Last we saw Sam Healy on Orange Is the New Black, fans witnessed a new side of Litchfield Penitentiary’s enigmatic inmate counsellor. Healy, previously characterized best by the things he hated most, turned out to have an illuminating backstory rendering the source of his contempt crystal clear.
According to Michael Harney, the three-time SAG award-winning actor behind Healy, this attempt to shine a blinding light on mental health is commendable, and all too rare in the mainstream.
“I think these things need to be discussed more on TV,” Harney tells Zimbio in a recent interview. “I’m all for inclusion.”
As Healy’s character has developed, his status has changed. Initially representative of discrimination and bigotry, Season 5 of the powerful Netflix series will see him in the powerful position of bringing mental health awareness to viewers.
“We deal with people that are struggling with mental illness, developmental delays, or different ways of being, and we still largely have [this idea] in our collective consciousness that they’re to be put off to the side,” Harney says. “I know that by making a conscious decision to be present with these people and to support them, to go the extra mile, and to spend time with them helping them process things…I know that that works. I know that people get led to their lives that way. These people are pushed to the side. They are not acknowledged, they are not served, they are not supported, and really, quite frankly, they are not loved. They are left waiting for the bus. And that’s a tragedy in our country.”
Take one look at a newspaper and it’s evident there couldn’t be a better time for a character like Healy to undergo this self-realization, challenging the taboo behind getting help. In November, Marie Claire pointed out the similarities — both mental and physical — between Harney’s Sam Healy and White House Chief Strategist/alt-right enthusiast Steve Bannon.
“[Bannon] is a man that conservative pundit Glenn Beck described as ‘terrifying,’ and who the leader of the American Nazi party called ‘surprising,'” the site writes. “And truth be told, he looks a whole lot like Officer Sam Healy from Orange Is the New Black (not to be confused with actor Michael Harney, who is by all accounts a charming man).”
It’s a comparison Harney has seen before.
“Yeah, I mean, physically there are some similarities,” he acknowledges. “I don’t know, man, I’m really for human rights and for civil rights and for going against any injustices that are going down, for sure. I’ve certainly been upset and dismayed by a lot of things that have happened recently since Trump’s been in office and Bannon’s been his key advisor. Those guys up there make decisions and I feel like we don’t know what the hell is going on half the time. There’s definitely a similarity physically, but philosophically I probably oppose him on most things.”
On his own time, however, Harney has been busy.
On April 28, the actor will supplement his already impressive resume with a brand new accomplishment: the release of a production entitled The Awful Grace of God. In partnership with critically acclaimed director (and dear friend) Mark Kemble (Bad Hurt), Harney will bring his six original plays to life for the good people of Los Angeles. Kemble, Harney says, is currently pulling off 16-hour days to ensure the show is top-notch.
“When he read my plays, he said, ‘I’d like to direct them all.’ I said yes right away,” Harney says of Kemble. “He’s the commanding force. He’s marshaled so many different resources for me, I can’t even begin to tell you. I would never be able to achieve what I’m achieving with these plays without him, so I feel extremely lucky and grateful that he took an interest in my work. It doesn’t really get any better than him, and I’m not just saying that.”
Contrary to the plays’ title, Harney, who nearly became a Jesuit priest years ago, says they aren’t religious — by his definition.
“The plays have to do with a mysticism,” he says. “They have to do with other dimensions, not just this one. One of the plays in particular has to do with the interpenetrative nature of Heaven and earth. Some people call that religion, some call it mysticism, some people call it fate. I try not to put labels on it. I try to just put out there that there are potential possibilities to consider that I’ve personally experienced. ‘Religious’ to me is really just indicative of discipline, and in some reference, they are about the discipline of living.”
The Awful Grace of God sounds like an experience Harney’s Sam Healy could benefit from.
“In any true spiritual discipline, to me, the discipline will lead you to an openness and acceptance of all religions, and all paths,” Harney shares. “So it’s not a finite thing in regards to this being about religion, or some philosophical position, or religious position. They’re written open-endedly so that people can arrive at their own perception, and hopefully, they’ll arrive at a place that’ll have some transformative quality for them in their personal life.”
Healy’s journey picks back up with Orange Is the New Black’s fifth season on June 9.
“The writing just keeps getting better,” Harney says of the upcoming season, “and the risk-taking in regards to [series writer] Jenji [Kohan]’s tutelage. We have a crackerjack writing team, so it’s at such a high level. It’s true.”
According to Harney, who was accepted as a lifetime member of The Actors Studio last year, fans can expect to feel surprise, anger, and happiness this season — with one emotion resounding in particular: shock.
“The word surprise is a good word to use,” he shared. “‘Shock’ would probably be a good one to use. And just the ride, you know? I mean, it’s a continuation, and yet a departure from the ride that everybody’s taking with us.”