Despite being an actress, Jolene Purdy isn’t much of a movie-goer. She told NBC News she loves people so much that she’d prefer to engage in more social activities like grabbing coffee with friends or participating in the bowling league she joined with her husband. But she does consider herself to be a Netflix addict. She cites the Netflix original “Orange is the New Black” as the first show she had the privilege of binge-watching — fitting, considering she plays one of the show’s newest characters, Stephanie Hapakuka, in season four.
“Do you know what 'Netflix and chill' means?” she asked, lowering her voice and leaning forward. “I just found out what that meant. Horrible.”
While she portrays a native Hawaiian inmate with bad knees at Litchfield Penitentiary on ”Orange is the New Black,” Purdy identifies as hapa, or half Japanese, half white. Born and raised in Torrance, California, where 30 percent of the population is Japanese according to the U.S. Census, Purdy grew up attending cultural events like obon festivals and learning Japanese phrases from her grandfather. But she soon became aware of the challenges of her dual identity.
“I tried to go to Japanese school in Gardena when I was younger, and because my last name is Purdy, they told me I couldn’t go,” Purdy said. “I couldn’t join the Japanese basketball leagues either, because I wasn’t Japanese enough. Those organizations are more lenient about that kind of thing now, but growing up hapa when there weren’t a lot of us back then was really hard.”
Navigating the musical theater scene, which Purdy became involved in at a young age, also proved to be difficult. Citing theater as “not a very Japanese thing to do,” Purdy said she found herself being too loud with her Asian-American friends, but feeling too shy in the drama department. The internal struggles seeped out into her external environment when it came to auditioning for school plays and musicals.
“I never did ‘The King and I’,” she said. “I never did ‘Miss Saigon.’ I was too white. But then I also never got cast in ‘The Sound of Music,’ because I’m Asian. I did play an orphan in ‘Annie,’ and was in other productions that aren’t so ethnicity-oriented. But the big battle for me was trying to figure out what I was enough of.”
Purdy took her first steps toward self-acceptance when, as a high school student, she auditioned for her first professional acting role — and booked the job. Released in 2001 and starring a young Jake Gyllenhaal, "Donnie Darko" has since gained a cult following, resulting in a director’s cut and countless fan sites packed with conspiracies. But possibly more iconic than Sparkle Motion or a time-traveling rabbit named Frank is Purdy’s character, a high school student named Cherita Chen, more notoriously known to fans as the “Chut Up” Girl.
It wasn’t difficult for Purdy to channel the unique, yet heavily-misunderstood Cherita, who at one point in the film dons a pair of earmuffs to protect herself from bullies. She used her own personal experience with bullying, along with a piece of sage advice from costar Gyllenhaal, to make Cherita memorable and relatable.
“When we wrapped, Jake walked me back to the trailer, and he said ‘you have to think about the impact you have as an actor, because someone is going to watch this scene and watch you, and they’re going to feel like they have someone who understands them,’” Purdy said. “Ever since, whenever I do a project, I always consider the impact it’s going to have on someone.”
It’s something she’s been mindful of during her six years performing in “Aladdin” show at Disney’s California Adventure, as well as through her roles over the years on shows like “Breaking Bad,” “Do Not Disturb,” and “Under the Dome."
The philosophy also applies to Purdy’s most recent role on “Orange Is the New Black” — a show where the inmates of a women’s federal prison are segregated by race and where racial stereotypes are cheekily tossed around and dissected in almost every episode.
“Growing up, people always asked me ‘what are you?’” Purdy said. “That’s a weird question: ‘What are you?’ Even in auditions, although casting agents aren’t allowed to ask you about your ethnicity, they’ll ask questions like ‘where are you from?’ In ‘Orange,’ I get to actually address that being a thing. The guard literally asks Hapakuka ‘what are you?’”
While the fictional Litchfield Penitentiary is segregated by cell blocks — white people in “The Suburbs,” Black people in “The Ghetto,” and Hispanic people in “Spanish Harlem” — the show’s Asian-American and Pacific Islander inmates fall into a gray area, something that hasn’t been directly addressed until this season.
In one episode, each cell block sends a representative to a secret prison meeting. Purdy’s Hapakuka attends, and when asked why she’s there, she responds “I represent the others.”
“Jenji [Kohan, ‘Orange Is the New Black’ creator] has given Asian Americans more of a voice this season, which I love,” Purdy said. “And after doing that scene, I thought, okay, Kimiko [Glenn, who plays another one of the show’s Asian-American characters and is also of mixed race] and I have to do a scene together next season.”
Purdy said she has received an overwhelming amount of attention in the month since season four’s release from mixed-race viewers who are thrilled to see someone that looks like them on the screen. It’s a new platform she hopes to carry with her as she moves into comedy — though, like her childhood idol Amy Hill, she’d like to try out as many roles as she can and avoid being pigeonholed.
“I’ve always had to check the ‘other’ box, and I find it interesting that people always want to put me in boxes,” Purdy said. “I’m too this, I’m too that. I’m not enough of this. I don’t want to be the token Asian character or the overweight girl. I think I’ve reached a point in my life where I’m like, f—k it, I’ll create my own box.”