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Orange Is the New Black's Jolene Purdy on Embracing Her Asian Heritage and That Donnie Darko Meme

<em>Orange Is the New Black</em>'s Jolene Purdy on Embracing Her Asian Heritage and That <em>Donnie Darko</em> Meme
Kyleen James
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If you've binge-watched Orange Is the New Black, you're well aware that Litchfield's transformation into a for-profit prison resulted in serious overcrowding, and, therefore, plenty of new blood. This season, viewers meet Stephanie Hapakuka (pronounced "hapa-kook-uh"), played by Jolene Purdy of Donnie Darko fame. Below, she talked to InStyle about joining the cast, the challenges of being mixed-race, and how she envisions her character's backstory.

The cast of Orange Is the New Black is extremely close-knit. How did they welcome you to set? Were there any hazing rituals?

They made fun of my name a lot and sang "Jolene" by Dolly Parton. No one could remember "Hapakuka." People would mispronounce it, so they made a song about itinstead of "Happy Birthday to you," it was "Hapakuka to you." Kimiko Glenn got the brunt of it before, so she was happy when I came on board.

I'm kind of surprised that Stephanie and Soso didn't powerbond as the resident half-Asians of Litchfield.

I really want to have a scene with her! I think they would be friends. When you're in the hapa club, you just know.

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The show is widely recognized for its diversity. Considering Hollywood's Asian problem, how does it feel to play a leading character that proudly identifies as half-Asian, as opposed to an ambiguous mixed-race ethnicity?

I'm half-Japanese, but my family is from Hawaii. The other half is German, Jewish, and Irish. Being mixed, I grew with everyone asking, "What are you?" In the scene where they're doing the panty raid, the guard says, "Oh, you're interesting, what are you?" It was so gross when we were taping it, but that's real lifeat least for me. I'm an "other" for sure. It was empowering to put that in a show that's watched by so many people. Asians tend to be a little more passive with things, so I love that [OITNB creator] Jenji [Kohan] brought that out, because it's rarely talked about.

Did you do any prison-related research before you started filming?

I learned a lot on set. They give you these welcome packages based on what real prisoners get. It's a toothbrush and an all-in-one shampoo/conditioner/body wash/lotion in a travel-size bottle, a roll of toilet paper, and a pillow and blanket. That's what you get until you have money in your commissary to buy what you need. My hair was always down because I didn't have enough money for a hair tie. If you see inmates with their hair up, that means they have family who loves them. Or jobs.

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Speaking of hair, what's the deal with Stephanie's highlights?

That was an accident! My hairstylist used a different toner, and it did not take to my hair well. I'm still trying to get it out.

Getting a backstory is an important rite of passage for every character. What do you think Stephanie's will be?

I think Stephanie is really good inside, so she likely did something awful for a good reason. There are a lot of Mormons in Hawaii, so maybe she got wrapped up in that and her only way to get her family out was to kill someone, but it was really to protect them.

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Was there a scene this season that was particularly challenging to film?

In one scene, I have to drop my pants. Being bigger and dealing with body image issues, that felt very therapeuticespecially because it was about racial profiling. It was great to enter that space and address how I actually feel personally.

OITNB attracts some rabid fans, as you saw with the hilarious Donnie Darko meme that circulated around the Internet [Ed. note: Purdy starred alongside Jake Gyllenhaal in the 2001 film]. Was that your first taste of it?

That's how I found out what a meme was! Someone sent it to me, then someone else sent it to me. I just kept getting the same picture from everyone on every kind of social media site. I don't get technology.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

 
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