Emma Myles didn’t wash her hair for four days before she auditioned to play Leanne Taylor on Orange Is the New Black.
She didn’t wear any makeup, save for some black eyeliner, and for clothes, she sported a dirty white tank top. But when Myles arrived at the audition, she started second-guessing her approach.
“All of the girls who were auditioning for Leanne, they were all very pretty, very clean. They had clean shirts and makeup and perfect hair,” Myles recalled to BuzzFeed News on a recent June afternoon at City Bakery in New York City. “I was like, I’m either dead wrong or I’m on to something right now.”
It was the latter. Myles booked the part two days later, and soon after headed to film the second episode of Season 1 of Orange, in which Leanne made her debut.
At the time, Myles’ character was a greasy-haired, meth-mouthed cronie to Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) who did sexual favors for Pornstache (Pablo Schreiber) in exchange for drugs. But by Season 3, she had ditched Pennsatucky and gone from victim to bully, deeming herself the overlord of a religion she formed around Norma (Annie Golden) and Norma's healing touch inside Litchfield’s walls. And in Episode 9, the audience found out why she makes such a devout disciple.
Over the course of its three seasons on Netflix, Orange Is the New Black has revealed the backstories of more than 20 inmates in its massive cast, which is more varied in age, ethnicity, religion, gender, and economic background than any other series on television. But there was no flashback as surprising as Leanne’s. As a heavily eyeshadowed teenager, she spent a night at a drug-filled, alcohol-fueled campfire, before sneaking through corn stalks, shoving her jeans in a bright blue backpack, slipping into her pale pink linen dress, and tying her bonnet as she walked into the Amish village she called home.
“I freaked out. I freaked out!” Myles said of learning Leanne’s backstory. Her petite frame could hardly contain the passion and enthusiasm that echoed in her booming voice. “It was one of things where I was like, that is such a huge surprise, but it makes so much sense now.”
Leanne’s Amish upbringing was certainly a shock, but Myles did have a bit of a clue earlier in the season: “When we did Episode 5, I was like, I speak German? OK, that's kind of interesting. Leanne's got a little quirk. She's been learning German on the side. All right. This is fun." Then, when she Skyped with the show’s dialect coach to make sure her German could pass, she learned that her throwaway German line to Poussey in that episode wasn’t the only time she'd be speaking another language. “I was talking to him and we were kind of just discussing the nature of things, and I was like, 'Yeah, you know, 'cause I'm speaking German…' And he was like, 'You're speaking Pennsylvania Dutch,'” she recalled, her jaw practically hitting the floor from the stool on which she sat. “He was like, 'Yeah, you're Amish. You don't know that?'”
But Myles tried to temper expectations, seeing as the Orange actors only get scripts for one episode at a time and aren’t given information on their characters’ arcs for the season as a whole. “I had heard some kind of chatter about having a backstory, but until you get the script, you don't know," she said. "And you also don't want to jinx it, you don't want to get your hopes up. It's a huge deal." Three episodes went by and Myles hadn’t heard anything about Leanne's backstory: "I was like, oh, OK. I kind of just have to let it go. Maybe it's not going to happen.”
And then she got the script. The episode — written by the “genius” Jordan Harrison, who joined the show in Season 2 — completely thrilled her. “Not only was I excited to delve into the character, but the actual episode itself was just really good. I was really, really, really happy with it,” Myles said, noting that she also cried when she read it, “which doesn't happen often.”
Myles then had about a week to learn how to speak Pennsylvania Dutch, a German-based language (hence the hint in the fifth episode). "The inflections are so specific, so you think you're saying it right and then the dialect coach comes in and it's like, no, there's like this much more breath underneath it,” she said. Beyond learning a new language, the episode required a wide range from Myles — rebellion as she sat with her fellow meth heads during their Rumspringa, fear as she returned home to her Amish parents, relief as she was baptized and welcomed into the family she’d left behind, shock as her drug-filled backpack was found by police, devastation as she was tasked with ratting out her friends, rejection as she brought shame to her mother and father, selflessness as she left her family behind again (this time, for their sake), and redemption as she tried, in the present timeline, to apologize to Soso (Kimiko Glenn) for rejecting her from the Norma belief system.
