As Miss Claudette, Piper Chapman’s (Taylor Schilling) feared prison roommate on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, Michelle Hurst is a force to be reckoned with. In this exclusive interview, the actress discusses what her character means to her and how important her new role has become.
Q: How did you get involved in Orange is the New Black?
Hurst: I am a working actor, I like to think, so last fall it was just another audition as far as I was concerned. My agents called me and told me I was going in for this character and show. At the time I had no knowledge of the show and didn’t know if the character was going to be a series regular.
[The audition] happened on a Saturday afternoon. The surprise for me was that my agent called me that Monday [with an offer]—in the wonderful world of this business, it doesn’t usually happen that quickly. I said yes, and the next Monday we were starting work. It was that fast.
Q: Anything in particular about Miss Claudette that you liked?
Hurst: You know, what actually drew me in was not so much the character, but the idea of doing something in a prison. It’s one of my little phobias. It’s like “Oh my God, no.” That being said, as an actor you are also told to go towards the things that you fear, so that was in the back of my head. If I am going to do this, it’s going to be a new adventure for me. On the first day, I didn’t know that much about Miss Claudette. The turn around on this was so quick, there was no real time. But Jenji Kohan (the show’s executive producer) was there and she gave me some background on who this character is and how she has come to be. She has been through a lot, she doesn’t even believe in hope. She is just surviving in there. She has learned how to survive. She doesn’t have “friends” in this environment, but she just keeps going. Once I knew that, I knew it would be interesting for me.
Q: It’s interesting to see viewers’ reactions to the characters’ change over the season.
Hurst: Two things. I love the writing and the directing and most of all the acting. I think what ends up happening is that you, the audience, get to see the characters humanity. You get to see that they are just, on some level, regular people who got into a wrong place either via someone else or their own mismanagement. I think there is a lot of that. You can’t stereotype them anymore; you can’t put them in a box and forget about them anymore. You have come to know them in prison and outside of prison.
Q: The way it’s written you get to know them first before knowing why they are there.
Hurst: Exactly. They are people; they are people you could have ridden on the subway with. Then you find out what they did and you either say, “Whoa” or “That’s stupid.” It’s wonderfully sad.
Q: Why do you think so many people are affected by the show?
Hurst: Basically, I think it’s because of the humanity. A young lady, who probably just got out of college, saw me and we started talking about it and she asked me: “Do you know what it did? It made me and my friends think a lot about who we are.” I was taken back. That’s the first time I have ever heard that as a response. I think that’s the humanity of the show. People never think it could be them. These women may be inside, but they are still very, very human. They are in need of love, they are in need of hope, and they are in need of dreams. You don’t necessarily see it all the time, but it’s there.
Q: Are you surprised by the response?
Hurst: Think about it, it has only been out for a couple of weeks. I have been in this business for a while now and I have had people recognized me before. I have gotten used to that. This is so blatant; there has not been a day where I have gone out in the world where people haven’t recognized me and the response has been positive.