EXCLUSIVE: Jolene Purdy Goes From 'Chut Up' Girl in 'Donnie Darko' to 'OITNB' Breakout
By Stacy Lambe
Photo: Getty Images
In season four of Orange Is the New Black, Netflix's award-winning series about the female prisoners at the Litchfield Correctional Facility, the cast expands rapidly as the busloads of women seen at the end of season three settle in, throwing off the penitentiary's delicate ecosystem. One of those new women, and Piper Chapman's (Taylor Schilling) new bunk mate, is Stephanie Hapakuka, played by Jolene Purdy.
"My first day was actually the scene where I walk in and the entire cast was there," Purdy tells ET about working with the ensemble cast. "And Emma [Myles, who plays Leanne Taylor] brought cookies. And her giving me a cookie felt like, 'OK, you're in with us now.' It was really a welcoming experience -- everyone is so lovely and supportive of each other."
If Purdy, now 32, looks familiar, you may have recognized her from the cult classic Donnie Darko, which came out 15 years ago. In the Richard Kelly-directed sci-fi film, Purdy plays Cherita Chen, a bullied grade-school student, opposite Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone and Drew Barrymore.
It also happened to be Purdy's very first onscreen role. "It was my first audition for anything. It was an insane project to get to be a part of," the former child star, who has appeared on teen shows such as 10 Things I Hate About You, Gigantic, and Glee, says. And considering the circumstance, Purdy couldn't help but fangirl on set, especially when it came to Barrymore, oh whom she had a girl crush on. "When I was sitting in the makeup trailer and she turned around to me and said, 'Hi, I'm Drew' I peed myself a little bit. It was amazing."
While her role was minor, it became instantly quotable thanks to the phrasing "chut up," which was her only line.
"Jake actually pulled me aside when I wrapped and gave me some really great words," Purdy says. "I'm paraphrasing horribly right now, but he said, 'You have to think about the impact this character is going to have. People are going to watch this and there's going to be someone who's been bullied and they're going to find a friend that understands what they're going through. There's going to be a bully in a theater that is watching this and he's going to realize the way he makes other people feel.' He just really encouraged me."
"And then I swooned a little bit, you know," Purdy continues, adding that she didn't think fans of Orange Is the New Black would be familiar with her early work. "But it was a while ago, so I didn't really think this new generation would be recalling that far back."
Thanks to the movie's cult status and social media platforms like Tumblr and Twitter, films like Donnie Darko never really go away. In fact, it's where they live on in GIF or meme form. "A friend of mine sent me some Tumblr thing that went viral. I'm like, 'Oh my friends think they're clever,' but I didn't realize it was actually a thing until later," Purdy says. "Before, I would try not to play with it, but now I'm like, 'People just want to hear me tell them to shut up,' and that's fine."
Now, of course, fans have embraced Purdy as Stephanie on Orange Is the New Black, even as she remains unsure of her place in Litchfield.
"The first few episodes I thought I was going to get fired. I didn't know what was going on," Purdy says. Then she turned to her cast mates, who told her no one was ever really sure what was happening or who exactly her character is. "You get what you need to know when you need to know it."
But as Piper's bunk mate-turned-bodyguard-turned-representative of "the others" in the prison, Stephanie quickly became an integral part of season four, even planting the idea for a peaceful protest that would become a pivotal turning point for many of the main characters.
While Stephanie hasn't been killed off or sent away to isolation (the Shu), Purdy doesn't know if she'll be back, even while the show has already started production on season five. "I sure hope so," she says, adding that she hopes that, if Stephanie returns, she gets a backstory of her own, which is something of a rite of passage on the show. "When I came in and I was wearing orange, I was like, 'OK, I don't know how long I'm going to be here.' Then I got tan scrubs and I was like, 'Yes, OK. I made it.' So, the next thing is to get a backstory."