Matt McGorry did not go directly to jail. Instead, he started performing at just 11 years old, when a flair for card tricks and making little foam balls disappear led to a brief stint as a street magician. (“It’s funny — it didn’t seem weird at the time,” he told EW during a recent office visit. “But in retrospect, my parents really had a lot of trust in me.”)
From there, McGorry moved on to bigger and better things — New York City’s famous LaGuardia performing arts high school, Emerson College, and an acting career both enhanced and stymied by his second gig as a competitive bodybuilder. (At his peak, the NY native could deadlift 576 pounds.) Even though McGorry was finding steady-ish work in funny web videos — a friend at College Humor told him “that they’re always looking for buff dudes and hot girls, because those are, I guess, rarities in the comedy community” — he realized eventually that his impressive stature would mean a future of typecasting.
So McGorry put down the weights, renewed his focus on acting — and nabbed the role of John Bennett on Orange Is the New Black, Netflix’s buzzy series about a women’s prison. Just like that, the guy who was once relegated to playing “Frat Friend” and “EMT #1″ found himself getting increasingly juicier material and acting for guest director Jodie Foster. (“When I saw Jodie Foster [written on a script], I went to IMDB,” he remembered. “I was like, ‘Is there another Jodie Foster? With like, a Q at the end?'”). Once the series premiered to rave reviews, McGorry also found himself becoming a bona-fide heartthrob — complete with a fawning Buzzfeed tribute that’s been viewed almost 200,000 times.
How does McGorry feel about his sudden-onset success, his character’s arc — and a possible Bennett/Pornstache spinoff? You won’t have to travel directly to Litchfield to find out.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you get cast in Orange Is the New Black – and initially, were you skeptical about the idea of doing a Netflix series?
MATT McGORRY: I think off the bat, if it didn’t have Jenji Kohan’s name attached I would have been skeptical. I would tell people about it for months, and they’re like, “Oh, it’s like a web series?”
So the audition: It was like five lines, and I decided to really make it my own. Unlike the role where you’re just like, the EMT [saying] “he’s dead,” on these roles, you want to show them what you can do — even if you’ve only got five lines. So I put my headphones in, and I was just kind of dancing to myself. Actually, one of the writers told me that the headphone thing resonated with Jenji. So it was the one audition, and then I was informed that I had booked the role. There was no callback or anything. It felt almost too easy.
Almost all of the characters on OITNB seem like they could be the main character of a different show. When do you feel that Bennett sort of became real to you?
Because I never knew how long I was going to be around for, I took the mentality of not getting my hopes up — really focusing on taking each scene and getting the most out of it. And I think there was a point around [episode] 5 or 6 [when] I was like, “Oh wow, it’s really growing. Something is happening here.” Then there was an episode that I wasn’t in, and that shook my confidence a little bit. [laughs] In hindsight, watching the episode, it makes more sense for me not to be in it. I don’t know how much I should say in terms of spoilers…
Yeah, it’s so tough to talk about it when you and your friends are all in different places in the show.
It’s been so funny — on Twitter, a day after it came out, I had people being like, “I watched the series.” I’m like, “Oh my God!” I had a head start; I got to watch six [episodes] beforehand. I didn’t think I was going to watch them, actually — I told my girlfriend, “I just want to wait, I want to view it like everyone else.” But then as soon as we broke the seal, it was very hard to stop.
Do people have different reactions to you based on where they are in the show?
That’s kind of what it is. They’re generally positive responses. The thing of playing a character that’s very likeable, is that I think a lot of times people believe you’re the character. No one’s going to stop you and be like, “I hate the f—ing show” and walk away. Well, only one guy, but I took care of him.
We can get into a bit of spoiler territory here. Do you think that Bennett is as likeable at the end of the show as he is at the beginning?
That’s something I actually struggled with a lot.
[SPOILERS FOR EPISODES 8-13 FOLLOW]
Because some people would say that he’s not a good person for having slept with Daya in the first place, since there’s such a huge power differential between them. Do you feel like their relationship is mutual, or that it’ll always be off balance?
It’s hard to fully factor in the power differential. But I think that if anything, I’d say that Daya is more in control than Bennett is. She kind of initiates. My approach to Bennett has been that he’s not someone that considers himself good with the ladies, which is the completely f—ing ironic thing about all the response I’ve been getting for the show. [See again: the Buzzfeed thing.]
I really do think that he feels very strongly for her. It’s not a lust thing. And that does make it tricky. There are people that would certainly argue that he’s abusing his power. I think it’s different from the way Pornstache acts — I would hope. That’s obvious. And the way that Bennett deals with Daya’s pregnancy, it’s very unclear territory. Part of it is he’s looking out for himself, and the practicality of it.
