Our NY Entertainer of the Week is the very talented Kelly Karbacz. Kelly can be seen playing Sankey in “Orange is the New Black” on Netflix. Recently we got the chance to chat about the show, New York City, and her advice for others.
Check out our interview!
upfrontNY: How did you get your start in acting and when did you know this is what you wanted to do?
Kelly Karbacz: I actually started in the biz when I was a kid. I was singing and dancing from a really early age. I really fell in love with theatre and the business when I saw my first Broadway show. I sat in the audience and watched what was happening on stage and I thought I have to do that. That’s what I want to do with my life. I knew as a child. My dance school had a variety show competition and everyone chose to dance as their talent but I chose to sing. There was an agent in the audience at the show and I ended up winning first prize and the agent invited me to come to audition for the agency. I was fortunate enough to be offered a contract with them and the rest is kind of history.
My first big break was a role in “The Sound of Music”. I played Louisa at Lincoln Center’s New York City Opera and that’s how I got my Equity card. It was the greatest thing that could have ever happened to me. I was already living my dream and I’ve never looked back.
upfrontNY: When you look back to yourself starting in this business as a child did you have any idea it would lead you to where you are today?
Kelly Karbacz: I am a native New Yorker. I started to dream big very early on because New York, being the greatest city in the world, everything is at your doorstep and everything was at my fingertips. Broadway was here and there is an amazing, thriving film and TV industry. Everything was right around me and everything felt possible. I don’t think I could have ever foreshadowed where I’d be today. It has exceeded my expectation and I am so fortunate and blessed and grateful to have the career I have thus far and to be where I am now and continuing to dream even bigger for the future.
upfrontNY: What was it like for you when you found out that you booked “Orange is the New Black”?
Kelly Karbacz: I was a huge fan of the show before being cast and I was already so invested in the world of Litchfield. I loved it so much. I knew for sure I would jump at the chance if I ever was able to audition and be a part of it. Jennifer Euston, our amazing casting director has been so good to me over the years and brought me in for any project that she thought I was right for. I actually auditioned for “Orange” 3 times for 3 different characters before being cast as Sankey, but Sankey was the first inmate that I auditioned for and it was the one I really wanted.
I was at the end of my viewing of season 3 of the show after I auditioned. I saved the season finale as a good luck for myself. It was such a beautiful episode with them in the lake and I remember crying watching it, hoping that it would come to fruition. I remember the next day I got the call from my agent and started screaming. I was so unbelievably grateful. I knew it would be recurring so it would be at least 2 episodes, but didn’t know how much further it would go. To be a part of season 4 and a significant part of season 5, it is just surreal to me that I am a part of this extraordinary show and work alongside one of the truly most gifted ensembles in television. My cast mates raise my game every day, every moment I spend on that set.
upfrontNY: What was the transition like for you from season 4 to your role expanding in season 5?
Kelly Karbacz: In season 4 Sankey becomes the leader of the white power movement. She starts to evolve. They gave me these beautiful moments of possible redemption as well so she doesn’t only have this aggressive nature where she always wants power and respect and fights all the time, but she also has these moments where she holds back from confrontation. As I started to see the evolution a little bit, I was more and more excited. We don’t know anything until we get each new script for each episode. I kind of read each one with my heart in my throat, hoping that there is some juicy, meaty stuff to play and that I am still breathing and not in the SHU.
Season 5 is so phenomenal. They have given me so much gold to play with. I really have been able to allow the audience to learn more about her life and see different sides and different colors to her that they have never seen before and watch her form alliances you’d never expect. I think you also still see her struggle with her belief system. It has been so beautiful and a blessing to see this all unfold. For myself, I just hope there is more and more. I want to know why she has been incarcerated, what makes her the way she is, and what makes her tick.
upfrontNY: This season was really interesting with the riot. What was it like on set and filming? Did it have a different feeling than the previous season?
Kelly Karbacz: Absolutely. The inmates have taken over and it takes place over the span of 3 days. It is super intense and the stakes are higher than ever. There’s this true role reversal and power shift because the inmates are in charge now. It definitely felt different because it is so detailed and you are being shown minute to minute hour to hour how this hostage situation and riot is unfolding.
