Michael Harney has been working steadily for years playing everything from a detective, an officer, a U.S. Marshall, and even a SWAT Commander. If that wasn’t enough, Harney has reinvented himself as a social worker/officer on Netflix’s latest hit Orange is the New Black. Harney sat down to discuss his lucrative career and how he ended up on the biggest hit of the summer.
Q: You have had such an amazing career. How did you even start acting?
Harney: I wanted to be a social worker and, when I was in college (I was drinking very heavily in those days), I wound up signing up for a social work program in upstate New York. When I got up there, it was predominantly theory. So, while I was at college, I decided to take an acting class because my dad was a performer. I was just this blue-collar kid from Queens, but it was one of those grace-filled experiences and I just took off. I was free and I was really out of my head and totally connected to what I was doing.
Q: You have done a ton of television, but how was it working on Law & Order? That was your first recurring experience.
Harney: It was really good. Joe Stern was running the show in those days, and Dick Wolf. I had a really good experience. It was probably my first job. I remember Paul Sorvino was so gracious with me because we had the same teacher. He would make sure I was in the right light and he would come over and fix my tie. He was just a really good guy and really supported me. He let me ask him questions about his own work and how he developed his characters. The guys that hired me were just really good to me.
Q: You have played a detective or some sort of authoritative role a lot throughout your career. What attracts you to those parts?
Harney: You know, I don’t know. Some people say it’s my bearing. Cast people tell me that or that I present myself that way. I really don’t know. It could be that I have been through a lot in my life, which leads one to believe me in those roles. I think a lot of people in law enforcement, specifically detectives, have seen a lot. I have that in common, not necessarily seeing the same things, but having been shocked into seeing things I didn’t really want to see. So, there is that and I think it goes a long way and has deepened me as a person and causes you to have a different perspective on things.
Q: Now you are in Orange is the New Black, which is on Netflix. It’s an different situation because many shows have a primarily male cast, but on this show it is primarily women.
Harney: I’m definitely a minority on set. I think it’s about time that these projects happened with predominantly women at the helm and making key decisions. It has been lopsided for a long time. I am glad that they are getting their voice. It’s not just Orange is the New Black, but it’s a movement happening around the world in movies, television, and theater. It’s balancing out a little bit, but I still think we have a long way to go. It’s exciting. To witness that and be around them, while all of those pistons are firing and all that energy is moving, is really something. A lot of the time I just sit back and go, “Wow.” Certainly the product speaks for itself.
Q: The show is so evolved and layered. The guards, like Bennett and Sam, are so different. Sam seems to be a likable character that understands these women, at least in the beginning.
Harney: They gave me the role of Sam based on my two years of Weeds. What drew me to the role was being able to portray a guy who has so many different challenges in his life, to really sort of expose what it’s like. The frustrations, the difficulties a person has trying to fulfill their responsibilities in that position, being a supervisor with inmates. What kind of relationship dynamics are happening between me and the inmates? What kind of relationship dynamics are happening between me and the staff?
Q: Sam has this amazing speech, where he first meets Chapman and he discusses how the system sometimes isn’t fair. It seems like there is so much more to Sam. Is that something you are hoping to develop in season two?
Harney: Yes. The system has great limitations in terms of time, resources, and funding. Justice is not always served and I am aware of that, as the character. It’s not a perfect world and it’s about embracing the gray areas. I think that optimism and inspirational part of myself as a character gets tempered by some of the realities that take place. If you really approach it from being a whole person, there is a lot to develop within the character.
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