Much Ado About “Orange is the New Black” Star Alysia Reiner

actress alysai reiner leaning against a wall next to a mirror
Photo by Tito Trueba

Alysia Reiner might just be the low-ley coolest mom in Manhattan. And no, it’s not because she’s widely known as the love-to-hate-herbut-deep-down-she-has-a-heart, queen of the eye-roll former-prison warden Natalie Figueroa (“Fig”) on the long-running Netflix smash “Orange is the New Black.” And it’s also not because she’s a fierce activist for causes she believes in (more on that later) or because she met a fellow entertainment-industry mom (former President of Comedy Central Michele Ganeless) at school dropoff and then they made a movie together (the now streaming “EGG”)—though those are certainly factors.

No, Reiner is the coolest mom in Manhattan because she and her husband (fellow actor and producer David Alan Basche) actually built their 10-year-old daughter a treehouse in their backyard in Harlem.

“It’s so funny because we live in Harlem but our home is so suburban,” Reiner, a native New Yorker herself, says. “I feel like I live on a suburban street a lot of the time because we have a Brownstone…and we have a backyard and a dog and a treehouse—that’s big enough for us to all sleep in it. Though, don’t tell the building code [office] about it!”

Reiner grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan at 79th and Amsterdam, and attended the prestigious Ethical Culture School. From there she went on to Vassar College, the British American Drama Academy, and the National Theater Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. As a born-and-raised Manhattanite, it doesn’t surprise her at all that she’s now raising her family here in the City. In fact, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I can’t imagine bringing up a child anywhere else. I think [NYC] is the best place to grow up because you’re so surrounded by culture and you’re so surrounded by a level of diversity that I haven’t seen any other city have. I love public transportation—the last couple years, maybe not so much, because the Subway has been very disappointing—but in general, I think that the Subway system is rather miraculous,” she says. Adding that, even though she spends plenty of time out in LA due to her work as an actress and producer, she finds that New York wins every time. “It’s really, I would say, the cultural and creative diversity of the city [that I enjoy],” she explains. “We live in LA sometimes and…it’s such an industry town. I love that I know a lot of people when I walk around [in LA] because they’re in my industry, but sometimes I just want to talk to an investment banker or an entrepreneur or a lawyer or a doctor who’s not a doctor with a screenplay!”

middle aged couple embracing and smiling for posed photo
Alysia Reiner with her husband, David Alan Basche. Photo by Alejandro Ibarra

Joking aside, Reiner and her family seem to thriving here in the city. Over the past five years, Reiner reached a new level of career success and celebrity with her role as Fig on “Orange is the New Black”—a show she won a SAG Award for as part of the ensemble cast, and which is set to air its seventh and final season later this year. She also recently produced and starred in “EGG”—her husband co-starred and co-produced with her—alongside Christina Hendricks and Anna Camp. It’s a film that she’s immensely proud of that’s now available to watch on iTunes and Amazon. And that’s not to mention the fact that she has her hand in a number of charitable and activist causes, and that her daughter (who just turned 10 recently) has ambitions of being a surgeon one day (so much so that she asked for a set scrubs and a medical-school-quality model of the brain as birthday gifts).

With such a full plate, one might assume that Reiner has the age-old work-life balance question figured out. In fact though, it’s just the opposite.

“I always like to say that there’s no such thing as work-life balance. It’s a consistent, fluid, morphing system. There’s no such thing as a magic balance or a magic formula,” she explains. “In my case, both my husband and I are actors and producers, and we co-parent. I can’t imagine doing this without a co-parent, without a person who’s really equal to me; we have a really equal sense of responsibility. There are certain things that I’m better at, and there are certain things that he’s better at. That’s my truth.” Adding: “It’s also so that you don’t feel resentful… Finding that balance where you both are really honest about what’s possible and what you can bring. We often end up bringing in a third person to pick up the slack—or many people! Be it a housekeeper or a babysitter or a family member. It’s really important for me to find that balance so that neither person in the couple—if you are a couple—feels resentful.”

two actresses in a movie scene; one is pregnant
Alysia Reiner, with Christina Hendricks, in “EGG.”

The question of finding your truth—and living it—be it at home or at work or both is not only a central theme when Reiner talks about her values as a mother, but also a central one to many of the characters she plays. In “EGG,” she plays Tina, a woman she describes as an unapologetic “truth-teller,” who’s having a baby via a surrogate. The film, which she and her husband co-produced with Ganeless, explores what motherhood means to different people, as well as how to be confident in your own life choices without judging the choices of others—it’s a story Reiner sees many parents relating to.

“’EGG’ is really an unflinching comedy about why we choose motherhood, why we revere it, or delegate it, and why some women choose to forego it. It’s a very funny, sarcastic, explosive evening where these five people face their own ridiculous, and sometimes heartbreaking, shortcomings,” she says. “It’s really about the real and universal choice that all women and men face in a very funny way…I like to say that if you take parenthood, career, art, and commerce—this movie sort of just explodes in a dark comedy where those four things meet.”

