Any actor knows that during their career, they will likely be called upon to play some unsavory characters. In fact, most actors revel in the challenge — it gives them a chance to get outside their comfort zones and stretch their creative boundaries. As Skinhead Helen on Orange Is the New Black, Francesca Curran understands getting uncomfortable for the sake of her art.
Suffice it to say that, in real life, Curran is nothing like her white supremacist character. When we had a chance to chat with the rising star, we quickly discovered how effortlessly lovely and warm she is as a human being — the antithesis of Helen.
Despite her controversial character, Curran has earned praise from devoted OITNB fans. She has also, though, garnered an unlikely and unsolicited fan club: the distinctive subset of society she portrays through Skinhead Helen.
When Season 4 — the first season viewers see Helen — dropped in June of 2016, Curran recalls her brother telling her to check out Twitter. Her page was exploding with feedback from OITNB fans, but Curran told SheKnows she wasn't prepared for a certain kind of fan mail she received.
"I got a message from a guy who was like, 'I'm so glad we finally have some representation. You do a great job of portraying our people; you're like a new sister to me. Thank you for giving us a voice,'" Curran shared, recounting the feedback she received from a white supremacist. "I got goose bumps all over my body and was like, 'Noooooo!'"
While Curran realizes that being a part of OITNB warrants a certain level of fandom whether your character is one of the good guys or one of the bad guys, she says hearing from people who truly embody the prejudice of Skinhead Helen was jarring.
"Obviously, we have the fan following who is like, ‘Ah, Skinhead Helen is funny! We love when you do the videos dancing.’ But when you get a message from an actual white supremacist thanking you for giving their people a voice? I felt uncomfortable," she said.
Given that Season 5 just dropped, Curran probably won't hear the end of it anytime soon. In fact, she has already noticed an uptick in the unwanted hero-worship, possibly due to the intensified negative race relations in the country over the last year.
"I did get a message the other day from a woman who has my face tattoos from the show — the exact stars — and it was another thank you note," Curran said. "It was like, 'Thank you so much; you're such an inspiration. I feel like I've been able to express myself since seeing you on the show. You're bringing attention to the group.' And I'm like, 'OK, then. Thank you, but no thank you!"
To counter any notion that she might share the same ideologies as Helen, Curran goes the extra mile outside of filming to contradict her character.
She shared, "I think it is easy, and I do this with my favorite shows, to really start to hate the villain. But this is acting, and you have to separate the character from the actor. So I've been working really hard to show people, even though sometimes it's a little personal. In doing that, I think I've shut down some of those comments from, like, the real deal."
And although it's unsurprising that playing a white supremacist would make any civilized member of society feel uncomfortable, what was surprising for Curran was just how accessible this demographic is in real life.
"One of the most startling things for me was to do research on white supremacy and find how easy it actually is to locate these people. To me, that was really, really baffling. This talk of white supremacists, nationalists, neo-Nazis... it’s kind of hush-hush. We don’t talk about it, this horrible thing. But it is kind of becoming, I hate to say it, more of a reality now," she said.
"You can literally message these groups — you can message these forces basically — and say, ‘Hey, I would like to meet up with you,’ and they set it up," Curran continued. "They have street parades. Certain groups will have meetings once a week in the exact same location. I just thought it was so secret, so under the radar, but these people are so loud and proud."
That surface-level accessibility was merely one of the many things about playing this type of character that made Curran's skin crawl.
"One of the things that really frightened me is their hate of gay people, of transgender people. It’s so strong. It really is kind of how they live their everyday life; it’s just so much hate. Going into it, I was a little ignorant to the subject, because it always kind of frightened me — especially to do research on it. I think it feels comfortable to close our eyes to the things we don’t want to see," she said.
In bringing this character to the screen, though, Curran realized that Helen's hatred (and the hatred of others like her) is rooted in their own discomfort with anything different.
"That’s actually something that was really interesting to me: All of the hate stems from fear. That actually informed a lot of my acting decisions too, because once I realized that, I realized that these people are just afraid of what they don’t know. They’re afraid of black people. They’re afraid of Hispanic people. They’re afraid of transgender people. And so I think that’s the thing that disturbs me the most."
On a lighter note, that wasn't the only revelation Curran had while creating the Skinhead Helen persona.
"Toward the end of my research, I started to think, 'My computer is probably so flagged by the FBI,'" My husband was like, 'Do you realize the amount of research you're doing? Like, where to meet white supremacists?'"
"I thought, 'Oh my God, they're probably wondering why this girl is searching for all of this stuff.' But at least I have a decent excuse!" she said, laughing.
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