Shaving her head and sitting through countless hours of tattoo application to play the role of an aggressive white supremacist, it goes without saying that Francesca Curran is dedicated to her craft.
Widely known for her iconic role as “Skinhead” Helen on the Netflix series, “Orange Is The New Black” (OITNB), Curran started out as a theater performer shortly after graduating from The American Musical and Dramatics Academy in New York City, where she trained in musical theatre.
Born in Minnesota, Curran had a surprisingly easy time adapting to city life. She always knew she belonged in Manhattan, and used her eccentricities as her platform to land roles in the industry.
Whereas most performers would go crazy at the thought of a three-hour hair and makeup transformation into character, Curran takes it in stride and even pokes fun at the drastic differences between herself and Helen on her Instagram, @Francesca_Curran. Avid fans of the show have a hard time recognizing Curran when she’s out with the rest of the OITNB cast.
We had the opportunity to chat with Curran to discover what it’s like to be an undercover Netflix superstar.
What is your favorite part about playing “Skinhead Helen” on “Orange Is The New Black”?
It’s that it is completely opposite from who I am in real life—it’s such a 180. So to be able to go on set and shed everything going on in my life and either utilize whatever anger I’m bringing from the outside world—you know, whatever small thing it may be, maybe my train was running late or whatever—and to channel it and bring it into the character is amazing. I’m so super outgoing and feminine in real life, so it’s a challenge as an actor but also an incredible opportunity.
How do you feel the character inspires audiences to watch the show?
I think that I give people a good reason to hate somebody; it’s always fun to play the hated character. In real life, the social media response has been amazing so I know that there is a separation and a distinction of the actor and the character. That has made it really easy, and I’m able to cope with that. “Orange” does an amazing job at educating because it deals with white supremacy. I think it’s very educational to bring something that we’re seeing in the world and use it as an opportunity for people to learn who these people are, how they feel, and what they think.
What is the biggest challenge about playing Helen?
For me it’s that we have so much fun on set, and then having to go from laughing with the girls, because we have become so close, to being so aggressive. It’s two extremes. We really enjoy ourselves and we have a good time. It’s a very lighthearted set. So then to go straight into combat scenes, I just have to take a minute and kind of turn that off and get into the zone. I would say that’s very challenging.
How do you feel about having to alter your appearance so much for this role?
Oh my gosh! It was crazy at the beginning. First of all, I did not expect to land this role because I figured, “look at all the actors in New York and LA.” Not that I wasn’t confident in myself, but I just thought this was a long shot. It’s my first TV show and I’ve been known as a theater actor, but never as a screen actor, so I figured this is a good experience. I’ll be able to meet people, get in the room, make some connections, and I’ll just try my best, and I’ll just leave it in the room.
At the end of my audition, they said, “Can you please look into the camera and say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ are you willing to shave your head?” I’m like “Yeah, sure! Why not!” thinking what is there to lose? Then, two days later, they called and said, “Can you come in tomorrow; you have the role and we’re shaving your head tomorrow.” And I was a newlywed—my poor husband—but thank God we were married before. Could you imagine going on dates?! So it was definitely tough.
At the beginning, I was in such shock, because it happened so quickly that I didn’t really think much of it. But now it’s been almost two years, going on three. It’s difficult; I have good and bad days, but I try to change it up and have fun with it. I wear wigs and dye my hair when I’m trying to go a little more edgy because I’m not edgy at all. So to have a little pixie [cut], I’m like, “WOOO!”
Do you see a big difference between theater and acting for TV? Do you prefer one to the other?
That’s a good question. Now that I’ve been bitten by the TV bug, I just like the life on set too much. Theater is so intense, not to say that this isn’t, but theater is eight shows a week. It’s physically draining. “Orange” is tiring too, though, because I’m doing a lot of combat. I hope to continue with the Netflix family, because it’s amazing and now I know everybody and we’re so tight. Then, hopefully, to go onto movies and other TV shows because I can’t stay in prison forever! I wish I had a life sentence. Maybe, who knows, we’ll find out. It’s good for an actor to have job security.
Was it difficult adjusting to life in New York City after moving from Minnesota?
Yes! It was crazy…cornfields to Manhattan. I mean, it’s not as rural as people think. Everyone is like, “Oh Minnesota, where’s that?” but I wasn’t as removed. I grew up on a golf course— [it was a] very country club life—and I always thought to myself, “You know, I am a Manhattan girl.” I can’t just sit on the back porch and sip lemonade all day. I want to move, I want to see traffic, I want to go with the flow. But it was a huge wake-up call because I graduated high school and I applied to a few liberal arts schools but I always knew I wanted to go to a conservatory. So I went, I came here, and right away I was like, “Wow! I know this is where I want to be.”
My whole life I heard, “Oh you’re a fish out of water.” I went to a small Catholic high school, and nobody could relate to me saying, “Oh, she’s so dramatic and over the top.” Or, “Oh, look how she dresses.” And I said, “No, this is me!” I needed to be in Manhattan where nobody looks at you twice on the street. It’s refreshing. I loved Minnesota and I had the best childhood, but I always felt drawn to New York. It’s a different life.
Had your fantastic acting career not taken off, what was your backup plan?
I always wanted to be a jewelry designer. I have hundreds of sketches. But I can’t actually make them. I have some little hooks and rings, but the stuff that I would want to do is really intense. It’s always been a dream of mine for a long time. So I don’t know, maybe that could happen down the line—or maybe on my six-month vacation from the show I could get going with that.
BELLA’s tagline is “Beauty defined by you,” so one of our staple questions is, “How do you define beauty?”
Confidence. I’ve seen women on the street, and when they look like they know what they’re doing, you’re like, “Wow, that’s beautiful.” [It’s] when you are rocking what you have going on and you feel beautiful. I put stuff on and I commit to it. It’s a lot going on but I’m cool with it. It’s seeing just the way a woman holds herself, and believes in herself, and knows, “I look good no matter what.”
What are some of your dreams and goals for the future?
I’m back in season six, which is really good! It’s a prison show, so it can go either way. As an actor, everyone knows there is no job security, especially with a prison show. It’s not like “General Hospital” or “Modern Family.” There’s a lot of risk. Especially because I’m such an aggressive character, I’m always in the line of fire. I could take someone, or they could take me out! Not to say that doesn’t happen, because I haven’t seen the script. There are some things that are in the works, but I won’t say anything yet. I’m also doing a lot of fashion stuff… I wouldn’t say modeling, but street wear and blogger style just because I enjoy it.
What was the best advice you’ve ever received?
It’s never above an actor to ask questions. Especially since this was my first TV show—I was so scared. All these women I’ve grown up with as idols that I’ve seen on “That ‘70s Show” and movies—literally lying in bed as a teenager watching Taylor Schilling act with Zac Efron and thinking, “Oh my gosh! I want to do this!” Then I’m on set, and doing one of my first scenes with her was insane. And I remember talking to a lot of the women like Uzo Aduba, Emma Myles, who plays one of the meth-heads, and Julie [Lake], and getting really close to all them and they just said to me, “It’s your first time; don’t be nervous, but never be afraid to ask questions.” Look at Uzo, she’s winning all these awards and she’s always saying, “Excuse me, just a question.” It makes you realize that it’s okay. You’re never too cool. You have to remember that because once you think you’re too cool, you’re not.
Additional reporting by Amanda Manfredi