For us it was an aggressive season because we are brawling, there’s crazy stunts and action happening so it was just so powerful and you could feel it on set. Everyone was so committed and professional and ready for anything that was thrown at them. We all love to play these roles and be a part of the show so much so we had no problem putting our blood, sweat, and tears into every scene and making it the best season possible.
upfrontNY: It is hard to wait anxiously for a new season come out! I know I binge each season very quickly! Did you watch it differently now that you are a part of the show?
Kelly Karbacz: It is funny, before I was a part of the show, just being a fan I would take my time. It wasn’t easy, but I would really try to pace it out and savor every moment and enjoy it so I didn’t feel like it went by so fast. But, when I was a part of it, it almost became impossible for me to wait. The premiere is usually the night before or the night it comes out so after our premiere happens, I go home and start binging and kind of don’t take a break. It is almost because there is such excitement and anticipation; I have to see how it turned out. I know what it felt like to shoot it, but I want to see what it looks like now.
Throughout the year before the next season begins I’ll usually take my time and go back and really sit and savor each episode and try to get the things that I missed. Initially, when you binge it you miss a few things or want to go back and revisit something. That’s what is so great about Netflix, it’s choose your own adventure. You have that option, you can go fast and quick and get it done or take your time. That is what I love about Netflix and streaming shows. It is an awesome opportunity to have your entertainment the way you want it.
upfrontNY: You have many other roles that are very different from Sankey. Do you have any other stand out moment from your acting career that you have been a part of?
Kelly Karbacz: Sankey is so different from any other role that I’ve ever played. I have done a lot of theatre as well, that is how I started. I was fortunate enough to play Maureen Johnson in “Rent” on Broadway. I feel like that was definitely a milestone for me and a stand out role. I was a Rent-head when “Rent” first came out. I was a huge fan and actually waited 8 hours for tickets with my friends in order to sit in the front row. I remember I had that feeling of “I have to play that role,” it spoke to me and it became a dream role for me. It took many years and many auditions, but I did eventually book it and I got to do that show 8 times a week and play that dream role. It was some of the absolute greatest times of my life. My “Rent” family will be my family till the day I die. Being able to sing that incredible score and live the message of that show, “no day but today,” cherishing every moment like it’s your last and so much love and inclusivity. What Jonathan Larson created was so astounding and has had a huge impact on me not only as an actor and performer, but as a person. That is definitely one of the highlights of my life and career so far.
upfrontNY: What is it like living and working in New York and do you ever find yourself playing tourist in the city?
Kelly Karbacz: I grew up in Queens and then lived in Manhattan for most of my life. I did live in LA for 5 years and then I moved back home. Being able to be a part of “Orange is the New Black” and shoot this incredible show in my hometown is so incredible to me that this is something I’ve been blessed with.
I do try to take advantage of all New York has to offer. When I have down time, my husband and I love to go to the theatre as much as we can. I find myself wanting to explore towns and places that maybe I never saw before. It is fun to be a tourist in your hometown and home state and discover new things all the time. Whether you’re in the city or just outside the city or upstate, New York is just incredible and I think it is the greatest place in the world.
upfrontNY: Do you have any other projects coming up that you are working on?
Kelly Karbacz: I am diving back into my theatre roots and working on some theatre projects. It is always a thrill for me when I can be a part of the theatre community and also be involved in the film and television world. They both feed me and my passion in different ways. I love them both.
upfrontNY: Is there anything you would like to share with others?
Kelly Karbacz: Something I would love to share- because I’ve been in the business since I was a kid, something I’ve learned along the way that I think would be great to share with aspiring young actors is there is no timeline or deadline for your dreams because for me some of my biggest breaks in this business have come when I least expected them. If you can run your own race and not worry about where anyone else is and try to focus on consistently doing your own best work people will notice and the roles that are meant for you will come to you. I’ve found when things haven’t come to fruition for whatever reason it is usually because I was supposed to be free and available for something that was even better coming for me down the line. I think if you can have faith and work hard and trust and believe in yourself, you will end up where you’re supposed to be.