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Interview: Emily Althaus

It must be a wonderful thing to know exactly what you want to be when you are very young. For Kentucky native Emily Althaus, she knew exactly what she wanted to be when she was a child.

An actor’s life can be a hard life, but you have to have talent, skill and a little bit of luck to make it in the business. Emily has all of that and then some. She got her start in theater with performances in Harvey (Broadway), Assistance (The Wilma Theatre), and Three Sisters (Classic Stage Company).

She then made the leap into television with guest appearances in hit series such as Blue Blood, Law & Order: SVU and The Impossibilities. She recently appeared in several episodes of the short-lived HBO series Togetherness. Currently, she can be seen in the hit Netflix series Orange is the New Black playing Maureen Kukudio who is the love interest for Crazy Eyes.

Today, we sit down with this incredible actress to talk about her start in the business, her work on Orange is the New Black and how she stays grounded in the crazy world of an actor.

Pop Culture Principle – Did you know at a young age that being an actress is what you wanted to do as a career?

Emily Althaus – I know I did. As I’ve grown older, I realized that there is a bit of arrogance in that. I was surrounded by people who were very supportive, and I never had that feeling of what an odd choice acting would be.

I got involved really early in community theater and things at church where I was performing all the time. I went to a performing arts high school in Louisville, so I was always on the path of becoming an actor.

I was thinking about this the other day—about having the privilege of being able to choose a passion to follow and how that is something I can never forget and something that I was able to do. I know it’s not the case for everyone, but I feel very lucky to have been given the opportunity as a child to play around with this.

Pop Culture Principle – One of your first professional acting jobs was on the series Blue Bloods. Can you tell us about that experience?

Emily Althaus – Technically, my very first television gig was Orange is the New Black, but it just hadn’t come out yet. I had done a lot of theater and had come to New York to do theater and never imagined that I would be in film or television. I had this thing in my brain where could a person like me be on screen? So, Orange broke open some things for me and, when I was shooting Orange, I got to book some other things like Law & Order: SVU and Blue Bloods.

Those shows are great and are like institutions that run like a machine because they have been on for so long. I had a blast on each of those shows. The people I got to work with in my scenes couldn’t have been more welcoming and more generous. I got lucky early on with just being around positive people on sets, and seeing the positive side of the business when I’ve heard about the other side.

Pop Culture Principle – Your audition process for Orange is the New Black was pretty lengthy and you originally auditioned for a different part. Can you tell us a bit about that?

Emily Althaus – You can look at it as lengthy or the opposite of that, but definitely different. I was auditioned to play Pennsatucky’s mom in a flashback. I got an email later saying that they liked me but weren’t going to use me for that part, but that they want to write something for me. That turned into a couple of lines in one episode which led to a couple of lines in another episode. I genuinely showed up for most of that season not knowing whether I would be coming back again. It wasn’t until five episodes in that a director and writer, Nick Jones, told me that it was okay and that they would have me in more episodes.

It was definitely a different process, and I had never had that happen before. As far as going in for them, it was just the one time on tape and doing something totally different. I am in awe every day that they let me play around on set and that they kept me.

Pop Culture Principle – Were you nervous or did you have any concerns joining a series with a show that not only has a cast that had been together for two seasons already, but was also an extremely popular series?

Emily Althaus – Oh yes, definitely. Being such a fan of the shows, there was a little bit of nervousness. I had met a handful of the girls through various New York moment sort of thing. Actually, Danielle Brookes, who plays Tasty—quite brilliantly I might add—she and I had done a little play together right when she graduated Julliard. When I knew she booked that show, I knew I had the watch the show to support her and then very quickly became a fan of hers.

So it was weird. I knew some people on the show, but still had the complete reverence for the series. So there were definitely some nerves to swallow, but I got to ease into it a little bit. My first few scenes were with one person at a time, and then it sort of hit me that I was showing up in these group scenes with people that I love. I think I tried to play it super cool, and then privately freaked out when the door was shut!

Pop Culture Principle – What has it been like working with award winning actress Uzo Aduba, and what have you learned from her?

Emily Althaus – Every day that I get to work with Uzo I learn something new, and she’s so generous and genuinely deservers every good thing that comes her way. I believe that. It’s a blast because she makes that theater thing that I know and love possible on television, and it’s amazing to me. Something as simple as saying “Good show!” before a take, she helps makes every moment amazing. Just being in scenes with her reminds you why you do what you do.

