Hunter Emery might not live at a mile high anymore, but he’s still a Colorado guy. Born in Boulder, raised in Denver, with his family still in-state, Emery’s a local through and through. Evidence? He can tell you where to get the best pie in Granby. That's local, whether or not there's a sticker on your Subaru.
On the occasion of the new season of Netflix’s acclaimed series Orange Is the New Black – which drops today, Friday, July 27 – Emery talked with Westword about his role as corrections officer Rick Hopper, his acting past, his memories of Colorado, and how he’d love to play Batman. Because you know what they say: Always be yourself, unless you can be Batman. Then, always be Batman.
Westword: Start us off with a little about your Colorado pedigree. You were born in Boulder, yeah?
Hunter Emery: That’s right, born at Boulder Community Hospital. I lived in Boulder till I was about ten or so and then moved to the suburbs of Denver until I graduated high school – Denver Academy, class of 2004 – and took off to New York.
The way you talk about your parents, they sound like quintessential Boulderites – and I mean that in a good way. One was a special-ed teacher, and the other a jazz musician? How did that upbringing – and maybe Boulder in general – figure into your creative development?
They are definitely quintessential Boulderites! Mom had a children’s clothing boutique on Pearl Street, and my Dad still runs his land-surveying business in Boulder and served as the Boulder County Surveyor for two terms. I’m certain that Boulder had influence on my desire to be in the arts. I feel Colorado – but Boulder in particular – inspires and nurtures creativity. It’s a community that places a high value on art, so I never grew up with the idea that you couldn’t make a living doing that or that it was something that you just did as a hobby. I grew up watching passionate people pursuing their passions; that really inspired me to pursue my own, once I figured out what that was for me.
You have a great story about how you got into acting in high school: You caught the bug and immediately dropped baseball and wrestling. That's a pretty solid 180-degree turn, especially for high school. How did you decide so quickly that acting was your thing?
Yeah, that was a pretty abrupt turn for me. I enjoyed playing sports, baseball in particular, but I was always an average athlete and never felt a passion about it, or really anything at that point. When I was introduced to theater, something lit up inside of me. It was really the first time I remembered feeling that passion. I also think being at an age of self discovery made me primed to dive into acting; it requires curiosity, and in searching for humanity as a whole you come to discover more about yourself. There was something so exciting about it all. I loved everything about spending time in the theater department, loved slipping into a completely new world and making it real.
Denver Academy had a lot to do with making any of this possible. I had an amazing drama teacher, Mrs. J. It was a unique situation because it was such a small school and everyone kind of hung out with everyone, so when I quit sports it’s not like I gave up those friends. I even convinced some of my jock friends to do a couple plays! If I went to a big school I think I would have been too scared of what people thought.
So you ended up in NYC. What's your New York City actor story? How did you get by while making a career in performance?
Bartending paid the bills for a long time. I don’t love doing it, but it’s been good to me over the years. Gave me all the flexibility I needed to audition and keep my days clear. And it’s a great way to meet new people and make connections. My New York actor story is pretty simple: Came to the big city as a big fish in a small pond, got humbled, went bald, started to work. [laughs]
I had some opportunities for some big projects right after I left conservatory, screen testing for several big TV shows and whatnot, but ultimately I’m grateful I didn’t book those. My path was to keep putting the work in, keep trying to get better, and little by little I got more opportunities, and now I find myself a working actor. Wouldn’t change anything about my journey.
Speaking of starting out in the business, in the last twenty-plus years, a lot of actors have been employed by the various Law & Order shows. Even when you check out the bios of stage actors, many of them mention their turn in an L&O episode. What was your experience like on SVU? That was relatively early in your career, yeah?
Yes, Law & Order is definitely a rite of passage for the New York actor. I think it was my very first TV credit. I can still remember that audition and where I was when my agent called to tell me I booked it. I was over the moon!
So where were you when you got word?
I was walking on 103rd Street from my apartment to Central Park to play softball with some buddies. The irony was that the role I'd landed was to play a pro-baseball player on SVU.
Speaking of acting gigs ... your role as CO Rick Hopper on Orange is the New Black has been a pretty meaty one. What's been your biggest surprise for you in portraying that character? Both as an actor, and maybe in terms of Rick as a character as well?
Even booking the part was a gigantic surprise to me! I literally fell out of bed when I got the call. As far as playing Hopper, Season 6 was a roller coaster. Every time I got the next episode’s script, I was so nervous and excited to see what they had me doing. Every week it was a new surprise.
The Orange is the New Black cast is pretty stellar — who in the cast has been most influential in your experience there?
Oh man … that’s a tough one. Everyone on the show is mega-talented. Brad William Henke (also a Colorado native) was a huge influence on me. Laura Prepon directed one of my biggest episodes and is a genius. Nick Sandown is a total rock star. But I’ve learned the most by watching Elizabeth Rodriguez work. She’s absolutely incredible.
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Are you a secret fan of any franchises, either on the big screen or the small, outside of the roles you've been involved with so far?
Batman. I love Batman. I don’t know that I have the jawline or hairline to pull off Bruce Wayne, but I would love to take on the caped crusader one day!
So when was the last time you were back home in Colorado? What do you miss from Boulder or the state in general that you wish you could carry in your pocket when you're working or living back on the coasts?
I miss the mountains and the Colorado green chile! I took my wife for the first time last summer, and that was basically the whole trip: mountains and chile. We spent some time up in Granby, had an awesome time. I have to give a shout-out to Showboat’s Drive by Pie. Second only to the birth of my son, their Green Chili Apple Pie is the best thing that has ever happened to me.