Francesca Curran cares about Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black as much as you do. As Helen, the white supremacist and Neo-Nazi, Curran must step outside of herself and still find depth and humanity in and for her character. The future looks bright for Curran and now that season five of Orange Is the New Black is streaming on Netflix, the sky’s the limit. She has dreams of working with your favorite actors and has already worked with some of your favorite directors on OITNB. We can’t wait to see what happens next for the eager and talented actress and we’ll be rooting for her the entire way.
Cliché: When did you know that you wanted to be an actor? What was your first role?
Francesca Curran: I knew I first wanted to be an actor, in reality, since day one. I have always felt an extreme yearning to perform, a deeply rooted desire to use acting as an outlet for my seemingly overflowing creativity. Growing up in the suburbs of Minnesota, I heard the phrase “you’re a fish out of water” on repeat. I used to mistake it for not fitting in, but as an adult, I’ve finally understood it’s precisely what makes me perfectly imperfect and unique. In the theater, my soul was at peace. It was in the dark backstage alleys and under the burning spotlights of the theater that I found my true self. Every night was a new opportunity to playfully seek the laughter of the audience, to inspire tears, and to discover fresh and real ways to breathe life into the script.
I vividly recall my first experience seeing live theater at the age of 8. One of the most lasting memories I have was the soft trail of tears that fell down my face as I was completely taken over with emotion. I felt utterly freed. I think that was the moment I made a promise to myself to dedicate my life to this craft. I still have recurring dreams of my 8-year-old self walking out onto a stage in front of a full house, under the blinding lights. In every part I play, in every character, in everything I do, there will always be ingrained the feeling of my young self and the significance of what this means to me. My first role was as a wildcat cheerleader in Disney’s High School Musical at The Children’s Theater Company of Minneapolis. My mom cut out the casting call announcement in the local newspaper and I practiced my 32-bar cut of “Beautiful” by Christina Aguilera for hours every day.
What makes acting worthwhile on a particularly long day?
Oftentimes on set, the days are undoubtedly long. One particular day while filming season four of Orange Is the New Black, we broke the record of production with a 21-hour day. My call time to set was four in the morning, and we cut production in the wee hours of the next day. These are the types of days that I have dreamed of my entire life. It is challenging, mostly because even when we’re going on our seventeenth hour of the day, we can’t be low-energy. As an actor, you have to be professional, receptive to direction and change, giving as a scene partner, communicative with your fellow actors, thoughtful in your delivery, and most importantly, always, and I repeat, always, kind to others.
When you mix exhaustion into this recipe, it can be arduous. Personally, even at four in the morning, I typically wake up before the alarm sounds and drink my coffee with a smile on my face, because I can’t believe the opportunity I’ve been given. Being on set every day is a blessing and it’s something I will never take for granted. It’s pretty staggering because I grew up watching the women of OITNB on television, in films, on the stage, as activists, and as creators. I respect them so deeply and I know that as a fairly new cast member, I had big shoes to fill. It’s worthwhile because when I leave at the end of a long, emotionally grueling day, I feel that my soul is satisfied. I feel like I have been, for lack of a better word, creatively juiced.
You play Helen on Orange Is the New Black. What has playing her taught you? What do you love most about Helen? What do you disagree with?
Playing Helen has taught me, firstly, so much about myself. I think I learned that there is a small part (but a part nonetheless!) of me that is a tom-boy. Helen has really made me channel the tougher side of me, which has been so fun because it’s such a contrast of who I genuinely am.
In all seriousness, playing Helen has taught me that there’s so much more going on in our world that I was so blind to before being offered the role. Playing Helen forced me to delve into some uncomfortable subjects and into heavy research about the culture of white supremacy, white nationalism, neo-Nazism, and its presence in the modern world. From a strictly research standpoint, I’ve learned about the pride that goes hand-in-hand with being a white supremacist. The desire to be a part of these groups stems from a hunger for power. Because of the quick turn-around time of my audition, being offered the role, and my first day on set (only a matter of a few days), I was basically locked in my house, eating Chinese takeout, and doing research for three days straight. Growing up, I shielded myself from these topics in fear of what they stood for. It wasn’t until the age of 22, when I was offered the role, that I became educated on this terrifying culture. That being said, I try with all of my might not to judge Helen. Although my beliefs are the furthest as possible from hers, I try to find the humanity in her.
One of the things I love about Helen is that she finds humor in many situations where others don’t. She laughs at herself. She is intolerant of others, but finds hilarity in her own shortcomings. If you’ve seen season five of the show, you’ll see that Helen thinks she’s sexy as hell. It’s so hilarious the way the arc of the character has ebbed and flowed.
Helen has really made me channel the tougher side of me, which has been so fun because it’s such a contrast of who I genuinely am.
How do you get into the headspace to play someone so far outside your own beliefs?
It has been a process for me to learn to get into the headspace of playing Helen. It definitely didn’t happen overnight. I was preoccupied the night before my first time on set thinking about how difficult it will be to have to jump right into such a dark character at the drop of a hat. I am well aware that time is money in this business, and the show must go on. For me, it was finding a series of emotional and physical workouts to get me psyched and worked up like Helen so often is.
