Alysia Reiner: Actress, Producer, and Advocate

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Alysia Reiner laughing on a rooftop

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Actress, producer, philanthropist, wife, and mother Alysia Reiner wears many hats, and last year she released a movie called Equity. In it she plays Samantha Ryan, a federal investment law prosecutor, married mother of two, and a lesbian. A self-described bleeding heart, Reiner is the antithesis of her calculating character, Natalie “Fig” Figueroa, in Orange Is The New Black. Reiner has dedicated herself to telling stories that matter annd creating opportunities for those who are underrepresented on the big and small screens—people of color and members of the LGBTQ community.

The New York native splits her time between the city and Los Angeles, California, and raises her eight-year-old daughter, Livia, with her husband David Alan Basche. We managed to catch a few minutes with Reiner while she was in L.A. to talk about her film, her activism, and the ways she is making an impact on the world as an artist.

Can you tell me a little about your decision to both act in and produce this movie?
I think it was the story. I only choose to produce when I feel it’s a story that needs to be told, and a story that hasn’t been told. When I was first introduced to the idea of making a movie about women on Wall Street, I was not fully connected to it because as an artist, it’s not my world. Then I started meeting these women and hearing their stories. I was just blown away by the similarities of what it is to be a woman on Wall Street versus a woman in my industry.

I felt that not only do I want to tell this story, I have to tell this story, and if I’m going to tell this story how can I disrupt as many stereotypes as possible? How can I hire as many women as possible? Before we even hired a writer I said, “I want to be married to a woman, I want to be married to a woman of color.” Because I want to create more roles for women, for the LGBT community. I’m the boss and I can do all three of those things.

That’s something I noticed in Equity about Sam. She’s very open about her family life. She mentions her wife, and kids early on but they are not very prominent.
Well the story is a work story. There were actually many more scenes that they were in that we shot but we couldn’t include because it would have been a four-hour movie, and we hope to include it in a TV series eventually.

Similarly, you don’t see Naomi’s backstory. You don’t see any of the character’s backstories and family histories. That’s not what this movie was about. So we added as much as we could. I actually fought for what we have.

Orange is the New Black Actress Alysia Reiner

(Photo by Ashley Barrett)

Now you are involved with charities ranging from cancer to helping young people with stutters. You also work with LGBTQ organizations, right?
I’ve worked with GLAAD, I love working with the ACLU. I’m basically a bleeding heart, and I want everybody to love each other. That’s really the bottom line of me. I tell stories so everybody loves each other, and so everybody gets each other, and everybody loves one another right now. Art is about peace for me. Art is about how do we understand each other’s stories so that we accept each other more. That’s what it’s all about.

That’s beautiful, I wish more people thought that way or understood that.
Me too. And that’s why I make art. Producing is not easy—it’s a lot of work and it’s only worth it if you feel like you’re doing it for a very important reason, and for me that’s the reason. That’s what makes me wake up. Producing is really about problem solving, and everyday there are 100 new problems on your plate, and I’m willing to do it because I’m trying to solve the deeper problems of, how do we all love each other more? How do we all accept each other more? How do we all see each other, hear each other, and know each other more, and relate to each other more? That’s, to me, what art is about.

You are a proponent of women’s rights but the current administration is making some moves that will reduce the control women have over their reproductive health. Is that a fight that you see yourself getting involved in, if you are not already?
I do work with Planned Parenthood. I think what they do is extraordinarily important. Interestingly enough there were a lot of pro-choice female Republicans who invested in Equity, and who are appalled by the current administration. I think it is a time where we have to do whatever we can, and go to any lengths we can to stand up for what we believe in. It’s a scary time for women, for so many communities. I feel right now that our current administration is the opposite of this—how do we all love each other, and listen to each other, and accept each other? It is very upsetting to me, and it makes me take action on a daily basis.

Why is it so important to you to support the LGBTQ community?
I believe that it’s so important that we accept all communities—all races, all colors, all genders, all gender identities—because when we don’t it’s really not accepting a part of yourself, and I think my truth is, we are part of the human community. I’ve written about this in the past how I have an unconscious bias against Republicans. I didn’t realize that until Equity, until all of a sudden I was befriending Republicans because they were women who were supporting me, and the film. I spent time with them, I listened to them, and there were things that I could find about them that I related to. There were things that I could find that I loved, and there were things that I admired about them. We may not agree on politics, and that’s to me is what it’s all about. Find the similarities, not the differences. That’s the only way we can walk through this moment with grace.

Alysia Reiner in Equity

A scene from the movie “Equity”

We love Orange is the New Black. I’ve also seen you in Rosewood as well, and you’re great. But as “Fig” in OITNB, you’re uncompromising, you’re savvy, you’re all-around fantastic. What is it like playing her?
Well playing her has been a really interesting journey. I don’t really like her or what she does. I’ve had long conversations with my daughter who is eight, and has never seen the show, and will not for many years. I use it as a touchstone for talking about acceptance, the prison system, and what I believe. I ask what she believes the prison system should be, and this beautiful eight-year-old is so eloquent about it. That it should be about rehabilitation, about educating people, and giving them skills so that when they come out there is no recidivism. Now part of that is I’ve been volunteering with the Women’s Prison Association for the last five years, and she comes with me, and probably has heard a lot of that. But part of that is her inherent belief in, how do we help one another?

Playing Fig is an interesting moment, because I don’t know if she necessarily believes in helping the human family, but I try to show cracks in her own armor. Particularly in this season when she does hear Taystee, and she does relate to Taystee, and she does really try to help to the best of her ability. I don’t think anyone thinks they’re a bad person. I don’t think anyone thinks they’re doing things for the wrong reason. I think everyone thinks they’re a good person, and doing the best they can. So how do we just help them to grow a little bit?

You said earlier that you are interested in creating more spaces on screen for women of color and queer-identified women. Will we be seeing more of you in these roles?
For me it’s all about breaking stereotypes, and making everybody feel accepted in this world, and part of as opposed to separate, and part of a community. So I am not specifically looking for scripts that are focused on the LGBT community but I am always open to them. I am just looking for amazing stories that help more people feel loved, accepted, and tell stories that make the world a better place, and haven’t been told before. My latest film is called Egg, and it’s about changing our stereotypes about what is motherhood, and what is fatherhood, and what is it to be a parent.

As a producer, are there any projects that you’re working on or interested in pursuing that are related to the LGBTQ community?
At the moment I have two projects that I’m helping to develop. Both have LGBT characters in them, but both are not in spaces where I can announce them yet.

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