How Orange Is the New Black Got Mackenzie Phillips to Tap into Her Past
This story contains spoilers for Orange Is the New Black Season 6.
When Mackenzie Phillips got a call about auditioning for a role on the new season of Orange Is the New Black—that of drug-addicted Barbara, known as one of the “Little Debbie Murderers”—she was at a national addiction conference in Baltimore. Surprisingly, Phillips—who spends most of her time working as a recovery counselor, after many years battling what she described as “a raging substance abuse disorder”—had no qualms about playing the sororicidal cellblock boss.
“It was an exciting challenge,” Phillips said of the character—who, as viewers learn near the end of the season, collaborated with her sister Carol (Henny Russell) to drown their younger sibling, Debbie. After being locked up for life, the sisters become archenemies, running rival fiefdoms in the maximum-security lockup where many of the Litchfield inmates have landed after Season 5’s prison riot.
“Isn’t that the beauty of make-believe?” said Phillips, about her decision to delve into a character whose behavior mirrors some of her own past self-destructive impulses. Drug-dealer Barb tells Nicky (Natasha Lyonne)—as she’s recovering from a bad dose in the prison infirmary—that she hasn’t been sober in 30 years. By playing a character like this, said the actress, “you get to mine a deeper well—to go to places that are uncomfortable. . . . I wasn’t a drug dealer, but I certainly had my share of stories to tell about that.”
But unlike Barb, whom Phillips said is “dying with untreated mental-health and substance-use issues,” Phillips herself had access to premiere health care. Nevertheless, she said she went to rehab 11 times.
Phillips was famously booted off One Day at a Time because of her drug use. These days, she’s inching her way back into acting—beginning with a role on Norman Lear’s rebooted version of One Day At A Time, which, like O.I.T.N.B., airs on Netflix. Phillips certainly brought firsthand knowledge to this latest part; she even shared some of her “expertise” while shooting a scene in which Barb’s lieutenant, “Daddy” (Vicci Martinez), gives her a questionable substance to snort. “Being the expert drug snorter, I was like, ‘No, no, no, that’s not the way she would do it. Let’s cut the straw at an angle.’ It was weird. It was like, ‘Wow, I used to live this way.’ And now I get to act it out and then walk away free and recovered. That in itself is magical.”
Also pretty special for Phillips was getting to know Lyonne, one of her primary scene partners. “She’s got something very rare,” she said of the actress, whose character spends the season enmeshed in an ethical crisis involving her surrogate mother, Red (Kate Mulgrew). “She’s so talented, funny, and quirky. I can imagine being around her all the time.”
The two spent enough hours together that Phillips developed a great Nicky impression—which she performed on set to the delight of the crew. She also had nothing but superlatives for actor Nick Sandow, a.k.a. Joe Caputo, who also directed two of the episodes in which she appears. “He was very calm, organized, and relational. . . . I liked that man a lot.”
Despite all of these positive feelings—she pronounced the entire experience “a blast”—Phillips spent much of her downtime on set alone and didn’t socialize with the cast. She was able to do much of her work auditing medical charts remotely from her dressing room; she no longer carries a client caseload now that she’s become an owner and director of the Los Angeles recovery facility where she’s worked for two years. Still, she found it difficult to be away from home for the three-plus-month Queens shoot, flying back to California whenever she had several consecutive days off. “I have four dogs. I have a big house. I live with my 31-year-old son, who was able to hold down the fort,” she said—except on the day her housekeeper called to say the kitchen was filling up with smoke.
“The dryer caught on fire because I guess you’re supposed to clean the exhaust,” she joked. “I was standing in my apartment in Queens, and I get a call . . . [and] she’s screaming, and I can hear fire engines. It was a very intense time to be away.” Especially because this was also the day she was scheduled to shoot her death scene. (Barb and Carol end up alone in a broom closet; their unsupervised time together doesn’t end well—for either of them.) Fortunately, Phillips’s housekeeper managed to alert firefighters in time to save the house she’s owned for 18 years.
“I guess someone took some pictures, and Radar Online posted a story about how the housekeeper saved my ‘mega-mansion,’” she said. (Radar did not actually call the house a mega-mansion, though other publications did.) “I don’t have a mega-mansion. But I got a good chuckle out of that.”
Clearly pleased with where her life is now, Phillips, 58, is content being single, and said she’s “not in the market for a relationship” after years of “thinking I wasn’t O.K. unless I had a partner.” She’d like to do more acting and has already shot one of four new One Day at a Time episodes in which she’ll return as Penelope’s (Justina Machado) therapist. She also remains dedicated to her “incredibly meaningful” behavioral health career. Still, because her work offers a lot of flexibility, she’s open to scoring more acting gigs—even ones as dark as Barb—because they offer the only kind of fix Phillips needs these days.