The nun and the actress behind 'Orange is the New Black'

Dominican Sr. Ardeth Platte's story of breaking into a Minute Man III missile silo inspired the character of Sr. Jane Ingalls in "Orange is the New Black" (Courtesy of Jonah House)

After 40 years of starring on Broadway, Beth Fowler is beginning to experience one of the signature signs of stardom: being recognized in her local grocery store in New Jersey.

Only it isn’t any of her Tony-nominated roles that are getting her facial recognition, but her recurring part as a Roman Catholic nun in “Orange is the New Black,” the megahit series on Netflix that is set to release its third season on Friday.

The show is based on Piper Kerman’s 2011 memoir of the same title, which tells the story of her 15-month stay at a federal correctional facility in Danbury, Connecticut, after being tried for a drug-trafficking crime she had committed 10 years earlier.

Fowler plays Sr. Jane Ingalls, a nun locked up for cutting into the fence of a nuclear testing site, defacing its walls of the factory with blood, and chaining herself to a flagpole.

The nun behind the character

If the story sounds familiar, that’s because Ingalls is based on real-life Dominican Sr. Ardeth Platte. In 2002, Platte, along with Dominican Srs. Carol Gilbert and Jackie Hudson, cut through a chain-link fence at a Minuteman III missile silo in Colorado and used baby bottles filled with their own blood to draw signs of the cross on its walls.

The action landed the three Dominicans in prison. Platte was assigned to the Danbury facility as part of a 41-month sentence. In 2004, Kerman landed at Danbury, too. And, years later, Platte would land in Kerman’s memoir.

“Piper and I did yoga together as much as possible to keep our bodies and spirits going,” Platte said in a phone interview recently. “There is no question that what happened to her was a tragedy. She had restarted her life and then got hurled into this system of injury and destruction. But every story I’ve encountered in prison seems to be like that.”

Platte has spent the last 21 years living at Jonah House in Baltimore, which she calls “the longest living community of resistance against war and weapons.”

Since the simple life at Jonah House does not budget for a Netflix’s subscription, she says she has never watched the series.

“My friends who do watch say I’m not defined for who I am in the show,” she admits.

Anyone who meets Platte quickly realizes that it would be a challenge for any show to capture the scope of her peacemaking efforts over the course of her 60 years in religious life.

A member of the Dominican Sisters of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Platte spent nearly 20 years in Catholic education. While working in the inner city in the 1960s, she “became aware of suffering, of the poorest at the hands of racism, classicism, sexism, and militarism.

“The disadvantaged people I worked with convinced me to run for city council, so I spent twelve years in political life,” she recalls. She protested the Vietnam War and capital punishment, and worked to rid the state of Michigan of nuclear weapons.

But of all the arenas in which she has learned about the plight of the poor, prison may have been the most powerful classroom.

“Our faith says that we stand in preferential option with the poorest,” says Platte. “Well, in jail you’re actually walking with them. Prison it is a very powerless, punitive, and neglectful place, and it only causes people to be less than God wanted them to be.”

At age 79, Platte says that she has never kept track of the amount of time that she’s spent behind the walls of jails and prisons, but she estimates that it is a congregate of eight years.

“When you’re on the inside and you listen to the stories of the people there, you really fall in love them very deeply,” she says.

Platte’s insight may best explain the success of the “Orange is the New Black” series. Widely praised for its multi-racial, multi-cultural, and intergenerational cast, the show’s writers offer social commentary on incarceration, violence, sex, in addition to racial tension, while also managing to infuse the narrative with wit, sarcasm, romance and pathos.

But the show’s most compelling element may be the way it devotes each episode to exploring the backstory of an individual character.

These flashback sequences allow the audience to understand the challenges faced by a Russian immigrant who contends with the mob while trying to grow a small business; or the vulnerability of a lost, young black woman who comes under the control of manipulative, drug dealing mother-figure; or a the desperation of a Latin-American woman under the control of an abusive husband.

“The scripts humanize every kind of person, whether they are in jail because they’re really nasty or because they were victims of circumstances in their communities or families,” says Fowler. “The stories let you in and show you that we’re all human, we’re all God’s children. I think what the show does is actually a very religious thing.”

Beth Fowler, below, left, plays Sr. Jane Ingalls in a scene from season three of "Orange is the New Black." (Courtesy of Netflix)

United by the Dominican spirit

Though Platte and Fowler inhabit two very different worlds, one could say they are united by the Dominican spirit. Growing up in northern New Jersey, Fowler was taught by the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell at St. Mary’s High School in Rutherford. In her junior year, she was inspired to join the convent.

After graduation, she enrolled in Caldwell College for Women (now Caldwell University) with the hope of joining the Dominican Order.

“I had my interview with the mother general,” Fowler recalls. “They embraced me with open arms. I was a music major, so I was going to be the singing nun.”

But after serious discernment, Fowler says that she decided to pursue other interests.

Though the Caldwell Dominicans were sorry to see her go, they remained deeply supportive. “My sponsor reminded me that I had taken four years to really examine my calling deep in my soul,” Fowler remembers. “They were disappointed, but they never gave me grief.”

It was the kind of gentleness and compassion that Fowler has tried to bring to the role of Ingalls.

