Originally published by The Huffington Post, 21 July 2014.
Barbara Rosenblat’s storied career includes time served on Broadway (pioneering the role of Mrs. Medlock in the Tony-winning The Secret Garden, among multiple others), more film and television roles than you could throw a pie at (Law and Order: SVU, Veep, Girls), and a nun-scattering behemoth of an audiobook career: she’s narrated nearly 500 titles and even has an e-book on the subject.
But you probably know her best as Orange is the New Black‘s Miss Rosa, the husky-voiced, curmudgeonly, terminal cancer patient who comes up for air just long enough to pluck a “tit hair” or knock off a bank. This week, I spent an hour chatting with Rosenblat about everything from Miss Rosa’s future to her poignant fan letters and from Jodie Foster’s interest in aforementioned tit hair to what piece of the set currently resides in her freezer. It was quite a chat.
Reader beware, spoilers follow.
TCM: Going back to the beginning, how did you originate the character of Miss Rosa Cisneros? How was she presented, and how did you proceed?
BR: After my general audition, they called and said: “We’d like to offer you the part of Miss Rosa.”
And I said, “Great! Who is she?!”
“She’s a prisoner.”
“Oh, does she have a last name?”
“Where’s she from?”
“Um, what’s she done?”
“Not a clue.”
“OK! [beat] Alrighty then.”
“And she has cancer.”
“Really, what kind?”
“We don’t know. Oh, and by the way she’s bald. Will you shave your head?”
I wasn’t even sure she was Hispanic, and yet in the first large scene that I had, I’m in bed in my cell; I was discussing how things are in prison with Piper (Taylor Schilling), and Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), and Anita (Lin Tucci), and at one point one of the lines said, “I could have been la jefa” which in Spanish means “chief.”
So, I thought, “OK, so she’s Spanish. Alright. Good!” Being a dialectician by trade and an actor by trade … I created a bio for [Miss Rosa] internally.
When my agent called me up and said “We’re going to do her backstory,” I thought, “Oh my goodness! I’m going to matter! I’m going to find out where she’s from.”
Turns out she’s Cuban, but I didn’t know that until season two.
TCM: So you probably contributed a lot to the development of her character?
BR: Yeah, I guess so! The producers eventually brought in Josh Turi, an “astonishingly brilliant special effects makeup guy,” as Rosenblat calls him, to save her hair through the rigorous application of a bald prosthetic piece, so realistic it fooled actors working closely with her on the set. Beth Fowler (Sister Jane Ingalls), once even congratulated her on having a perfectly-shaped head.
BR: It took three hours every time to apply. I think we eventually got it down to two and half, which was a lot of fun at half-past dark in the morning.
They have to paste my hair down so that it looks like it’s just painted brown as opposed to having any hair on it. So it’s flat, flat, flat, flat, flat before you can begin the process of putting on this very sheer bald cap and beginning the process of fitting it to the face and fitting it to the other piece that attaches to the rest of my neck, and start all that airbrush work with a million colors. He covered my eyebrows and put fake eyebrows on, put little veins and beauty marks. It looked utterly authentic!
I worked when it was very cold; I also worked when it was very hot. It was such a delicate operation; in the warm weather I was followed around by PAs with umbrellas so I would keep my head away from the sun. Otherwise I would get little breaches like behind the ear or whatever, and he would constantly be coming around to patch me up. Because it’s a delicate thing!
But you can’t be the slave of the silicone, it has to serve you as an actor. I remember various occasions during the hot summer months when we were shooting up at Rockland doing some exteriors. I sweated so much underneath my bald cap at the best of times, even though I look dry and bald, underneath it’s Niagara Falls! Every now and then he would have to mend a breach – but before he did that, he would take his fingers and milk my head! Other actors would be standing by while you see this [makes whooshing sound] of shit coming out of my head, and they would go, “Ew!” That was horrible, [she laughs] the things we do for our art!
