Amanda Stephen – Orange is the New Black
By: Kelly Kearney
Q) How did the role of Alison on “Orange is the New Black” come to you and what was your audition process like?
Amanda: At the time, I had a manager and she was submitting me for different roles and an audition came up for the role of Alison Abdullah. Although, her name wasn’t Alison when they sent out the audition. So, my agent called and said I had an audition and I said, “Which show is it on?” She told me, “Orange is the New Black,” and I said, “SHUT UP! [laughing] So, they are bringing in new characters?” Because up until Season Four, there hadn’t been a big entrance of characters. Who was there before was still there so I thought this was going to be interesting. I didn’t even know that there was going to be that many new characters in Season Four. I just knew about the character I was auditioning for. I felt like the gods were with me because usually for an audition you have a day to learn your lines, create this character and make it believable, to own it like the part was meant for you. Especially for a recurring or guest star or a series regular, it’s important if you can get your lines down you don’t want any distractions with looking at the lines during your audition. So, the gods were with me because I got the notice of the audition on a Friday and my audition was on a Monday, giving me the weekend to prepare. I was so happy I did too because I got to dig a lot deeper than someone that only has twenty-four hours to prepare with the character. I went in Monday morning and auditioned confidently and just felt there was a good feeling in the room. Casting folks, they want to find a good person for the role just as badly as you want the part and there was this mutual fuzzy feeling in the room. They asked me to do it again. I asked a few questions, but then I didn’t hear anything back. Usually you hear pretty quickly if you got the job, but by Thursday I thought I didn’t get the part because I hadn’t heard back. Friday, I got the call and they said I got the part. Usually there are call backs for these things, but they said they just wanted me for the role and so we signed contracts and I was good to go.
Q) The end of this season was a dramatic punch to the gut that really left the fans hanging. What was your reaction when you first watched the finale and what would you like to see happen next season?
Amanda: When I watched the finale, I’ve got to tell you, just like there was hysteria amongst the fans. There was hysteria amongst the cast. Nobody knows what’s happening [excited laugh]! We just knew there was an explosion and a bunch of the main characters were still in the prison and everyone else was on the bus headed somewhere we didn’t know. I’m not sure what the show has put out there yet but, my assumption is going to be there will be people separated and it will be a new environment. These are just my speculations, I don’t know what’s been said. I’ve been kind of under a rock since I have a newborn. So, to be honest, I still don’t know what’s going to happen since they keep us in the dark for I guess legality reasons and keeping us in the present while also preventing spoilers and leaks.
Q) What was the most challenging part of filming Season Five of “OINTB?”
Amanda: The most challenging part for me was in the timeline. It was a lot harder than I thought. I had to keep reminding myself that one scene was literally two minutes after the next and not that days or months had gone by. It’s literally three days. It took six months to film this so I had to remember what my frame of mind was, the intensity of some things and how tired I should be since we’ve been up for three days straight. Just keeping track of time was my biggest challenge.
Q) I was so happy to visit Alison’s past before she went to Litchfield, but we never saw how she actually ended up in prison. If you had to guess, what did Alison do to wind up a “Lady of Litchfield?”
Amanda: A lot of people are convinced it has to do with the second wife and husband. I think Alison is a little too classy for that. I think she probably did wig out because its leading up to that. Something happens, obviously, but I think her crime might be something dealing with her Halal food business. I think it’s a classier crime because she’s a classy lady. You know she was a stressed mom and I think they were trying to make ends meet and get things done and probably she did something with cooking the books or maybe tax evasion. I don’t know. I think it’s something that we will have to wait and see, but I don’t think it has to do with her killing the second wife. I’m not the writer though. So, we’ll just have to wait and see. [laughs]
Q) How did you initially prepare for the role and did you do any research on Islam and the practice of multiple wives for this season?
Amanda: Of course, with the character herself I had to make sure I did some research, especially after I got the role. I have several Muslim consultants, Baha’is Muslims, some liberal and some not so much just like any religion there are separate factions. I went to Mosque, the NYU Mosque, with a friend and observed and got the feeling of what it was like to be a practicing Muslim, but again she’s [Alison] from Philly and with a group that may be very different than the one in New York. So, I did a lot of research with friends and friends of friends who are Muslim and got their feedback. With the multiple wives, I was reading a book, [pauses] I can’t remember the name… something like Muslim Wives of Philly, something like that and it talks about the lives of five or six Muslim women, some already are in a marriage with more than one wife and some don’t believe in it. The majority of Muslims don’t practice polygamy. There is a small group that’s in Philly that do, but I know that if there is more than one wife all needed to be treated equally. Some old school families, they believe the first wife has more weight and say in things and I think that’s where Alison was thinking her position would be. In her mind, she wanted someone to lighten the load and kind of reap the benefits of the smaller load, freeing up her time. As you saw in Season Five, she’s still running around and missing out on family time while the second wife had time to hang with the daughter and the husband while Alison was still taking care of the family and her business. I think she realizes that she’s kind of getting the short end of the stick and not getting the power and the free time she thought she would have and therein lies the issue. That’s the assumption I had that Alison was under. I mean, you can be any religion. You can be Christian, Jewish and every household is different. It depends on what you want within your faith and within your family.
Q) One of my favorite relationships on the show has been between Alison and Black Cindy. They started out as adversaries and slowly found common ground. What’s it like working with Adrienne C. Moore?
