“She was picking something on her arm, and it looked like it might start bleeding,” recalls Davis of a casting session for the 2002 road trip drama, written by soon-to-be TV mogul Shonda Rhimes. “I thought ‘Oh my, she’s too much, this girl.’ But at the same time, she was the girl.”
Manning was vying for the role of Mimi, a trailer park teen with dreams of moving to Los Angeles to make it as a singer. Manning so nailed the mannerisms and soul of a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who longed for stardom that Davis also felt confused. “I remember quietly telling [casting directors Kim Davis-Wagner and Justine Arteta] that while she was amazing, I needed a real actress. My whole goal with the movie was to surround Britney with really talented actors, and they looked at me and said, ‘She was acting just then.’ I really thought Taryn was the character,” Davis reveals. “Then I watched her reel, and wow. I saw how stunning she was in every role. She totally had me fooled.”
Casting directors and filmmakers fell under her spell throughout the early aughts, when she appeared in one acclaimed project after another, including 8 Mile, Cold Mountain, Crazy/Beautiful, White Oleander and Hustle & Flow. Executives at DreamWorks Records were taken by her and older brother, Kellin, signing them to a seven-figure recording contract for their electro-pop group Boomkat, whose track “Wasting My Time” landed on the 8 Mile soundtrack alongside songs by superstars Eminem and 50 Cent. Despite her prestigious film credits, she is by far best known for playing Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett on Jenji Kohan’s landmark Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, a performance The Daily Telegraph called “brilliantly unhinged.”
Looking back on her glory days, Manning, now 45, is thoughtful and at times emotional during a two-hour interview held in late October inside her peaceful Palm Springs home, where she moved in 2018, ultimately giving up residences in Hollywood and Manhattan. “I know that I vibrate. I know I have that je ne sais quoi. I don’t know how or why, but I do,” Manning says.
But the frequency has changed. Life is strange now, the conversations more complicated and the future uncertain. Like at that Crossroads audition, Manning has people thinking she’s too much, especially in comment sections. For the better part of a year, she’s been using Instagram as a video journal by going live for 1 million followers and documenting her days in real time. She has drawn attention and concern in Hollywood by, among other things, praising Donald Trump, supporting convicted rapist Danny Masterson, starting a Bible-reading series called Sunday Sermon, and delivering wild impromptu dances and musical performances that have drawn millions of views on TikTok.
She’s been called out for being too real, too drunk, too opinionated, too religious, too crazy, too silly, too serious, too conservative, too transparent, too alone and just too online. So, what’s really going on with Taryn Manning? Is it performance art by a star suddenly without a stage (after a pandemic and dual strikes), is she leaning too hard into the edginess that makes her a great character actress or is she too authentic in an era defined by robotic, safe and brand-friendly stars? Or, as many have wondered, is she under the influence of something more destructive, like substance abuse or mental illness?
That last question became hard for her to avoid after she posted an instantly notorious clip to Instagram in August: “Every night, well, for about three nights in a row … I was licking his butthole because he liked it, and I didn’t mind doing it! Is that weird? That is what demons do,” she stated from the driver’s seat of her white BMW while parked at a gas station. Slurring her words, she unloaded intimate details of an affair she’d been having with a married man, as well as his wife’s explosive reaction.
Nine minutes into our interview, Manning brings up the incident and its aftermath. She’s ashamed of the video, which was deleted within hours. She says she has no recollection of making it, and claims to have had only two drinks that day. She blames a lack of rational thinking on vertigo, motion sickness from being on a boat or something more nefarious (like the possibility that she might’ve been drugged). “It was the most humiliating thing. I can’t explain it. It feels like it wasn’t me. It was a spiritual attack, and it changed my life to the point where I don’t really care anymore. I feel like nothing matters. Just live your life and say what you want.”
Asked about other controversial posts, like Trump specifically, Manning chalks them up to self-sabotage or, as she puts it, “putting the final nail in the coffin” on her career. She says she doesn’t follow politics and won’t vote in the next election; it was just a punk rock thing to do. She seems hurt by the industry in the way artists are when that thing they love no longer reciprocates the feeling the way it always has. It is easier to walk away than be kicked to the curb. She’s too recognizable to get a regular job, though she tried to get one at a local dog groomer recently. By the time she went in to apply, the position had been filled.