It takes another hour to get out of the thing because it takes about three or four different solvents to remove all of that from my hair. And that’s a process in and of itself. And then I have to go back to the makeup area where they would wash that cement out of my hair and blow dry my hair!
It wasn’t very pretty, but everybody respected the work so much.
TCM: Let’s talk about the episode “Lesbian Request Denied.” Jodie Foster directed that; what kind of direction did she give you specifically …
BR: She’s up for an Emmy for that very episode (“Lesbian Request Denied”)! I remember there was a scene where I’m plucking tit hair in the cell, and it’s kind of disgusting; this is how we have to look out for ourselves in prison.
There’s none on my head but I’m plucking it from my tits. OK? Fine. That’s what I read in the script. So, I get into makeup, another three hour process on a cold morning, then I get a message from one of the PAs (production assistants) that Miss Foster would like to meet me and have a chat.
I said, “Uh oh. What did I do?”
So, I go to a private room and there’s Jodie Foster. “Hi, I’m Jodie. OK, I’d like to talk about that cell scene where you’re plucking … tit hair. I just want to see where we’re gonna go with this. Where I’m gonna have the camera, how revealing it’s going to be and what not.”
And then she starts to remove her sweater, and she’s showing me … you know … her rack … up to a point, and she’s saying, “Well you know, I’m thinking, this would be appropri … because if I have the camera over here, then we’ll shoot it from this way. And then we’ll see this much, and then you can …”
And I went, “Great, terrific! Whatever brings the viewers in, I’m happy to do it. Whatever you want to do is fine by me.” And I’m thinking to myself, I’m standing here, looking like a terminal cancer bald patient in prison garb and I’m talking to Jodie Foster who is taking her sweater off. This is amazing.
We did the scene; she shot it; she was terrific; it all went well apparently. I finished kind of early because I wasn’t involved in the stuff they shot the rest of the day and so I went back into makeup, Josh spent 40 minutes getting the appliance off my head. Makeup and hair washed the rest off my head. Blow dried my hair. Put on some lipstick. Put on my glasses. Put on my earrings. And I walked back to video village, where the director sits watching the scene, and in a little break in the proceedings, I tapped on her the shoulder and said, “Thank you, it was a pleasure working with you.” She turned around and went “Bahh! Who is this?! Oh my god, Barbara!” And I realized, she’d never really met me … She gave me a big hug and that was that.
TCM: Fast forwarding to the end of the second season, how did you find out you would have the last word literally and metaphorically (you potato with eyes):
BR: When I found out about it, I ran into the bathroom, shut the door, and screamed for five seconds. “ME?! Are you kidding!? ME!? Oh my god!”
I had a sense that I would be more pivotal this season after I found out they were doing my backstory. But I didn’t know where they were taking it. And I recall a couple of very uncomfortable encounters with Vee (Lorraine Toussaint). They were just a couple of short days; I still spent three hours getting that bald cap on my head, but you know they were these not-very-nice moments. There were a couple of them, like when I told her, “You are a very rude woman,” and I thought to myself: This can’t end well. [she laughs] But that’s all I knew!
[she just remembers] I did get a phone call from the production office a few weeks before we shot it asking if I knew how to drive a van … And I said, “Uh, yes. And?”
“No, that’s all. Thanks. Great.”
This response made me laugh so uncontrollably, I asked Rosenblat all about the van scene so I could take the time to compose myself.
BR: It was shot in a couple places. Some of it outside Kaufman Astoria [Studios] in four degree weather, which was SO cold. You know those little pad things they give you, you rub them together and they get warm? I think I went through forty of them in four hours. I was sticking them on my tits and the back of my neck, everywhere to keep me warm while we were shooting both the interiors and the exteriors.
You know that moment at the end where I morph into my younger self? The director had me behind the wheel. And then I would jump out of the van so that she could jump in and try to get the exact same position as me. We did this back and forth and back and forth. And they had a fan blowing on her (it was four degrees!) and me, I don’t need a fan because nothing blows through anything on my head. And the poor thing was freezing to death!