“You tell kids not to do something and they're going to want to do it, especially when you grow up in that, and it's so strict, and it's so all-encompassing — the second you take those chains off it's like, I'm gonna shoot heroin, I'm gonna turn tricks for money, I'm gonna say all the bad words that I can think of, I'm gonna wear zippers,” Myles said of Leanne’s time away from her community. “She goes through Rumspringa and then she comes back. Because she's like, this isn't for me, this English world. It's fun and everything's great and there's a lot of freedom. But she didn't want to be there. She wanted to be with her family, she respected her religious choice — that's what she wanted out of life and that's the fucking saddest thing about it. It would've been a lot less sad had she gone on her Rumspringa and gotten arrested and then ended up in prison. But she makes the active choice to commit to her religion and she still ends up in Litchfield. ... I get emotional thinking about it. When we were shooting me in my bedroom, and then when I kind of look in on my parents as I'm about to leave, I could not stop crying.”
Discussing it as she hit the back of one hand against her other palm and choked back tears, it was clear it was a fresh wound for Myles, who finished watching Season 3 five days after the season was released. “I'd be one of the crazy fans if I weren't on the show,” she admitted. “When they announced that they started streaming early, we were all like, oh, fuck this!” she said. She rushed home from the OrangeCon fan event in Tribeca to devour the season. “I literally sat in front of my TV with tortilla chips and salsa and olives.” Normally, Myles doesn’t like to watch herself act. “But for some reason, that has never been the case with Orange,” she said. “Like, I've always just watched the show and been like, OK, I'm there, but what else is going on?”
Plenty is the answer. “I cried during basically every single episode as I was watching this season — I had to turn it off, I was crying too hard,” Myles said, naming Nicky's (Natasha Lyonne) and Black Cindy’s (Adrian C. Moore) arcs specifically.
Part of the reason it makes her so emotional is because of the “deep love” she shares with her castmates. “If I look at my texts in my phone, the top are my mom, my boyfriend, my manager, our cast,” she said. “We’re so close. I can’t even remember my life without them.”
Myles befriended comedian Lea DeLaria, who plays Big Boo on the series, during her first day on set. “We had lunch together and then they did my make-up and she just sat there in the makeup chair and she was just pointing and laughing at me for, like, six minutes straight," Myles remembered. "We actually have video of it. She’s like, 'Look at this busted bitch.' And I was like, 'Fuck you, Lea!' I’d known her for three hours at this point. It was very clear we were going to be friends immediately.”
And that wasn’t a coincidence. Myles and her best friend, Chelsea Fairless, had been fans of DeLaria’s for years growing up in Northern California’s Humboldt County. And the two First Wives Club obsessives — Myles did impressions during this interview — had been thrilled to see DeLaria, who has a small role in the movie, join Sandra Bernhard onstage when the then–16-year-olds went to see her do stand-up in Seattle.
When Myles first got the cast list for Orange and saw that DeLaria was going to be on the series, she called Fairless immediately. “Lea was the first one I met… And we’ve been friends ever since,” Myles said with a smile. “She makes fun of me, I told her she should go out with my best friend. The rest is history.” Fairless and DeLaria are set to marry in New York. Bernhard will officiate the wedding.
Growing up in California, though clearly a fan of movies and television, Myles’ attention was on gymnastics. Her mom got her involved in the sport at a young age. “She was like, ‘If you’re gonna jump off of things, I would rather you do that with adult supervision and spotting,’” Myles said with a laugh. “But even as someone who was a competitive gymnast, I would still get this twinge in my heart every time I would see a movie and be like, ugh, why wasn’t I in that?” She wrote Steven Spielberg a letter when she was 11 and “freaked out” a few years later when The Lost World was filmed in her hometown. “Julianne Moore bought clogs at my friend’s mom’s shoe store,” Myles said, pulling at her vintage Jurassic Park T-shirt. “Hence my love,” she added proudly.
