SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers for Orange is the New Black Season 6, do not read until you’ve seen the entire season.
Orange is the New Black dropped on Netflix last month, following the Litchfield prisoners as they face the consequences of the Season 5 riot “down the hill” in the maximum security facility. A new facility, means new faces, including the Denning Sisters, Carol, and Barb.
I spoke with Henny Russell about her role as Carol Denning, the season finale shockers, and who she thinks might fill the Litchfield Max power vacuum.
Russell went in for her audition for Orange is the New Black certain she wouldn’t get the role.
“I always read my audition scenes with my husband, who’s also an actor, and I said, ‘Well, I’m never going to get this’ but you know, hopefully, I’ll go there, and I’ll do a good job, and they’ll bring me back for something else,” Russell said.
“That was my goal. My goal was to do a good job, so they would call me back for something else, because I never thought, in a million years I’d get it.”
Carol Denning has a long history at Litchfield. She was incarcerated with her sister, Barb, after they murdered their youngest sister, Debbie. Russell brings about a quiet menace to Carol’s scenes that’s present even when she isn’t speaking.
“I was very fortunate in that my director was Erin Feeley, and she’s amazing. She’s been with the show a long time, she knows it backward and forward, and she gave me the lynchpin for Carol,” she said.
“She said something to the effect of, ‘You don’t have to do anything. Carol just owns her power. You don’t have to do anything to exert it. It’s really everyone’s reaction to Carol that really sells her power.'”
Orange is the New Black often flashes back to the inmates’ lives before prison, and Carol Denning was no exception. A younger version of Carol is played by Ashley Jordyn, and while there are similarities, Russell and Jordyn didn’t collaborate or compare notes before their performances.
“Obviously, we’re not in any scenes together,” Russell noted. “We didn’t actually meet until Episode 10, and we just happened to meet because we were shooting scenes on the same day, so we crossed in the hair and makeup room.”
“I was fortunate in that my very first day, when I was shooting my first scene with Fig, Ashley had already shot the library scene, and they let me watch some of the dailies,” Russell remembered. “So I got to watch my younger self a little bit, to see what she was doing and see what she was like, and see what [Carol] was like when I was young.”
The feud between Carol and Barb’s warring cellblocks reaches a precipice on Orange is the New Black Season 6 Episode 13, “Be Free,” when Barb and Carol attempt to go after Frieda during a fight that’s supposed to break out during a kickball game.
Barb and Carol have a beef with Frieda for getting thirty more years added to their sentences, but their rivalry also seems to stem from who owns a story about a customer who came in asking for a glass of ice.
“Until I read that episode, I didn’t know whose story the glass of ice story was. I was convinced it was mine, and Barb was convinced that it was hers, but when I read that it was neither one of us, I thought that was brilliant. I thought that was absolutely brilliant,” Russell exclaimed.
“And it’s just so pathetic, that that’s the stupid fight that gets them to attack each other, over and over again. It’s just so ironic and pathetic,” she continued.
In a way, Barb and Carol’s actions aren’t entirely unexpected. Russell explained that the circumstances of their incarceration are likely the driving force that causes them to latch onto this one memory.
“Carol and Barb never grew up. Their development was sort of arrested when they were arrested. They’ve been incarcerated since they were teenagers and they never developed into fully functional adults,” she said.
Barb and Carol come to blows at the end of the Orange is the New Black Season 6 finale, resulting in both of their deaths, but now that the two sisters and bosses of the cellblocks are gone, there is a power vacuum that will need to be filled.
Russell speculated on who might step up to fill the void at Litchfield Max.
“I wonder if it might be Alex,” Russell mused. “She doesn’t want to be the big boss. She would be great because she’s not vengeful. So, for the sake of everyone, I hope it’s Alex.”
Russell was a fan of Orange is the New Black before she got the part of Carol, and there are many characters and storylines that she loves. One of her favorite characters is Poussey Washington who died in Orange is the New Black Season 4 Episode 12, “The Animals.”
“As upset as I was when she died–I was sobbing in my living room–and as mad as I was at the writers for killing her off, I think it was also a really important turning point for the show and the fans. Everyone was really upset,” said Russell.
Another move that Russell loved for its timeliness is what happened to Blanca in the Season 6 finale. The Orange is the New Black Season 6 finale shows several inmates being released, but some of them are actually heading to an ICE detention center; including Blanca.
“Every time I see Laura [Gomez] I have to hug her because it’s so heartbreaking, and so timely and important because of what’s happening in this country. I thought was absolutely brilliant of the writers to end with that, because everybody is upset about what’s happening with immigration in this country right now and what’s happening with families being separated,” Russell said.
“We all love Blanca. Who doesn’t love Blanca and Diablo, and their relationship?” Russell reflected. “I can’t wait to see how they’re going to deal with it.”
Now that Orange is the New Black Season 6 has wrapped, Russell has a few new projects coming out including narrating the documentary Sea of Hope that’s currently airing on the National Geographic Channel.
She’s also got two independent films coming out: Bushwick Beats and The Magnificent Meyerson, the latter of which stars Orange is the New Black’s, Kate Mulgrew.
Russell has been busy as of late but loves a good binge-watch.
“I’ve become a binge-watcher, we cut the cable a while ago. So we have Netflix, and Hulu, and Amazon Prime,” Russell said. “Next on my list, which I’m so excited to see, is GLOW. I haven’t seen it yet. I know I shouldn’t say that, Jenji Kohan is probably going to be so mad at me, but that’s next on my queue.”
You can catch Henny Russell in her role as Carol Denning on Orange is the New Black Season 6, currently streaming on Netflix.