But it was terrific – so brilliantly done.
While OITNB has received numerous accolades for its representations of women, women of color, and a rainbow of queer identities, few articles have covered the complexity of Miss Rosa’s identity as a cancer patient. Indeed, there really isn’t a lot of dimension to most televisual representations of people living with cancer. Mostly, characters with cancer wander onto and off of sets of various shows flattened out as either tragic victims or heroic overcomers without much characterization. Both are really two lazy sides of the same generic coin. Don’t be fooled: Their only goals are to emotionally manipulate the audience and make the lead characters feel equal parts shitty and inspired. They are rarely characters unto themselves.
With one of Miss Rosa’s first lines, “Thank god I got cancer. No one fucks with cancer,” it was clear early on that Miss Rosa was going to be an exception. (One person, Andrew Cray, Tweeted: “hilarious b/c I was the only 1 ‘allowed’ to laugh (I have/had cancer)!”
TCM: There’s a lot of complexity and texture added in the second season that fills Miss Rosa into a more fully-developed, humanized character not limited to or defined by her body. Do you ever hear from people who have somehow connected with your character in that regard?
BR: I was astonished at the number of people who wrote to me precisely in that regard. I was very touched and moved.
Here’s one: “Hello Barbara Rosenblat … I’m 16 years old and live in Ohio. I have never wrote an email to any actor, actress, friend, or close relative, but I feel I needed to send my first email because of such a touching acting role you were a part of in Orange is the New Black. I have never in my life have been so impressed with acting that I was moved to write this to you.
“Firstly, I would like to say the makeup and design of your character was flawless. I really thought the background of it was so interesting. Miss Rosa had a background of crime and love and then leads up to how the character had gotten caught and sent to prison. I have thought about this in detail and cannot figure out why, but, your character really made me think about my grandma. Or as I called her, my nonna, Italian for grandma.
“My nonna pased away [last July] and it was the saddest day of my life because I had lived with her and had been very close to her my whole life. She died of B-cell lymphoma cancer. I had begun to realize episode to episode how negative your character took having cancer. And how it psychologically got to her until she drove out of the prison. This made me realize that when my nonna had cancer, she was very positive and hopeful that she would be alright. I never really appreciated how much strength it must have taken for her to be hopeful at such a sad time for her.
“I wrote this to tell you what an amazing job you’ve been doing. And I’m very excited to see you next season. But most importantly, playing such a powerful role that showed me such a huge show of strength my nonna had that I overlooked in her last few months of fighting. If this role would have been played by anybody else, I might not have made the connection with my nonna. Now that I watched the show and made the connection, wow was my nonna in a similar spot to that lady! And then thinking, “I don’t remember my own nonna ever saying negative things like that” was a huge eye opener for me, and I’m very grateful. Again, thank you very much for showing this crucial detail to me from my nonna’s fight. And again, excited to see you next season again.”
TCM: Wow. That must mean so much to you.
BR: You have no idea. No idea. [she takes a moment] And various people have written similar things. But this one really got to me because he’s 16, you know? And she meant a lot to him. And I seem to have helped him understand a part of his relationship with his grandma that wasn’t quite clear for him. And that touches me.
TCM: I know another big moment for you was the New York City Pride Parade, of which the OITNB float was the most popular.
BR: Oh my god, I felt like the fricken’ pope! It was divine! There were six of us, they had cars for us all. I had a wardrobe nightmare. I said to my driver, “Can we stop at Macy’s because I forgot to put earrings on, and I don’t go out of the house without earrings.”
I got my little clip-ons, jumped back in the car, and we went to the staging area. And there was this float and it looked like prison laundry! [she laughs] It was so great to see everyone because we all get along so well. It’s so lovely, there’s so much love in this company it’s astonishing.
All these people were coming by and saying, “Oh my god, Miss Rosa, Miss Rosa! Can we take a picture!?” And they all knew it was me! I knew my dimples would give me away and they have.
