For Kelly Karbacz, her passion for the arts took hold early on in life. A graduate of the prestigious Stuyvesant High School, she would go on to study drama at The Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute, part of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Over the past decade, she has carved out a truly unique body of work both on screen and on the stage. Never afraid to pour her heart and soul into her work, she is one of the rare actors who truly elevates the quality of each project of which she is a part. In fact, her undeniable presence and razor-sharp skills are what landed her biggest role to date as part of Netflix’s award-winning series, “Orange is the New Black.” On the show, Karbacz plays the role of inmate, Kasey Sankey, who was introduced in season four. Sankey is a primary member of the White Power Group, inadvertently created by fellow inmate, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling). Sankey quickly finds herself in multiple altercations with the other inmates and pursues Piper to be an active member of her “movement.” Throughout her time on the series, Kelly Karbacz has continued to intrigue viewers as a true scene-stealer in the ensemble cast.
Her work within the world of theater is equally impressive. Karbacz made her Broadway debut in the leading role of Maureen Johnson, in “Rent” at the Nederlander Theatre, directed by Michael Greif. She also earned a Helen Hayes nomination for ‘Outstanding Lead Actress in a Musical’ for her performance as Emily Andrews, in the world premiere of “Liberty Smith” at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. Her other theatre credits include Alfred Uhry’s “Without Walls” at The Williamstown Theatre Festival, “Nighthawks” at Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, “First Date” at the ACT/5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, and “The Sound of Music” at Lincoln Center’s New York City Opera, where she starred as Louisa.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Kelly Karbacz to discuss her amazing body of work. In the interview, she offers an inside look at her early years as an actress, her process for bringing characters from script to screen, her creative evolution and her breakout role on Netflix’s ‘Orange Is The New Black.’
Let’s go back to the very beginning. How did you get involved with the creative arts early on in life?
I started in this business when I was a kid! I was singing and taking dance lessons from a very early age. I fell in love with theater and the business after seeing my first Broadway show. I watched what was happening on the stage and I thought, “I want to do that! I have to do that!” One year my dance school put on this variety show competition. While everyone else decided to dance, I decided to sing! I ended up winning first place in the competition and there happened to be an agent in the audience that night! I was invited to come down and audition for the agency, so I went down and did monologues and sang. I auditioned with hundreds of kids and I was fortunate enough to be offered a contract with them. After that, the rest is history! I started auditioning and I never looked back!
Wow! That’s awesome and leads to my next question. This is a tough business. Did you ever have any reservations about pursuing your passion professionally?
No, it’s crazy, there was just this dream in my heart and this passion that I had from the time I was very young and it’s never wavered. It has always sort of burned there inside of me. I’ve never regretted it and I just knew then, as I know now, that nothing else would make me as happy or bring me as much joy as being a performer!
Well, that certainly makes going to work every day a whole lot easier doesn’t it!
Absolutely! [laughs] I think that’s one of the greatest blessings in the world; being able to do what you love and having the privilege and good fortune to do what you love for living! There’s nothing better!
Let’s talk about some of the influences who had a big impact on you and your work? Who were some of the people behind the scenes who gave you a push and some of the actors whose work you gravitate toward?
To start, there were many significant drama teachers throughout my education who had a huge impact on me. Kim Bruno, Julie Sheinman, Vincent Grasso, Debra Wiley and, honestly, the man I feel really changed my life as far as acting goes was Geoffrey Horne. He was a teacher I had at NYU while I studied at the Tisch School of the Arts. He taught me acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. We studied at studios as part of our training and he gave me what seems like the simplest lesson but for some reason it really clicked in for me when he gave me these pearls of wisdom. He taught us that when you are acting, you didn’t have to do all this stuff or try to be cute or put all this stuff on top of everything. If you just started from the most simple, honest place in the moment, you would get where you needed to be. If you were just to talk as a normal person, you would get to where you needed to be in the scene emotionally. For some reason, that really clicked in for me and I was able to get to the core of my characters and find honesty and truth, as well as being much more effective at bringing these roles to life! He was a huge influence on me and I will be grateful to him for the rest of my life for how he changed my acting. As far as other artists and actors, I have to say there are a few actors who have recently blown me away and are doing what I aspire to do going forward — Viola Davis in “Fences,” Robin Wright in “House of Cards” and Jessica Lange in “Feud.” Watching them is like watching a master class! There are so many more! Julianne Moore, Meryl Streep, Sarah Paulson and I could go on and on! Watching them is like a master class and the emotional depth and the way they bring these rich, complex characters to life to tell these compelling stories is simply amazing. These are the type of strong powerful female roles that I want to play! They have really inspired me and make me want to raise my game in the best way!
