The men behind the curtain

Three actors from "Oz" talk about surviving the slammer, prison politics and the brutish force of the most overlooked show on television.

Published January 15, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Despite a celebrated creator, addictive story lines and a crackling ensemble cast, "Oz" remains the bitch of network television. It's a little unfair. Writer Tom Fontana's violent, realistic drama debuted five years ago and uninitiated viewers still dismissively call it "that prison show on HBO."

Yet like this season's "24" and the prematurely defunct "Homicide: Life on the Street" (another Fontana creation), "Oz" has managed to fly low on the Nielsen radar while attracting an unshakably faithful audience attracted to the sheer ballsiness and uncompromising sophistication of the material.

Set in the fictional Oswald State Correctional Facility, "Oz" is a testosterone-drenched male soap opera centering around the inmates of "Emerald City" -- an experimental, maximum-security unit of Oswald. With its glass-enclosed cells and suffocating architecture, Em City looks and functions like a human ant farm, playing home to such motley residents as a gay serial killer, a homicidal skinhead, a Muslim writer-turned-arsonist, a junkie basketball player, a slut lawyer and an evangelical preacher played by Luke Perry.

Fontana and his writers have fashioned this merry-less land of Oz as a microcosm of humanity, using the fishbowl as a way to comment on universal politics and interpersonal protocol. Ultimately, all that really separates these convicts from the rest of us is their aptitude for murder, mind games and manipulation. That is "Oz's" singular triumph: its ability to make audiences care about the fate of people more deserving of our contempt than our compassion.

Salon recently spoke via conference call with Kirk Acevedo (who plays the psychotic, suicidal gang leader Miguel Alvarez), Harold Perrineau (the savvy, wheelchair-bound narrator Augustus Hill) and Dean Winters (crafty schemer and resident troublemaker Ryan O'Reily). "Oz" airs Sunday nights at 10 on HBO.

Tom Fontana is the driving force behind the series and has long been considered one of the best TV writers. What do you admire most about his writing?

Kirk Acevedo: What I enjoy about Tom's writing is that it's very accessible for the actors emotionally. He allows them to go certain places that you wouldn't normally be able to go on some other TV shows.

Harold Perrineau: I like Tom's writing for its simplicity and therefore its complexity. It's really, really simple writing, but profound in the sense that it speaks to everybody. Tom will deal with issues that I think a lot of writers on TV or anywhere don't want to deal with -- things that everyday people of all races and economic backgrounds have to deal with. Tom finds a way to put them all in. Even in the world of Oz, it's pretty fantastic that he can touch so many people.

Dean Winters: I like Tom's writing because it's fearless. He doesn't write the obvious material. He doesn't write the obvious endings. He doesn't write what he thinks is going to be commercially acceptable. Which is probably the one reason why he's kind of stayed in the background as far as winning awards and all that. He takes the unpopular route. I think that people who are really dialed into this business have the utmost respect for him.

Does it bother you that "Oz" doesn't receive the same recognition as fellow HBO programs like "The Sopranos" and "Sex and the City?"

Winters: I think that we all feel the same way. For any of us to say that it doesn't bother us would kinda be a lie. It does bother us. I don't think the actors are necessarily looking for awards, but it would be really nice if Tom got the respect he deserves. Unfortunately, in the Hollywood way, respect comes in the form of a trophy a lot of the time.

Perrineau: If we were more recognizable, really, we wouldn't feel as cool as we do. [Everyone laughs] We actually feel like we're doing something that's worthy of being done. I don't know about anybody else, but I don't feel in any way like I'm selling out to some sort of corporate television thing for the masses. You know ... I'm representin'. [Laughs]

Winters: No doubt "Sex and The City" and "The Sopranos" are great shows ... but it's been done before. I think people are a little bit frightened of us and there might be a little hesitation to give awards. Also, because we only do eight episodes a year, we fall into a very weird category.

Did you do any kind of research in preparation for your roles? What kind of feedback have you received from the penal system?

Winters: I went out and robbed a few delis and I arsoned a couple of buildings. [Laugh] That was my research -- I can't speak for the others.

So you're a method actor then?

[Everyone laughs]

Winters: It's kinda hard to research these roles, you know.

Did you hang out in any prisons at all?

Perrineau: I went with Eamonn Walker [who plays Kareem Said] over to Riker's [Island], which is not like a regular state penitentiary but a holding cell. I actually do have a cousin who's upstate, so I would talk to him a bit. There are a few people I know who've been in and out and that's kinda all the research I did.

If you had a chance to play any other character on "Oz," who would it be and why?

Winters: Honestly, I'm not envious, but I love watching Harold in the box. I just think there's something very cool about being the "Our Town" narrator and giving people a checkup every 15 minutes to let them know what they're going through.