I’ve gone to the gay pride parade over the years because it’s the best parade in the world! It’s so crazy and fun, and this is where it all began all those years ago at Stonewall. And so it was quite an honor to be asked.
It was sensational. There were these screaming hordes, all these fans, they were flinging roses at me! It was incredible. The noise, the yelling, the love! We’re bouncing up and down and screaming and posing and waving. It was such a thrill, I was just … I’m lost … I don’t know what to say to you. It was the biggest thrill of my life!
I love the appeal of this show across so many demographics. I think that Jenji Kohan pushes more envelopes than Staples!
TCM: Even if you don’t return (though I hope you will), what endures for you from the show so far? What will you take with you from your experience?
BR: I think the thing that was most heartening for me is, after we finished season one, and they called me back for season two, and you see those guys behind the camera, those directors who know your work, your fellow actors who trust you, people you’ve grown with in this production. And they look at you and they hand you stuff because they think you have what it takes to deliver for them. And that level of trust to show me as an actor is probably one of the greatest gifts you could ever give me.
TCM: I teach classes on television at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and my students are all very interested in the Netflix model, releasing entire seasons at once. Do you have any thoughts on that?
BR: You know everyone binge watches OITNB (she was at Disneyworld when season two dropped). I can’t imagine what bleary-eyed faces were showing up to work on Monday morning. It all comes out and you watch as much or as little as you want. And I liken that to … Can you imagine handing a child a recently-released Harry Potter book and saying, “Merry Christmas! And by the way, you can read three chapters tonight. And then you have to put the book down. And then pick it up next week and you can read three chapters and then put the book down.” And so on. He would look at you like you’re crazy!
Binge watching is not unlike taking a book that you love and staying up ’til dawn with it.
I’ve been recording audio books for a long, long, long, long time. When you think that you can take me on long journeys or for a stay at a hospital or while you’re working, nobody is going to stop you from listening to as much as you want to listen to when you have that thing in your possession. And this has finally translated into television. It’s astonishing.
Jenji has made something so incredible and delicious, it’s like Lay’s potato chips, you can’t just watch one episode. It’s mind-bogglingly addictive. And it’s exciting for me to a part of something that means so much to so many people around the world. It’s not like regular TV. It has an extra-special meaning for me because it’s such pioneering television.
TCM: Did you keep anything from the set?
On that last day of shooting, I had to get into my Miss Rosa garb and bald cap like every other day, but at the end of the day … I went back to makeup and I said to Josh, “Josh, just carefully remove this bald cap, just very carefully, because I’m taking it home.” And he said, “Are you kidding?” because normally, it just looks like a piece of evidence, you know?
You just want to throw it away. It’s either that or have a piece of roast pork since that’s what it looks like at the end of the day. But I said, “Well, cut it off, carefully. And I’m going to put it in a little baggy and stick it in my freezer.” I don’t know why. I thought maybe one day may I could sell it for charity or something, I don’t know. But I thought I just want to have a little chunk of it as a reminder of Miss Rosa.
TCM: Wow! [I laugh] So you’ve got Miss Rosa’s head in your freezer?!
BR: [concedes] I have Miss Rosa’s head in my freezer.
[she’s embarrassed] I don’t know what it sounds like; it probably sounds really macabre?
TCM: It’s one part macabre, two parts sentimental and sweet. It’s hysterical that you have Miss Rosa’s head in your freezer.
BR: Well, it’s not her head. It’s her scalp. [she laughs] I just wanted to have it. I just hope I don’t mistake it for giblets when I’m making soup.
I look at it every now and again and I think, “Really? Really, Rosenblat? This is what they’re gonna find when you’re dead? Is this weird thing in the back of your freezer?!” Oh, god.
TCM: Barbara, will we see Miss Rosa next season?
BR: Hand on heart, I have no idea. Because no one’s told me.
Special thanks to Connie Soendker Anderson and Wendy Morris.