“Hollywood is like that distant relative that doesn’t call anymore,” she says, revealing that she doesn’t have an agent or manager beyond an informal agreement with rep Brandon Cohen of BAC Talent. She says she’s been repeatedly pitched for a spot on Fox’s hit reality competition The Masked Singer but believes she’s been turned down because of her social media posts. (THR has reached out to Fox for comment.) She’s also eager to prove to people that she can play more than prostitutes and junkies. “Look at my body of work. I can do this in my sleep, but nowadays, since the pandemic, it’s like playing Monopoly. I must go all the way back to the beginning.”
There’s a reason Manning nailed her Crossroads audition: She may have been acting, but she also lived that life. Born in Falls Church, Virginia, Manning split time between her home state and a trailer park in Tucson, Arizona, where her mother, Sharyn, settled after splitting from her father, Bill. Though it’s been reported that Sharyn fled in the middle of the night while her daughter was still in diapers because of Bill’s alcoholism and infidelity, Manning insists the full story is more “complicated” and layered.
It’s also more devastating. Bill committed suicide when Taryn was 13, a tragedy that continues to ripple through the family. She recently learned that she has a half-sister, that Kellin is a half-brother, and that the way her father took his own life is not what she was told growing up. He hung himself and did not die by an overdose of pills and alcohol, something she was told as a teenager to soften the blow because that way it could have been accidental. “That was rough,” she says of uncovering the truth.
Sharyn relocated the family to the San Diego enclave Cardiff-by-the-Sea, and every Wednesday night Sharyn drove her daughter to Burbank for an acting class. Manning’s fellow students included Kirsten Dunst, Evan Rachel Wood, Erika Christensen and Leelee Sobieski. “We were all so young, and I didn’t know that everybody was going to become these famous actors,” she recalls. “They weren’t the friendliest girls at the time. They were not ‘girl’s girls.’ ”
Manning, who moved from San Diego to Long Beach (and ultimately L.A.) after being accepted to Orange County High School of the Arts, grew accustomed to that type of crowd. In the early years of her career, she spent time with high school girlfriends who had also moved locally to chase their own Hollywood dreams. “They talked a bunch of shit and said, ‘Why did she make it? She’s not even pretty.’ That was hard for me, but it burned the fire inside even more.”
Early jobs added fuel. She found herself reunited with Dunst on the teen drama Crazy/Beautiful after beating five other young actresses. “That was a really exciting day. I cried and called my mom. Anytime I got a part, she was the first person I called. I’ll never forget the day when she stopped wanting to hear about my career,” continues Manning. “She told me that it was too emotional for her, all the ups and downs and the rejection. I’d be, like, ‘Well, I’m the one that’s doing it, lady.’ ”
The day her mother stopped wanting to hear the highs and lows of the entertainment business came in 2004, when DreamWorks Records was absorbed by Universal Music Group in a $100 million deal and Manning says the rug was pulled out from under Boomkat while they were performing in Japan amid a global tour, leaving them without a label. “My brother never really recovered,” she says. “He lives in the past.”
Though her mother and brother live together not far from Manning in nearby Desert Hot Springs, it’s clear she’s not super tight with either. She reveals that Kellin has battled his own demons and experienced homelessness but says he’s doing better now and that he regularly plays pickleball with their mother. “He blows my mind because he’s so talented,” says Manning of Kellin, whom she praises as an expert guitar player, pianist and all-around musical genius.
Manning’s bond with her mother is more complicated. “My mom’s rad. She’s an incredible woman, she really is. But we don’t see eye to eye. She doesn’t like me at all. I remind her of my dad,” Manning says, pausing to remember her father. Because she grew up with little money, Manning says she’s never felt comfortable taking her foot off the gas. As a result, she says, she’s found herself alone at 45. “It’s sad because I’ve realized that my life has passed by. I’m not married. I don’t have children. I wish that I did, but I was always grinding because I never felt totally secure. I never felt like, ‘Oh, I’m good. I’ve got tons of money and now I can relax.’ It was always, ‘Go, go, go to get the next job.’ ”
Her largest paycheck for an acting job came courtesy of Kari Skogland’s high-octane thriller Banshee, for which she was paid $250,000. Manning doesn’t reveal her salary for Orange Is the New Black, which delivered 91 episodes across seven seasons from 2013 to 2019, but she says she didn’t end up rich after the show’s run. Meanwhile, she says that as emotionally taxing as it was to play such a damaged character, the drama onscreen pales in comparison to real-life trauma she faced at the time. Manning, who identifies as “half gay,” had a series of toxic and volatile relationships with women, involving arrests and domestic violence accusations, and as a result she was dropped from two projects and by her team of representatives. Another relationship ended with a stalker behind bars. “Everyone left me, and I was ostracized to the point where all I had left were my abusers,” she claims.
