Orange Is The New Black is no stranger when it comes to having the power to dredge up revelations about the human condition and putting the viewers’ emotions and values front and center. In the past five seasons, OITNB has given us so many lessons and has shown the strength and vulnerability we all carry within ourselves by giving us the stories played out by the diverse characters within the walls of Litchfield Penitentiary. Laughter can quickly turn to the most uncomfortable feeling, and that’s life, isn’t it?
We’ve seen characters come and go. Some transferred, some have died, still others have served their time and were released. One character joined the cast that personifies one of the most misunderstood and underrepresented groups: Muslims. Alison Abdullah is an African-American Muslim woman, played by actress Amanda Stephen. PopWrapped sat down with Stephen to learn more about her background as an actress and what led her to finding herself behind bars on one of television’s hottest shows. We also discussed how the stories unfolding on OITNB are relatable in the real world and how it forces us to face ourselves.
Orange Is The New Black: The Microcosmic Mirror Of Society
PopWrapped: Hello, Amanda! Thank you for joining us today. So, you've landed a role on one of the biggest shows ever. What can you tell us about your journey leading up to your role as Alison Abdullah?
Amanda Stephen: Hi! Thank you. Well, I studied theatre in college and I did a post-graduate apprenticeship in California. I went to the University of Central Florida, then went to Sacramento and worked as an apprentice for about 10 months at a theatre. I learned a lot and earned my Equity card, which is the stage-equivalent of SAG-AFTRA. Then I moved to New York. I was heavily pursuing theatre and funny enough, I landed commercial and TV/Film work. Then, I had a manager who submitted me for Orange Is The New Black. She said, "You have an audition for Orange." I said, "You're lying." [laughs] This was for season four. The description was "African American late-20s Muslim woman; has a sense of humor" - that was it. I thought, "Okay." So, I'm a big fan of the show. I took the weekend and binge-watched the whole thing again, because when you're coming into an already established show that has a certain aesthetic, a certain feel, a certain tempo and vibe, you have to make sure whatever character you create in believable in that world. You also need to be different enough from the already established characters, right? My audition scene was the introduction of Alison's character and her interaction with Cindy and they start butting heads. I knew at that point, okay, so they want a strong character that can hold her own, funny like Cindy, but not trying to be funny, that's kind of just how she is. I auditioned and got the call the same week that I got the role! It was amazing and very exciting!
PW: Wow, that's amazing! Congratulations! OITNB really is a very different show, with just how dynamic it can be. Sometimes, it's uncomfortably raw, other times there are comical moments. It runs the gamut of human emotions. There are also really poignant moments, like Taystee giving her speech to the reporters in this last season. I really felt that. I was thinking, "I'm not crying...you're crying." [laughs]
AS: [laughs] Yes, it's very powerful stuff. Well, I have to tell you, Orange really set the tone for a lot of the streaming programming, which is what people really want to see. Real stories, none of the P.C. stuff that you find a lot on regular network television. Real stories with real people and no more veils. No more, "Oh, this isn't a real replica of what is actually going on in a society." It really reflects what is happening. It's a lot more raw than what we were used to, a lot more than anything I saw growing up. Uncomfortably raw, because that's how life is, sometimes. If you're watching the show, you can't look away because you're engaged. It makes you think and it makes you aware of what is happening. Everything that Taystee was saying resonated with a lot of people and vocalized what is really going on, not just in a prison system. It's kind of like a microcosm of what is going on in reality.
PW: That is absolutely true. It's extremely rare to see a Muslim portrayed in television or the media without something negative tied to them, whether it be terrorism or any other demeanor other than friendly. Your character is different. Even though she's in jail, she has a friendly and humorous way about her that shines through you, as the conduit. It makes me forget all of those negative things we hear all the time about fear and ignorance-driven ideologies that harm our society as a whole. What are your thoughts about this and how do you think your portrayal will help change the minds of viewers who may or may not have these misconceptions about Muslims in today's world?
AS: Well, that's what Orange does, right? All of these women in a prison. If you were to look at them all in a lineup, you would judge them as all criminals. Guess what? Their backstory changes your mind. Any one of us could end up in prison, and that shouldn't define you, right? All of them had stories. Whether someone got pushed into something, like Janae's story, she was just trying to impress a guy. She was on her way to becoming a track star. She was on the right path, intelligent, and was just at the wrong place at the wrong time. Some of the other stories, like Nicky's story. She was rich and got into drugs because her mom didn't really pay any attention to her and didn't care. Every story is relatable and I feel like Orange purposefully brings someone into the light that is stereotyped. The show intentionally makes you empathize and makes you relate by telling the story. They are no longer stereotyped or marginalized. They are back to being a part of a whole and connected to someone that you thought you had nothing in common with. Alison is just a part of that direction. She is the next story that needed to be told. You see all of these negative images of Muslims on TV. It's their faith, but it's also the media that is trying to take numbers. Oh, people associate Muslims with this or that, just to bring the numbers up, we are going to talk about negative stories and put this character in here that people can relate to on the news. These are real people. Orange doesn't do that. We take a person that is misunderstood or underrepresented or marginalized and makes them human.
