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Q&A: Orange Is The New Black’s Sian Heder On Her Debut Feature, Tallulah

The Netflix dramedy reunites ‘Juno’ stars Ellen Page and Allison Janney as a kidnapper and her unlikely (and oblivious) accomplice

Writer-director Sian Heder’s debut feature, Tallulah, has the sort of plot you’d expect to find only in an ’80s soap opera or a particularly trashy back issue of the National Enquirer: A young vagrant (Ellen Page) living out of her van gets roped into babysitting the neglected baby of a drunken housewife (Tammy Blanchard), kidnaps said baby on a whim, then begins to raise the baby as her own alongside the mother (Allison Janney) of her MIA ex-boyfriend. Heder heaps another layer of unbelievability atop the story by tingeing it with magical realism — both Janney and Page’s characters, at separate points, float off the ground and into the ether. All of these surrealities, though, can't compare to the strangest thing about Tallulah: It's inspired by a true story.

Years ago, Heder was working as a babysitter to filthy-rich hotel-dwellers and was drawn into a singularly bleak domestic situation: “I just had this really strange night with this woman,” she says. “She’d come to the hotel to have an affair, and she hadn’t brought her nanny because the nanny would tattle to the husband, and she’d never been alone with her toddler before. She had all these strange theories about her kid — she thought her kid should be potty-trained already even though she was only 1. She left and went out and came back wasted, passed-out drunk.”

While the woman was out, Heder found herself bonding intensely with the child. “I felt this incredible physical urge to take this kid with me when I left,” says Heder. “But I didn't. I actually called the hotel and had said to them, ‘There's this woman and she's drunk,’ and they said they couldn't intervene because she was a private guest. They suggested I call child services. But I felt too intense to do that to her — I’d just been in this woman’s life for one night and I didn’t know her story. So I left, and I cried all the way home in my car.”

When Heder got back home, she wrote a 10-page scene about what she’d experienced, because it was “too weird” to forget. Even weirder, still: When she asked some actor friends to do a reading of the scene, she realized it was, somehow, completely hilarious. “It was crazy that this thing I’d written as a terrible tragedy could be hilariously funny at the same time,” says Heder. “I knew there was something really interesting in that tone and that story. So I made it first as a short film [called Mother], and it got spun out into a feature.”

After years of fighting to get the film made with her artistic integrity intact, Heder — who was, until two weeks into the fourth season, a staff writer on Orange Is the New Black and has some opinions about its shocking finale — sold the full-length film to Netflix, where it’ll premiere on July 29. We caught up with her before to talk about the consistently underrated Allison Janney, why this season of Orange Is the New Black may have ended differently if she’d stayed on staff, and how Ray Romano’s total ignorance about the female anatomy inspired one of her favorite scenes.

It’s impressive that for your first film, you have this really stacked cast — even for the smaller parts, which are played by Zachary Quinto and Uzo Aduba. How’d you get Allison Janney and Ellen Page, in particular?

Sian Heder: I met with Ellen through her manager, who’d given the script to her. The movie took a long time to get made, and I remember seeing her shortly after Juno, and thinking, “Oh my gosh, she'd be amazing.” But she was too young. So one of the benefits of having a movie take this long to get made is it gave Ellen Page a chance to grow up and grow into the character. I met with her and we clicked. She’s someone who ... you know, not everyone I think would entertain an idea of living a lifestyle like this. But I think Ellen, in a different world, could be traveling around the country in a van, living like a hobo [laughs]. So I think that feral, wild quality in the character was something she related to. And also, she’s so charming in person. On the page, there’s this character who’s kind of unlikable, a scam artist. But Ellen’s charm and humor balance that out. You want the audience to be on board with her despite the fact that she’s this incredibly flawed person.

Allison was the same thing — we just clicked. I met her for a lunch meeting and we had a glass of wine and just laughed a lot. I think there was something she really tapped into in her character, Margo’s, sense of thoughts and relationships. Allison is one of those actresses who’s up there with Meryl Streep and hasn’t gotten to play enough leading roles.

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Do you think she feels that she’s been underserved? Because I totally agree.

Heder: Allison is the most humble person you’ll ever meet. She won’t even watch herself onscreen. Every time I gave her a note, she’d be like, “Oh, honey, sorry, that was so terrible,” after she’d delivered some amazing performance. Her range and her depth as an actress lends itself so much to nuance, to really complicated parts, but so often, because she’s also so funny, people cast her as this hilarious, comic-relief character actress. But to me, she’s so elegant and such a force of nature, she should be at the center of more stories.

You said the movie took a while to get off the ground — how much of it had to do with the fact that it centers on three women, two of whom are over 35?

