It’s been three seasons and Orange Is the New Black‘s Norma is finally telling her tale, just without any words. The Netflix series shed some light on Annie Golden‘s character this year, giving the silent inmate known for her soulful looks—seriously, Golden does so much with just a head tilt and the purse of her lips—a flashback to her backstory and a gaggle of followers who came to believe in Norma’s juju. But when Orange Is the New Black was taking shape, there was no Norma Romano.
“I just read the Rolling Stone with [Taylor Schilling] and [Laura Prepon] on the cover and the other girls are in it and they have similar experiences with their auditions…Laura said she auditioned for Piper, Taylor said she auditioned for Piper,” Golden told E! News in a phone interview. “Well, I auditioned for Sister Ingalls, I auditioned for Beth Fowler‘s role, and Norma was nowhere on the grid. Jennifer Euston [OITNB‘s casting director] didn’t even know that [Jenji Kohan, creator] had this in mind. It was Jenji who saw my audition for Sister Ingalls and said, ‘Let’s call Annie’s people and offer her Norma Romano.'”
But there was no Norma Romano on the page. “Then Jen Euston said, ‘Norma Romano? I don’t have that and she said, ‘That’s because I’m writing it.’ That’s how surprising and mysterious and wonderful this gift of Norma Romano is, that she wasn’t even on the grid,” she said.
Golden is known for her voice in Hollywood, yet she doesn’t speak on OITNB. The actress, who had previously fronted bands, got her start on screen when she was discovered by Miloš Forman and cast in Hair as Jeannie Ryan. She’s been on the scene since the 1970s, with parts in musicals such as The Full Monty and Assassins and a wildly popular song, “Hang Up the Phone,” on the Sixteen Candles soundtrack. But now she’s practically mute on screen, a new challenge for the singer-actress.
“It’s such a gift, particularly if someone’s been known, not only for her singing voice, but for her speaking voice,” Golden said about the challenge of acting without speech. “People will say to me, ‘I was watching a rerun of Miami Vice. First I heard the voice and then I turned around and there she is!’…Whenever I would get laryngitis and lose my voice or something, I would be so dismayed and I would be depressed. I would watch Pavarotti and I would be like, ‘I want my voice back!’ You totally think you are that part of you. You totally think, ‘If I’m not singing I’m nothing! If I’m not saying dialogue, I’m nothing.’ And it’s actually no, that’s not true. You think it’s a challenge. You fear it and then you see that it’s a gift. You go, ‘Wow…I have to project this. I have to get this across without language.’ It’s pretty challenging and it’s a real gift, and I love it. And all the nicknames they come up with for me! Quiet Fire, Sister Sad Eyes, it’s just lovely.”
In Orange Is the New Black, Norma began working with Gloria (Selenis Leyva) in the kitchen and picked up some of her Santeria spells. Later, inmates started coming to Norma for her blessings and help. The story caught Golden by surprise. As the season went on, Norma’s followers grew. Inmates even saw Norma’s image on a piece of toast. It was one of the season’s most poignant storylines.
“I think it was—really, she was trying to appease these women. As Red says later, to discredit me, she says these women will believe in anything. At that time, I was just trying to give the people what they wanted…very much her character that she will accommodate those around her,” Golden said of Norma’s “powers.” “It was kind of like reality, and wishful thinking, and then faith. To give people hope and to give people something to believe in, something to look forward to and something to rely on. They have nothing.”
Viewers had previously only heard Norma sing at the Christmas pageant to save Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) from stage fright embarrassment. That came out of Norma’s desire to help others, to be the fixer and the nurturer, Golden said. But viewers eventually learned there was no vow of silence for religious reasons or some tragic accident that took her voice—Norma was silent because of a bad stutter. In a flashback, viewers saw a flower child Norma end up with a hippie cult group, marrying—along with several other women—the leader. Years later, Norma was the only one by his side…until he berated her for not going off on her own. Out of anger, she pushed him and he fell to his death. Was the hippie past a nod to Golden’s Hair past? And was the crime a reference to her past with Stephen Sondheim‘s Assassins? She thinks so.
“When I read it I thought, ‘Oh my lord, they’re just going with this legacy that I love.’ When I saw they were going in that direction with it, I just thought, ‘Oh yes, oh my lord,'” she gushed.
Norma will be back in season four, with no parole in sight. As for toast Norma, well, she didn’t take the prop home, but she has plenty of photographs of it and used it was a way to celebrate the end of season three.
“I do gifts to everybody, just little token gifts to everyone. I had a picture of Norma holding up the toast and it said, ‘Norma says, “Let’s toast to season three.”‘ and then I signed it, so everyone got a picture of Norma holding the best Norma toast,” she said.
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