Constance Shulman in a scene from Netflix's "Orange is the New Black." (Ursula Coyote / Netflix)
“Work hard to make something as beautiful and meaningful as you can, and when you’re done, pack it in and know it was all temporary.”
Constance Shulman’s character, the patient and wise Yoga Jones, an inmate incarcerated at the fictional Litchfield Federal Penitentiary on the effortlessly binge-able Netflix show “Orange is the New Black,” frequently doles out nuggets of Zen to her fellow prisoners, like so many spoonfuls of overly salty revenge mac and cheese in the cafeteria, but the Johnson City native said finding her own center isn’t as easy as it looks on television.
“I am very far away from Zen,” she said Thursday from her home in Manhattan. “I’m not wired, but I worry, I have kids. I wish I had some of her Zen-ness and calmness and her ability to — I don’t know — maybe see the big picture or have the ability to find perspective.
”As a mom, you want that so bad, because you want to be the calming force in the storm of growing up, but hopefully, I’ll have picked up something from this character myself.”
Shulman was the middle daughter of seven children and the first born in Johnson City to Massachusetts transplants who brought their corrugated cardboard box company, Tri-State Container Corp., to Elizabethton in the 1950s.
She, as did most of the Shulman children, attended East Tennessee State University School, and graduated from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in speech and theater.
After college, she moved to New York City, joined an acting conservatory and still lives in the metropolis with her husband and two children, but even 30 years later, her bond to Northeast Tennessee remains firmly tied.
“I think once you’ve grown up in Tennessee, it sort of, I don’t know, it stays in your skin,” Shulman said in the characteristic gravelly-sweet Southern drawl to which she attributes much of her success as an actor. “I have been living up here 30 years, and I still have my accent, and people stop me all the time and they go ‘Oh, you’re not from up here.’ So, thirty years later, that accent stays with you.
“It’s strange, even though New York City is my home now, when I talk about my home, I still think of Johnson City as kind of being that. Maybe your growing up years are what you always consider your home.”
During her acting training, Shulman said she was advised to practice diction to rid her of her accent — to homogenize her voice as she puts it — to keep her unique manner of speaking from holding her back from landing major roles. But she disregarded the advice and stayed true to herself, at least partly because she probably couldn’t have lost the accent even if she tried, she said.
“Your strength is your uniqueness, and, yeah, there have been a lot of parts I haven’t got, wasn’t even considered for because of that” she said. “But I tell my kids, who are also actors, you want to be the strongest of what you’re best at and not try to be the best at somebody else’s best, because you’ll come in second place along those lines.
“Nobody sounds like me up here, so when the right part comes along for somebody who sounds like this, I’m more apt to get that. It definitely closed some options for me, but the ones it’s opened up are the ones that are right.”
One of those just-right roles came to her in the early 1990s, when the creators of a children’s cartoon destined for a growing cable station approached her with a voice acting gig.
That show, “Doug,” became wildly popular among the inaugural Nicktoons lineup, and the role, Patti Mayonnaise, became a defining character for millions of members of Generation Y.
It’s been more than 20 years since the inception of the show, but Shulman said she’s still surprised when adults in their 20s approach her for Patti Mayonnaise’s autograph, rather than the 10-year-olds they used to be when “Doug” started.
“As fun as it is for kids to have watched it, it was twice as fun to do it and an incredibly lucky adventure for me to go on and to be part of,” she said. “The people who worked on that show were the nicest, most talented group of people, both the voiceover actors and the creators of the show, the writers.”
Shulman counts Doug among the three acting experiences she’s most proud to be a part of. Her role as Annelle in the original stage production of “Steel Magnolias” is another, as is her current work on “Orange is the New Black.”
“These three things happened in different parts of my life where they were extraordinary experiences in this world of performing,” she said. “You’re lucky if you get one of those, because it’s a very hard business, and I’m incredibly fortunate that I had all three of these.
“And Doug, the Patti Mayonnaise character, they still live with you, and this many years later, the people who come up to me and are so excited that ‘Oh my gosh, there’s Patti Mayonnaise!’ It’s lovely, it’s wonderful.”
“Orange,” a prison-set comedrama with an expansive ensemble cast, follows the cell block politics endemic to a federal women’s prison and traces the back stories of many of the characters to show how they each ended up in the slammer.
For Jones, the road to Litchfield led through a marijuana farm, alcoholism and the accidental shooting of an 8-year-old neighbor.
Shulman said the well-developed characters on the show, even those on the periphery, are what she thinks has struck a chord with viewers.
“To see those characters play out on TV really touches the audience, because they’re so multi-layered and not one-dimensional,” she said. “They’ve got complicated problems, we all make mistakes and some of these mistakes are more complicated than others, and to watch them cope and try to be resilient and keep going and try to learn from their mistakes — or not learn by them and make them again — it’s very interesting TV.”
She sees her own character as a loner in an environment where support is often necessary for mental and physical health.
“You’ve got all of these women in your face, it reminds me of New York City, midtown,” she said. “You’re trying to have a thought, and you’re walking around midtown Madison Park Square with a thousand other people, then I kind of get the sense of what it feels like to be in a prison with all these people when you’re trying to just have your own journey.
“All these other ladies are having them too and they conflict with each other, you hope that you can find somebody in that environment that you can relate to and that will be supportive or nurturing in some way, and I think that if you don’t find them, you’ll be kind of a floater, you’ll go on the journey by yourself, and I kind of think that Yoga Jones is sort of maneuvering herself through this experience alone.”
The series’ two seasons were aired on the video streaming platform Netflix, as was “House of Cards,” on which Shulman’s husband, Reed Birney, is a player.
The relatively new approach to television delivery — all at once on the subscription service — is an exciting development for entertainment, she said.
“On one hand, it really quenches that need to cut to the chase to get to the grand finale,” she said. “That’s where it sort of takes care of our need to see the story through to the end, and you kind of feel like you’re watching a 13-hour movie. I’m all for that, I think you could watch it when you want to watch it, which is great. If you’re somebody who can’t go to sleep at night, how fantastic! You could watch four hours of your favorite show and really get into the intensity of it, which sometimes can get broken when you’re given a show once a week.”
The third season of “Orange is the New Black” is currently shooting, working to follow the release of the second season earlier this month with the continued adventures of the Litchfield inmates next year.
Shulman said even she doesn’t know the future for Yoga Jones, but promised excitement.
“We’re all kept in the dark on that,” she said. “I would say it’s consistent with the bar of writing that there would be surprises. This is a very surprising show, you think you’re going in one direction with the character, then you find out you’re going to turn and go in a completely different direction, and that keeps us all on our toes.”
Follow Nathan Baker on Twitter @JCPressBaker. Like him on Facebook: www.facebook.com/jcpressbaker.comments powered by Disqus