How would you describe yourself as a teen?
I was shy, I didn’t have very many friends, and I felt totally unattractive to boys. I got made fun of for my height—I was 5 foot 7 at age 12. That young girl eating lunch alone in the choir room has stuck with me. I have empathy for anybody who is perceived as “other.”
Can you remember a young heartbreak?
The first time I really liked someone, I got no acknowledgement in return. One night, I thought we finally had a connection, but then he never talked to me again. It was crushing.
Do you think that’s a necessary experience to endure?
If I have a child, I would never want him or her to go through that pain, but the reality is that it helps you understand life better. Every time I’ve left a relationship, I’ve found new boldness.
Being in the spotlight, do you struggle with insecurity?
I’m often paralyzed by how I think other people perceive me.
How do you cope?
Therapy has helped, as has meditation. I practice Transcendental Meditation and insight meditation, which is simply being quiet and mindful. If I ground myself and pay attention to what’s happening inside my body, I’ve got a fighting chance to start the day not consumed by other people’s ideas of who I am. I also have an extraordinary group of girlfriends, and I invest a lot of energy in my female friendships.
OITNB has a mostly female cast—do you find strength in that sisterhood?
There’s a sense of safety on our set that I’ve never experienced before because we don’t feel pressure to take on stereotypical gender roles. I didn’t realize how straitjacketed I’d felt on other sets until I came to this one.
What’s your greatest strength?
I have optimism that can translate into fearlessness, which sometimes gets me in trouble, but I love that about myself. It’s like having an invisible bucking bronco inside that keeps on going.
What would you say to a high school girl who is having lunch by herself in the choir room?
You’re the person I’ll want to be having lunch with when you move to New York in a few years. There’s a whole world of people who have had that experience. It’s an underground secret society of music-room lunch eaters. Be brave. It will change.
With local chapters around the country (and a vibrant online community), I Am That Girl is an empowering group that improves the way girls treat themselves—and one another. Sponsor a girl in your community by signing up at iamthatgirl.com.