From Emmy Award-winner Jenji Kohan, creator of the hit comedy series Weeds, comes the 13-episode dramedy, Orange is the New Black, available through Netflix on July 11th. Based on the popular memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman, the series stars Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman, an engaged Brooklynite whose decade-old relationship with international drug-runner Alex (Laura Prepon) results in her arrest and year-long detention in federal prison. Piper trades her comfortable New York life with her fiancé (Jason Biggs) for an orange prison jumpsuit, and is quickly forced to question everything she knows while she serves her time, surrounded by an eccentric and outspoken group of inmates.
At the show’s press day, actress Laura Prepon talked about how she came to be playing Alex, what she did to prepare for this role, that’s unlike any character she’s played before, how cool it is to learn the unexpected backstories of the characters on the show, how difficult it is to do the graphic sex scenes, one of her most memorable moments this season, how freeing it is to wear a prison jumpsuit every day, getting to work with Jodie Foster, who directed an episode, and why she likes the Netflix format. Check out what she had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
LAURA PREPON: Well, the story of how I got this is kind of funny. To make a long story short, I auditioned for the role of Piper because I read the pilots every year and this show was head-and-shoulders above any pilot I’ve read in awhile. It was amazing. So, I read for Piper and I knew that I wasn’t really right for it, but I loved it so much that I wanted to read for it. And then, my friends and I saw a video on YouTube of a guy parasailing around a castle in Germany, so we booked a ticket and went to Germany, right after my audition. So, I went to Germany and ended up parasailing around this castle. I was in Germany sightseeing, eating Bratwurst and hanging out in beer gardens. And then, I got back from Germany and got a call where they were like, “We need to fly you to New York tomorrow to read with Taylor [Schilling].” I was like, “Wait, for Alex, the manipulative drug-smuggling lesbian girl?!,” and they were like, “Yeah.”
So, I got on a plane the next morning, and I went and read with Taylor, and we had instant chemistry. It was amazing. And then, I ended up getting it. Jenji [Kohan] was like, “You know, you were amazing as Piper, but I couldn’t get you out of my head for Alex.” Fourteen hours later, I had to move to New York, so I didn’t have a lot of prep time. Jenji is awesome because she trusts all of us to do our jobs. Because I did get the role on such short notice, I was like, “Okay, cool. My main thing, right now, is that I need to figure out how to humanize this woman, and make her real and grounded. How am I going to relate to an international drug smuggler?” What’s great is that a lot of us are playing so against type in this, and it’s awesome. All of the writers put faith in the fact that we know what we’re doing. We have creative freedom, and it’s awesome. I think it all worked out. Everybody on the show is so good.
How did you prepare for this character?
PREPON: Honestly, all these characters are so off-the-wall and amazing. I had to just try to find the character through my experiences and things that have happened to me, in my life. I have to be connected to my character, or I don’t know what I’m doing. I just try to find things within myself that relate to this woman and can humanize her. Alex is tough. She’s got a really tough exterior. But as you watch the show, you see that she’s actually really vulnerable, she has her insecurities, and she’s really loving. Piper is the love of this girl’s life, and Piper completely ruined her. She ripped her heart out. Everybody, on some level, can relate to heartache and insecurities that you put on a front for. She’s a really complex girl. I just try to relate to her through my own experiences.
Did you go to a women’s prison at all, to see what life was like there?
PREPON: No, we didn’t really do that. There was the book, which was nice. Other than that, we didn’t go see any prisons, or anything.
Did you like the fact that the audience will get to learn about these women through flashbacks and really get to see their backstories?
PREPON: It’s cool because you get to see that some of these women are there because they should be. They’re actually not good people to be in society. And then, other people are there because they just made a really retarded mistake. And other people get the opportunity to leave prison, and then they do something to get put back in there because they can’t actually function in society. It’s really cool because you get to see all these different women, their backstories, where they come from, their upbringing and why they get to where they get to, and they’re all completely different. It’s really cool that you get to see all those storylines.
How difficult is it to do these very graphic sex scenes?
PREPON: It’s interesting because, when Jenji first wanted me to play Alex, I was like, “Okay, well, there’s two things that I’ve never done before.” Well, I had done nudity in one other thing, but nudity for an actress is a very particular thing. It has to do with the material, and making sure it’s not gratuitous, that it’s done in a way that’s shot beautifully, and it’s for a reason. And I’d never played a lesbian before. Of course, we’re supportive of the gay and lesbian community. I’ve just never portrayed that on camera. Once I met Taylor I knew that it was going to be really comfortable and okay, but the nudity was a little bit of an issue for me, so Jenji and I talked about it.
