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‘Orange Is the New Black’s’ Piscatella Goes Inside the Mind of a “Layered” Monster

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[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the entire fifth season of Orange Is the New Black.]

Call it poetic justice.

After watching Poussey (Samira Wiley) die at the hands of an untrained guard, Taystee (Danielle Brooks) decide not to pull the trigger and Red (Kate Mulgrew) make the choice to let him walk free, Desi Piscatella (Brad William Henke) is ultimately put down — shot in the head by one of his own trigger-happy riot men — at the end of the fifth season of Orange is the New Black.

To many, Picsatella is the reason Litchfield 2.0 exists. After bringing his new regime last season, the female prison collapsed under his watchful eye, only to see an uprising in his absence. Viewers were aware of his displaced mother issues, explaining his feud with Red, but this season provided a flashback that filled in the missing pieces about why he was ultimately transferred from a men’s maximum security prison to Litchfield in the first place: When an inmate hurt the prisoner he fell in love with, he burned the former to death.  

That flashback, along with both Taystee and Red’s forgiveness in his near-final moment, helped Henke to cope with his character’s exit from the Jenji Kohan prison dramedy.

“I really feel like I made a change,” Henke tells The Hollywood Reporter, as he oscillates from referring to Piscatella in the first and third person while getting back into the mindset of his character. “I was in such a vulnerable position and they could have been evil to me, and they weren’t. I saw how much pain I caused them and when you hurt people, you end up just hurting yourself. I really feel like I made a big shift and I feel like whatever happens when you die, I feel like I was forgiven.”

Below in a chat with THR, Henke describes what it was like to film this season’s most-harrowing torture scenes, how he stayed in character as the big, bad villain on the female-heavy set and why his death — though most will celebrate it — to him, was tragic.

Why was it key to fill in the missing pieces with Piscatella’s flashback and understand more about him?

I wish they would have gotten me a better wig! I was so hoping for the backstory after last season. It was really good for me, too, to fill in why Piscatella was guarded and cold in some ways. Some people saw it differently, but I always felt like Piscatella did have a good heart and was trying to do a good job. I could tell from season one and through the dialogue with his mom that he had been hurt a lot, so I was thrilled with the episode and I was thrilled with Laura Prepon being the director. I had worked with Laura on October Road, so I knew her as a fellow actor. When she does her work, she’s quiet and focused and that’s how I am too. But when she was a director, we rehearsed and I really trusted her. It was one of the best acting jobs I ever had working with her, she’s going to be a phenomenal director.

In his flashback, we find out how he killed the male inmate. Do you think he intended for the prisoner to die?

I don’t think he wanted him to die. I don’t think he thought, “I’m going to murder this guy.” I think that prisoner hurt someone I really loved and then I was hurt, and I think I was just teaching him a lesson and it went too far. Sometimes when people do things when you’re hurt, you feel like you have to hurt someone as much as they hurt you, with words or actions, and I think that’s what Piscatella did. That’s the guilt he always lives with, the hurt of what his lover did to him and then the regret and guilt of what he did about it.

How does what happened in the male prison influence how he treats the women once they become a threat in the riot?

I think it’s like someone who has a temper where they keep it held down. The prisoners were now out of control and disrespecting, so that’s a button with me. I probably felt controlled and disrespected by my mom and other people in my life, so that’s what happens when I go into that mode. It’s not premeditated. It’s like road rage or something. Some people will go out of their car and hit someone, I guess Piscatella will get out of the car in this situation.

Piscatella’s entry back into Litchfield brings a shift in the show. What were some of the conversations like about taking on the horror genre? 

What’s great about the show is that there’s not a lot of conversation unless they feel like you’re off track. Maybe the first year, they might have given me a little bit more direction, but this year they just trusted me. If you do a character like this in the first year, in the second year, you kind of just know what to do. Sometimes there is a lot of dialogue and sometimes you turn the page and say, “I bet I say this” and you do, because you know him. That stuff was fun to shoot as an actor, though, pulling people through the hallway and breaking in at midnight. It was raining and we had one time to do the scene and I went to break the chain and it was a really hard chain and wouldn’t break — and I’m a big guy. So we had to kind of cheat it.

When did you find out that Piscatella was going to die?

