though I don’t like his new girlfriend, Linda.
Emily: When she pulled that gun, I thought “absolutely not. You break up with her right now!”
Pam: Can you discuss the transition from theater to television?
Emily: I moved to New York to do theater, which is all I had ever studied. Growing up, I didn’t know there could be a space for me on television. It’s not that I wasn’t interested. It wasn’t until I got to New York that GIRLS became a thing, where there were different body types. I’m a very animated person. Being on stage, you need 2,000 people away to hear you. That does not translate on television. One of the OITNB writers uses this finger signal that means “a little less”.
Pam: You’re doing a great job. Kukudio has a subtle way about her.
Emily: That’s going in my diary. You don’t even know. It’s been a struggle.
Pam: I’m glad some shows are starting to move away from socialized beauty standards.
Emily: You’ve got to see yourself represented. You can’t just see white Barbies. Our show [OITNB] is ideally the first of many to be inclusive. I think it’s good to talk about it because we’re still in a time where tides are starting to shift. But I’m excited for the future when this isn’t even a topic.
Pam: Mental health in jails and prison is a significant real-world issue, especially for women. How does OITNB explore that issue?
Emily: I’ve had friends who are on the spectrum write me and ask what I think of Kukudio. It’s tricky. When you suffer from a mental illness, there’s research to be done. What’s interesting with the show is that it doesn’t always pin it down. They never say exactly what is going on. I like that we’ve gotten away from some of the labels. They’re very sensitive about the stigma of mental illness.
Pam: I think it’s tough for most people to conceptualize mental health as an issue that weaves through all of us.
Emily: My mother has a sleep disorder in which one’s body goes to sleep at any given moment. Thankfully with medication, one can be a functioning person but the disorder impacts mental health. I grew up in an area of Kentucky where mental health is severely stigmatized. I recognized at a young age the way people behaved around my mother. It wasn’t fair. It’s a systemic issue with large implications. I have so much respect for humans that break with their traditions to get the mental health care they need even if it’s stigmatized.
Pam: You mentioned earlier that OITNB approaches mental health in interesting ways. Can you expand on that?
Emily: OITNB digs into it in palatable ways. You find yourself digesting the information without realizing you’re being fed, which is art. I love this image in my head of art as candy coating. It’s not always sweet. But the coating around the real pill, you have to have it. We’ll sing and dance about it if you want. But it brings these topics to the forefront.
Pam: You were at the Blacks Lives Matter march at Washington Park?
Emily: Growing up, I learned about the Civil Rights Movement in school in the following way: these were the issues and there was a movement and now it’s over. There was never this tag “and also, racism is till a thing” or “and also, this is where racism comes from”. It was very much checking a box.
If you told me at age 12 that I would be marching for the same fight, I would have been so confused. I am still confused as to why we haven’t been talking about the issues that brought and keep us here.
Pam: What was marching like?
Emily: I marched with my brothers and sisters of all races and ethnicities. It’s a moving thing to be around people who are awake and understanding it. But it’s also sad. At one point, we were in the middle of Times Square. I was sitting in the intersection of the city I dreamed of moving to my whole life. New York represents a pillar of diversity and uniqueness. To think that those present at the march are a tiny swath of the country. There’s not enough of us now. It’s going to take many more to effect actual change.
Pam: What compelled you to be vocal about race on social media?
Emily: I posted about it on Twitter because I have this sliver of a platform. And if I’m not talking about it, then what am I doing? There are 13-year-old kids that are looking at me in a dress that I don’t actually own and makeup that I didn’t put on myself. That’s a thing I struggle with but that is part of this business so I do it. But this movement is real life. That’s my real life. We have all got to care. We can’t survive without it.
Pam: I completely agree. That’s what makes me sad about “All Lives Matter”.
Emily: I want to know—and it’s genuinely a dialogue I am open to—what is it that you feel this takes away from you? When you see this phrase [Black Lives Matter], how does it scare you? I know people who genuinely come from a “but I just want us to all be equal” place. But the issue with that is that the people saying that to me all happen to be White. The reason that’s the first thing in their mind, in my opinion, is that we were taught that everything is judged by the standard of Whiteness. Whether we realized that was happening or not, we as “Whites” were raised to believe we were human. We weren’t called “White”; we were called human.
Now when we look around and people are like “but what’s this BLM movement?” They’re missing the point. The point is that black people grew up as “other”. And you grew up as the standard by which the “other” was judged. People saying that “all lives matter, duh” remind me of the statement Jesse Williams made that it doesn’t take the recognition of your bother’s pain for the pain to be real.
If people are saying they feel that their lives are at jeopardy and being treated differently. Other groups don’t get to say “oh no, they’re not. No, you don’t feel that way.” That’s just now how it works. When you’re in a relationship and your partner says “you hurt my feelings.” You don’t reply with “no, I didn’t”. There’s a dialogue that can happen and things to be learned from but you don’t get to make their pain go away by not acknowledging it. That’s what All Lives Matter is to me. It’s whitewashing someone’s pain and saying “you’re wrong.” It’s not even a real option.
Pam: People have a real hard time coming to terms with their privilege.
Emily: I talked about this with my sister at breakfast the other day. We were talking about the knee jerk reaction people have to “privilege”, which is a dirty word to some people, this idea that you can’t acknowledge that you have certain privileges based on the color of your skin. I see that in people I knew growing up. I hear them say things like “oh but I had a really hard childhood and I worked really hard.” No one is saying you didn’t. The fact is that you still were given a leg up. That’s just the facts.
Pam: Speaking of privilege, what are your thoughts about Trump?
Emily: Trump will say anything. I don’t know whether that makes him scarier or less of a threat. I was also genuinely frightened by Ted Cruz because his beliefs are ideology for him. The stuff he said he was going to do, damn it, he was going to do it. Republicans created the landscape for Trump. And now they act like they don’t know where he came from! That’s interesting because they created an entire group of people that didn’t believe our President was born here. The conspiracy theory, which was been out there for a decade, is what led us here. That’s the sad part – we can shut down Trump and another radical will pop up. There’s still a base for people that vote for him.
Pam: Have you always been into politics and current events?
Emily: I spent time without actually knowing what was going on. It’s making me a better citizen. I can use this critical thinking brain that I have, that we all have. Now I’ve reached this next phase of action.