When you’re in prison, there’s no hiding. These women are not hiding behind towels and shower curtains. They go to the bathroom with no doors on the stalls. It would actually look weird, if these women were hiding. In the first couple of episodes, Piper is all weird about everyone seeing her. But then, you look at her transformation and where she goes, and by half-way through, she’s like, “Whatever. This is what we do. It’s a pair of breasts. This is what happens.” So, for those scenes, whether it’s a man or a woman, if you’re comfortable with your fellow actor – and Taylor and I are so comfortable with each other – it’s fine. We have amazing chemistry. That was a learning curve for me because I’d just never done that before. My first scene was a shower scene with her, where we were both topless. We were both totally comfortable, and it was awesome.
What’s one of your most memorable moments from this season?
PREPON: I was locked inside an industrial dryer. It was one of the storylines. Alex gets locked into a dryer. Everyone was freaking out about the dryer. We work in a laundry, and Taryn Manning’s character is my nemesis. We hate each other, on the show, and she locks me in a dryer. For the week before, they were talking about the dryer episode. I was like, “You guys, it’s not a big deal. The dryer is pretty big.” They were like, “We’re gonna poke holes in the ceiling, so you can breathe.” They were more stressed out than I was.
Will Piper and Alex come to some kind of an understanding with each other, at some point?
PREPON: I’m not allowed to give too much away, but you can use your imagination, in terms of what happens when you take two women who used to have this amazing love for each other, and put them in four walls where they can’t get away from each other. At the end of the day, stuff is gonna go down. But, it’s interesting how it plays out. The cool thing about Jenji is that it’s not predictable, which is great. Whenever you think we’re going one way, it goes the other way. That’s the television I like to watch, and it’s pretty cool that our show is like that.
PREPON: Yes. She came to the set a few times, and I met her one time, on set. But, I did not meet the real Alex. There’s a real Alex. I asked about it. She’s MIA, right now. She might be in jail somewhere in Jakarta. I have no idea. But, she’s MIA.
Did you find it freeing to wear the prison jumpsuit, every day?
PREPON: People were not shaving their armpits. One of my best friends was on the show too, and she was in my apartment and we were hanging out, one day. I lifted up my arm, and she was like, “Girl, when is the last time you shaved your armpits?” I was like the picture of Julia Roberts that was out there. I was not that bad because that was insane, but she wasn’t used to it. None of us were shaving our legs. You’re literally in a burlap sack, all day, every day. They were real prison-issue jumpsuits and everything. None of the things were true to size because they were all prison-issue. It wasn’t like, “You’re a size 8.” Everything was all weird. It didn’t fit right and was strange. It was terrible! But, you didn’t see anything, so nobody cared. If you had a zit, no one covered it. It’s cool and really authentic, but there is a certain point where you’re like, “I have a zit. Cover that, at least. Throw me a bone here.” But, it is freeing. Jenji really wanted minimal make-up. The only reason I wear black eyeliner on the show is because my character is rockabilly. There’s a whole story about how I barter for my black eyeliner. It’s cool because, with each of our character, we got to put our own flare on it. These women learn to get by and get what they need in there by being inventive and resourceful, which is cool. So, it is freeing. It’s about the material and the acting, and not the hair touch-ups.
What was it like to work with Jodie Foster and have her direct an episode of the show?
PREPON: It was awesome! She’s just so cool. She’s such an amazing actress. Andrew McCarthy also directed a bunch of these, too. When you work with an actor, it’s cool because they know what it’s like to be directed themselves. Jodie directed a scene with me and Taylor that was when she starts talking to me again in prison and it’s our first actual confrontation that we have, where some stuff comes out. It was really cool because you can tell that she directs in a way that she wants to be spoken to, as an actress. That’s really nice, and you appreciate that. Dealing with the actors was more important to her than anything else, which was really nice. I thought Andrew was great, too. Honestly, all of our directors were awesome. I thought they were all really great. On a lot of shows that I’ve done, we had the same directors, which was cool. But then, it’s also great to do shows where the director changes every week because you get to see all these different personalities and see what you like dealing with better, as an actor. But, Jodie was amazing.
PREPON: Honestly, I think it’s really cool. As actresses, our schedules are really wonky and we work weird hours. For me, personally, I watch pretty much everything on Netflix, and I watch all the episodes in a row, when I can. I don’t really watch much of any live TV anymore, and I feel like a lot of people are doing that now. I do think this is where television is going, and I think that it’s awesome to be a part of a show like this because we are these pioneers into this new medium. And it’s working. When you look at the success of House of Cards and Arrested Development, which I love, this is how people are watching television now. It’s pretty cool to be a part of this whole thing.
What are you watching now?
PREPON: I just got into Homeland. I’m obsessed with Homeland. It’s not even okay. And Louie, on FX, is so good. He’s amazing! So, I’m watching that on Netflix, and I’m not saying that because I’m on Netflix. Those are my two new obsessions.
Orange is the New Black is available on Netflix on July 11th.