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Leading Lady – From Wall Street to Broad Sreet, OITNB’s Alysia Reiner is a Star Who Keeps on Rising

Leading Lady – From Wall Street to Broad Sreet, OITNB’s Alysia Reiner is a Star Who Keeps on Rising

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By Pamela Jacobs.

Photography: Andrew Walker/Getty

Hair and Makeup: Angel Morales/Bella on Demand

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To say that Alysia Reiner’s career is on fire is like saying New York is a nice, little city. The actress–currently starring on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black–is seeing the kind of success most actors dream of. 

In addition to receiving multiple awards–including a Screen Actors Guild Award for her work in Sideways–and working alongside some of Hollywood’s biggest names, including Morgan Freeman and Diane Keaton, Reiner is creating her own filmmaking empire.

Together with writer/actress/producer Sarah Megan Thomas, Reiner has created a production company, Broad Street Pictures. Their first movie, Equity, with a projected release date of Summer 2016, is already generating a ton of buzz (it was recently announced that Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn will star in the lead role). It tells the story of a high-powered Wall Street executive in the dramatic post-financial-crisis world, but it’s got an element that no other Wall Street movie has had before: The financial master-of-the-universe is a woman.

Considering Reiner’s unstoppable drive, this comes as no surprise, and is certainly fitting. From her role as Natalie “Fig” Figueroa, the assistant warden everyone loves to hate on OITNB, to D.A. Wendy Parks on How to Get Away with Murder, Reiner is no stranger to playing powerful women.

Yet when you meet her, you immediately see that she’s an incredibly talented actress; the intimidating, eat-you-alive persona is all an act. Sure, she’s as powerful as the women she plays, but she’s also incredibly sweet, down-to-earth, and simply lovely. She and her husband, actor David Alan Basche, along with six-year-old daughter Livia, turned a dilapidated Harlem brownstone into an eco-friendly, sustainable zen retreat, and the love and warmth that fill the home are evident at every turn.

We had the opportunity to sit down with Reiner in her eco-dream home, and among the family photos and green design details, got to discuss everything from life in New York to the prison system and parenting, and where the Broad Street Pictures producer is headed next.

Pamela Jacobs: You’re considered a role model for green living. Did you start out thinking `I want to do this major green home project and document it’?

Alysia Reiner: No, I was just doing it. Whenever you start something that you might never do again, you want to teach people and help other people to do it right. I don’t know that I’m ever going to buy a brownstone again and redo it and turn it into my green Barbie dream house. But having done so, I learned so much and I felt like `of course I want to share this information.’ It’s like when you first have a child, you want to share every piece of information and sit with every other mother to save them the time and pain.

Part of doing it is, sometimes you make mistakes. If you’re going to do anything for the first time, that means you’re not going to do it perfectly, but you learn and help others.

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PJ: And have you learned that especially since becoming a mother?

AR:  Oh my God, yes [laughs]! My husband–when we first had our daughter–put a tattoo on his wrist that says `there is no perfect,’ and he did that for himself, because he calls himself a recovering perfectionist, but I felt like it was the biggest gift he could ever give me.

PJ:  So green living is a work in progress?

AR: Yes, for me it started with my home and eating, and then got into personal care and cosmetics, and now I’m looking at it more and more. You can always go deeper. You need to think how much, with every choice you make, you make the world a better place. I think that’s a motto of mine in my life–be it in my art or my living.

PJ: Your home is a great example of making your world a better place. I know it started out quite different than it is now; did you know that’s what you wanted to get into, a major renovation and green transformation?

AR: We had no idea! I grew up on the Upper West Side of New York, and my parents got divorced and we lived in a bunch of different places, and I always loved the Upper West Side. My husband and I were on 84th Street for a long time in a fantastic one bedroom with a garden, and when we decided we wanted to buy something, because we wanted to start a family, we looked it over 106 properties all over the city.

Then we saw this house, and it was in foreclosure, the windows were cinder-blocked shut, it was a crazy mess. There was no electric, no plumbing, no floors, and it was raining on you inside. It was a hot mess, and we had no idea what we were doing, but we decided to go for it, and we learned by doing it.

PJ: And do you now feel like you’re a real part of this neighborhood [Harlem]?

AR: Absolutely. What’s amazing about this area is that it’s a true neighborhood. I feel like I live on Sesame Street–I cannot walk down my block without saying hello to everyone I pass. We all know each other really well and everyone is so friendly. We have two community gardens on the block, and there are so many families. On Sundays we do we do this thing called `wining with no whining.’ We get together, the kids hang out and the parents drink wine. We’ve really cultivated some amazing friendships here on the block and in this neighborhood. My husband always says `we weren’t exactly pioneers, but we jumped on the back of the bandwagon.’

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PJ: The characters you play are always these really strong, powerful women, many of whom are definitely pioneers.

AR: It’s crazy! It’s funny to me because I’m such a big mush ball, and being a mom is my favorite thing on the planet. I cry at the drop of a hat, but for whatever reason I’m blessed to play these super strong, amazing women–some good, some bad. I’m about to play another one in the movie I’m doing this summer, called Equity. She’s a lawyer who’s investigating white collar crime and insider trading. I’m really excited about it.

PJ: And this is the movie you’re producing as well? Was that part of the plan ahead of time?