The thing about this year is that, at a certain point I knew it was coming. We got the first draft of episode 13 while filming episode 11. But as we filmed the season, I had a sense. I figured it out when I was in the clown and being held in the pool, that I’m not getting out of here. It was a really hard job for me too because I’m in L.A. and I had to fly back and forth all the time, so it would have been hard to do for another season, and I think they knew that. If you look at all the regulars and prisoners, I was really lucky to have two years that were focused on Piscatella, so I kind of knew that if I did make it through the year, then probably the next year wouldn’t be as active. I was all for, “Let’s kick ass this year and go out all at once.”

Why do you think Red so quickly and easily got under his skin?

I think that is totally the mommy issues, how my mom sent me to gay conversion camp. My mom was probably, the way I imagine her, very strong and opinionated and tried to change me. I imagine her not loving me for who I was and me never feeling like I could please her. So Piscatella gets to the prison and then this lady, from the very first episode I was in, was giving me a f—ing attitude. That just triggered me.

What is your relationship like with Kate Mulgrew and how were you two as scene partners?

I like her, she’s really nice. When she acts, she’s very serious so a lot of the times when we would do scenes they were always very intense. We don’t really talk to each other when we’re there. I’d ask her if it was OK when we were doing a stunt, and she would always say, “Do whatever you want.” But I didn’t want to hurt her. At the end of the day, she looked at me and said “good job” and we’d give each other a hug. We both liked to keep it that way. Last year, when I was doing the scene when they were all on the tables in the cafeteria, I liked to sit in the corner and not interact. I love the last year when they were all against me, so I didn’t want to interact with them during those days. I didn’t want to be hanging out and talking with them and laughing, I get more gratitude from the moment.

What was it like to film the torture scenes where you proceed to scalp Red?

There’s five of them in that tiny room. I remember that day, the boom getting in the shot with the camera person and they started bickering. They are really nice guys and I was like, “Hey, can we put that aside and focus on this because this is really f—ing intense.” So everyone was a bit irritable. We’re trying to get the day done, there’s five people to cover in this tiny room, late at night. Natasha talks a lot and laughs. (Laughs.) I remember one time they were all talking because we’d been there for hours and I was standing with my head in the corner because I had so much to think about and so many lines to do. It was a tiny little box and it was hot, and it was f—ing awesome. Laura was sometimes directing the scenes in a shower curtain, which is funny shit.

When I was cutting Red’s hair, sometimes we’d film too many takes and at the beginning of the take, I would just say a bunch of mean stuff in my character just to get the focus on the intensity, like we hadn’t been here for a long time. That’s how it should feel, like something is really going on. Before I did my monologue, I would cuss or say stuff to Red just to feel the energy. It was a fun day of acting. We did seven takes of it in the beginning all different ways. Laura was like, “I kind of like these two energies, so from now on, let’s work with those. Do you agree?” I can’t express enough how awesome she was, and how intense it was.  

What pointers did Laura Prepon give you as the episode’s director? 

She would remind me that I’m big and scary, just walking in the room. I tried to only lose my shit maybe once, and besides that, if you’re in an argument with someone and they hate you, if they look at them and say, “I f—ing hate you” and are serious about it, you believe them more. I was making them feel like I won the room. I’m taking my belt off and doing this and that, making them afraid of what I was going to do and afraid so I would have the power with them guessing what the f— is going to happen and thinking, “I hope it doesn’t happen to me.” I wanted them to feel like, “Even though I like these other people, I don’t want it to be me.” I tried to look at each one, whether it was when I was pulling out my knife, to make them feel like it could be them. He wanted them to look at her like their mom and say, “She all caused that?” 

Why was this the one way Piscatella could truly break Red down, to maim her in front of her family?

He broke Alex’s (Prepon) arm, which was kind of an accident. But as big as I am, to just beat someone up is not saying anything. The only thing that Red has in that prison that makes her feel human is that she has her hair a certain way and her makeup and you can tell she takes a lot of time with it. That it makes her feel human and important. he wanted to take away the only thing that made her feel good and have power.

When they capture him after, it seems like he isn’t fearful of being found out. Was he thinking about the consequences? 

