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The Mary Sue Interview: Orange Is the New Black‘s Michael Harney on the Show and Bad Hurt

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If you are a fan of Orange Is the New Black (back for a third season last Friday on Netflix) you know Michael Harney as the homophobic, angry, and often cruel Sam Healy. But he’s been a recognizable face on TV for decades, in shows such as NYPD Blue, Deadwood, Persons Unknown, True Detective, and Weeds. This year, along with the third season of OITNB, he stars in the film Bad Hurt, as the working class father of a Gulf War Veteran and mental challenged adult woman. We spoke at the Tribeca Film Festival about the fantastic new film which is currently on the festival circuit, the show, and the personal experiences that have made him such a good actor … and wonderful guy.

Lesley Coffin (TMS): How did you get involved in the film Bad Hurt?
Harney: They called me and asked me to read the script. Originally, I was going to take time to be with my family, and told them “I really don’t think I want to do anything right now. I just finished a season of Orange is the New Black.” But I read the script and after each page, I found myself getting more and more involved. And by the time I had finished reading the script, I felt committed and knew I had to do it.

TMS: What was the draw that made you want to play this character and connect so strongly to the film’s story?
Harney: I have a special needs son, so for me, the script felt personal. It exposes what it’s like to be the parent of a special needs child and not give up. And that was a big draw. I’ve also always been drawn to the stories of those in the military that come back after experiencing things no one else can understand, and feel forgotten. So I felt that part of the story also needed to be told.

TMS: Do you have any military experience to draw from yourself?
Harney: No. There wasn’t a war going on when I was the age most men join. Had there been, I probably would have joined. But then again, I was pretty wild when I was younger. In those days, I was always getting in trouble and I was something of an activists. But I grew up in New York around a lot of military guys, and my dad and his brothers had all been in the service. I grew up around a lot of Marines. They were real tough guys. I hear “you play tough guys” and I say “no, I grew up around tough guys.” So that was a draw for me, to portray men from that world, who would never talk about their experiences in public.

TMS: Would you describe your character as a tough guy?
Harney: I think there is a misconception of what toughness is in our culture. Toughness for me, is getting things done, no matter what. Especially when it comes to family. You do what you’ve got to do, when you’ve got to do it, no matter what. So there is a different kind of toughness, and toughness doesn’t always mean having the ability to knock a guy out in a fight. Toughness, I’ve learned over the years, can mean doing the mundane, but committing to doing them every day because they have to get done. Things which aren’t going to get you acknowledgement or doing things you might even be attacked for. I know advocating and protecting me own son has required me to be tough.

TMS: What kind of changes did you have to advocate for as a father?
Harney: When my son was diagnosed with autism as a three year old, parents really had to do a lot on their own. We did a lot of alternative therapies with him and took him to get biofeedback. We took him all over to meet with doctors. And we would say, “He needs 10 hours of speech a week.” I remember speaking with the regional office and I could feel their resistance to us telling them what he needs. We knew what he needs, I’ve checked it out with three different doctors, but they just were not ready for that. They weren’t ready for me being that aggressive. And I wasn’t being pushy, I was just being straightforward and telling them what we needed and being an outspoken advocate for my son. So I would hear from people “wow, you’re really passionate” and I thought “he’s my son, you idiot.” But I guess 14 years ago, the alternative methods were not that mainstream, and I had to do a lot on my own. I remember Whole Foods didn’t have much gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free stuff. People weren’t drinking almond milk on a regular basis, and if you did you were considered a freak. And if you were gluten-free or dairy-free, you were considered kind of a health nut. So, we had to do it ourselves, and it took about 6 months to figure everything out. But once we did it, his diet was cleaned out, and all the therapists saw a huge difference. He had no speech when he was diagnosed and he started speaking. He had no fine motor skills and that improved.

TMS: Do you feel an obligation, as an actor with an opportunity to speak out in public forums, to be an advocate?
Harney: I do. I was going to be a priest years ago. I came very close to becoming a Jesuit priest. I had a spiritual advisor at Fordham University named Father Walter Ciszek, who is actually being canonized a saint. He was a very special person and I was with him for about a year. And I had another friend who is still is a Jesuit at Fordham. And these two were real priests. They weren’t getting over on anyone, and certainly not on kids. So for me, I was lucky to have gotten to know them. And that has always been the center of my being, despite all my frailties. And because of that, I try to advocate for the less fortunate as much as possible. When people ask me to do something, I don’t think they are the ones asking me to do something. I think it’s the chief asking me to do something.

TMS: Do you take that same approach when choosing roles and projects to take part in?
Harney: I use discernment. Jesuits have what’s called the Rules of Discernment, from the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. It’s one of the reasons I love Orange so much. Because it deals with marginalized communities. Populations of people largely forgotten. I deal with that with my son. People are too cool to hang out with a kid who is struggling. And that’s just kids being kids, but it’s hurtful. I worked in prison reform years ago, and I learned a lot. For some reason, I guess because I was so strung out when I was younger, I built empathy for incarcerated people. I was so screwed up and dancing on the edge. It’s a big reason that I became an artist.

TMS: How did you get involved in Orange?
Harney: Well, when I first got the role, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I just knew it was Jenji Kohan’s show, who I love and wanted to work for again. We have a great relationship and artistic respect for one another, which is really cool. I’ve been lucky to been able to work with people like David Milch and Jenji, who are that way with actors. So when she offered me a role, I just said yes. And then I started to look into it, and in the book the character was a counselor who was actually named Butorsky. And after I talked to Jenji, she told me it would be a mixture of multiple characters. But what occurred to me was the fact that this was an opportunity to work with a wonderful ensemble and bring a marginalized community to the full light of day, and say, “if you took one step to the right, this could be you in here.” That was certainly true for me back then. Not so much today, but years ago it was certainly how things were. Because I really think that is the message those of us interested in advocating for people want to send out. To bring it to full view and say, you’re connected to me, I’m connected to you, we’re connected to Betsy whose doing life. I remember I used to go up with my professor to visit a guy at Sing Sing, who had become a jailhouse lawyer after being incarcerated for 25 years. I’d bring him vegetables because he liked to cook, and we would sit and talk over this big meal, surrounded by these men who had just gotten out and were trying to rebuild their lives. I remember how magical and nuanced it was for me as a young man, even though I had my head up my ass at the time. It cut into my version of myself, and made me realize, I’m just like them.

TMS: How did you discover your passion for acting?
Harney: I found it by accident. I was going to be an athlete, but I got in trouble all the time. I was stoned all the time and wouldn’t go to school. But they let me do a play, because in speech class, everyone else would do speeches but I would do characters. I did an old man, and it was weird because you could have heard a pin drop. I thought, “I must have been pretty good”, and the teacher said “yeah”, and referred me to the guy who was doing the play. They were doing The Detective Story, which is bizarre because I’ve gone onto play a lot of detectives. So, when I went to college, the first two years I thought I was going to be a social worker. And I wrote too, and did a lot of interviews with celebrities like Richie Havens and Robert Klein. And I wrote civil rights articles with guys who had gone to Nassau Community College, and really knew a lot about Civil Rights. But when I wanted to do hands on social work, like I’d been doing in the prisons, but I was so drunk I registered for the wrong program, and wound up in a theory program, and I was just jumping out of my skin. So I missed out on those classes and was just getting loaded. But I took an acting class as an elective and wound up with a professor from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, who took me under his wing, and I did seven shows back to back. And I wouldn’t get loaded during rehearsals, but I would after we’d opened, so I went through periods of sobriety. But I really do feel it’s genetic. My father was a performer. An actor and singer, he was an amazing Irish tenor, and was a great dancer.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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