PW: That is an incredible answer and it is so true. Art is a reflection of what our society and reality are. To display anything contrary to that, regardless of whether or not it's fiction, wouldn't be relatable. That goes back to what we talked about earlier about the raw storytelling and not shying away from controversy. The stories preceding these women's incarceration are one of the things I look forward to seeing each season. So, we've seen a little bit about Alison's background before she was imprisoned. There was a palatable tension between husband and wife, and the other woman who was helping to raise their daughter. How does this fit into her identity and how she deals with situations in prison?
AS: Alison's story is totally relatable. She is a mother that wants to raise an empowered, strong little girl. She doesn't want her to be called "princess," she doesn't want for her to steer the wrong way. Her faith allows for polygamy, and she's okay with that. She thinks that it will actually help because she's worried about her situation, she's worried about her family. Guess what? What mother isn't exhausted. Overworked? Worried about her family? They even look tired in a scene where they're having breakfast. [laughs] Every parent can understand how they're feeling. She's just using her resources. When you peel away the stereotype and you see the reasoning for why people do what they do. I like to think that most people are good. Their circumstances and their beliefs may make them misunderstood and one of the main purposes of the show is unifying us by telling the stories of these inmates.
PW: A great way to put that, Amanda. Unification. In the show, a lot of shake-ups happen. People leave, people die, people are released. There are so many different kinds of people represented by a character, or characters, on the show. And it's not over, yet! There are so many different people who I think would have interesting stories from their past.
AS: There are so many themes that are going on in our society right now within Orange. The whole concept of universal healthcare, but MCC buying Litchfield and running it more like a business, more or less. It shows that the living standards are substandard to what they were living in before. They're not getting the healthcare they need, the rehabilitation, or the education they need. All of the things that Taystee was demanding, they were without. There are a lot of parallels.
PW: They give you Cheetos and you're asking for healthcare.
AS: [laughs] Right!
PW: So, this most recent season was incredibly chaotic and intense with the riot going on. As someone new to a series, how did you fair with what I can only assume was a very rigorous process?
AS: It was an intense process! The whole season takes place in the span of three days. I was thinking, "how is this possible?" It took six months to tape. It felt like the riot lasted for a month, at least! [laughs] This is just three days! They got so much done in three days!
PW: The editors really had their work cut out for them! So, in regards to your character's storyline, the backstory stopped short of revealing just how Alison ended up in prison. I know you can't really say for certain, but if you were to think as a viewer, based on the characteristics of the character, what would be your theory as to why Allison is in prison?
AS: I'd like to think it was for a "classier" type of crime. Tax fraud, or maybe something to help her business. I believe if she knowingly got involved with anything, it was probably something to help her family or to help her business and survival. They're really showing her how she is trying to make things work and be the best mom and the best wife. So, I don't think that she would do anything that would be detrimental towards that. A lot of people are thinking that she attempted murder towards the other wife or her husband. People want to see her snap. I believe she's calm and collected. She mentions that people need to let one another speak their piece, or things can get bad very quickly. I think that alludes to something that happened within her family, maybe with the second wife or with the husband, but I don't think that's the cause or catalyst that resulted in her being in prison. And, for the record, I get the script one episode at a time, so I do not know what's happening next season. I find out as I go along.
PW: That's pretty cool! So, you are developing your character as you go along and watching everything unfold as you go through it.
AS: It's exciting and challenging at the same time. Traditionally, you have the whole script, you know your whole arc, and you develop your character with what you have. In this case, the writers give us something to work with. It's kind of like a tennis match. They give us the scene, they see how we deliver it, and then they get ideas from our performances. It's a challenge for someone that's classically trained who's used to taking the play that they're in, or movie, and read about the character and do research. You know the given circumstances and you fill in all the rest. In this case, I can only fill in so much because I don't know where it's going. The ending is open. I have to remember little things that I did that won't contradict any outcome of the character and where she's heading. It was so much fun creating this character and not having to step into a role that's already been played several times. I can make her exactly how I see her, and in itself is liberating. I can't go off the deep end with things [laughs], because the writers would say, "Well, we...weren't going in that direction," but we're very in tuned and they see our personality, and that of the portrayal of the character. I also have consultants and Muslim friends that shed light on all of the idiosyncrasies to help make Allison whole as a character and make it possible for her to connect with the Muslim community watching the show. The writers are all open to that and we are all working towards the same goal. I like that about working on the show, as well. It's very collaborative.
PW: Well, it sounds like a very nice environment...even for it being set in a prison!
AS: [laughs] Yes. It's a story that needed to be told that wouldn't have been told properly in primetime, or a major cable television, whereas Netflix has more freedom to create the programming to tell the stories without any restrictions.
PW: We're definitely thankful for that. Well, thank you so much for joining us, Amanda. We're looking forward to see the next season of Orange Is The New Black and what's in store for Alison Abdullah.
AS: Thank you! It was a pleasure!
The Future Of Litchfield
With everything that has happened on OITNB, there are a lot of possibilities in store for Alison Abdullah. We will hopefully learn more about what brought her to Litchfield and where she is going from here, along with all of the other inmates. Will they even go back after the riot?
Amanda Stephen has certainly come into her own these last two seasons and is an extremely talented actress, able to match the already stellar and dynamic cast, while also balancing her life as a new mother. Everything is falling into place for Stephen, and she deserves all the best.