Lori Petty's Long Frustrating Journey From Sex Symbol to Crazy Lady

She ruled the '90s, discovered Jennifer Lawrence, and is now doing her best work on 'Orange Is the New Black.'

Petty in Point Break (1991) and Orange Is the New Black (2016). (Photos: Fox | Netflix)
Petty in Point Break (1991) and Orange Is the New Black (2016). (Photos: Fox | Netflix)

By the time Lori Petty showed up in Point Break, the '80s were over. Pat Benatar was a footnote. So why was this pixie-hairdoed vixen pulling on my heartstrings? The eyes. Those limpid pools of azure crystal were something to get lost in. Petty was a tulip amongst the onions in the surfer action flick, a tomboy alternative to the picture perfect looks of the supermodel-ruled 1990s. Now, Petty's eyes are hidden behind thick black-framed glasses on Orange Is the New Black. How did she get here?

Petty was talented, beautiful AND a fun actress who always seemed to show up in movies I liked as a young teen: Point Break, A League of Their Own, In the Army Now, Tank Girl. She was the hot chick you could also be friends with. She was rough with the perfect amount of girlishness which made her ideal for tough girl characters who were also sensitive and not immune to falling in love. She was Hepburn in slacks for a new generation and she was famous, very famous. 

Then, Lori Petty seemed to disappear.

Petty in Point Break. (Fox)
Petty in Point Break. (Fox)

From 1996 to 2007, Petty continued acting, but only in low-budget indie fare that no one saw. She was 33-years-old and it seemed like Hollywood had forgotten her. The industry is notoriously hard on women, who have a small percentage of the roles men have to compete for to begin with, and it seemed like Lori Petty wasn't fitting in anywhere. She described this period in her career to The Daily Beast in 2014:

"I was thirty-something and I hadn’t married my agent, married any guy co-stars, or gotten fake titties or Botox. I never wanted to be a bombshell; I wanted to be an actor. I would much prefer to be a woman than a man, but if I was a dude, maybe I’d have Johnny Depp’s island because women in this industry after a certain age definitely don’t get to do Pirates of the Caribbean. Poor Keira (Knightley), they even airbrushed huge tits on her on the poster, and she’s flawless! I was trying to play football with a baseball, and you can’t really do that."

Petty in Tank Girl, 1995. (United Artists)
Petty in Tank Girl, 1995. (United Artists)

Petty wasn't finished, however. A film junkie, she would study Kathryn Bigelow and Penny Marshall on the sets of Point Break and A League of Their Own, attending post-production meetings and seeing how the directors worked. In 2008, her experience paid off. The 45-year-old came out with her first directorial project, The Poker House.

Based on Petty's own childhood, The Poker House is about three young sisters living in a brothel with their prostitute mother. The oldest sister, Agnes (played by Jennifer Lawrence), is raped while living at the house, but still manages to find some joy in the end while staying strong for her younger siblings. Agnes is the Petty surrogate and the movie spoke to the director's willingness to portray brutal honesty for her art. She was telling her life story. But, although critics appreciated the film, very few saw it in limited release.

One person who did see Petty's movie, however, was Debra Granik, a filmmaker who liked Lawrence enough to cast her as the lead in another project about a young girl forced to grow up too fast: Winter's Bone. Months later, Lawrence was nominated for the Best Actress Academy Award, and two years later, she won one (for Silver Linings Playbook). Lori Petty, as it turned out, had discovered a star (two actually, Chloe Grace Moretz is also in The Poker House). Not that Petty ever got any credit for it. 

Petty with Jennifer Lawrence on the set of The Poker House, 2008. (Phase 43 Films)
Petty with Jennifer Lawrence on the set of The Poker House, 2008. (Phase 43 Films)

"No shit! You can quote me on that. No shit. I cast her in her first film. Look, she deserves one hundred percent of her success, period. In addition to that, I think I passed along 25 years of experience of being an actress to her. But she’s amazing and the camera loves her, and that’s why I cast her."

That brings us to the here and now. Petty appeared in a couple projects between 2008 and 2014, including the Prison Break movie finale, but her real mid-life break (if you will) came via Jenji Kohan and Orange Is the New Black. Petty was cast as Lolly Whitehill, a delusional inmate with a shaved head and seriously weird ideas. 

**Semi-spoilers for season four of Orange Is the New Black ahead!**

Petty was good as Lolly in her first few episodes of the series but she has taken things to another level in season four this year. Her Lolly was always a mystery—a wild card who seemed too smart to be so weird—but Petty kept her grounded and very funny. Season four, however, has added another level to the character and Petty has taken full advantage, using her arsenal of kind, funny, sweet that we all know from the '90s right alongside a sharp dramatic edge that includes confused and downright petrified. 

Petty on Orange Is the New Black, 2016. (Netflix)
Petty on Orange Is the New Black, 2016. (Netflix)

Lolly is insane and she slips further and further away from reality with each episode this season. It's a credit to Petty that the performance doesn't reek of schtick (which crazy characters often do) or cliché (considering Litchfield's already got crazy pretty well covered). In fact, Petty creates a wholly sympathetic character in Lolly.

In her flashback episode, "It Sounded Nicer in My Head," Lolly is seen as a young woman already suffering from paranoid delusions. She eventually finds herself living in a dilapidated shack and walking the life of a street person, offering coffee to anyone who needs it or is willing to trade a little food. It's the rare sequence depicting homelessness on TV that isn't overly melodramatic. And Petty is the reason why. Her kindness radiates, and that squeaky little voice that first appeared in Cadillac Man all those years ago still sings like it once did. The '90s It Girl is back and she's better than ever. Emmys! Take notice.

Senior Editor at Zimbio. I'll take Johnny Clay, the Rev. Harry Powell, and Annie Savoy. You can have the rest.
Comments