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Someplace Like Home

By Virginia Rohan
The Bergen Record
May 6, 2001

Something about the bright day, and the raucous laughter, brings to mind summer camp.

On this balmy mid-April morning, a half dozen actors from "Oz" are hanging out in and around their trailers -- parked directly outside the massive Bayonne warehouse that encloses the HBO prison drama's new set.

Inside the building, where "Oz" is filming, there's a strictly-enforced code of silence. But these actors are on a break, and giddily killing time.

They chat, joke, play video games, and admire a cast member's shiny Rolls Royce. A week and a half after their arrival at Bayonne's Military Ocean Terminal, they're also cautiously dropping some hints about the next season of "Oz," and candidly giving opinions of their new "prison" home.

"In one respect, it's cool being out here, because you actually feel like you're on a Hollywood lot," says Dean Winters, who plays inmate Ryan O'Reily.

And what about Bayonne?

"I haven't even seen Bayonne. I've been on the base," says Scott Winters, brother of Dean, who plays his TV brother as well, the brain-damaged Cyril O'Reily. "Dean and I actually borrowed [actor] Harold Perrineau's car and we took a little drive down to the end of the base -- about a mile away -- and it was really cool actually to see the view of Manhattan."

The downside? It's a long way from Manhattan and the old "Oz" set, which occupied the sixth floor of Chelsea Market.

"It's just not as convenient, obviously," says Dean Winters, a New Yorker. "If I had a seven o'clock call, I would wake up at quarter of seven. I would get on my bike, and I'd be at the studio in 10 minutes."

Now, he has to get up at 5:30 or 6 and hop one of the vans that chauffeur the majority of the actors, in groups, through the Holland Tunnel.

"It took me an hour to get home last night," Winters says. "On the other hand, we're back doing what we love. We all love doing the show, and you can just see these guys -- it's like being in summer camp."

The "Oz" actors and production team are, in a sense, pioneers -- the first regular players from the entertainment industry to set up camp on this 437-acre onetime military base, which closed in September 1999 and is now administered by Bayonne. The city, along with the New Jersey Film Commission, hopes that it will someday become a film and television production mecca.

In two nearby warehouses, Ron Howard is shooting interior scenes for his feature film, "A Beautiful Mind," which stars Russell Crowe.

But the "Oz" crew is the first regular "permanent" show business tenant, and so, its assessments could portend potential wrinkles in the Hollywood East plan.

"I think what they should do is put a ferry service in that takes us to Battery Park," Dean Winters says.

According to the Bayonne Local Redevelopment Authority -- which plans to convert the property for residential and commercial use, on the order of Battery Park City -- a marina and ferry service are indeed part of the long-term redevelopment plan.

Rita Moreno, who plays Sister Peter Marie, would also be happy to hear that the Bayonne shopping district is within walking distance.

"There's no place to go when you have two or three hours between scenes, like I did last week," Moreno gripes. "Nothing to do with Bayonne itself. It's the fact that we are so isolated from everything. I heard there's a mall across the waterway. I will never see it." (Jersey City's Newport Mall is a 15-minute ride by car.)

Moreno concedes that the isolation, and the no-flyover zone overhead (a remnant from the area's military days) have one big advantage.

"There's so little outside noise," she says. "Even more than that, there's no cars honking. We used to have huge problems at the Chelsea Market. People yelling at each other, and there was an enormous amount of traffic there. Every single time a bus or truck went by, we had to stop and do it again."

Most of the actors say that they're still acclimating.

Though individual areas of the prison, such as the Emerald City unit, look the same, room dimensions vary enough to be disorienting, and the relative locations of prison areas, such as the cafeteria and the infirmary, are different from New York.

"I still get faked out," Scott Winters says. "I come out of Emerald City, and I'll expect to be at the craft service table, where the food is, and I'll be in a construction zone."

Lee Tergesen, who plays long-suffering inmate Tobias Beecher, has also had some navigational problems.

"Last night, I was heading out and I couldn't get my bearings," Tergesen says. "There's one area, right behind the gym, where it looks like there's three ways to get into the common room. I keep getting stuck. It's like I'm a rat in a maze. It's very disorienting. Even things that look the same are different now."

Although the camera probably won't pick up these discrepancies when the series' fifth season launches early next year, "Oz" creator Tom Fontana has covered his bases. He intentionally ended the fourth season with an explosion. A guard lit a match near a gas stove that Ryan O'Reily had left on.

"It's almost like the explosion blew everything up," says Harold Perrineau, who plays inmate-narrator Augustus Hill.

Word from the set is that the blast also miraculously saved Luke Perry's character -- who was presumed dead -- by freeing him from the wall into which he'd been bricked by other inmates.

During the hiatus, Eamonn Walker, the British actor who plays Muslim inmate Kareem Said, admits to having agonized over the move to the new set.

"My main concern before I arrived in Bayonne was, maybe we would lose the magic that was 'Oz' -- some intangible thing," says Walker, adding with a chuckle. "But my first scene, I was naked in the 'hole' [solitary], and I was like, 'Yeah, I've been here before. I've been naked.' It doesn't matter whether I'm in Bayonne or I'm Manhattan. The hole is the hole, and everything just clicked."

His fears completely dissipated once the gang came back to Emerald City, Walker says.

"What you have to understand is that we're a family," Walker says. "It's an ensemble family, and there's a tightness and a loyalty and togetherness that helps create that magic that comes across on the screen."

On this day, actor Rob Morrow ("Northern Exposure") has temporarily joined the family, on the other side of the camera. He's directing this episode, working on a scene in which Moreno's Sister Pete informs Tergesen's Beecher that his sadistic former lover, Chris Keller (Chris Meloni), a charismatic sexual predator, will be returning to Em City.

Keller had been transferred to another prison after confessing to the murder of Hank Schillinger, son of neo-Nazi inmate Vern Schillinger (J. K. Simmons). In an uncharacteristically selfless act, Keller did that to protect Beecher from the elder Schillinger's revenge.

"It turns out, in the scene I do with Tobias today, that Keller has been exonerated of that one," Moreno explains, during the lunch break that follows this rehearsal. "I'm telling Tobias the news that the predator is coming back. We were rehearsing it before, and Lee's reaction is just to flop into a chair in his cell and look mind-blown."

At a nearby table, Tergesen shares other tidbits.

"Sister Pete has started having Said [Walker] and [Vern] Schillinger and I in interactions, trying to straighten out the trouble," Tergesen says while eating lunch in the complex's mess hall. It's in a nearby administration building on the base -- and would never be mistaken for the Four Seasons.

"I think the location works well for the story, because you can't get closer to a prison. We really are locked up here," says Michael Wright, who plays inmate Omar White, and who owns that buzzed-about Rolls.

"I drove here today for the first time, and it was a snap," he says. "The traffic was coming the other way. And I've found some shortcuts to get to the Lincoln Tunnel."

Tergesen, meanwhile, has been riding his motorcycle to work.

"It hasn't been that bad, really. Maybe about a half-hour. Nice ride. It used to be like a two-minute ride to Chelsea," he says, adding impishly, "But actually, it's better for the motorcycle to take a longer ride."

Complimented on his remarkably positive attitude, Tergesen comes clean.

"You should have seen me the first week. I wasn't so positive. It was raining, so we were coming out here in the van with like 30 guys," he says. "But I'm getting used to it. I knew I would. I'm like Beecher. He assimilates."


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