Amanda: [laughs] It is very hard to keep a straight face! It’s very hard. She’s extremely talented and hilarious. It was hard being enemies with her in the beginning, but also a lot of fun. In Season Five, one of my favorite scenes, while we were taping it we were just cracking up the whole time. The scene where Black Cindy, Alison and Suzanne (Uzo Aduba) tried to get a picture of Judy (Blair Brown) giving Cindy a high five, while we were blocking her off and different exits? Let me tell you, take after take it was just so much fun working with Adrienne in that scene and trying to take the picture it was hilarious. So, in scenes where I’m not supposed to be cracking up It’s hard keeping it together. She’s just so talented and such a giving scene partner that it’s a really great working with her. Black Cindy and Alison actually have a lot more in common than they don’t and it took Taystee (Danielle Brooks) to sit us down and talk things out. Even though Alison doesn’t know this, we both have a daughter, we both are kind of strong minded in our beliefs and what we stand for, we just happen to have different beliefs. Alison might be a little bit more mature than Cindy but… [laughing]
Q) With so many talented and hilarious women on the show, you must have some funny behind the scenes stories you can share with the fans?
Amanda: Everyone on set is very talented, from in front of the camera to behind the scenes and one of our producers pulled a fast one on everyone on set. She was seven or eight months pregnant and we were all in the cafeteria doing scene. When she comes out and starts giving notes about something and then SCREAMS and water is rushing out from between her skirt! [roaring laughter] We were all running around like chickens with our heads cut off screaming, “Oh my God! She’s gonna have a baby! Oh my God! Her water just broke! Where’s the ambulance?! Oh my God!” Then, finally she was like, “SIKE!” I mean, she fooled everyone because we were all freaking out and running around thinking she was ready to have this baby! [laughing] She pranked us so bad! Everybody lost their cool and that, to me, was the funniest behind the scene story.
Q) Is there someone you haven’t worked with on “OINTB” that you would like to in the future?
Amanda: Yes, I would love to share a scene with Red (Kate Mulgrew), but who wouldn’t? I mean the cast is so large and the way it works is you come in for the days you’re working your scenes and you are usually with the people who are in your group. Even though the show pushes diversity we are still segregated in our tribes, except for this season people blended a bit, but because of that I’ve never had an opportunity to work with Kate Mulgrew and that would be great. I remember midway through Season Four I met her and was like, “Hi, I’m new to the cast,” and she was like, “Yeah, this cast is so big we never get an opportunity to meet unless we’re doing scenes together.”
Q) The show is insanely popular with fans and it only seems to be growing in popularity with every new season. Are you getting recognized in public? Have you had any funny fan encounters?
Amanda: I get away with murder because I don’t wear Hijab in real life. I get looks from people like the, “I think I know you from somewhere,” look. I do look completely different with my Hajib off and I usually wear my hair down and I have sister locks. When they think of Alison they think of the Hajib or the bright red hair. Since I don’t have bright red hair, it’s a natural brown color, I look pretty plain Jane-ish. I did notice if I wear my hair in a ponytail away from my face, I get noticed. Funny story, I was walking into the GNC and this guy stopped in his tracks and was like, “Do you watch ‘Orange is the New Black?’” I said, “Uhhh…yes, yes I do.” He said, “You look like that Muslim girl on the show. Has anyone ever told you that?” I said, “No, I’ve never gotten that I look like her. No.” [Laughing] If someone asked if I was her I would never lie to them, but I thought he knew. When he walked away he kind of glared and watched and I knew he was thinking, “That had to be her.” I was going to see if he finally said it, but I’m pretty sure he knew. I’m not like some of the other girls like Adrienne Moore who looks like Cindy minus maybe her afro-puff or Danielle Brooks who is easily recognizable as Taystee. I am fortunate that my costume kind of hides my identity and I don’t think I mind it so much. I’m just a regular person and acting is my life’s work and I want to keep doing wonderful roles, but I just had a baby. I’m living a pretty normal life and sometimes I forget people know me from the show and then I remember and I’m like, “Oh yeah….” It helps I live in Upstate and have an apartment in the city. I’ll get recognized sometimes in touristy areas or in the city, but like I said the Hajib really lets me get away unnoticed.
Q) “Orange” made history by making Netflix a content contender and “binge watching,” an American pastime. Besides those groundbreaking achievements, what do you hope “OINTB’s” lasting mark on television will be?
Amanda: I want “Orange” to be the first to show producers and execs and those worried about numbers, that diversity and real women on screen will still bring in viewership. You see more real-life women on “Orange” like, “Oh, this looks like my cousin, my aunt or my sister,” from fiercely talented women that may not be executive approved because they don’t fit a certain standard in their mind of what they should look like on Television. “Orange” promotes all different sizes, backgrounds, religions and it’s about the talent and the diversity and it’s the number one show. So, it must be working. People sign into see the different stories and see the different women and it’s not just for the pretty face. It’s so much more interesting and I think “Orange” set the standards for that. “Orange” showed us that it can work and now thousands of women that are more talented than a pretty face will get that opportunity. I’m hoping that’s the legacy of “Orange is the New Black.” Telling stories of women who are relatable and have layers, with good writers, good stories. There are so many great platforms like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon for these stories to be told. It’s not just in the hands of major networks anymore. These platforms are pushing the major networks to open up to diversity and uniqueness. I hope that’s “Orange’s” lasting mark on Television.
Q) Besides “Orange is the New Black,” are there any other projects that you are working on that the fans should look out for?
Amanda: Right now, I’m focusing on how I’m going to do this motherhood thing. [laughing] I mean, I am auditioning for other things, but for right now we’re keeping it pretty open for “Orange is the New Black.”