Acevedo: I'll have to second that. If I could switch roles, I'd probably wanna switch with that.

Winters: Because you get to sit down all day.


Acevedo: There's something about the solitude of Harold's character, because we have a lot of scenes where there's like two to 20 people in one scene interacting.

Since everybody envies you, Harold, what's your choice?

Perrineau: I don't know. There's so many really interesting roles. One of the things about delivering the monologues and stuff is that it actually gets a little lonely. Sometimes I look for the interaction with the other actors. I almost wish I was playing Lee [Tergeson's] role or Christopher Meloni's because they always have each other. I'd almost do any one of them. I'd love to be O'Reily because of all the stuff he gets to do with Dr. Nathan (Lauren Velez).

While "Oz" is ostensibly a prison drama, it tackles much larger societal themes like racism, capital punishment and a corrupt political system. Has working on the show influenced the way you once thought about these subjects?

Perrineau: Absolutely not.

Winters: Think twice before you cop heroin on the street. [Laugh] Oz is in a fictional city because Tom doesn't have to follow any federal guidelines. I can't speak for these guys, but it definitely made me more aware of the penal system. A lot of that comes from the fact that we get stopped many times during the week by people that have either been in prison or who have had family in prison. They really make you aware of how horrific a place it is.

Acevedo: You would have to say that Tom's views about the penal system definitely weigh toward the left and so do mine. I think there's a theme about rehabilitation throughout the whole thing. I definitely think that in the right facility with the right programs inmates can be rehabilitated to live a normal life in society. I think Tom just leans toward that without knocking you over the head with it.

What influence does the bleak prison setting have on your work atmosphere? How would you describe the usual mood on set?

Winters: Because we moved our set we're in this abandoned military base in the middle of nowhere. In the previous four years that we shot, we really weren't forced to spend time together outside the scene work and now we're completely forced to spend time together. There's no such thing as a trailer -- it's like working with a bare bones theater company. But the actual set itself is so realistic. The second you walk through those doors you really feel like you're in a prison. No exaggeration. Really the only star of the show is the prison. This year it comes glaringly through; it adds to the claustrophobia and tension.

"Oz" is fascinating in its exploration of prison politics and the social hierarchy among inmates. What's the most surprising thing you've learned about life behind bars in a maximum-security facility?

Perrineau: I would have to say that behind bars is no different than in front of bars. People still respond the way that people respond because of love or hate or loyalties. I used to think somehow that if you're in jail you would look different than human, but you're not.

Have any of you become more active in the area of prison reform?

Winters: I've definitely become more aware of the penal system and more aware of what life could be like inside a prison. But as far as becoming proactive in the community, I personally have not done anything. It's tough. What are you gonna do, you know?

Perrineau: I actually met someone who is an organizer for a group who are trying to get the Rockefeller Laws repealed. I haven't started working with them yet, but we've been in contact over the past year. So I've been looking at different groups like that because there's so many things to be done.

Winters: Barry Scheck, O.J.'s lawyer, has an organization (Project Innocence) for death row inmates who couldn't afford to go through the new DNA testing, which is freeing so many people. Basically, a bunch of rappers like Method Man and Nate Dogg got together to make an "Oz" soundtrack and all the money went to Barry Scheck's organization.

Despite the amoral nature of your characters, there's something decidedly likable about them. What's the biggest challenge in breathing humanity into these guys and making them empathetic to audiences?

Winters: I never go into a scene -- ever, ever, ever -- thinking, I have to make myself more empathetic toward the audience. Once you start doing that, you get into really dangerous territory. I think you start to become kind of untrue to the character.

Dean, you work opposite your real-life brother Scott [Cyril O'Reily]. You two have had some gut-wrenching scenes together, particularly when Cyril felt the ill effects of that experimental aging drug. Does the intensity and grimness of the material ever bleed over into your real life?

Winters: If anything, it's almost therapeutic -- it's almost like we get to work this shit out. Our relationship has gotten so much better in the last four years. We're at much different places in our lives. I mean, I've been in scenes with my brother where I've been absolutely emotionally terrified to go somewhere. But because he's my brother I feel safe.

Basically, your brother is playing someone with severe brain damage -- is it tough seeing him that way day in and day out?

Winters: Brutal. There have been numerous times that Tom Fontana will tell you where I've broken down -- where I shouldn't have -- just because I'm looking at him [Scott]. It makes me sick to my stomach. You really inhabit that character. There have been times where I almost got physically sick.

Harold, in many ways Augustus Hill is the conscience of the show. He's the one person we can count on to make sense of this senseless world called Oz. Can you identify with Augustus' disillusionment and cynicism toward society?

