“Bless her heart, she’s just misunderstood,” Lorraine Toussaint said facetiously when describing her Orange Is the New Black character, Vee Parker, a violent sociopath disguised as a drug dealer. “That was my running joke about Vee when people would try to label her. I stood very firmly on Oh, she’s just really misunderstood. Yeah, she’s missing a few critical components.”
Vee, a new addition to Litchfield Penitentiary on the second season of Jenji Kohan’s hit drama, immediately began terrorizing the inmates and disrupting the order even before she received her orange scrubs. The controlling, manipulative, and downright evil character spent Season 2 taking advantage of Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren (Uzo Aduba), alienating Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), and competing with Galina “Red” Reznikov (Kate Mulgrew) in an attempt to gain the keys to the wire-encased cement block castle.
“She’s just really quite dreadful,” Toussaint said about Vee. “It was interesting, really interesting, living in her skin for the period in which I did, and I’m glad to be back to myself.”
Toussaint is the antithesis of Vee, or her “shadow self,” as she called her. “I gave my shadow self keys to the car for six months and I don’t usually let her drive; no one should let our shadow selves drive the car all the time, but we certainly should be aware of the shadow self within us,” Toussaint said. In fact, when Toussaint answered the phone the Monday after her successful Orange Is the New Black season launched, she was making tea (“I can’t start my day without it,” she said) and describing how she unwinds from such an intense character with meditation. It is a far cry from her malevolent alter ego on the Netflix series.
Vee is first introduced in a flashback, meeting then 11-year old foster kid Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson (Teeka Duplessis, taking over for Danielle Brooks) over a snow cone. “I’ll be keeping my eye on you, taystee girl,” Vee says to the young girl, thus coining her iconic nickname. Even at her young age, Taystee is acutely aware of Vee’s bad behavior, calling her out for being a drug dealer. But as Taystee continues to grow up in miserable group homes, Vee remains in her rear view. Years after their first encounter, Taystee (Brooks) finally takes Vee’s advice to “make her own forever family” rather than wait for one to come along, and moves in with Vee, entering her home and her stronghold grip. And Vee’s history with Taystee helps her to gain a following in the prison quickly. Vee is able to lure Taystee back to her — she was upset that Vee was nowhere to be found when she was released from Litchfield the year prior — with just a simple piece of funfetti cake. Black Cindy (Adrienne Moore) and Janae Watson (Vicky Jeudy) aren’t far behind. And Crazy Eyes, often a loner, is taken under Vee’s wing, and the extended hand is all Crazy Eyes needs to go to great lengths, even if it means sacrificing herself, to protect her guardian.
And while the complex and viciously wicked character was created by Orange’s creator Jenji Kohan, when hair, wardrobe, and makeup takes only eight minutes, “what’s left is an opportunity to be extraordinarily bare and truthful in the creation of a character,” said Toussaint. And it was that chance that really attracted Toussaint, perhaps best known for her role opposite Annie Potts on the 1998 to 2002 Lifetime drama Any Day Now, to Vee.
“Though I look a certain way and I sound a certain way, there’s a lot of wacky people running around inside of me, inside of my head screaming to get out and so given the opportunity, oh my gosh, I could have a really wacky character party and Vee is just the first of many,” she said. Also, throughout her distinguished career, Toussaint has played a lot of roles on the right side of the law: judges, attorneys, police captains, and doctors. “It was kind of time to balance that scale, don’t you think?” she said.
But when Toussaint signed on to play Vee, she had a very different perception of the character than who she ended up being. It wasn’t until an hour and a half before Toussaint shot her first scene for the show that Kohan finally talked to her about Vee. Kohan told Toussaint, “Oh by the way, she’s a psychopath,” she recalled. Toussaint was taken aback. “I remember getting a cold sweat and thinking, ‘Ohhhh, OK! Let’s make some adjustments,” she said. And while Toussaint spent a lot of time — after that first day of filming — learning the inner workings of a maniac, Vee continued to surprise her. “I’d get through a scene or be in the middle of a scene and a little part of my brain would be going, Oh wow, this is interesting. Hmm, look at what Vee is doing and look at how Vee — oh wow, oh that’s scary, ooooh, OK, keep going!’” she said enthusiastically.
Part of that shock is a testament to Vee’s inherent craziness but it’s also due to Toussaint getting to know Vee the same way viewers did: one episode at a time. “I intentionally wouldn’t read scripts ahead of time because part of the fun of Vee was her volatility and ability to change on a dime,” she said, “You’re going in one direction and suddenly being slammed in another direction.”
There was no better example this season of Vee’s ability to flip a switch than her relationship with Crazy Eyes. Crazy Eyes, whom Vee calls “her heroine,” forms a very close attachment to Vee, viewing her in a matriarchal light. Vee builds up Crazy Eyes’ confidence, giving her a new hairstyle, telling her how special she is and encouraging her to act with more aggression. In return, Crazy Eyes does anything Vee asks, even pouring water on a terminal cancer patient’s tray to make her move seats… or brutally beating a former friend and ally in a shower stall.
