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Chicago native talks playing new boss on 'Orange Is the New Black'

Chicago native talks playing new boss on 'Orange Is the New Black'
Henny Russell plays C Block boss Carol Denning on the new season of "Orange Is the New Black." (JoJo Whilden / Netflix)

Henny Russell can recall riding her bike to Keefer’s Pharmacy to buy penny candy while growing up in the northwest suburbs. This sweet tooth came in handy for Russell’s new role as C Block boss Carol Denning on “Orange Is the New Black.”

“It turns out that the writers had written that Carol (as a young woman) likes candy … and she was also a heavy smoker. Well, you can’t smoke in prison anymore,” Russell told the Tribune by phone. “I’m personally, sadly, a smoker. And I thought, well, when you quit smoking, a lot of the time you get orally fixated on something else, and I thought, well, she’s stuck in the ‘80s, what if she still likes candy? What if she’s still really hooked on candy?”

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So Denning — a no-nonsense inmate who has been incarcerated since the ‘80s — sucks on Tootsie Pops while she manipulates the younger prisoners on Season 6, which is available to stream on Netflix starting Friday. Denning is one of the characters introduced this season as Litchfield’s inmates settle into new digs after last season’s riot.

Russell appears in 10 of the season’s 13 episodes — her longest TV role to date. She rocks teased hair and big glasses like she did in the ‘80s. Otherwise, Russell and Denning could not be more different.

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“I sort of feel like she never quite left the '80s,” Russell said. “Most of her adult life she’s been in prison because she was very young when she was incarcerated, so her world is really ‘max.’”

Russell, meanwhile, grew up on the Northwest Side and in Mount Prospect and Arlington Heights. She became enamored with the theater world while performing in plays at Prospect High School. She also participated in the Goodman Theatre Young People's Drama Workshop alongside Jennifer Beals, who went on to star in “Flashdance.”

Russell attended New York University, and she lives in New York now. She said she visits the Chicago area often because she still has family here. The first time she worked here was to film a guest spot last season on “Chicago Med.”

She said she had never been to prison before she shot “Orange is the New Black.”

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“I never, in my life, ever desired to go to prison, but boy, once you see a real prison, it’s shocking and it certainly makes you never, ever, ever want to end up there. It’s very bleak,” Russell said.

tswartz@tribpub.com

Twitter @tracyswartz

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