Perrineau: I don't know that it's always disillusionment. Sometimes there is, but sometimes it's just calling it the way it is. In order to say a lot of it I really have to get in there and figure what it is he's saying. Most of it I really get and I understand. I have a part of me, and I try not to live in that part all the time, that cynical part of me that sees the world like that and wants to always call it. Augustus' role is to say something about it and then what I do in my life is to try to find things to do about it.

As the show's narrator, you get a chance to recite some really juicy dialogue. Of all the monologues you've delivered, is there any one that still sticks with you?

Perrineau: They're all really, really great monologues. I don't remember the monologue exactly, but there was one that talked about pets and people wondering about whether their pets are gonna go to heaven. It says, "Why are we wondering about our pets when pets don't do the same things that humans do? Pets don't wallow around in lies ... they just live in the truth. How amazing would that be to just live every moment in the truth?" It's really struck me in my life. I really have to look at myself all the time now and go, "Oh, I'm lying. I'm bullshittin'."

How long did it take to adjust to being in a wheelchair for so many hours? Does it ever get frustrating not being able to move around? Do you feel it inhibits your acting style at all?

Perrineau: No, I think it makes me really have to be creative. I used to be a dancer many years ago, so it's a weird poetic justice that I get one of the biggest roles of my life and I can't move the bottom half of my body. I never really get frustrated with it. You can't imagine how much I love going to work -- seriously.

Kirk, Miguel Alvarez is an extremely complex and emotionally layered individual. How do you inhabit a character who's constantly being put through the psychological ringer?

Acevedo: I have to admit, it was fun for the first two or three seasons. Then it got really difficult trying to go to that same place over and over just because the first three seasons he was put into situations that were beyond his control. As an actor, I would say those are the scenes I love to do the most because they're more challenging and I'm able to show the sympathetic side.

In one episode, your character brutally gouges the eyes of a security officer. Does the violence get to you?

Acevedo: I have to go back to what Dean said. It's totally therapeutic to let out a primal howl, an angst, through someone's writing.

How do you all respond to people who accuse "Oz" of furthering negative stereotypes about minorities?

Acevedo: We're talking about a specific group of people who have committed crimes -- whether they be white, black or Hispanic. We're not singling any groups out. In the second season, for instance, Luis Guzman tells my character he's "too white" to be part of the gang. For me personally, it's happened throughout a large part of my childhood where I went to school, in East Harlem, and everyone thought I was white when I'm Hispanic. We incorporated that into the show. But I don't really think it perpetuates stereotypes. I've never had an experience where someone accused something about the show that they thought was racism.

Perrineau: I actually had one where a black man said, "You need to stop what you're doing." And I asked him to really watch the show. Listen, it's a fact that there are a lot of minorities [in prison]. We're not making anybody bigger or smaller or anything. There's a lot of truth-telling in it. There are good people and there are bad people of all races. In "Oz," one moment you think Ryan O'Reily is the biggest dick, and the next moment you're crying your eyes out cause you see how much he loves his brother.

Who's the one inmate in Oz you don't want near you when you drop the soap?

[Everyone laughs]

Perrineau: He's gone. [Simon] Adebisi!

Winters: There hasn't really been a stand-out rapist since he left.

Perrineau: Him or [Christopher] Meloni (playing serial killer Chris Keller).

Winters: Yeah, I wouldn't wanna be in the shower with Meloni. [Laugh]

What was going through your mind the first time you had to do a nude scene?

[Everyone laughs]

Winters: The first time I did the nude scene, I was, like, "Man, it's cold in here." I made sure that the second nude scene I did the temperature was turned up.

Perrineau: This is a really weird thing. I read it and read it and read it [the nude scene] and didn't realize until the day I was shooting it and had to sign a waiver that I was supposed to be nude. I got that I was in the bed with my girl and I then jump out the window, and it still didn't occur to me that I have no clothes on!

Winters: Did you run out on top of the building naked?

Perrineau: I ran out on top of the building, so there were people across the way looking at the building screaming, "Whoooo!" It was a little bizarre. I went out and got thoroughly trashed that night. I was a little freaked out.

So, what do we have to look forward to on the new season of "Oz"?

Winters: I think we can say that one of the more popular cast members who left comes back. As far as my story line goes, something really horrific happens to Cyril and so I kind of spend the second half of the season taking care of my brother, and it goes horribly wrong.

What survival advice do you have for any Salon reader out there who might be on his way to the big house?

Winters: Keep your mouth shut. [Laughs] Or work out and get big enough before you go in.

On a scale of one to 10, how do you rate your chances of lasting in a place like Oz for one year?

Winters: Zero.

Perrineau: I'd have to go with the old zero, too.

Acevedo: I would have to say a "1" just because I think I'd be someone's cupcake.

By Ian Rothkerch

Ian Rothkerch is a New York writer.

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