Heder: Oh, yeah. I heard again and again: “If only one of these characters was a man.” Trying to finance a film with three female actors — and actually no real substantial male parts, I think all of the male parts are interesting but they’re not the focus — that was definitely challenging. The movie was also very ambitious in terms of its budget level. It wasn’t three people talking in a room — there are big, cinematic things. People float. There’s diving into the Hudson River. There’s a chase scene in the subway with a big train. So there were these things that made it expensive for an indie movie, and I heard again and again that that combination — that it was ambitious, that we’re trying to find financing for three female leads — was gonna be a huge challenge, and it was.

I was lucky when I found my producing partners. Not only did they green-light the project and finance it, but they really allowed me to make the movie I wanted to make. And they allowed me to cast Carolyn [Blanchard] by auditioning her. I knew that’d be the hardest part of the film, because that character, in lesser hands, could be a complete parody. I knew I needed to see someone do it and nail it, and they allowed me to find an amazing New York theater actress who just blew it away, but didn’t necessarily give you the foreign financing. I think they trusted in me and knew that the film was performance-dependent, which allowed me to cast it with great people.

Orange Is the New Black and Tallulah both find a lot of empathy for what are surface-level unsympathetic characters, particularly women who have behaved “badly.” Was that a purposeful choice? Why do you think you’re drawn to those kinds of stories?

Heder: I think so often women have, in storytelling and in Hollywood and on TV, been forced into these tropes. You’re the dutiful wife who’s waiting at home for your husband to come back, or you’re the sexy bad-girl adulteress. In life, we’re complicated people, just as complicated if not more so than men. Those are more interesting characters to watch. Television has moved faster than movies in getting that, getting that you can have female antiheroes that people will get on board with and want to watch. It’s exciting to me when you see good people making terrible decisions, because it’s so human and so many men and women can relate to that. We’re all flawed, and we all fuck up, and it’s great when you see that portrayed on film. It feels like life.

Speaking of Orange [spoilers ahead], I have to ask you about the writers’ room process for Poussey's death. What was it like to make that decision?

Heder: You know, I left two weeks into the season. So I was in the writers’ room for the first two weeks, and then my film got green-lit, so I had to go to Jenji [Kohan] and beg out of the writers’ room. She was extremely gracious and supportive and said, “Of course you should go make your movie.” So one of the decisions I made was that I didn't want to know what happened. I was like, “I want to experience this season as a fan.” I was so shocked and heartbroken, like I think many of our fans were with that decision. I completely get why the writers’ room made it, but it was painful for me, I think, because as writers who’ve been on that show and have had such a huge part of creating those characters — they’re like our babies, our friends. It’s funny I’m getting a lot of Twitter grief, and I’m like, “You guys, it wasn't me!” It's heartbreaking, because you fall in love with people. But I think that decision was made from a place of wanting to make a statement, and feeling that the most impactful thing is to lose a character that you love. That was part of the point, to take someone that the audience cared about so that it would mean something and feel hard-hitting and be controversial. I think it was a really bold choice, but I can’t say that I was a part of it.

Do you think it may have turned out differently if you were in the writers' room?

Heder: Probably, because there were just so many arguments all the time [laughs]. I’m sure there were debates back and forth about this, and if I’d been in the room, I’d have been strongly opinionated. The way we make decisions is collective, so I don't know if, had I been in the room, I’d [have] been fully convinced by that pitch, by whoever pitched it. I don’t know! Yeah, I probably would’ve argued.

I kind of wish you had been there to argue! So there was this controversy earlier this summer about the lack of diversity in the Orange writers’ room, which some were particularly upset by considering the diversity of the characters. Is that something you noticed, or that you think the show is working on?

Heder: You know, I don’t do the hiring — I’m a staff writer. I certainly feel like it’s important and I’ve encouraged the room to move in that direction. I definitely think it’s a very mixed room in terms of gender, but in terms of ethnicity, I think we certainly need more writers and voices of color. One thing that I think Jenji has always advocated and believed is that she wants to hire strong writers, and it’s not as important to her who they are as it is whether they can get inside the minds of these characters. That’s her stance. But it’s definitely been something that I’ve noticed and I feel like should change.

Is there one line or a scene from the show that you're particularly proud of?

Heder: I wrote “I threw my pie for you,” which ended up on cell phone cases and coffee cups. That was pretty exciting. It was such a fun moment, and Uzo just nailed it. I remember writing the line, and I laughed out loud when I wrote it. And the vagina conversation that happens in Season 2, where nobody knows where women pee out of — that was something that came out of being in the writers’ room and Ray Romano, actually, [when I wrote for] Men of a Certain Age. His wife had given him shit about knowing nothing about the female anatomy, and he asked me where women pee out of, and I made fun of him, and subsequently I found out that nobody knew where women pee out of. Not my friends, not my husband [laughs]. So it became this running joke, and we’d been trying to work in into a season of Orange for, like, two seasons, and I found a way to to get it into my episode. And to have Laverne Cox’s character be the expert on the female vagina was just icing on the cake.