Michael Harney Talks Playing a “Bad” Guy on ‘Orange is the New Black’
Detective, sheriff, lieutenant, U.S. Marshal, corrections officer — all of these titles fall into the realm of civil service and all of them have been portrayed on television and film by Michael Harney. Chances are, you’ve seen Harney on your TV screen, even if you have trouble putting a face to the name.
The New York City-native has appeared on an endless amount of procedurals and serial dramas since the early ’90s. Just to name a few: NYPD Blue, Law & Order, ER, Boston Public, JAG and Criminal Minds. On the big screen, he’s had roles in Gone in the Night, Erin Brockovich and Ocean’s Thirteen.
Most recently, Harney appeared as a series regular — corrections officer Sam Healy — on season one of Netflix’s popular and acclaimed comedy-drama series Orange is the New Black, and alongside Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in HBO’s latest hit anthology crime series, True Detective.
Based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, Orange is the New Black follows Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a young, upper middle class, bisexual New Yorker who gets sentenced to 15 months in an upstate New York prison, after being caught carrying drug money for her former lover 10 years before. Created by Jenji Kohan (Weeds), the show smartly uses Piper as the gateway to tell the stories of a slew of diverse inmates and officers. With a fabulous, strong-willed transgender inmate, a loopy prisoner with a knack for Shakespeare and a sociopathic inmate who’s convinced she’s preaching the word of God, most of these characters can’t be found anywhere else on TV.
The same can be said for Harney’s Healy, who initially befriends Piper and holds her to a higher pedestal than the other inmates, until we see his own demons putting a rift in their friendship. The articulate and easygoing Harney recently talked to GALO via phone from Los Angeles about how he gets into character for these roles, why he tends to portray so many civil service officers, working with Jenji Kohan, and more.
GALO: The list of TV shows you’ve guest-starred and recurred in is endless. But you originally set out to become a social worker. What possessed you to diverge from that path and get into acting?
Michael Harney: Social work is very similar and parallels a lot [to acting]. There are a lot of limitations placed upon the people that chose that profession — structurally, in terms of what they were able to achieve for kids. That’s really why I kind of got into it. To help out kids and help out people that were suffering from poverty. But that wasn’t the main reason. I think the main reason was that I had spent the better part of two years doing volunteer work, prison reform and civil rights. I did a lot of hands-on work. I was helping people, I was visiting prisons, I was working on people’s cases and I was having guest lectures at the university I attended.
And then when I got up to upstate New York, where I went for my last two years of college, it was all theory. That just completely turned me off because I wanted to be on my feet doing it. I wasn’t really a book guy. So that’s really the reason. I just took an acting class and I wound up with a guy from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art who had gone upstate to retire. He took me under his wing and I did a couple of shows back-to-back. I had done a play in high school, but I really didn’t have any experience.
GALO: You’ve appeared on everything from Law & Order, NYPD Blue and The Practice. I noticed that a majority of your roles seem to be detectives, sheriffs and other jobs in the realm of civil service. Did something draw you toward these roles or did they just come to you?
MH: They just came to me. The best example I have is when Ian McKellen was doing Amadeus on Broadway. I wrote him a letter; I wanted to talk to him. He invited me to come backstage between performances. Then we went out, got a sandwich at a deli up the street, and we hung out for about 45 minutes. I said to him that I want to be a character actor, because I had been spending so much time in the studios in New York as a student, learning and really doing character work. I did a wide variety of characters. He said, ultimately, it’s how they see you, especially in the beginning. And that’s been very, very true. I’ve become about 85 detectives. So, I think, it’s just the way they see you. They see you do certain things. I’m just grateful to have had that long run of civil servant workers.
GALO: I think it’s very easy for people to call many of the characters you’ve portrayed bigoted and generally, not very good people. You’ve played Steve on Deadwood, a racist drunk; Detective Mitch on Weeds was an angry alcoholic; and then, of course, there’s Sam on Orange is the New Black, who may or may not be homophobic. How do you get into character for roles such as these?
MH: I think what you’re asking me is how do I do roles that are opposite of who I am. And that’s certainly the case with the different instances that you just mentioned. I have to find reasons inside myself to achieve goals that will serve the script. Now when I’m doing something that has to do with homophobia, let’s say, what I’m working with and what I’ve worked with internally has nothing to do with homophobia at all. It has to do with something completely different, which I’ll never disclose.
But that charges me to be able to achieve something where I really am inspired to achieve it. What people see is a guy that’s homophobic. And I think it’s important to expose that type of prejudice because it’s unjust and it’s ignorant. When I was doing Deadwood, those scenes were very difficult for me to do. More difficult than the preparation phase, because of my experience in civil rights and my own personal disposition; I’m the opposite of being a bigot. So working on that, I had to find something else that charged me [and] that inspired truthful action in me to become this person that you saw.