Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, a darkly comedic show that takes place in a women’s prison, has become TV’s latest phenomenon. Who’s the character we here at TNP decided to cover? Red Reznikov of course, the Russian spitfire that runs the prison’s kitchen (There’s definitely a reality show here for Bravo).
The actress behind this incredible performance – Kate Mulgrew – is an icon in her own right. She was the first female captain to be a series regular on Star Trek, and throughout her career she appeared on renowned shows like Murphy Brown, Cheers, and Ryan’s Hope among others. We chatted with TV’s newest “chef” on everything food, life and entertainment…
From start to finish, what would be your ideal food day?
Coffee for breakfast – and lots of it – with half & half. Breakfast is rare but the occasional soft-boiled egg with lots of butter and salt is divine.
There is nothing better than a late lunch with a good friend on a rainy day, and this calls for a beautiful hot French Onion or Chicken Noodle Soup and a lovely Grilled Cheese Sandwich. On the set, a Spartan lunch – a piece of chicken, small salad, and the ubiquitous and deadly dull water.
Dinner is sacred and must be shared; this is an imperative. I love to cook, so I’ll roast a chicken and make my perfect seventeen minute rice and Italian broccoli, or a couple of rib-eye steaks with a gorgeous bitter salad of radicchio, arugula, radish, tomato, a bit of goat cheese, a lemony vinaigrette, and maybe some roast potatoes in garlic and rosemary. Or a Penne a la Vodka, but I bake mine so it takes time. Dinner by candlelight, and always, without exception, a wonderful bottle of red wine. No dessert. Ever.
No snacks. If I’m dying of hunger, I close my eyes and think of England.
What’s your drink?
My drink is wine. A beautiful Sauvignon Blanc, such as a Sancerre, a crisp Pinot Grigio in the warmer months, and in winter a hearty red, such as Ruffino Chianti Classico or, if one is intent on a slow-burning bliss, a very expensive bottle of Amarone.
Having stated the above, please note that I am almost addicted to Pellegrino, which a friend of mine refers to as the ‘cadillac’ of waters. Ever-present, chilled, with plenty of lemon and lime.
What’s different about playing Red from other parts you’ve played?
Unlike the other parts I’ve played, Red is iconic but in an unconventional, unexpected and often unsettling way. She looks like a flame and often behaves like fire. She is intriguing, dangerous, alive and unpredictable. Of all the elements, I consider fire the proudest. It lives fiercely and refuses to die. This is Red Reznikov – hidden, complex, the young girl still peeking out behind those black-slashed eyes, mysterious, flawed, and deeply human. I am personally extremely attracted to her.
In playing the part of the Red, where do you draw inspiration from?
In playing Red, I draw inspiration from the page, and she is written beautifully. Jenji [Kohan] has captured not only her essence, but her strange and singular vernacular. Red reads voraciously, so she speaks well and proudly, but in an instant can revert to a sort-of Russian peasant slang or, even better, her own inimitable style of stringing ideas together. She talks like no one else because she is like no one else. It’s on the page.
You wanted this role badly. Why?
Who wouldn’t want to play this role? A dead actress, perhaps, or a very vain one – but no living actress with spirit, curiosity and depth would turn their back on this part and not regret it. She has lived, she is rich in experience, complexity and promise. She is both hidden and exposed, dangerous and delicate, sad and silly. A woman of dimension and authenticity. So deeply, richly human.
What’s the most shocking discovery you’ve made in all your time of playing Red?
Nothing has shocked me in my experience of playing Red, but I am alarmed – and continue to be alarmed – by her capacity for survival. The steel in her is frightening and unbendable. Her code of honor is known to her alone and woe betide the foolish girl who thinks she is so ‘loved’ by Red that her betrayal will be tolerated. Rules allow for survival and permit excellence – this is scored on Red’s heart and makes each day a small but perfect triumph.
What are some of your favorite food spots when shooting Orange is the New Black?