E.T. and Forrest Gump were some of her favorite movies. “We would listen to that soundtrack as we were driving to meets,” she said of the latter. “Seriously, my entire life I’ve just been obsessed with movies.”
Myles’ gymnastics career ended at 14 after she injured her heels and nearly broke her neck on uneven bars. Then she did a lot of high school theater and, she said, was “really obsessed with The X-Files and Gillian Anderson, which I still am,” a fact easily confirmed by her repeated online posting of old Mulder and Scully photos. “She’s everything. She’s so fucking phenomenal. She’s one of the best actresses I’ve ever seen, certainly one of the best actresses I’ve ever seen live.”
At 19, Myles had the opportunity to see her hero perform in her London stage debut, What the Night Is For. “Three hours after I arrived [in London], I got a phone call from my mom, who said, ‘Your dad’s in the hospital,’” she remembered. Her father, an alcoholic, wouldn’t last long enough for her to see him again. “He wasn’t in the best shape, but I didn’t expect that at all.” Hours after her dad died, Myles went to see Anderson onstage, “which is probably the best distraction I could’ve ever had,” she said. “So I’ll always have a really deep love for that woman. I feel very connected to her.”
Myles was just 16 years old when she saw Anderson perform onstage for the first time, in New York in The Vagina Monologues — and unexpectedly met the play's writer, Eve Ensler, whose influence would always mean the world to her. “Eve came out onstage and I had no idea who she was and she gave this fucking speech and my life changed immediately,” Myles said. “By many different circumstances, we actually became friends, like, a year later. She’s my mentor, she’s amazing — she’s been nothing but 100% supportive.”
Myles was set to attend the University of California, Santa Barbara, but she still had a few months of freedom left. “I was telling Eve I didn’t want to spend the summer in California if I was going to school there for four years and she was like, ‘Come work for me.’ Because Eve says jump, and you jump. And Eve says come here, and you come. That’s just what happens.”
Her summer in New York working for Ensler, who spearheads a global movement called V-Day, working to stop violence against women, “opened my eyes to this world that I never would’ve gotten a chance to see,” Myles said.
When she made it to UC Santa Barbara, it simply couldn’t compare to what she’d experienced 3,000 miles away. The day after she returned to California saw the terrorist attacks of 9/11, which left her feeling far removed from the city in turmoil that she recently called home. “I literally was just like, I can’t relate to any of you,” she said. So she called Ensler, who told her, “Let me know what you decide, but if you want to come work for me, you can,” Myles remembered.
After Christmas 2001, she moved to New York — where she has been ever since — and continued to work for Ensler. “She knew, even though I was in my feminist circle — I was doing all this stuff and I was really into it — she knew I always wanted to be an actor,” Myles said. Ensler’s head assistant recommended the William Esper Studio, so Myles interviewed and got into the summer intensive program. She loved it, and quickly signed on for an additional two-year program. She continued to work for Ensler for six or seven months, but then had to turn her focus to acting.
Her teacher connected her with a manager right after the program ended, “which was unheard of,” Myles noted. She started working almost immediately and then her manager set her up with an agency, which gave her a trial run seeing as she was so inexperienced. When they sent her out on an audition for Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, she booked it and they signed her. Myles worked consistently in TV, film, and theater for a while, “and then it just stopped,” she said. “There was this shift in the business and I still don’t really know what happened. ... The only people who were getting jobs were people who were already famous. They weren’t taking risks on people who didn’t have, like, 75 credits. … So I kind of scraped by on a job a year. I didn’t completely stop, but I wasn’t working enough to support myself.”
