From being a fresh-faced Minnesota blonde waiting tables at a Westchester Starbucks to portraying a bald, tough, and tattooed inmate in Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, New Rochelle resident Francesca Curran has experienced a huge transformation in the past year. We recently chatted with Curran for an article in our August print issue, but if you found yourself wanting to know more about the woman behind OITNB’s Skinhead Helen, here is the full, web-exclusive Q&A.
Where are you from originally and when did you first relocate to Westchester?
I am a native Minnesotan; born and raised in Eden Prairie. I lived there until about the end of high school. I graduated from the American Musical and Dramatics Academy in the City, and then I moved with my fiancé to New Rochelle. That was in 2014.
Tell us a little more about your training.
I attended The American Musical and Dramatics Academy in New York City. It’s a conservatory, and I attended the three-year integrated program, so I studied musical theater, dance, and acting all at once. Where other students would focus more on one, I was studying all three. It was eight hours of dancing a day, and then acting classes. It was the most rigorous, insane experience. Really emotionally stressful acting classes, but the best training I could have ever imagined.
Your alma mater cranked out folks like Jason Derulo, right?
Yes; there’s definitely some serious talent from that school. And there was another alumna who also worked on Orange Is the New Black during season one.
It might’ve been Madeline Brewer (Tricia).
Yep, that’s the one.
Is OITNB your first major movie or television work?
It is. It’s my first television show. This part came as a surprise not only to my agent but also to myself. I was waiting tables when my agent calls me, saying he’s sending my information in for this role tomorrow morning for Orange Is the New Black. I took a look at my e-mail, and I go and I read the thing, and I read the breakdown from the website for Skinhead Helen; she’s in her early 30s, tough, tattoos, and doesn’t want to be messed with. So, I call my agent back, and I’m like, “Christian, this must be a mistake; you sent me the wrong information.” But he replied, “No, honey. You are going in for this role.” I said, “Are you on drugs?” And he just said, “Nope; you’re going in tomorrow.” So, I did. At the time, I had flowing blond hair, so I slicked it back as much as possible to give the illusion that I didn’t have as much hair and looked more badass. And I wore ripped jeans and a ripped shirt and construction boots, and I went in.
Did you have to read multiple times before being informed that you got the role?
We had a chat over video first, with the casting person. The second time I went in and read once. It was probably the fastest audition of my life, and they gave me feedback right away, and that was really awesome. And two days later, I got a call from them, and they said, “Can you come in tomorrow? We’re shaving your head.” And I said, “Absolutely!”
So basically, you read once, and they called you to come in two days later, So they can shave your head.
Hair comes back; this opportunity does not, my friend.
What had you been doing as gainful employment prior to your new job on TV?
I was working at Starbucks, waiting tables. I had been working 40 hours a week there. When I got the audition, I got the day off for it. I was kind of at a low point, if I’m to be totally honest. I had just graduated, and we all thought we were these great actors. I’d go to an audition, and there are 1,000 other girls just like me who can act just as well. There is so much competition, but when you get something like this, it is such a confidence booster.
How many of the season’s 13 episodes did you apper in?
I came in at episode 6 and went through to [episode] 13. My first day on set was Aug. 28, , and we wrapped on Dec. 8. Every episode varied, some episodes got done in seven days, and others were 11 days. You know what? We broke the record for Netflix’s filming days. We had one scene that took 21 hours of filming during episode 12; that’s a Netflix series record!
You’re at a pivotal crossroads right now. Most of the people I’ve talked to have been established and very used to the fame. The transition between private citizen and public citizen has already begun.
On Friday, when the season was dropped, I was with my family, and Twitter was blowing up with people commenting about Skinhead Helen. And to my surprise, the fans are finding it more comedic, which is a good thing. And of course, you’re going to get hate mail when you’re playing a white supremacist; I knew what I was getting into, though, but I also know it’s acting. And my [castmates] warned me about that, too, saying some fans don’t know how to distinguish between what you’re saying in real life and what you’re saying onscreen. I got a few hate letters, but the majority was a lot of positive feedback on social media. In person though, I think getting recognized will take some time, because I’m so different from my character in real life. I’m so feminine and girly; I like to wear makeup and jewelry. Skinhead Helen is the complete opposite from me. So right now I’m not recognizable, especially since my hair has grown back during the hiatus. I think when anyone is looking for me; they’re looking for a bald head.
Are any of Helen’s tattoos real? How many does she have?
Nope, none. I have no tattoos. She has between 10 and 12 characters.
Were these put on randomly, or did some member of the production crew get tasked with deciding each tattoo and its backstory?
On my hair and makeup trial, during the first day I was on set they had already figured that all out. I have a few solid people who are very dedicated to putting those tattoos on everyday. It was a very collaborative process between the writing team and hair and makeup. Every single tattoo I have is very clear, distinct, and individually important. They talked me through each one and I did private research on every one of them; I wanted to know why I had it, and what it means for me.
Are there any that Helen is emotionally attached to?
Yes, it’s the one on her neck that reads “100%”— meaning, 100 percent Aryan. I’m told that status means, like, everything to white supremacists.
Did you make any other physical changes for the role?
I did gain weight in the process, but that was more of a choice on my part. When I read that she was buff, I started lifting weights and changed my diet a little bit. When I’m done with the role, I can lose it again, but I felt it was something I had to do for the role, because I looked too feminine.
Do you know what Helen misses most about her life on the outside?
I’d say it’s getting away with shit, violence, the sneakiness of being with her sisters in the night and getting into fights. In season four she was a swimmer, which I think is hilarious. Like how did she get to that point? We don’t know.
Are you telling me Helen gets a backstory?
I really hope so.
If Helen could sneak in one piece of contraband, what do you think she’d sneak in?
An iPad. Helen loves music. Helen already makes her own weapons, so protection is not an issue for her. She also knows how to fight and take care of herself. And what’s crazy about being in a correctional facility is taking for granted the things we love; music, the food we eat, and the freedoms of the small things.
By the way, are any of the OITNB locations real, or are they all soundstage sets?
Any exterior for the Litchfield is actually an abandoned children’s psychiatric hospital in Rockland County Children’s Psychiatric Center, in Nyack. All of the interiors are soundstages in Astoria. The abandoned hospital was the creepiest place I’ve ever been to in my life.
All 13 season-four episodes of Orange Is the New Black are currently available on Netflix. Season Five is scheduled to air June 2017.