He’s thinking that when this is over, it’s going to be my word against a bunch of criminals, and who do you think they’re going to believe? I think at that point, I wasn’t thinking I was going to get in trouble or caught. I was thinking, “Tomorrow I’m going to be able to run this f—ing place with no problems because I took away the leader.”

To many viewers and to the cast, his death is justice after Poussey’s death. How do you view it?

They always blame me for Poussey’s death, but I didn’t do it. There was an uprising, I told Bailey (Alan Aisenberg) to subdue her, I didn’t do anything. But i think it’s so great. When Red mocks me and says, “You couldn’t be a policemen” when Taystee has the gun in my face, I talked her out of it to the point where Taystee is laying down and crying. I actually felt bad for her and I felt like, “I can’t believe I almost died” and talked myself through the situation. I was leaving there so victorious, but then I also saw how much Taystee was hurting and I felt like it made an impression on me. I feel like Piscatella would have made a big change. In that moment when I left, I really felt like I was going to be a better person and better to the prisoners. I saw them all there, they had me in this thing and could have killed me and they didn’t. Red let me go. Poor Taystee was so broken. I think for the first time since it’s all happened, I let myself go. I see that I caused this pain. I caused all these people to be hurting like this and the reason I caused it was on principle. So I feel like I really grew as a person in that moment and they killed me when I was at the best place as a person, emotionally, that I had been.

Do you think his death will help to bring justice to the prisoners, even though the riot failed?

When I looked at Taystee and Black Cindy (Adrienn C. Moore), when I looked at Red and walked up that ramp, I was really saying, “I’m sorry.” So how deep are those prisoners thinking? I don’t know, but I think they should have felt that I was sorry and that I changed. 

Last season you spoke about becoming a star in the gay community and how Piscatella was well-received for being “real.” Are you nervous about the fan response this season, or do you enjoy that he is a polarizing character?

I think the majority of the fans will be happy that I died. The majority of them see me as the enemy. The wonderful comments I got from the gay community was that they may not have liked my character as a person, but they liked how I was layered and, in some ways, good and in other ways flawed in the choices I made, but that I wasn’t a stereotype. This was a person who has these character traits and acts like this and has this experience and, by the way, he’s gay. I knew my character was gay because it was in my audition scenes, so I knew that whole year and I wanted to create a character where people wouldn’t go, “Oh, hes gay” when they saw me. I felt like a strong disciplined man who was really into his job and I tried to not bring my personal life to work. I think that people respected that and that was really nice. I got so many compliments from people saying, “I hated your character but I loved the way you live and represent this gay character.” 

What will you miss most about him?

I’m going to miss being him. I really am. Because to get to do that for two years was  such a gift and an honor. What I’m going to miss about him is this writing and these other actors, because who knows when the next complicated, layered challenging character will come around? So many times, you walk onto the screen and by the way you are dressed, people go, “That person is that.” You weren’t able to do that with Piscatella and I cant imagine the next time I will be able to say that. I really appreciate the job because the character was so great and complicated and layered and the actors are so into it and great to work with. It’s one of the most special jobs of my life.

Orange has gone from Pornstache (Pablo Schreiber) to Piscatella – how do you imagine the next head guard will be when the show returns?

I don’t know if it’s possible because of the other storylines, but I so wish Bailey could come back because he has such a sweet heart and didn’t do anything wrong and wants to make amends. He would be really interesting. There is also Bennett (Matt McGorry). Maybe Caputo (Nick Sandow) could go back to being more on the ground, because I think he is one of the best characters. He’s so quirky and funny, but he actually does have their best interest at heart. I don’t know what the new season is going to be like, but I think whoever it is has learned a lesson and the new head of the guards is going to have to be confident and show extra care.

What’s next for you?

I have a great role in a Netflix movie called Bright with Will Smith and David Ayer is the director. That movie is actually why my character had to shave his beard in the middle of the season on Orange and they put it into the writing. In Bright I play and Orc, so I had to have this life cast made of my face. It takes months and they said I had to be clean-shaven. I was also shooting Sneaky Pete at the same time. I shaved my whole beard thinking they’d make me a fake beard on Orange, but I thought it was cool that you saw my character looking different.

What did you think of Piscatella’s death? Tell THR in the comments below and keep up with Live Feed for cast interviews and full Orange Is the New Black coverage. 

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