It was a struggle that continued until 2012. “That summer was a particularly brutal summer for me — I had been through a fire and I had been displaced from my home," she said. "It was like everything was adding up. It was just awful. I was deciding to leave. I was just going on my auditions and I didn’t have a ton of auditions, which was one of the reasons I was leaving. I was like, ‘I need to try my shit somewhere else. This is not working.’”
One of those auditions was for another episode of SVU, and when Myles walked to the subway afterwards, Dascha Polanco, who plays Dayanara Diaz on Orange, approached her, recognizing Myles from the audition. “We started talking and we ended up taking the train together all the way to Brooklyn. We were just like, 'This is fucked. I’m not getting any work.' I was like, 'I gave New York my twenties.' She’s like, 'I don’t know what I’m gonna do either. This is bullshit.' We exchanged phone numbers and email addresses, but then I packed that information, because I was out. I bought a one-way plane ticket to L.A.”
Myles had been living in New York for 12 years by then and just “kind of surrendered to the universe because [she] didn’t know what else to do.” Then, the month before she was supposed to leave, she started getting sent out on more auditions, including Orange Is the New Black, from Weeds creator Jenji Kohan.
“When I got the breakdown for the character, it said 'recurring,' so I was like, essentially, the next year of my life will be determined by whether or not I book this audition. No pressure,” Myles recalled of reading for Leanne. “When I walked out of the room, I went to send more boxes to California.”
The day she planned to tell her part-time job — where she role-played as clients and prospects for people applying to be financial advisers — that she was leaving, she was walking up the stairs when her manager and agent called to tell her she booked Orange. And two weeks after she bought her plane ticket, her now-boyfriend came into her life. “I was like, I never find people I like. This sucks. I’m leaving," she said. "And then two days after I booked Orange, I asked him out, and we’ve been together for almost three years."
In those three years, Orange has amassed a fanbase as massive and rabid as Myles’ fellow X-Philes, if not more so, not to mention the critical acclaim it’s garnered. In January, at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, she had that moment where she realized everything she and the show had accomplished. “We were coming in behind Game of Thrones and we were like…" she paused to scream. “Because as a fangirl, obviously, I’m looking around, and it’s insane.” And when the cast won the Best Ensemble Comedy award that night, she almost couldn’t handle it. “When it happened, we were all losing our fucking minds. When does that happen?” she asked, seemingly looking for an answer.
“I was living vicariously through myself. I don’t know what happened,” Myles said, still in shock more than six months later that she has the 30-pound statue on a bookshelf in her apartment. Again, it got better. Myles saw Polanco “having a moment with Meryl Streep” and decided to jump in. She had met Streep once through Ensler many years earlier, but this was different. A photo circulated of Streep holding Myles’ face that, the young actor said, “is the best thing I’ve ever seen.” “She turned to me, and she grabbed my face and she says, ‘I’m so proud of you.’ I’m still shocked I did not poop my pants,” Myles joked, noting it was like the scene in Wayne’s World when Wayne (Mike Myers) sees Cassandra (Tia Carrere) on stage and “Dreamweaver” plays as she glows in a halo.
When Myles and the cast took a photo with Streep, Myles recalled the Oscar winner saying, “‘Girls are taking over TV. I’m gonna be on Season 4.’ And we were like, ‘Don’t joke about that. That shit is not funny, Meryl Streep.’ I’m like, ‘Now you have to be.’” Orange is currently in production on its fourth season and Streep hasn’t shown up yet, but Myles finally understands why she was so enthused. “I love the fact that Meryl Streep watches the fucking show. Why wouldn’t she? Über-feminist. Of course she does," she said.
“It’s just important to see a bunch of different kinds of women — different ages, different colors, different backgrounds — represented on television. Watching the show, you’re just like, holy shit, look at all these talented fucking assholes. Look at these guys. Watch ‘em go! It’s insane. It’s like a fuckin’ horse race. Look at that one! Look at that one! Look at that one! Oh my god! I just want to see more stories. … I have no idea what they’re gonna do on this show because anytime you think you can anticipate what’s going to happen, you really can’t. But I can’t wait to see.”