What is your process for bringing the characters you play to life?
When I am cast in a role, the first thing I do is go to the creative team of the project and request as much information as possible. I like to get as much information from them as possible so that I can really start investing in the world of this person and embody them to the best of my ability. Then I re-read the full script to get any details that I may have missed and I begin to focus more intensely on my own personal scene work. Not only do I try to find the objectives in each scene but, as part of my method acting training, there is a specific technique called substitution which has been very effective for me. Substitution is when you compare the elements of the life and scenes of your character to your own life. Doing so allows you to find more ways to deeply connect and bring the truth of this character to life. That has been incredibly effective for me in my work. Music is key for me as well, so I try to find music that connects me emotionally to where I need to be in the scenes. That helps me on set to focus and get in the moment before I start shooting or get on stage. In the end, the wardrobe, hair and makeup are the final elements that help everything come together, even when they are very stripped down like in “’Orange Is The New Black”. Then I just try to give the most honest and truthful performance possible!
Let’s talk about ‘Orange Is The New Black.’ Obviously, this is a big milestone for you. Tell us about how you got involved with the project and what drew you to the material?
I was a huge fan of “Orange” before I was cast, so I was very invested in this world already! I love the characters and the writing. I really felt that was in my wheelhouse and that would be a really great fit for me as an actress. Of course, I knew I would jump at the chance to be a part of it if I could! Jennifer Euston, our incredible casting director, has been so good to me throughout the years and brought me in for any projects that she felt I was right for. She actually had me in for several other characters throughout the first three seasons of the show but my character, Kasey Sankey, was the first inmate that I have ever auditioned for. I knew that she would be a challenge! The breakdown of the character said that she was proud to be white, this wasn’t her first time in prison and that she was tough with a very short fuse. I knew that was going to be very different from who I am in life but I was certainly up for the challenge!
As you said, this character is associated with the white power movement which is pretty polarizing. Was this a scary world to step into with things being so PC these days?
Absolutely! I think that because it is so challenging, I remind myself of a few things. One is that it is not my job to judge her because it would be too difficult to play her if I had to do that. I try not to judge her and instead try to remember that it is my job to bring her to life and tell the story that our genius creator Jenji Kohan and our incredible writers want to tell! I also remember that she behaves in this way and as a supporter of this ideology because that’s what has been ingrained in her. That’s what she has known all her life and she’s a product of her environment. This is what she knows. I really try to find ways to connect with her to bring her to life. I’ve been loving that the one thing they do so brilliantly on this show is to find the humanity of all these people, especially the inmates on our show. They’ve given me these beautiful moments to play of possible redemption for her where she pulls back from confrontation at times or rallies the other inmates for the greater good of the prison or where she tries to acknowledge that maybe the other women aren’t as she expected them to be. I love that they’ve given her these moments of struggle where she thinks, “Is it possible that my belief system doesn’t always have to dictate my behavior?”
The material for this series is undeniably good but I definitely feel you have continued to elevate it. What do you feel you might have brought to this character that wasn’t on the original written page?
When I went in for the audition, I immediately after reading the scenes had sort of an idea of how she would speak, how she would move and what her behavior would be. I brought that into the audition room with me. I don’t know if I was exactly what they had in mind when they wrote it but I’m certainly so fortunate and grateful that when they saw it they said, “That works! We want that!” With each script that I get for every episode and with each scene that I’m in, I just try to deepen her, explore other facets of her and explore different sides and colors of her to really create this fully fleshed out person. I’m really excited about where she will go going forward from here. Is there a redemption for her? Or does she stay more of a villain and we show the consequences of it? Ultimately, I’d really love to be able to tell the story of why she has been incarcerated, what makes her tick and how she got to be the way she is!
You mentioned using music to get in the right headspace for character. What can you tell us about the soundtrack of Kasey Sankey?
It’s funny, hip-hop, R&B and rap have always been my go to music choices. There is a lot of Jay-Z and Kanye on my playlist for sure when I’m trying to get in her headspace. She is so extreme at times, well, most of the time I should say! That music really amps me up and gets me energized. Every scene and every episode calls for different things emotionally so I try to skew whatever I’m listening to in a way that I know it will get me where I need to be for that scene. It’s definitely what I’m drawn to in life because I know it will really give me that personal connection and hip hop, R&B and rap is what I’ve always loved. I love all music in general but those types of music have always been my go to.