In 2016, Manning was so distraught over her romantic entanglements that she showed up to the Orange Is the New Black set on little to no sleep. “My world was closing in, and I didn’t feel like being there,” she explains. “They called me to set way too early, and I walked down a long corridor with my hood up. I passed by [two castmembers] and didn’t want to talk to them. They went and snitched on me to producers by saying that there was something wrong with me instead of coming to my dressing room to check on me.”
After filming several takes, Manning made a bad morning worse by flashing both middle fingers to the cast and crew. “Pennsatucky’s fucking dead,” she remembers shouting. “I flipped off the whole set off, walked out and went straight into a dive bar and ordered a drink.” About 15 minutes later, a whole team of people arrived, including producers and security. At some point during the breakdown, Manning said she wanted to kill herself, so they whisked her off to psychiatric hospital Silver Hill in nearby Connecticut. “It shut down the whole set, and I’m not proud of that. I didn’t want to die, but I just said something. I didn’t mean for everyone to have to deal with that, it was just a bad day.”
Contrary to reports, it was not an intervention, she says. (THR has reached out to a Netflix representative for comment but hasn’t heard back as of press time.) Her stay at Silver Hill was short-lived. Manning says she checked out after two days, though she worked with a sober companion for a month afterward. I ask Manning whether the events from the past several months — or years, for that matter — are indicative of longtime substance abuse or mental health issues.
To her credit, she faces every tough question head-on. She says that, yes, she does drink alcohol but doesn’t have a problem, nor does she partake in drugs of any kind. “I’ve never even seen methamphetamine. Nothing. Never. I’m not saying I’ve never done drugs. I’ve made it clear [on Instagram] that I used to do a bump [of cocaine] here and there, but not anymore. I call it the devil’s dandruff — can’t stand it,” she says. “The mental health thing, that is a very good question. Unless you’re a doctor, don’t diagnose me. I have the wherewithal to go to therapy on my own. I’m not in denial that I have depression. I am not. But do I think I’m mentally ill? Absolutely not.”
She continues: “I realized at a certain point that there’s all different types of depression. There’s depression where people can’t get out of bed. There’s depression that can look more frantic, kind of like a chicken with its head cut off. Then there’s another depression that’s like, just keep moving and working and creating so you don’t have to think about the pain.” Manning suggests she might have the last type but is quick to counter followers who think she needs help immediately.
She’s considered deleting her Instagram account or, at the very least, not posting anymore, to salvage “some type of dignified career.” But Manning also defends her online presence by saying that she’s “always been a little bit eccentric, kooky and different.” She then takes a moment to scroll through her DMs to read a handful of the hundreds of supportive messages she’s received over these past few months.
One comes from a man who says he’s been a fan since he was 12. “You make my dark days light,” he wrote. Manning responds, “See, there’s no hatred for me like there used to be. I’m for the people. My whole thing is to encourage people to be better and strive for their dreams.” (As part of that, she recently opened doors on a studio space in “the heart of Palm Springs” where she’ll teach acting classes.)
Still, Manning recently told Whitney Cummings on her Good for You podcast that her bank account has dwindled to her last $10,000, and she needs to keep working to pay her bills. Fortunately, she still has a long list of B movies in postproduction, and one of them, Adventures of the Naked Umbrella, just came out. Executive produced by Lawrence Bender, the satire of conspiracy theories also stars Tom Arnold, who says he was nothing but impressed by his co-star. “My experience of working with her was great. She’s a very, very good actor,” says the Hollywood veteran, joking that he doesn’t understand why the “butthole stuff” is even a scandal. “Every guy in America is now like, ‘I want in on that.’ ” But seriously, Arnold says that if she’s suffering from mental health or substance abuse issues, speaking from personal experience he knows that it’s possible “she can get on the other side of it.”
Manning’s Crossroads director agrees. “She’s phenomenal,” says Davis. “She’s so, so good. And if she can continue to be that, she will always get work. I believe in giving people that opportunity. If they’re in my office, on time, present with clean eyes and a sparkle in their eyes, they’re there. I can see they’ve done the work. The past is your past. Everything else is possibility.”
Manning is waiting with open arms for whatever comes next. She feels that tingle but can’t pinpoint the source. “Something is coming, something is brewing,” she says. “I don’t know what it is, but I have this excitement just like I did when I was 21. I feel butterflies in my belly every day. I feel like I’m on the precipice of something good, and I really feel hopeful.”
This story first appeared in the Dec. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
This story originally appeared on HollywoodReporter