“So many young people stop and tell me how much they love my character,” Fowler says. “When I ask them why, they say, ‘Because you’re a badass nun!’ But I always want Sr. Ingalls to be liked and admired. I want to keep her humanized.”

This isn’t Fowler’s first turn in the role of a sister. She played a choir nun in both “Sister Act” films, and performed in the musical Nunsense. She even played a singing nun in a commercial for Kleenex.

Fowler isn’t sure why she is often cast as a woman religious, but she does note that the only acting teacher she ever had was a Dominican sister in high school. “She taught me timing, and how to project my voice and use my hands. She gave me confidence in myself,” she recalls.

Landing the role of Ingalls happened swiftly.

“I went to the audition and read three lines. A few weeks later they booked me,” Fowler remembers. “I don’t know how casting knew that they had the right actress, but there was something they wanted and they found it.”

Though she doesn’t do any research for her role on “Orange is the New Black,” she does use nuns from her past as a reference point for how Ingalls might respond to a situation. “I picture them in my mind. And then I go with it.”

Even though Fowler no longer attends church, she still considers herself a Catholic.

“I know this life,” she says. “It’s in my DNA,”

Two-time Tony Award Nominee Beth Fowler has a long history of playing nuns on the stage and screen. (Courtesy of Beth Fowler)

'Contact the Leadership Conference of Women Religious'

Though Platte only shows up occasionally in Kerman’s memoir, the writers of the Netflix series have spent increasing amounts of screen time developing Ingalls’ character.

“Originally they told me that I would be in the pilot and then a second episode,” Fowler recalls, “and the next thing I knew, I got eight episodes in the first season.”

Fowler says that the writers initially created Ingalls to be a friend of Sophie, the show’s transgender character played by Laverne Cox. It’s a decision that suggests that the writers are aware that, for decades, many women religious have been companions of lesbian, gay, and transgender people. 

But as the series progressed into season two, Ingalls developed into a much rounder character. In a flashback to her early life as a young novice, we see her and several other sisters skip out of the convent for a day to protest the Vietnam War.

Later in the episode, she uses her years of advocacy to help women prisoners organize a hunger strike to protest the facility’s unconscionable conditions. While the younger prisoners become faint and flounder, Ingalls endures starvation to the point of hospitalization.

In a scene that would make most progressive Catholics cheer, Ingalls tells another inmate to “contact the Leadership Conference of Women Religious and the National Catholic Social Justice Lobby,” to bring media attention to their struggle.

Eventually, dozens of women religious show up at the prison grounds to demonstrate against the inhumane and treatment of inmates. In a nod to the endurance of women religious, the sisters’ protest persists for three episodes.

Fowler says that the strength of Ingalls is that the writers never allow the character to devolve into a caricature of the mean nun that torments school children. Like Platte and so many women religious throughout the United States, Ingalls is doing radical work in quiet ways.

A Nun and an actress walk into a restaurant

Earlier this year, Fowler found herself increasingly eager to meet the nun that had inspired the Ingalls character, so she wrote a letter to Platte.

“When I learned that Beth Fowler was educated by the Dominicans, I became interested in meeting the person who plays my role,” Platte remembers.

Before they met, Platte sent Fowler a copy of “Conviction,” Brenda Fox’s 2006 documentary about the Dominican Sisters’ action at the Minuteman III missile silo.

“I was in tears watching it,” Fowler says. “I just don’t understand how the sisters can deliberately subject themselves to incarceration, and the ugliness and deprivation that they endure in the name of God.”

Many scenes in “Orange is the New Black” take place in the prison cafeteria, a space in the studio that, Fowler says, can become hot and stale because the camera crew cannot run the air-conditioning.

“Sometimes it comes over me, and I start imagining that I’m really in jail. I think I would die there,” Fowler says.

When Platte and Sr. Carol Gilbert came to New York in late April to witness the United Nations’ Conference on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, Fowler took it at as “a sign from God.”

“I happened to have the week free and my husband and I had planned to spend it in the city,” Fowler recalls. They took Platte and Gilbert to Sardi’s, a legendary New York restaurant known for having walls lined with caricatures of famous actors. They enjoyed a four-hour dinner at a table just below Fowler’s caricature.

“We shared such a camaraderie and a sense of spirit that evening,” Platte said.

For Fowler, the dinner only magnified her respect for the sacrifices that the sisters make in their quests for peace.

“It’s important for people to see that the sisters who are taking these actions are not crazy, fanatical people,” Fowler admits. “They are very smart and well informed, but there is a simplicity about them. They are gentle spirits.”

When fans start streaming season three of “Orange is the New Black” this Friday, they will again by treated to a further development of Ingalls’ storyline.

“They are using my character more and more to bring spirituality into the show itself and into the lives of the prisoners,” Fowler says.

Though meeting Platte may enhance her portrayal of Ingalls, Fowler insists that she will continue to stick to the page and follow her instincts.

“I bring to Sr. Ingalls what I know and what I am,” Fowler says. “I’m always the Catholic schoolgirl when I pick up that script.”

[Jamie L. Manson is NCR books editor. She received her Master of Divinity degree from Yale Divinity School, where she studied Catholic theology and sexual ethics. Her email address is jmanson@ncronline.org.]

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