As the girls on OITNB know, my day starts with a venti latte from Starbucks. It’s kind of an inside joke that I created for the character that Skinhead Helen loves espresso. She just seems so anxious to fight all the time that I just assumed she’s jacked up on espresso shots. So I have my latte that I chug at four in the morning, and by the time I’m done getting my head shaved and the tattoos applied, I’m ready for another large coffee. I always have an omelet, oatmeal, and a gallon of ice water, too. Basically, the adrenaline of being on set kicks in around the same time the caffeine does. By that point, I put on my wardrobe, the prison uniform, and I head back to my trailer and do a hundred push-ups. I do some jumping jacks, some burpees, some wall presses, squats, and then I brush my teeth. This is the exact order of how I do it, by the way. I’m not a superstitious person, but I think Helen is, so I follow my list the same way every morning.
In what way do you think binge-watching the show is beneficial, and in what ways is it not?
I think binge watching is fun, especially season five, because the whole season takes place in 72 hours, so it’s extra packed with action. In that sense, it’s great because you can keep trucking along and get the full effect of how it was intended to be viewed and how it was written. The whole idea is that you’re watching three of the most intense days at Litchfield Penitentiary unfold in real time. Similarly, the binge-watcher can watch it within three days and really feel the parallel of the exhaustion of not leaving a place for three days.
Binging is also useful for people like me who forget what happened the episode before. I think the culture of Netflix has become one of binge-watching and it obviously has been effective. Netflix is taking over the world of network television for that reason. We live in an impatient world where we crave instant gratification. We don’t want to wait another week, just to sit in front of the television at a specific time. That’s why DVR is successful, as is Netflix. The concept is genius and I applaud it. I am the type of person who has to watch the episode after a huge cliffhanger, so I’m appreciative for binging. I think, at the same time, it’s heartbreaking when you finish your favorite show within 48 hours and have to wait another several months until the next season. I see the fan comments daily; it’ll be just a mere few hours after the release of a new season, and they’re asking, “How much longer do we have to wait until the new season?!” It takes major willpower to put a limit on how quickly you’ll watch. I do think, though, that it feels good to hear that people can’t stop themselves from watching because that tells us that we’re doing our job with storytelling.
Do you have any favorite fan theories about the show or your character?
I’ve definitely heard some thoughtful fan theories about Helen, how she’s come to jail, and what her story is. I have my own theory about Helen, but I’ll keep that a secret because that’s what I use to inform Helen and how I personalize scenes for myself.
One theory I heard from a fan is that she thinks Helen was an only child who grew up in white privilege, in a mansion with everything a little girl could dream for. Her family was attended by black servants, cooks, and a black nanny that raised her and lived in the mansion. Her family treated them like family and cherished them. Basically, through the years, she fell in love with one of the young black men, a son of one of the women who cooked for the family and lived upstairs. After throwing herself on him, which soon turns into a violent sexual attack, she runs away to seek refuge in a nearby white power group that was forming. She finds shelter and comfort with them as she struggles with the mental consequences of what she’d done to the man she once loved. It’s then when her racism grows strong and her hate builds. Helen goes back to her neighborhood after being convinced and encouraged by her new neo-Nazi “family,” and in a violent dispute, ends up killing her father. Obviously, this is merely speculation and we know none of this to be true about Helen yet. I found this explanation to be very interesting because the incriminating act doesn’t directly reflect her hate for non-Aryans.
What is your dream role? Do you have any actors or directors you wish to work with one day?
My dream role would be anything alongside Meryl Streep. I watch her on screen in every movie and I feel like I know her. It’s a strange sensation, but I know what it really is just flat-out good acting. I really would love to see her process, see how she takes notes from a director, how much she improvises, and how she is on a set in-between takes. I think you can tell a lot about an actor based on what they do in-between takes.
I have always wanted to be on Broadway, and it’s still at the top of my list even though I think I’ve been bit by the television bug. I’m currently obsessed with Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812 on Broadway, so I’d love to play Natasha one day. I would love to play Regina George if Mean Girls ever went to Broadway. That sounds so funny but I think it would translate really well on stage. I would’ve died to play a role in Bridesmaids. I think Kristen Wiig is comedic gold. If Breakfast Club ever gets re-made, I’ll play any of the roles; just sign me up.
It’s funny because a lot of the directors that I’ve always wanted to work with I’ve had the opportunity to work with on OITNB—Jesse Peretz, Matthew Weiner, Uta Briesewitz, Phil Abraham, Andrew McCarthy, Laura Prepon, etc. It’s pretty wild. As far as the list of actors I dream of working with, I could go on forever—but Leonardo DiCaprio, Johnny Depp, Liam Neeson, Viola Davis, Kevin Spacey, Matthew McConaughey, Charlize Theron, Diane Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Kristen Wiig, and Denzel Washington are just a few.
What is coming up next for you outside of Orange Is the New Black?
As of now, I’m completely focused on Orange Is the New Black, and anxiously awaiting the new season! I have been working on writing a play, which is a dark comedy loosely based on my life but much more twisted. I am hoping to get that up and on its feet in the near future. I’ve been staying busy auditioning and doing readings, and as of now, I’m open to any project that may be interesting and fun, as an actor always must be!
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Francesca Curran on Season 5 of ‘Orange Is the New Black’: photos courtesy of Zach Alston