You are with someone who is just alive and living in that moment and you are alive and living in that moment, and you get to be those two different people living in that same moment at the same time. It’s just fun, and then you get to try it again in a different way. It’s like being in a playground, and Uzo is my favorite play date.

Pop Culture Principle – Your character, Maureen Kukudio, brings a new dimension and depth to Suzanne. Would you agree with that?

Emily Althaus – I love any time you get to see another side of someone via their personal relationships. I think it’s something exciting for people that root for her, because it’s a character you want to champion. We’ve seen her sort of love and love and give and give, that there is something I think so rewarding about seeing someone else choose her. I was excited about whatever part my character played in showcasing another part of her character, because she’s definitely someone you just want to cheer for.

Pop Culture Principle – It was just recently announced that HBO would not be brining Togetherness back for another season. What were your thoughts on that cancellation?

Emily Althaus – I was so bummed when I heard about that cancellation. It was another show that I was a huge fan of, and really respect everyone on that show so much. It was such an honor to be a part of the two seasons that they had.

Pop Culture Principle – Can you tell us about your character, Natalie, and what it was like working on that series?

Emily Althaus – Natalie is just in it for fun. She’s just this normal chick. She’s dynamic, has these layers, and knows how to have a good time. I think she comes in to Brett’s life just as he is needing something else. He doesn’t even know what he is looking for and he finds this interesting, creative girl that he’s able to be his fun self with and not have all that baggage. She’s just an easy person to hang with, and especially for him right when he finds her.

As far as working on that series and shooting the show: talk about fun! There was so much improv and freedom and I am sure I won’t have that experience again until I work with them again sometime in the future, I hope. They are allowed to have this freedom on set because they have done such a great job curating every person they surround themselves with. You get this sort of family sense and it’s a smaller cast as compared to Orange is the New Black.

We just got to play, and it was totally different to get a page of dialogue that’s well written but then to have that freedom to sort of fill in stuff was fun. It took me back to my college improv days, and it was really a blast to work on that show.

Pop Culture Principle – Do you see yourself writing, directing or producing in the near future?

Emily Althaus – You know, that’s such a fun question. I started out in New York with my best friend Megan Venzin, who is the craziest girl I know. We went to college together, and when we were first in New York we had no idea what we were doing. I wrote a really short one-woman show called “Stop Possuming Mommy”. It’s about my mother, who has narcolepsy and is from the South, and all those silly stories that go with each of those facts.

I told Megan about my one-woman show about my mom and started to describe it to her and found out that she kept a Word document of crazy stuff about her mother. So we got together and started working on this sketch comedy show about our moms. It was a blast, and I spent my early twenties touring that show with my friend.

I don’t know that I am arrogant enough or confident enough to call myself a full on writer, but I know that we made some really good stuff. If I was given the opportunity, I would certainly continue to write to this day if I came across an idea that I felt that I could flesh out with the same kind of honesty and partnership; I would absolutely love to make writing as a part of my career at large. Writing was a huge part of my beginning. I want to do it all and I’m at that really hungry place in my career in the business where I want to do everything.

Pop Culture Principle – What keeps you grounded?

Emily Althaus – I would say family definitely and include with family my best friends. I don’t get to Kentucky as often as I like, but I do get to live with my sister in New York which is amazing. So much of this is all about who you know in the networking sense and who you know who keeps you like you. I would spin off this planet if I didn’t have the people that ground me on a weekly basis. I have a lot of good people in my life for sure.

Pop Culture Principle – What advice would you give someone who wants to become an actor?

Emily Althaus – I think it goes back to that last question that you asked. You have to surround yourself with really good people that encourage you. If you know that acting is what you truly want, then make it the most important thing. You have to be in love with what you are pursuing. You are never done learning and that is something you learn as well.

What’s great about our jobs as actors is that we are in the business of empathy and human connection, and so the more that you are out in the world being a real person and making connections with other real people out in the world, the better you will be at your job. I love being in the business of caring and getting to know people and I think that’s an honor, honestly. It’s a little bit of what makes acting a noble profession.

We would like to thank Emily for taking the time to talk with us. Orange is the New Black's fourth season will premiere Friday, June 17 exclusively on Netflix. If you would like to keep up with all of Emily's latest news and projects, you can follower her official Facebook page here or follow her on Twitter @emilyalthaus.

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