Toussaint said that despite Vee’s decision to sacrifice Crazy Eyes in order to save her own skin, Vee genuinely cared for the troubled inmate. “Up until that episode, [Crazy Eyes] was important, continues to be important, to Vee, but important how,” Toussaint explained. “You can’t think linear with Vee; you can’t think that she values a person and therefore won’t throw them under the bus. Oftentimes, people are valued to be thrown under the bus or not.”
That behavior seems consistent with Vee’s psychotic tendencies throughout Season 2. R.J. (Eric D. Hill Jr.) was important to Vee, both financially and romantically, until he put her in a compromising position, and then she had no issue with having him killed. “From Vee’s point of view, she’s provided a home and takes care of her children,” said Toussaint. “And her children are supposed to take care of her and when they don’t, she will eat them.”
The only character that appeared to be able to escape Vee’s terminal velocity was Taystee. When Taystee realigns with Poussey and they team up with Black Cindy and Watson to free Crazy Eyes and expose Vee, it would seem only too characteristic of Vee to finally turn on Taystee. But instead, she flees the prison. “I think Vee doesn’t even know why she does that,” admitted Toussaint. “Me, Lorraine, I think to the extent that Vee can love, she loves Taystee, more than almost anyone she’s ever known. Does she have the capacity to hurt her? Yes, she does. I think she has the capacity to hurt anything and everything. But she chooses not to and I’m not even sure why.”
Another mystery swirling around Vee is her backstory. While viewers see Vee in Taystee flashbacks and Red flashbacks, with the exception of the night R.J. died, her own story is never given screen time, and perhaps never will. Toussaint said that what landed Vee back in jail was actually filmed but never aired, a purposeful tactic on Kohan’s part to continue to haunt viewers by withholding the fact that they don’t know how truly malicious Vee has been. Toussaint hinted that it had to do with a big street bust and that it’s written as drug related in the jail books when she is brought in. But when pushed to give any more details about Vee’s past, Toussaint wouldn’t budge. “That’s intentional,” she said, and “one of the things that’s probably more disturbing about this character for the audience, because what’s very satisfying is getting to know these characters.”
Over the course of the last two seasons, almost every character at Litchfield has been given flashback scenes about their past and even if viewers are still unaware of the exact crime that landed each woman behind bars, these episodes offer some color to their personalities that helps explain why they act a certain way. With Vee, that opportunity is never given to the audience. And that lack of information was just as troubling for Toussaint as she stepped into Vee’s combat boots as it was for viewers watching her, metaphorically and physically, march those boots on top of her victims.
“The first thing I look for in a character, when I look backwards into finding them, is what is the inclination, what made them who they are, what is that moment where things went wrong, where they were hurt or wounded or broken and how deeply do I bury that in the playing of that character, how much of that do I let the audience peek through and see. But with Vee, pretty much those windows were blacked out,” Toussaint said, laughing. It’s discomfiting to not know where this madwoman went off the deep end, Toussaint acknowledged, but it’s a necessary element to concocting such a terrifying character.
Toussaint said she found Vee’s most terrifying scenes on screen to be the ones when she was saying nothing, rather standing on the edges observing. Those moments — when Vee would stand in the corner of the cafeteria watching the other inmates interact or dance, or watching the commotion in the kitchen — she found to be the most interesting, because Vee is focusing on her next move but no one is aware of what she is doing. “She’s moving the pieces on the board, repositioning the players,” said Toussaint. “I think [Vee’s] quiet moments were my favorite because that’s when she’s most dangerous.”
And while the quiet scenes were the most mentally exhausting, with her brain moving a mile a minute, the physical scenes were just as draining as they looked. The scene where Red and Vee fight in the storm was Toussaint’s least favorite to film. If Vee is viewed as a lion, Toussaint said, Red is a bear, and so the match was equal and fair but no less difficult. “I think it took Vee to the brink to bring her down and it cost Vee to bring her down in a way that it didn’t cost any of the other characters,” Toussaint said. And while the scene was rough for Vee and Red, it was even more so for Toussaint and Mulgrew. Those few minutes on screen took hours to get right. Toussaint remembers the night being cold and wet, and the attacks on each other being real and full of force. “We don’t fake that, so to really live in that level of raw animal brain for that length of time was really difficult.”
But Toussaint also attributed her ability to get so dark, a task she excelled at, to her castmates. Perhaps drawing inspiration from the superstitious tradition held by bank robber Miss Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat) during heists, the cast would hug before and after a difficult scene, allowing for a safe space. Toussaint recalled that, even after the brutal fight scene with Red, the two exhausted actors made sure to hug before leaving the set.
Toussaint’s chilling portrayal of Vee in Season 2 is already a standout performance for 2014, a sociopathic inmate whose adept manipulation is not easily shaken off by the audience after finishing this season of Orange Is the New Black. Toussaint, however, acknowledged that she too is somewhat horrified by the dangerous Litchfield drug kingpin.
“I remember when I was finished with Vee, I thought, “Oh, I don’t know if I could take Vee in one weekend,” said Toussaint. “That’s a lot of Vee in a short space of time!”