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 Natasha Lyonne (who plays quick-witted, recovering heroin addict, Nicky Nichols) talked about why she likes the Netflix format, how much she was told about her character when she was cast, what it’s like to shoot the prison group scenes, and why she thinks women will respond to this show. Check out what she had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
NATASHA LYONNE: I have a television, but it’s not connected to anything. I watch everything on my computer. What’s incredible about it, at least in my experience of watching all the other Netflix shows, is that you’re really making much more of a 13-hour movie. When I watched House of Cards, I was watching Robin Wright’s arc take place in the most insane way, that otherwise you wouldn’t have an opportunity to grasp all of the nuance of. That’s really exciting. It’s this whole new medium happening, in a way.
Do you think this type of format is the future of television?
LYONNE: I do think it’s a really exciting time, as far as being at the beginning of all this. It’s sort of like the Wild West. The experience that I have, of being on Netflix, and what makes it exciting, as an actor, is that it feels like they are on a mission to tell something completely original that we have never seen before, and there are just no boundaries. Anything is up for grabs. I think back to when I was doing Slums of Beverly Hills and how much Tamara Jenkins, the director, had to struggle against the studio because they didn’t want to see a blood stain on the chair when my character gets her period, for the first time. They thought it was gross. It was like, “You read the script, right? That is the story we’re telling, and you wanted to make this movie.” And then, you have something like Netflix where, as far as this particular show goes, it feels like, more than anything I’ve ever done, we are going to tell this story, any way we want to. It just feels brand new, which is really exciting, as an actor, because you feel like you’re not going to get stopped short.
How much were you given about your character, when you were cast?
LYONNE: What’s amazing about getting someone like Jenji [Kohan] as the mind behind the scenes is that, somebody that has a mind like that, the way to draw you in, as a viewer or as someone reading the scripts on a week-to-week basis, is that as soon as I think I know who someone is, all of a sudden, there’s a belly underneath it. The interesting trick of comedy, in a lot of ways, is to have both the comedy and the grounding of the real thing. You get a real sense of a human being. It may be a human being who goes by some sort of flashy moniker, in order to present as a tough guy, in the kind of society they’re living in, but you find out why they are the way they are. That was really fun to discover. Each week, we would all be hustling to get the advance of next week’s script. I’ve never done a television show before, but you become addicted to the story. As a viewer, you want to know more. And this is a huge story. I can’t believe the world that they’ve built, and how many different microcosm there are within the prison. Everyone has self-named themselves. You want to learn about the whole world, and just when you think it’s going to go a certain way, you discover something else. That’s been really fun.
Will there be more backstory for your character shown, in this first season?
LYONNE: I definitely hope that we get to learn more about these characters. I definitely think that we find out some more, down the line. There’s so many of us that it’s amazing. As we start to learn pieces about these people, how they’re relating in their present-day life is going to make more sense, and that will become more informative. I feel like all the characters get deeper and more rich, rather than backing off. I don’t think that will happen on this show.
LYONNE: It’s pretty electrifying, when you get the whole group together. You’re talking about heavy-hitters who went to Juilliard. Everybody gets into character and everybody is so different. You have this huge room, stripped of classic actor shenanigans. There’s no hair and make-up touching up going on. It was incredible. You end up much more in character because you show up for a giant group scene and you’ve never felt anything like that. In shots that are that big, that encompass the entire jail system, you can’t really feel the camera. I’m near-sighted, so maybe it’s just me, but you don’t know where the cameras are, so you start to forget. You get preoccupied with playing blackjack at the table, or whatever you’re doing.
Why do you think women will want to watch this show?
LYONNE: Women are really going to find something for themselves to really identify with, with this bunch. Everybody will be represented. You’re not going to be like, “Where am I?” And I think it’s going to be really fun for men to get to see women again. I feel like it’s been so long. It’s become so sterile, creepy, pre-pubescent, homogenized, dull and botoxed, that I think it’s going to be a real relief, in a way, for men to be like, “Oh, women! I get to be attracted to women of all shapes and sizes again.” There’s just something about telling the truth. I think we’re starting to have a bit of a revolt against the same sandwich, all the time. This show is going to feel like a real relief, like we can exhale again.
Orange is the New Black is available on Netflix on July 11th.