NEW YORK (AP) — In the women's prison that is home to "Orange Is the New Black," Warden Joe Caputo perseveres with a mix of fatuous authority and scattershot nobility.
"I think he wants to save everyone," says series creator Jenji Kohan in an email. "His good intentions are often thwarted." Striking that balance is Nick Sandow, who portrays Caputo with "nuance and humor and surprise," Kohan adds. "He just seems to inhabit the character. And he looks great!"
Part of Caputo's look is his mustache, which, reflecting his personality, seems well-intentioned but a bit misguided.
During a recent chat to discuss the Netflix drama's fifth season, to be released Friday, Sandow has hidden the mustache within a more extensive growth of beard, "out of laziness," he explains. But rest assured the 'stache will be back when production resumes in a few months.
Asked how the mustache came about, Sandow says he originally grew it to try out for the Caputo role.
"I read a character description that said he looked like a walrus," Sandow recalls. "I auditioned with it and Jenji was like, 'Yes, let's keep it.' It became his signature.
"Then, just last year, I was talking to the casting person about his 'walrus look.' And she said that actually had been a description for ANOTHER character."
As the series has evolved, Sandow says he has continued to explore his character's conflict with "wanting and needing to help people but not being able to get out of his own way," a condition, he confides with a laugh, "I know very well."
He's also examining "the reasons why you want to help people. This desperate need to be the hero — what is that about? Are you being selfless? I'm not so sure."
With the start of the new season (with Taylor Schilling, Kate Mulgrew and Uzo Aduba among others in the large cast), Caputo's efforts have gone awry as perhaps never before: He's dealing with a full-scale prison riot. Another instance of his futile pursuits.
"There's no getting that rock up the hill, and he knows it. But he's still after it. I think that's the part of him that I really love. I think there's something very genuine about his passion, about his drive, that makes him very human.
"He's never gonna please anybody, and especially not himself."
While the 50-year-old Sandow has gathered many acting credits in TV ("Boardwalk Empire," ''Blue Bloods," ''Third Watch"), films ("Resurrecting the Champ," ''Return to Paradise") as well as on the stage, he has charted a parallel course as a filmmaker.
He directs the "Orange" season opener. He wrote and directed (as well as appearing in) "The Wannabe," a 2015 mob drama starring Vincent Piazza and Patricia Arquette.
His recent six-part Spike docuseries, "Time: The Kalief Browder Story," recounts the tragedy of a 16-year-old student from the Bronx who spent three years in New York's Rikers Island jail without ever being convicted of a crime.
Now he is starting work on a docuseries about Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old high school student who was shot and killed in a Florida gated community in 2012. This project, like "Time," is being produced with Jay Z and the Weinstein brothers.
Sandow's behind-the-scenes ventures began a few years ago after he performed in a play at the off-off-Broadway theater run by his friend, Michael Imperioli.
"He said, 'You want to direct the next play?' And I said, 'Sure, I'll do it.' And I jumped in."
Sandow liked it but found this new challenge exhausting.
"When we finally opened, I said, 'Oh, wow! I didn't think I was gonna get through it, Mike.' And he said, 'You NEVER directed a play before?!'
"He had no idea!"
"I grew up in the Bronx, where saying you want to be an actor was just not something you did. But I loved movies, and I had this secret idea to do it. I snuck downtown and took an acting class. Didn't tell anybody. And I just fell in love."
"I think there was, and is, a need to be seen and noticed. But when it got serious, it was a way for me to understand the world," he explains. "I didn't have an opportunity to go to university, so it became a way for me to learn. Part of being a character actor is that sort of exploration: asking the questions, laying yourself bare. It's not about you. It's bigger than you.
"I like that idea."
EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at email@example.com.