[ON the SCREEN]: Marsha Stephanie Blake: A New Sheriff In Town
It was such an amazing opportunity to be able to sit and chat with Marsha S. Blake about a number of things, one of the biggest obviously being Orange is the new Black. The show has done so well in it's first two seasons on Netflix, and now with the recent launching of the third season, list if new characters were introduced.
Litchfield doesn't quite know just what they're in for with Berdie Rogers. Without question, she has a no nonsense type of demeanor that you expect to see in a prison system, yet, that same personality is causing her to blend a little more than what her fellow corrections officers expect, or want to see for that matter. She definitely gets the immediate gratification she's in search of, which is the respect of the many prisoners taking part in her drama classes, and she's seemingly making the difference that she set out for, but along the way, she's unknowingly planting the seed that land her back on the outside of the prison walls. It all gets pretty deep, as we know OITNB to be.
In our two-part exclusive, Marsha gives us the full rundown on Berdie, and why although she's working hard to make a difference, she's still having such difficulty getting that across to her peers. Part one is all about Orange is the New Black! In part two, which will run in our upcoming issue of UGDigital, hitting digital newsstands July 25, 2015, we'll get to know about the other roles and projects that Marsha is involved in. She has been working at her craft for more than ten years now, and finally, the demand is beginning to catch up with her work. She has her hand in a variety of projects, including Happyish, and Our Nation.
For now, take a look at part one!
Urban Grandstand Digital: It's such an honor to talk to you today. How are you?
Marsha S. Blake: I’m great
Urban Grandstand Digital: This season is really good. I’m actually sitting here watching the show right now. I find myself rewinding back, and playing the episodes over again to really get to the grit of what’s going on. I was always a fan, but there’s just something that your character brings to the show, and I’m just trying to figure it all out.
Marsha S. Blake: Ok, when you figure it out, let me know (laughing)
Marsha S. Blake: Right. What I see is a woman who’s really trying to make a difference in that system, but you have many who don’t see it, or don’t believe that you’re genuine. Why do they feel this way?
Marsh S. Blake: I liken it to working in the education system. Sometimes I go in and I’m a teaching artist in the high schools, or junior high schools. This is why Birdie relates to a lot of people. I would go into these schools, working for this company called the Shakespeare Society, and the teachers would contact me because they were having difficulties teaching Shakespeare to their students. To facilitate the learning through doing, as opposed to just reading. It’s a difficult thing to just read. So we bring in some actors, and all of a sudden they are interested. It works miracles. What I notice when I go to these schools is there’s a malaise, and I’m not bashing teachers at all because I have an incredible amount of respect for teachers, like more than any other profession. After a certain amount of time, the bureaucracy of what you’re dealing with beats you down, and you become a part of the system because no one survives. I notice the older teachers who had been there for a while, even though they had so much drive at the beginning of their careers, they lose it. It’s not their fault. You get it. The minute you walk in, the security starts yelling at the kids, then go down the hall and the principal is yelling, and everything trickles down. The teachers literally are the next in line. The bottom of the totem pole are the kids. Then it’s the teachers, then the administration, and then superintendents. Everybody is being yelled at for whatever reason, and the teachers; on top of being yelled at, or being told no to doing shakespeare, or bringing actors in, or the kids cursing…. we went through that, and I’m like there’s lots of cursing in shakespeare, and I’m not telling these kids they can’t curse. If it facilitates the learning, I don’t care if they say fuck. I don’t care if they chew gum. I understand the rules as to why they don’t want gum everywhere, but I’m in there once a week. If they’re listening to me and chewing gum, I just care that they’re listening to me. I can see how I would get frustrated week after week. Imagine year after year of dealing with that and being admonished for trying to get the learning in however it happens. You would eventually not be able to handle it. I think what happens with Birdie, who know’s what’s going to happen because she did get fired (laughing). But Healy knows the system. That’s why he survived. He’s up in there, knows the system, and he’s an older guy. He’s like if you want to come in here with your new ideas that’s great, but this is what works.
Urban Grandstand Digital: I thought it was funny how you were setting up the drama class, and he immediately came in with counts to you having a good turnout.
Marsha S. Blake: Like already, before I had a chance to start, he didn’t think it would work.
