Lesbianism, drug dealing, vicious rivalries and illicit affairs, Orange Is The New Black took no prisoners with its boundary- breaking storylines when it launched on Netflix last year. But it also had heart, guts and humanity by the bathful –or, more appropriately, by the not-very- private showerful. Jane Mulkerrins meets five of the show’s key protagonists to talk about series two and how the show has changed their lives...
Taylor Schilling, 29, 'Piper'
The final episode of season one was very dramatic for Piper and she has been sent to a new prison. What’s her emotional state when we meet her again?
She’s been through a lot but it hasn’t been an awfully long period of time – just two weeks. We find Piper very lost, shell-shocked and vulnerable – she’s as vulnerable as you have ever seen her. She is trying to find out who she is, and who she can trust.
The real-life Piper, who wrote the book the show is based on, spent a lot of time on set. Did you feel a huge pressure in how you portrayed her?
Yes. It’s an unusual situation and doesn’t happen for many actors. But Jenji Kohan – who writes the show – gave me permission to do whatever I wanted. She made it clear that Piper Chapman was a character – I was not portraying Piper Kerman – and that was a really big load off my back.
How does Orange Is The New Black differ from other films and TV shows you’ve made?
It’s rare to be in such a heavily female environment unless you are a nun, or a guard at a female prison. But everybody really rallies together and has each other’s backs in the most profound way. I don’t know if it is a reaction to the show itself – in which our characters don’t behave that way at all–for us to go in such an opposite direction, but there is a real sense of all for one and one for all.
What’s been the biggest difference in your life since the show started?
People know who I am now. It’s really interesting to have a common ground with strangers. I talk to a lot more people than I did before. It’s an unusually intense relationship because people have downloaded the whole season and watched it all at once. Soon after the show was released, there were people who had seen all 13 episodes. The intensity of that viewing experience is completely new. It’s like we were hanging out for a weekend, but in order for me to have our next weekend hangout, I have to work for a year.
Danielle Brooks, 24, 'Taystee'
Why is the show so successful?
So many people feel that they are being represented in some way. Not in the physical sense of being in prison, but in seeing representations of themselves, or their mothers, sisters, wives... And there is such a diverse group of characters. There is not just the token black girl or token Hispanic girl.
Have you had feedback from women who’ve been in prison?
Yes. Lots of people know a Taystee. I was walking though Times Square and a man came up to say that he was incarcerated, and knew a man who was a Taystee. People relate to her whether they are female or male.
Does it feel groundbreaking to be part of a show with unvarnished depictions of lesbianism?
We’ve been given a lot of freedom and that’s great. Women are kissing women and having sex with women, but the stories are deeper than just sex. The humanity of the show is what people are drawn to. We are showing real life and private moments – and that’s what people are responding to.
You had a brief lesbian sex scene on Girls; was that nerve-racking?
It was a lot of fun – and very scary. But Lena Dunham and Jemima Kirke were so amazing. Working with women like them and Jenji Kohan has opened my eyes to possibilities for me in the future.
Taryn Manning, 35, 'Pennsatucky'
What’s unique about Orange?
Because we are behind these walls and all dressed the same, it relies on everyone bringing something to the table. There’s a uniformity to us all, so everything that is expressed in terms of drama is coming from within. It’s all about the characters.
Pennsatucky is such a complex role. How did you prepare?
I researched all the ingredients meth is made from and it is disgusting. I read that list before I go on set and say to myself, ‘Remember, that’s what her brain looks like.’ My character isn’t currently using but she has struggled with drugs, which only exacerbates her ignorance. I watched a lot of material showing Southern female preachers, studying the way they talk so I could rattle those Bible verses off like second nature. She messes up every word, but she is on the right track. There’s a serious physical transformation, too – people are always telling me how ugly I am on the show. I don’t get offended.
Has the show changed your life?
I’ve been working on a film in Chicago and can’t walk two feet without someone stopping me to talk. I love that positive feedback, but it can feel a bit much. I’m shy and get nervous when a bunch of girls come screaming at me. I even bleached my hair to try to disguise myself, but it hasn’t worked.
Laverne Cox, 'Sophia'
As the first black transgender woman on a major show, do you feel a certain responsibility?
A tremendous amount. There is so much work to be done around trans-equality and representation in the media. I am executive producing two documentaries. I’m trying to amplify the voices of trans people and speak for victims of injustices.
Are there any elements of your life that mirror Sophia’s story?
I very much related to Sophia’s relationship with her family, and her feelings of guilt and shame about abandoning them – the complicated nature of those relationships, with Sophia trying to be true to herself, but also to make her wife happy.
Your own twin brother, M Lamar, played the pre-transition Sophia.
We did eight hours of hair and make-up to come up with Sophia’s looks, and also to see if I could play her butch. But Jodie Foster [who directed the episode] didn’t think I was butch enough. So we had all these very butch black men audition, and none felt right. The team asked for a photo of me pre-transition, and my agent said, ‘You know she has a twin brother?’ It felt so much better than having someone else play me.
How has life changed for you?
I just got my first independent film. And I’m travelling the country speaking about the issues of being trans, black and working class. It’s all very joyous, but also scary to suddenly have your dreams come true. I had 15 years of being told ‘no’. There’s this fear: will it all go away?
Laura Prepon, 34, 'Alex'
What’s the appeal of Alex?
Alex is just a cool f***ing chick. She doesn’t mince words and isn’t afraid to get dirty. She’s manipulative, but when you see her in moments of vulnerability, which are always just because she loves Piper so much, you see that she’s a straight shooter. She is a survivor. She’s a lone wolf. She’s a badass, and I love her.
Any qualms about the sex scenes?
There are 40 crew members standing around, but Taylor and I are so comfortable with one another and trust each other. It’s a love story and sex is a big part of being in love.
You also write and direct...
When I was onThat ’70s Show I went to film school at night. I wrote and directed two shorts and a web series. Now my first feature film is in the pipeline. It’s based on my unorthodox upbringing in New Jersey – it’s kind of my Garden State. I’d love to direct an episode of Orange; to direct all these incredible actresses would be a dream come true.