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OITNB’s Skinhead Helen: I’m a girly girl who now shaves her head everyday!

Francesca Curran talks about getting into the Neo-Nazi character and treatment of women in prison in her first and exclusive interview with an Indian publication

brunch Updated: Aug 19, 2017 23:17 IST
Samreen Tungekar
Samreen Tungekar
Hindustan Times
skinhead helen,francesca curran,netflix original
Francesca Curran plays Skinhead Helen in Orange Is The New Black

She is a part of that very annoying, white supremacist group at Litchfield Prison that’s just hateful. She is the passive leader, burly, tattooed up, and with the freakiest eye roll possible. But Skinhead Helen – from the American comedy-drama web series Orange Is The New Black (OITNB) that’s completed it’s fifth season – is exactly what Francesca Curran is not. While the world is raving about how drastic her physical transformation is, she opens up to Brunch about the psychological research and all that went into bringing Helen to life.

The beginning of everything

Born in Minnesota, Francesca grew up doing professional theatre, and moved to New York after high school to go to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. “I was waiting tables at my family’s restaurant and working at Starbucks simultaneously to survive, when my agent got me an audition for OITNB. It was 11pm, and my audition was at 7am. The description of the character was so NOT me. But who turns down an audition?! I started rehearsing the lines, dressed as Helen-like as I could. I went for the audition, and voila! I got it!” she says.

“I felt tougher once my head was shaved”

Francesca as Skinhead Helen in a still from Orange Is The New Black

If you browse Francesca’s photos, you’ll see the femininity with which she carries herself. A beanie, a floral dress, a bright smile…. And then you look at Skinhead Helen. Smirking, bald-ish, and always angry.

Francesca says, that’s what made her take up the role in the first place – the fact that Helen and her have nothing in common. “I remember the first day in the make-up room when they shaved my head, I slipped into Helen’s skin. I talked like her, I walked like her, I became her. While they did my tattoos, shaved my head, I’d listen to a certain play list, do push-ups, and get into my character,” she says.

“When the crew shaved my head, did my tattoos etc., I listened to a pumped-up playlist to get into Helen’s head”

“Helen’s anger and aggression stems from fear”

Notice Helen’s expressions in her scenes. They have less to do with talking and a lot to do with physical acts, death stares and the like. Francesca says, to be able to do that, she had to do a lot of psychological research. “I read up extensively on white supremacists – where they come from, what makes them so angry, why are they aggressive, are they educated people… and I had to implement that in my character. For me, I had to take small issues and channel them into Helen’s anger. For instance, I’ve literally used my frustration over traffic in real life to portray Helen’s fury on the show!” she laughs.

She chose to put on weight to appear bulky and intimidating. “If I’m shaving my head for Helen, I’d rather go all in and do justice to the character!” she says.

Social media sass

Photos of her transformation are going viral, but Francesca takes pride that people aren’t able to recognise her. She hardly gets any hate comments, her 86.6k Instagram followers clearly love her. But she loves how people are able to distinguish between Francesca and Helen. “It’s not just that I don’t look like her, but when people meet me or even on social media, they can see the difference in character as well. That shows the kind of actor I am. People hate Helen for being mean to their favourite character,” she says.

Going from Helen to Francesca

The cute girl becomes the crazy, cheesed off woman and then she has to go back to being her 24-year-old self. Isn’t that hard? “Some days, yes. The intensity of Helen is such that it takes me some time to wind down. But just like I have my pumping up play list to becoming Helen, I have another play list to calm myself down and become Francesca again,” she smiles.

“When I was selected , I decided to do some research about women in prison. When I read the script of OITNB, I realised that most things that are on the show are real.”

“We need to talk about treatment of women in prison”

OITNB depicts relationships between prisoners, the communal groups, the catfights, the gang wars, and the basic need for human contact. If you’re someone who has never watched a prison show before, just like Francesca, you’ll be surprised at the treatment these women receive from the correctional officers (COs). And, while the show tries not to romanticise crime, it shows how basic human rights still matter, even for criminals.

“When I was selected for the show, I decided to watch documentaries and do some research about women in prison. When I read the script of OITNB, I realised that most things that are on the show are real,” she says.

Francesca thinks treatment of women in prison is something that the society should not hush up. “Maybe a few years ago I’d have had less compassion about this subject than I have now, but I’ve realised these women don’t have voices. Yes, they’re prisoners, but they’re human beings too. COs building relationships with prisoners, denying them basic rights to their one weekly phone call etc. These things need to be addressed, even if it is an uncomfortable subject,” she says.

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From HT Brunch, August 20, 2017

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First Published: Aug 19, 2017 23:07 IST