Talking to you today, I can already tell you are a bit of a sponge when it comes to soaking things in on the set. What are the biggest things you’ve learned from your time on ‘Orange Is The New Black’?
As an actor, I have to say that it’s been such an incredible privilege to work alongside what is undeniably one of the most gifted ensembles in television. To be on set with these other actors and pass the ball back-and-forth with them has been amazing. They’re such generous scene partners and so professional. They truly up my game with every moment I spend on that set. That is such a blessing and it is never lost on me. As far as the show itself, to be a part of something that has been so critically acclaimed and groundbreaking in so many ways is an unbelievable experience. This series is telling stories that need to be told and that are reflective of our society. It truly tries to shed light on the most important issues in our current culture and hopefully is influencing change for the better. It gives me such great pride to be a part of something like that. I think it’s a rare thing and I think the way “Orange” does that puts it in a class by itself.
As you mentioned, this show has had an incredible impact on you creatively. What are some of the other creative milestones you hold close to your heart?
I’ve had some wonderful successes throughout my career in both theater and film and television. As far as the milestones go that have impacted me and help me evolve, for theater it would certainly be ‘Rent.’ I played Maureen Johnson in ‘Rent’ on Broadway. I was a “Renthead” and I was in love with that show! When I saw Idina Menzel play that role, I walked away from the theater thinking, “I have to play that role!” it was an absolute dream of mine! Many auditions and many years later, I was able to do it. To be able to play her, sing that score and play with the ‘Rent’ family 8 times a week was incredible. It really changed my life! That role gave me such confidence. It tapped me into my sexuality. It helped me to lose inhibitions and go to places that I’ve never gone before as a performer. I think it’s an experience that changed my life and will stay with me for the rest of my life, especially the message of the show, which is “No day but today.” It’s really about love, inclusivity, living in the moment and cherishing every moment as if it were your last. When it comes to theater, that was huge for me. In television, I had the good fortune to be part of a multi-camera sitcom called “Regular Joe” where I got to star alongside Judd Hirsch, Daniel Stern and John Francis Daley and a beautiful cast! Being able to do a multi-camera sitcom, to me, was the best of both worlds because we got to perform in front of a live audience, which felt like theater, but it also has the capacity to be seen all over the world. It was able to reach a broader audience. I thought, “This is it right here!” [laughs] Those are two major ones. There are a lot of other milestones but I think those stick out in my mind as the ones that had the biggest impact on me!
You are making it look easy and knocking it out of the park with each new project. What other roles or projects do you look forward to tackling in the future?
You know, what’s amazing is when you are able to straddle both worlds! So, I certainly want to continue in the world of film and television. I want to tackle not only more television drama but comedy as well and create these rich, complex roles wherever I can. I would also like to dive deeper into the film world, whether it’s a really cool indie or a huge feature, that would be fantastic as well! In theatre, I would love to be back on Broadway or off Broadway. There are so many amazing projects happening right now. I’m actually working on two pieces that I can’t share details about yet because they are in the early stages but one is a musical and one is a straight play. They are both meaty, wonderful roles and I’m loving being able to help develop them and get back to my theater roots. I’m excited to see what comes next for me!
You can definitely serve as a huge inspiration for young actors. What’s the best lesson we can take from your journey so far?
I would say the thing that has really helped me was that I learned that it is very helpful to run your own race. You have to learn to not worry about where everyone else in the industry is or what they may be doing. Everyone is on their own path and there is no timeline for your dream. Like I said, I’ve had some incredible successes but there has been a lot of heartbreak along the way in this business. There’s always ups and downs. In those tougher times, you have to hold onto the hope, positivity and passion that got you into the business in the first place. Instead of getting negative, bitter or frustrated, which is only going to bring more of the bad energy to you, you have to focus on consistently doing your best work and trust that people will notice. When you do that, the roles that are best for you will find you. I think that has served me well. When I’ve looked back on my career, when things haven’t come to fruition, it was always because something better was waiting for me down the line. I always experienced the most struggle right before my biggest breakthroughs! I think if young people coming up can keep that in mind, it can take a lot of the pressure off and it will help you stay focused and centered on what’s important!
That’s great advice! Thanks so much for your time today, Kelly! You truly are an inspiration and I know there are big things in store for you in the future. When you are a big star, count on me circling back around to chat some more!
Oh, Jason! Thank you so much for taking time to chat with me. I do hope we get to meet each other in person sometime soon! Take care!
Catch Kelly Karbacz in Netflix’s ‘Orange is the New Black’ — Season 5 is now streaming! Follow her continuing adventures via social media on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.