What was your reaction when you found out how she was going to try to get away with being pregnant?
I was just — I was baffled, and I was also just so interested in how they were going to resolve it.
In a show with no shortage of heartbreaking moments, one of the worst is when Daya gets Pornstache to sleep with her — only to realize that he wore a condom, so she’s going to have to go through it all again.
It’s terrible. It’s terrible. [But] Dascha [Polanco] brought so much life to it. Acting with someone else, I can’t tell how good they are because if I’m doing my job right, I’m just fully invested in everything that person’s saying. So it’s wonderful to step back and see how great and natural she is. That’s so heartbreaking. The only thing that possibly made it a little better was, I think, seeing Pornstache climax. [laughs] I have a juvenile sense of humor at times, and I know there’s some part of me that should have felt bad — but seeing Pablo [Schreiber]’s face was the saving grace for me.
When Pornstache comes back to the prison and asks Bennett to give Daya a message for him — that’s simultaneously one of the funniest and most disturbing moments on the show too. I feel like Bennett and Pornstache would make a really good buddy comedy team.
Totally. I took a picture on Twitter that’s gotten a lot of love — it’s him and me at the premiere, back to back, arms crossed. The Bennett and Pornstache spinoff poster. He’s so detestable, the character, and such stark contrast to Bennett. The comedy’s so easy there. It’s so natural. [Schreiber] also will throw some curveballs at you too, which makes it harder not to laugh.
Give me an example.
So before he asks me to go to the bar with him [in episode 11] he flicks my testicles. [laughs] That’s the scientific way of saying it. He does one of these high school ball taps, sends me flinching over. He did that in another scene too. It was worth it — it looks surprising. The places where his mind goes are just disturbing and incredible.
Generally speaking, would you classify the show as a comedy?
Thinking back to Weeds, that’s the only thing for me that’s come as close to walking that fine line between comedy and drama. I think it’s even more potent in Orange. It depends on who’s watching it — I think it really is in the eye of the beholder. For me, my preference for comedy is grounding it in the psychology of the character, and not just kind of making faces. Even when it’s a crazy character, grounded comedy resonates more with people because it doesn’t look like you’re watching someone do vaudeville. No offense to vaudeville.
Everybody in 1902 is really mad at you right now.
[laughs] I know your reader base is mostly vaudevillian. So yeah, I think that being able to ground those characters no matter how crazy they are make it makes you actually care, which makes those right turns even more funny.
So when do you get started on season 2?
I assume I’m allowed to say this — we start Monday. [Note: that’s today!]
That’s great, because knowing season 2 is coming is the only thing that’s getting me through right now.
That’s what I’m hearing! The delirium tremens of Orange is the New Black. I should be getting a script any day, which as a fan, I’m very excited about. What Netflix has done and the risks they’ve taken are just kind of incredible, and I think not having to worry about ratings has allowed us to create a product that’s probably taken more risks than many others.
And considering this year’s Emmy nominations, those risks seem to be paying off. Do you think next year, OITNB might be in a similar position to House of Cards?
You know, I don’t like to make assumptions — but in terms of all objective indicators, it seems like a very good possibility. It seems like it’s been nothing but incredibly positive responses. There are so many people who are getting a chance to do awesome, groundbreaking work on the show who are not types typically seen in most television, particularly network television. I’m so happy for them. Like, I’m a white guy in my 20s — I feel like there’s a lot more out there for me. It’s wonderful to see these people really get their shot.
Is it weird being the white guy on a show with such a diverse female cast? Do you feel out of place?
No, not at all. First of all, I grew up in Chelsea — I like to say I was raised by a pack of gays. And I went to theater high school, and it was a public school as well — I feel like those are both heavily female places. So no, it doesn’t feel weird. Being a male [on the show], there’s probably some similarity to what the disparity’s like in prison.
So do you, like Pornstache, feel like a pieceof meat?
I am a piece of meat! Actually, there’s a little bit of that — during the break from one take one day, there were a couple of background actors that were like, saying, “Oh, you’re so hot.” I get kind of embarrassed about that sort of stuff.
They were just coming up to you and saying that, as a statement?
Yeah! Almost like on Twitter. “You are so hot.” And I don’t know how to reply to that. “Thank you?” You do get a lot more hugs than you would normally because there’s only so many males to give them out. It is cool. I do get more attention. I think it’s probably good that I have a girlfriend.