My own kitchen is my favorite food spot when filming because it is available at all hours, accessible at all hours, and often uncompromisingly good. However, there is nothing wrong with the Metro Diner, Ouest for roast chicken, ‘Cesca for pasta and wine, or La Piccola Cucina for serenity and a quite lovely veal marsala.
You play a prison cook; we’re a food site. What’s one thing you can tell us about prison and food? Did you study that at all when preparing for the role?
One thing I can tell you about prison and food is this: Prison is designed to punish and therefore the food served within the prison is punishingly bad. It is beige, it is blah, it is nothing. It is a diet of mediocrity to go with the walls, to starve the soul, and to degrade the palate. A prisoner will, in time, do desperate things for a chili pepper, a real roux, ripe red tomatoes, or a lemon on a windowsill. Red wants above all else to elevate the food to a level of, at the very least, acceptability. And she really wants that chicken that is unlike any other chicken.
What are some typical pre and post shoot routines?
My routines are simple and fairly constant: I love to wake up and have a couple of cups of rich coffee with an ample dash of half & half. Perhaps a hard-boiled egg but most often a dish of Chobani blueberry yogurt garnished with (you guessed it) a handful of plump and succulent blueberries. Post-shoot: the ever-desired and admired roast chicken, a bit of cheese, and a green salad. And if I’ve been very, very good – a glass of Amarone.
What’s always in your bag on set?
In the bag on my set chair is my New York Times Book Review, my current New York Magazine, and the ubiquitous bottle of water.
What’s a typical lunch like on the set?
A typical lunch on the set is one spent in my dressing room, occasionally in the company of Natasha Lyonne who is not only highly amusing and intelligent, but I’ve noticed that her diet resembles mine in the important ways. Lots of protein, always something green, and endless talk about food and why it is so dementedly fascinating.
What’s always in your trailer fridge?
There is nothing in my trailer fridge because there is no trailer and therefore no fridge within it. But in my dressing room there is always a set of salt and pepper shakers.
Your go-to on set snack…
Set snack is something I try to avoid because it only leads to more set-snacking. But when madly and inconsolably puckish, I will seek out crudite or the ham and cheese plate. And nuts, of course. Salted nuts are a reason to go on.
Your go-to recipe for eating at home…
My go-to recipe for eating at home is, predictably, a chicken, provencal style, stuffed with onion, garlic and herbs and garnished with fresh sprigs of rosemary, bathed in butter and olive oil and roasted for exactly one hour at 400 degrees. I accompany it with sliced heirloom tomato, basil, fresh mozzarella, oil and balsamic vinegar. Bliss.
What are your favorite cities for food? Where do you go to in each?
New York can be a wonderful city for food but it is not, interestingly, my favorite city in which to chow down. Rome wins. In every nook and cranny of this ancient city there is an old man or a plump young woman and they create, daily, a pasta of their own imagining which is always perfect. Red sauce, white sauce, a sauté of morels, a torn piece of bread, a glass of chianti. And then they stand over you, beaming, as only angels do. Italian food is still unparalleled. In the hills of Scandicci there is a hidden slice of heaven called La Taverna di Diablo. Go.
If you could host a dinner party, with any five people living or dead, who would be there? What would you serve?
If I could host dinner party and invite any five people, living or dead, I would certainly extend an invitation to Jesus Christ of Nazareth, and seat him next to Eleonora Duse, and to her right someone outspoken and even naughty like Gabriele d’Annunzio. I’d mix that up with the reigning Hutu warlord and tease him all night with a real ruler like Queen Elizabeth R. I’m at the head, speechless.
I would serve Ossobuco Romano accompanied by Truffled Mashed Potatoes, Green Beans Bolognese, a bitter salad and a selection of cheeses. Dessert would be my Bread Pudding with Green Apples in Calvados – heavy cream and Calvados to attend, of course. Drinking until dawn. This is a sleep-over.
*Kate Mulgrew, photographed in New York City by Danielle Kosann