Of course, Reiner knows a thing or two about dark comedy. Many TV aficionados know (and love-to-hate) her as the unflinchingly ambitious and unfriendly Fig on the acclaimed Netflix dark comedy “Orange is the New Black.” Over the course of soon-to-be-seven season (Reiner assures me that the forthcoming season seven is the most shocking yet), viewers have seen Fig go from a straightforward villain to a much more nuanced individual—it’s a journey that Reiner, as an actress, has really relished.

“I think we all think of ourselves as nice people; even Donald Trump thinks he’s really nice and a really good person. I really believe that in his heart of hearts, he thinks he’s doing the right thing and thinks that he’s a really good guy and that everybody else is just wrong. And we, as woman, are taught to be nice and good and likable. But Fig is really willing to be honest about the fact that she’s not likable. She knows that she’s not really likable and she’s okay with it. She leans into it,” Reiner says. “And what a blessing that they’ve brought her on this spectacular journey. It’s really the biggest gift an actor can get—to spend seven years on a show and go on such a journey. I’m going to cry now because I know it’s going to be over soon. But! They have done an incredible job with creating this really complex, rich human. She has empowered me to live my truth more unapologetically, and more courageously.”

In addition to empowering Reiner as an actress, working on OITNB, a show set within the swirl of injustice surrounding the prison-industrial complex in this country, has empowered her to get more involved in causes she cares about.

“In her, I don’t want to say ‘evilness’ but [in her character’s way], Fig has also taught me and inspired me to fight wrong where I see wrong, including in the criminal justice system and where it pertains to mass incarceration, where I never felt like I had the right—who was I to talk about mass incarceration and criminal justice and its injustices? In playing this role I’ve felt like not only do I have the right, but that I have the responsibility to do everything I can to try and help right this wrong,” Reiner adds.

woman standing in brick doorway
Photo by Chris Loupos

Among the worthy organizations that Reiner has become involved with are Still She Rises, Time’s Up, Cancer Support Community, and the Women’s Prison Association, and she has long since viewed her platform within the entertainment industry (inspired by the iconic Meryl Streep, as we all are) as a way to for her to affect positive change in the world around her.

“If you have the opportunity to, I don’t understand why people don’t fight for [causes they believe in] and use whatever resources they have. I’ve been lucky to have resources. I remember as a little girl, hearing Meryl Streep talk about pesticides on apples, and she actually, I believe, went to Congress and talked about it. I remember seeing that and then seeing the pesticides rules change—and I thought: ‘Oh my God! You can be an actor and they listen to you about these things? That’s so cool!’ So if anything, she really inspired me,” Reiner explains.

Giving back and speaking up for her beliefs are not only pillars of Reiner’s belief system, but they’re also values she works hard to instill in her daughter.

“I had an amazing education that included social justice as part of our education. I went to Ethical Culture, my daughter now goes to a progressive private school in Manhattan. We chose her school because of their commitment to social justice—so racial justice and advocacy are part of my daughter’s curriculum starting at age 3,” she adds. “We talk about it all the time…and [my daughter] will come feed the homeless at the food bank; she’ll come volunteer at the Women’s Prison Association and paint houses. She marches with me at Everytown for Gun Safety and March for Our Lives in Washington DC. I try and include her in as much as possible. Any time I’m out at some event for like, Time’s Up—I explain this is what I’m doing, this where I’m going, this is what it’s about, this is what this is.”

mother and child in a bathtub
Alysia Reiner with her daughter

In keeping with her assessment that work-life balance is an illusion, she’s also realistic with her daughter that giving back takes time, just the way work takes time. “I’ll also communicate with her about time and what it means to be a working parent and to volunteer and how you have to create the time for all of those things,” Reiner notes. “We really check in about ‘are you feeling like you’re getting enough time with me?’ We make it work.”

Reiner herself makes it work too—and that’s an understatement. Between promoting “EGG” and the final season of OITNB later this year, she’ll also be appearing on season three of the mom-centric series “Better Things,” where she takes a hilarious turn as Pamela Adlon’s bestie (tune in on February 28 on FX for that) and will start filming season three of “The Deuce” this month as well. In the midst of it all, she’s continuing her work with Time’s Up (“Right now, with Time’s Up we’re doing some really exciting things with Time’s Up Times Two—about really trying to create systematic change across industries, and make sure we’re hitting our numbers in terms of hiring more women and creating more opportunities for women”) and developing a TV series about female entrepreneurs, and developing a mini-series about the Equal Rights Amendment (“So many young women don’t know what the ERA is and that it never was passed”).

Of course, at the end of any long day, it’s about making time to share warm moments with her husband and daughter, and delight in watching her daughter make new discoveries as she lives her own truth as a growing young woman. “I do believe that one of the most important things in parenting is to just be quiet and let [your child] wander… just give them the space and be the roots,” Reiner say, wisely. “I just try and be the space and the roots, but it’s fun watching her discover herself, and feel empowered to do things like be a brain surgeon.”

To learn more about Alysia Reiner, visit alysiareiner.com!

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