On August 17, 2015, a fresh-faced Minnesota blonde with hazel eyes and a bright smile was waiting tables at Starbucks on Palmer Avenue in Larchmont. Not 10 days later, she was as bald as a billiard ball and in Astoria, Queens, shooting scenes as part of her new job on one of TV’s hottest shows, the Netflix Original Series Orange Is the New Black. As Skinhead Helen, New Rochelle resident Francesca Curran has traded in Caffè Mistos and paninis for cafeterias and prison slop… and she wouldn’t have it any other way. We recently sat down with the 22-year-old up-and-comer to see how she’s managing the transition and to get an insider’s look at life in Litchfield Prison.
Do you think your character, Skinhead Helen, is more of a Piper girl or Alex girl?
Wow, that’s a good one. Definitely Alex. The whole sassy, edgy, rocker-girl thing… that would definitely be more Helen’s type. I don’t think that Helen really rolls that way, but at Litchfield, you never know! [Laughs.]
Which inmate do you think would be the worst enemy to have right now?
Hmmm… at this point, I think Maria [portrayed by Jessica Pimentel] is looking really badass and really dangerous. I know my character is tough and postures like she’s afraid of nothing, but deep down, I think Maria terrifies Helen.
Conversely, who do you think is the best ally to have in Litchfield?
Among the inmates, I’d say probably Red. Not only does she really know how to work that system better than anybody else, she’s got eyes in the back of her head.
Any castmates in particular who reached out the most to make you feel comfortable?
I’d say Emma Myles [Leanne] and Julie Lake [Angie]. They were pivotal in showing me the ropes and making me comfortable on-set. Also, Dascha [Polanco, who plays Daya], who hugged me and said “You’re part of the family now; I want you to know that.”
Where is the show filmed?
All interiors of Litchfield are at the Netflix studios in Astoria. The Litchfield exteriors are shot at Rockland County Children’s Psychiatric Center in Nyack. The creepiest place I’ve ever been to in my life.
As with many skinheads, your character is pretty tatted up. How many tattoos does Helen have?
Helen has at least 10 tattoos, and each has a very specific meaning to her.
Is there one that’s most cherished by her?
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.
What item would Helen most like to sneak into Litchfield?
Other than the hair and tats, what else do you change for the role?
First, I bulked up a lot, to look tougher and stronger. Also, [laughs] the makeup department messes up my teeth, to make them nastier.
Any chance we’ll be seeing more of Helen in season five?
As you know, I can’t say too much about storylines and such, but it’s safe to say that Helen will be seeing more action next season.
All 13 season-four episodes of Orange Is the New Black are currently available on Netflix. Season Five is scheduled to air June 2017.
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