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.
During both a roundtable interview at the show’s press day and a conference call to promote the series, actress Taylor Schilling talked about what attracted her to this particular project, what a different experience this has been from her last show, which was on network television, how freeing it was to wear the prison jumpsuit, getting to talk to the real Piper, what has most surprised her about the prison experience, doing graphic sex scenes, and how excited she is that the show has already been picked up for Season 2. Check out what she had to say after the jump, and be aware that there are some spoilers.
TAYLOR SCHILLING: I was really excited that (show creator) Jenji Kohan was attached to the project. I had a hard time on TV, the last time on television, so I wasn’t sure that I wanted to do that again. But, I really am a big fan of Jenji and I knew this is her next thing, so I read it. And once I read the script, I was really, really impressed that there was a woman who was the centerpiece of her own story, and that she was in the center of her own narrative. So, I was just really excited. And I love the idea that it was based on a true story. When I read it, I was ready to do anything to be a part of it.
What’s been different about this experience with Netflix versus the traditional TV experience you had with your last show?
SCHILLING: It feels really nice to know that there’s going to be 13 episodes. It feels very settling, and it feels like you can really spread out, in the process. It felt really nice to not have anybody talking about numbers, and no one is talking about ratings. From my experience, it felt like there was one person running the ship and it felt like there was space for Jenji to be at the helm. That’s not what I’ve experienced in television before. It felt more akin to an interesting movie, where there were producers who were really excited by the work and wanted to make space for the director’s vision to be sort of shared with an audience. It felt more cohesive.
Did you find it freeing to wear the prison jumpsuit, every day?
SCHILLING: Yes! Oh, I love it! People are like, “You were in an orange jumpsuit for seven months!” But, I loved that. I thought it was great. As an actor, what I’m finding is that I really like the extremes. I think that’s really fun to play with. And being able to go fully in is interesting to me. It’s as interesting to me as someday getting to play in some beautiful period piece where the costumes are from a completely different era. This feels as extreme as that, and that’s really liberating. It’s really liberating to just go 180 from what my life is like. I love that! I love not having to think about clothes. I wanted to wear a uniform when I was in high school, but I couldn’t. I was like, “It would be so much easier!”
How do you think you would fare, if you were in the prison jumpsuit, in real life?
SCHILLING: I think I would probably be eaten alive.
Did you talk to Piper Kerman before you started playing the role?
SCHILLING: No. I met her when we were shooting the first episode. As this show progressed, she became more and more of a resource for me, and it was easier to incorporate some of her. What really helped me is listening to the minutia of experience, with the sensory details and things like that.
Was it your decision to not talk to her, before you tackled the project?
SCHILLING: I think so, yes. I know she was available if I wanted it. One of the coolest, most strange things about this project is that Jenji and I spoke, before we started shooting, about how our Richfield Prison is a fictional place and Piper Chapman is a fictional character. That really freed me to just create from the scripts that I was given, and that felt like the most fertile place to begin.
What has most surprised you about the prison experience, that you didn’t know before you started this project?
SCHILLING: Well, a lot of things surprised me. There were things that I had never thought about, in my life. I never thought about how loud prison was. I’ve never thought about how your ears never really get a break from all this noise. That was actually replicated on our set pretty well. And I never thought about how the lights don’t go out, so you never really rest, in that way. I never really thought about the intensity of being watched, all the time. Those are some things that I didn’t know about prison.
When the show starts, it’s very much about the external issues in the prison. Going forward, how much does it become more about the internal character changes?
SCHILLING: In the beginning, she’s dealing with the external. She’s a fish-out-of-water. She’s learning the practical stuff, like how to make your bed, where to get food, what time you get food, who you can trust and who you can’t trust, and who you make friends with. It’s bumbley and scary and very surface. As the arc of the season goes on and she settles into a little bit of a rhythm, forms some alliances and meets people who keep her safe, it’s all about the internal rewiring. She’s forced to be still and to look at herself. As she spends more time in prison, Piper can’t run away from who she really is. Without giving too much away, I think she really starts to understand that perhaps the life she was leading before wasn’t as authentic as she thought it was. In that sense, she needs to be behind bars to really find her freedom to figure out who she is. There are so many twists and turns that the show takes. It continues to get darker, and the issues that she has to deal with continue to get deeper.
SCHILLING: Piper is constantly getting hit with something different and evolving, as the season goes on. She’s circling deeper and deeper and deeper into herself, and needing to draw from places that she previously had shut off, more and more. So, it was just exciting, all the way through.
How difficult is it to do these very graphic sex scenes?
SCHILLING: This show was worth the risk. I believe in this show and I believe in the story we’re telling, and I felt like the nude scenes were worth it. The story can hold it. The story can hold that much danger and that much boundary-pushing. It’s really scary. I’ve never done anything like that, so I really had to believe in it to be able to do it. I believe in Jenji, and I really believe in the story. And it’s not all sexualized nudity. That’s the thing that I think is pretty cool. A lot of it is really scary and really raw. It’s interesting. There are boobs, in all sorts of circumstances.
What was your reaction when you found out that the show had already been picked up for Season 2, before Season 1 is even available?
SCHILLING: I’m so excited to be able to go back to work, and explore this character and work with my castmates for another chunk of time. I feel really privileged. This is a really fun experience.
Orange is the New Black is available on Netflix on July 11th.