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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 teen: Point Break, A League of Their Own, In the Army Now, Tank Girl. She was the hot girl you could also be friends with. Hell, she could beat up your friends. She was rough with the perfect amount of femininity — which made her ideal for tough 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.

Petty got her start on TV alongside '80s heartthrob Richard Grieco on the 21 Jump Street spin-off, Booker. And she was in Cadillac Man with Robin Williams. But Point Break made her famous. She played Tyler in the film, the exquisitely named independent surfer queen who used to be with the king of the beach (Patrick Swayze). She falls for the hero (Keanu Reeves) and we know she has a good heart. Petty was expert at toeing that line. She was always great playing characters who live in a gray area. 

In the baseball flick A League of Their Own, Petty was the unheralded little sister to a star pitcher (Geena Davis). She wasn't as good at the game or as pretty as her sis, but, in the end, she overcomes being an underdog to win. It's a role filled with moral ambiguity, inner turmoil, and sister problems. A lesser actress may not have pulled off being pouty and charming but Petty was able to.

Petty's knack for playing strong characters led to her castings in In the Army Now and Tank Girl. She shaved her head — the first actress I can remember doing so. (This was before GI Jane, which saw Demi Moore get a ton of press for doing the same.) Petty was a powerful actress. She was a presence onscreen.

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 really saw. Back then, independent movies had a lot of trouble getting love. Petty 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 4 of Orange Is the New Black ahead!**

Petty is good as Lolly in her first few episodes of the series but she takes things to another level in Season 4. Her Lolly is a mystery — a wild card who seems too smart to be so weird — but Petty keeps her grounded and very funny. The writing in Season 4, however, has added another level to the character. And Petty has taken full advantage, using her arsenal of kind, funny, sweet that I remember from the '90s. And she balances that with a sharp dramatic edge that includes confused and downright petrified. This is not an easy role.

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 of Season 4. 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.

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