Urban Grandstand Digital: And Birdie developed friendships almost immediately with the inmates.
Marsha S. Blake: I think that’s what Healy doesn’t like either. I see that in the schools too. You come in, you’re in your cute clothes, and the teachers are like great, but you know who’s left with them when you’re gone? I am. You can be as chill with them and be their best friend all you want, but at the end of the day I’m left with them. Healy gets a bad rap because he’s not a sympathetic character. I understand why he would be resentful. Immediately, I’m friends with the girls, but I’m a black woman. Of course they’re going to relate to me immediately. It’s not his fault. He tries, and I think he does care about the women, but like I said, you get bogged down by the bureaucracy, and eventually you just feel like you’re trying to survive.
Urban Grandstand Digital: You feel like it’s not going anywhere.
Marsha S. Blake: Exactly, and you’ve seen it not go anywhere for years. Birdie is optimistic, but she could be Healy in fifteen years. It would be awesome if you could do that for fifteen years and still have that enthusiasm, but the system makes it impossible.
Urban Grandstand Digital: Were you alway a fan to the show before becoming involved?
Marsha S. Blake: I was, but I had not watched it, which sounds ridiculous (laughing). I was though, because I knew a lot of the women. Danielle (Taystee), literally, I called her. I knew her because I did a play with friends of her, and she had come to see the play a bunch of times. We used to call her our number one fan because she came to see our play every week. Then we adopted her and told her now she was in the “Hurt Village” camp, because she showed up every week. I called her to see if she would watch this audition I had, and that’s who she was to me before she was Taystee. So, I was a fan because I love her and am so proud of her. I know Maria Dizzia, who plays Piper’s best friend. She’s one of my best friends through graduate school. I knew so many of the women already. Uzo and I had friends in common. I would hear about the show, but I had two kids, so to sit down and watch a show is a big deal to me. It takes a lot of time that I don’t have.
Urban Grandstand Digital: Clearly, there’s a huge benefit to this show being on Netflix because it’s limitless in the idea that you can do more than network television allows, but on the flip side, you get the whole season at one time, and when you have a lot going on, it’s easy to put it off and life can prevent you from coming back. I get wrapped up in that because I have so many things going on. I had to go backwards and watch the previous episodes again to catch up.
Marsha S. Blake. I think what’s great about it on Netflix is also what’s not great about it, in an interesting way, especially if you have a busy life. it’s all there and you can literally watch for two days and be all done. But also still, in the middle of filming, I had to go back and watch because I felt like I needed the back story. I told myself I would watch one episode per night. That’s what I could dedicate and still function with my life, go shoot, have auditions, and take care of my kids. I would inevitably watch three episodes and it’s 3 o’clock in the morning. It’s so well written, and it makes you want to keep watching. That’s what took me so long. That actually happened with Jenji’s other show Weeds. I remember one summer just watching Weeds, and wondering where did my summer go.
Urban Grandstand Digital: It’ll definitely eat up a lot of time.
Marsha S. Blake: It’s great. It’s wonderful and so well written. There were other things you could be doing, but you have to commit to it. And once you commit, it’s so wonderful.
Urban Grandstand Digital: it’s weird because I had gotten to episode 7, and I almost felt like i had missed something, so I started over about three times and watched again. I’m back to the third episode again. I really love your character though. What else is there to expect with your character?
Marsha S. Blake: I have no info in terms of casting, like literally, they keep it as closed-lipped as they can because they’re scared people will leak it. What I can say, with getting frustrated and the bureaucracy working against the things you’re trying to do, we see some of that happening. Resentment from Healy, and people being confused because it is a prison, and here I am with my drama class, and there’s a few comments like, what does she think she’s doing…a fucking drama class? So being misunderstood inn a way because I see an end goal, and I think I’m doing some good but not necessarily everyone agrees with it.
Urban Grandstand Digital: It depicts real life though, because with a lot that you do, people may not feel like you’re being genuine.
Marsha S. Blake: That’s in any office. You come in with a certain level of enthusiasm, and you leave with a better understanding of how the system works. You go to your new job with a different level of enthusiasm. Each one takes a little bit out of you. It’s the formidable one who can survive when the system is constantly beating you down. It’s a very strong person that can maintain a certain level of engagement.