AR: It was; my producing partner, Sarah Megan Thomas, and I made a movie in 2012 [Backwards] that she wrote, starred in, and produced in less than a year, which takes a lot of energy! When we were doing it, we were like `We have to do this again,’ and then a lot happened with Orange, but we started talking about it again.

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We started wondering, if we were going to make a movie again, what would it be about? We had some really strong criteria: Something that would be commercially successful, something people had never seen before–which is so insanely hard to find–and something that makes the world a better place. We talked about so many ideas, but then we started talking about how we’ve never really seen a woman in the world of Wall Street, and how we’ve never really seen a realistic Wall Street movie featuring women. We’ve never seen how social media has affected Wall Street, and never really seen Wall Street post-2008.

So she and I came up with this idea and wrote a treatment and hired an amazing writer named Amy Fox, whose first movie [Heights] went to Sundance, with Elizabeth Banks and James Marsden. She did an extraordinary job of taking all of our ideas and making it into a script, and then we started raising the money, and hired our amazing director, Meera Menon, whose first movie [Farah Goes Bang] went to the Tribeca Film Festival and won the Nora Ephron Prize. Now we’re hiring our cast, and I play this great supporting role, and it’s just really, really fun.

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PJ: I’m sure you get excited about all roles, but does this feel a little special, like a baby for you?

AR: Absolutely. It’s so hard and it makes me appreciate how much I love acting–which I love so much–but this is like, we came up with this idea together and we’re about to actually shoot it, and that’s so fun and exciting. We call it a `stealth bomb social impact film,’ because it’s an incredibly thrilling story and Amy’s written a great movie, and we know the director will direct a phenomenal film.

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Alysia in a scene from Season 2 of OITNB. Photo credit Jessica Miglio for Netflix
Alysia in a scene from Season 2 of OITNB. Photo credit Jessica Miglio for Netflix
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So it’s our hope that it really helps move the needle for women in business. The whole goal of the production company, Broad Street Pictures, is that more women will be in front of and behind the camera. You’ve got two female producers, a female director, a female writer, female production designer, and a female costume designer. We’re trying to hire as many women as possible, and it’s really exciting. This is a Wall Street movie where the lead is a woman, and you just don’t see that.

PJ: It seems doing something different is a theme throughout your career, certainly with Orange as well.

AR: I always say I was deeply inspired by both Jenji [Kohan, OITNB creator] and Shonda [Rhimes, How to Get Away with Murder producer]. They’re both just incredible women who have totally changed everything for women, and we want to do that too.

PJ: When Orange first premiered, in the first week it generated more viewers than other Netflix original series before and after it–which is not surprising–but did you have any idea that it would be the success that it has become?

AR: We had no idea. When we were making it, it was like in this crazy little bubble; House of Cards haven’t even premiered yet, so we had no idea what was going to be and what was going to happen, and then we made it, but really I still can’t believe it.

PJ: The show is another example of changing the way women play a role in society and how’s that’s portrayed. Is that something that inspires you?

AR: Absolutely. I think there is always a gestalt effect to everything, and whenever you’re surrounded by incredibly amazing women–and by the way, Jenji also has three kids–you’re like `I want to do that.’ One of my favorite shows is Girls, and the fact that Lena writes, directs, and stars in it–I’m like `how does she do that?’  When I was 20, I didn’t want to do that, I just wanted to be an actress. And then watching these amazing women, all of a sudden I was like, `well, maybe I do want to try that, that’s kind of cool.’

PJ:  Right now there’s been all this talk in the news about the escaped inmates [from Clinton Correctional Facility] and the relationships between prisoners and guards. Are you now hyperaware of relationships like this, having done Orange?

AR:  Definitely. I’m not that into reading about prison breaks, but I’m very interested in how we can change the whole prison system. That, to me, is what my job has illuminated. I’ve always been so curious about that, and I’ve never been a huge fan of the American prison system, with the choices that they make, and it wasn’t until this happened that I went `oh, now I found my way in.’

Dress: Jitrois,
Dress: Jitrois,

Piper [Kerman], who wrote the actual memoir, really helped connect us with the Women’s Prison Association, which is an amazing organization that helps women in prison and their families get resources when they’re in prison, and even more fully when they first come out, so they have help to acclimate and get housing and a job. That’s incredible for a multitude of reasons–for them and for society–to prevent recidivism.

I’ve had so much fun with them. They actually gave me their Sarah Powell Huntington Award last year because I got so into it, in my obsessional way. With everyone I’d meet, I’d be like `oh you teach yoga, want to come teach yoga to women in prison? Oh you make organic sheets, want to donate organic sheets to every woman who comes out of prison?’ Then I also designed a piece of jewelry and 100% of the proceeds go to the Women’s Prison Association.

PJ: You’re involved in so many exciting things, and your career is exploding. Are you getting recognized a lot when you’re out and about in the city and on the subway?

AR: I’m definitely getting recognized now more, especially after season 2, but for me the most important thing is my daughter, and I don’t want her to feel like she’s not important. One of the ways I’ve done this is through `no-selfie Sundays,’ with no selfies allowed. My daughter is everything to me.

Looking around her home, this is clear. She and husband David have created a remarkable example of green living, but beyond that, they’ve created a home, in every sense of the word. Their daughter’s art fills the walls, and her livelihood fills the space. They may be two highly successful actors with unstoppable careers, but at the end of the day, they’re two true New Yorkers who care deeply about their role as parents, which is obviously their most important role. And Reiner–actress, producer, humanitarian–is proving to be quite the role model, as well.

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