If you’re a fan of the hit Netflix shows Orange is the New Black or House of Cards, then you’re in for a treat. This issue, Your Teen caught up with actor Constance Shulman (Yoga Jones on OITNB) and her husband, actor Reed Birney (Vice President Donald Blythe on House of Cards) to chat about life on and off screen, which these days includes raising two teenagers.
Interview with Constance Shulman and Reed Birney
Was it hard balancing an acting career while raising kids?
Constance Shulman: I took 15 years off to be with my kids, so I wasn’t acting for a long time. My number one priority was never to be an actress. My passion is my kids and bringing them up, and if I am lucky to be able to act on top of that, then that’s great. Acting makes me really happy, but being a mom makes me happier.
Reed Birney: I really give Connie full credit. Thanks to Connie, I’ve had the opportunity to work hard on my career, so I have for many years said my role in the family was that I was a special guest star.
Connie, How did you wind up on OITNB as your first gig after your 15-year hiatus?
I just had good timing. I decided to test the waters again and called an old friend who is running his own agency. He sent me out on this pilot for a series for Netflix. I thought the character went in and out of the prison and left the show. But I was in for a rude awakening.
Are you and your character similar?
Yes. We are both very sensitive. We feel things very deeply, and in a difficult situation, our coping mechanism is to dig deep. Her sensitivity, her thoughtfulness about including everyone, and the perception that she is someone you can confide in—I certainly hope I am like that.
Is the cast like a family?
It’s like a girls’ high school. You find your groups like in any situation; you find the people you get along with. I’m older on the show, and I have kids, so I’m coming from a different place than a lot of the other women. Just like any job situation, you find your buddies.
What are your parenting styles?
I am completely, without reservation, an attachment parent. As soon as I got pregnant, I left acting. Even though it went against the tide, our babies slept in our bed. We never left our babies in their cribs to cry themselves to sleep because everything in my body felt like that was so wrong. And our kids went everywhere with us. They still do.
How did that translate when they became teenagers?
I don’t push independence on them. That is a New York City mentality—let them soar early and take subways when they are 11. I think it is completely the opposite. Give them security, then they feel like they can soar. My daughter slept with me as a baby, nursed a long time—I went to kindergarten with her. And now she does runway modeling shows and flew alone to Chicago to audition for a pilot.
You can only parent based on your instincts or read advice books. My kicking and screaming instincts were against the tides. Lots of people thought I was crazy for not making my son go to college. I let my kids swim against the tides.
Were you raised the same way?
I am one of seven kids, and I grew up in East Tennessee. I went to college because that is what you did when you graduated from high school. There wasn’t much option. But I look back and say if I could do something differently, I would not have gone. Especially for an artist. It won’t further your career.
Reed, how do you approach parenting?
I feel very much like a scribe to Connie in parenting, but really because she is the primary caregiver. I would say my role in the household is really to keep everyone from panicking.
I’ll step in when somebody is on the verge of a freak out. “It’s going to be okay. In the big picture it doesn’t really matter. Just keep breathing.” So that has emerged, I think, as my role. And to support Connie in her parenting, too.
What’s it like seeing your children pursue acting?
Constance Shulman: Sometimes kids don’t want to follow in their parents’ footsteps, but in our case it was completely in their blood and in their hearts. We couldn’t be more delighted, which is also rare. I can’t think of a more wonderful career than being an actor. But my kids have seen the highs and lows of this profession. They know it’s a career of luck and hard work, and there is nothing easy about it because a lot of the career is trying to get a job. You must give every audition your best, even after 15 auditions that didn’t land a job.
Reed Birney: I do feel protective knowing the brutality of the life, but nobody could talk Connie or me out of it, although they tried. I’m glad that our kids have something that they care so deeply about. They work really hard and take it very seriously.
Interview by Susan Borison.