Interview: Actress Jolene Purdy
Orange Is the New Black's Jolene Purdy On Family, Diversity, and Career
By: Alex Chester
As a woman, is it possible to have “it all?” Family, love, and a career? I’m on the fence about it, but there is one person I know that actually “has it all!” It hasn’t come easily, and she’s worked her ass off to get to where she is right now.
Some of you may know her from Donnie Darko, or perhaps Stephen King’s The Dome. Or more recently Orange is the New Black.
Jolene is one of the first half-Asians I ever met. We have known each other for a very long time, and I am so thrilled she agreed to be interviewed for our magazine.
What makes you Hapa? How do you feel about the word? Is it how you identify?
My mother is Japanese and my father is Caucasian. I didn’t embrace being Hapa until I was out of high school. It is how I identify and I get a special joy out of meeting fellow Hapas.
I have some Hapa friends who are raising a Quapa say they are gonna go full Asian when raising their babies. Now that you’re a mom, (your daughter is so freaking cute) will your “Asianess” play into how you raise her? Though from what I can tell Zoe is gonna be just like Chuck.
I so wanted to have a little Asian baby, but marrying my husband, I knew it was a slim chance. She is definitely going to be learning some Japanese from my mom and my sister. Her taste buds are definitely Asian, too. She loves salmon musubi and nori with rice. But really… she’s got huge blue eyes and light hair.
What was it like for you growing up half-Asian? Are you first or second generation American? Do you think this has had any sort of influence on your identity?
I am Yonsei (fourth generation). To be honest, I grew up with my mom and my grandparents with very little influence from my “White” side. However, being fourth generation Japanese, we are pretty Americanized. I never really thought about being “mixed” or felt that I was “different,” but my peers were quick to make me feel that way. I was not accepted by the Asians at school because I was too “White” and I was not accepted by the “White” kids because I was too Asian. I was not allowed to got to Japanese school or play on the Japanese basketball league because of my last name (Purdy). I even switched schools because of the lack of diversity. After high school, I finally began to embrace my uniqueness. And, somehow, now it’s cool being uniquely Hapa.
What are your family gatherings like? Do both sides of your family get along well? Has there been any culture clashes? Any “fun” stories?
Our family gatherings are pretty Japanese, but “Americanized Japanese.” So, there’s sushi (Japanese), potato mac salad (Hawaiian Japanese) and Ham (American). It’s funny that the relatives in my generation have all coupled up with Caucasian partners. So, the house looks like a bunch of White people having Japanese food and honoring a culture that we no longer physically resemble.
Do you have any family holiday traditions?
We always have Japanese Open House for New Year’s Day. It’s my favorite! My grandma used to make all of the traditional Japanese dishes from scratch. Now my mom, myself and my sisters do it. We make sushi, all the Japanese kinds of pickles, black beans, mochi etc.
As an only child, I tend to associate Christmas/Hanukkah with presents… so I’ve gotta ask you, what is the worst Christmas and best Christmas present you have ever received?
Worst: my dad set up my bike in front of the Christmas tree so that I would see it first thing in the morning. He was working nights and couldn’t actually finish putting it together enough to ride, just to look at. I woke up and saw it, and my mom told me I could go ride it. Halfway down the block it started to fall apart. To be fair, I wasn’t hurt and my mom didn’t know it wasn’t rideable.
Best: My husband and I decided to exchange handmade gifts one year. He made an incredible replica of the lighthouse in Long Beach where we first fell in love and where he proposed. It lights up and everything!
What’s your favorite project you’ve worked on?
This is a tough question because I have worked with some pretty amazing people on some fun projects. I will have to say that my favorite project was the most short-lived out of all of them. I did a multi-cam sitcom for FOX called “Do Not Disturb,” and it made me fall in love with TV. It was like a mini-play in front of a live audience every week. I worked with Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Niecy Nash, Dave Franco and Jerry O'Connell. My character was an aspiring singer stuck in a job as a hotel operator. She had so many facets to her character and had some amazing out-of-the-blue monologues. The writing was incredible (Abraham Higginbotham of “Modern Family”) and our director (Jason Bateman) helped me create depth and learn how to cheat to camera real quick. It also had my favorite line where I got to talk about my heritage (Alex, you can totally relate) “Larry, I’m Japanese and Jewish.”
What are your thoughts on “representation” versus “presentation” in the entertainment industry? Specifically, should one play a specific ethnic role just because they look like said demographic, even if they are not that?
This is a tough question because lines are so blurred. The entertainment industry is built on make-believe. We play pretend for a living. I’m definitely not a hardened criminal (OITNB) nor am I a closeted lesbian D.A. intern (Benched). But I’ve believably played them. Could I believably play an owner of a slave in a Civil War or a geisha in a WWII? Probably not. And I am okay with that. If a project has a reason to be ethnically specific, I think it is important that the actors physically reflect those ethnicities for the good of the story being told. I do see a lot of “open ethnicity” in castings today. And there are a lot of casting directors that support actors and push the diversity boundaries, and I am so thankful for them!
What was the set like on Orange is the New Black?
Dude, a blast! I was a fan of the show when I booked it, and I love it even more now. The cast and crew are a team. No one hangs out alone in their dressing rooms during downtime. We hung out together in each other's dressing rooms or in the middle of the halls. Jenji Kohan started telling a great story through my character at the end of Season Four. My character “Hapakuka” was at the table with the other ethnic representatives in Litchfield. She represented “the others.”
“It’s like black people that aren’t black.” “Oh, like yellow people…” That was the scene and it was so nice that Jenji gave a voice to “the others.”
Speaking personally, as a woman who creates way too many projects AND who is getting married in February, I find you to be someone I can look up to. Do you have any words of advice for balancing a career, marriage, and a kid?
It takes a village. I seriously couldn’t survive without my family and friends. Also, never try and pretend you’ve got it all together. It takes too much energy! Embrace the mess, laugh at yourself, and keep it moving.
Alex Chester is the creator and producer of the theatre company WeSoHapa - a theatre based on diversity and inclusion. She is a New York City based columnist for On Stage Blog and contributing writer for ManhattanDigest.com and HuffPo. She also hosts a podcast with fellow writer Melissa Slaughter, We're Not All Ninjas. Follow her on Twitter/Instagram @AlexFChester if you like food and cats.