Orange is the New Black is the daring new Netflix Original Series from Weeds creator Jenji Kohan that delves into the lives of the inmates in an all women’s prison. I’ve seen the first three episodes and I will say they are quite good, and some of the best original content the online streaming service has offered to date.
In anticipation of the season premiere, Jenji Kohan and star Taylor Schilling took part in a conference call where they told us all about the process of bringing this story to life.
Taylor, what interested you about the character, as well as the show in general?
Taylor: I was really excited that Jenji was attached to the project. I had a hard time on TV the last time on television, and so I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that again.
[pullquote_right] I really am a big fan of Jenji and I know this is her next thing.[/pullquote_right]But, I really am a big fan of Jenji and I know 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 sort of like the centerpiece of her own story and that it was a role that was not in reaction to a man, and she was driving her own – she was like 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. And you know, I read it and really was ready to do anything to be a part of it.
How do you think you would fare if you found yourself in Piper’s jumper for real?
Taylor: I think I would probably be eaten alive.
You mentioned that you didn’t have the most positive TV experience prior to this. Do you think part of the difference with this experience is being on Netflix, versus being on “traditional” TV?
Taylor: For sure. It feels really nice to know that there’s going to be a 13-episode season. It feels very settling and it feels like you can really spread out, and it felt really nice to not have anybody talking about numbers and no one’s talking about ratings.
And also, from my point of view, it felt like there was one person running the ship and it felt like there was space for Jenji to be sort of at the helm, and that’s not what I’ve experienced in television before. So, 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, you know, with an audience.
The press materials say that Taylor came to your attention through giving an incredible audition. Can you expand on that and tell us what sold Taylor for the role? And Taylor, can you tell us about the audition?
Jenji: I mean, first of all, she came in the room and she looked the part. It was just what we’d all had in mind as kind of cool, blonde, girl next door, American goddess. And then, when she gave a stellar performance and also proved to be funny, it was that realization that there was actually a unicorn in our room. Taylor is such an incredible find because she’s the whole package and you so rarely get that. She just took it.
[pullquote_right]When she [Taylor] gave a stellar performance and also proved to be funny, it was that realization that there was actually a unicorn in our room.[/pullquote_right]Taylor: Thanks.
Jenji: You rock.
Taylor: That just made my morning.
You know, like I said a little earlier, I was so taken by the script and so, such a huge fan of Jenji’s. I just really wanted to be involved with it. The process itself was pretty normal, going in and reading, except it felt really easy. It’s been fun from the very beginning.
Jenji: I think this is an element of destiny to it. You know, the right person came to inhabit the role and she’s so – Taylor is so complicated and so fascinating and she brings so much to this role, and it was easy in a way because it was meant to be on us, I think.
Taylor: Yes. I love this.
How actively involved was the real Piper in transitioning her story to the small screen?
Jenji: You know, Piper reads the scripts and we e-mail a lot. Most of her comments are on the more technical – this wouldn’t happen, this is against the rules, this and that. She’s been extremely respectful of our, you know, taking her story and then veering left with it and taking it in its own direction. But you know, I always want her involved because she’s the mother of all this.
And Taylor, did you talk to her before you started playing the role?
Taylor: No. I met her when we were shooting the first episode. And you know, as this show progressed, she became more and more of a resource for me and it was easier to kind of like incorporate some of her. What really helped me is listening to like the minutia of experience, you know, like a lot of the sensory details and things like that was pretty cool.
[pullquote_left]We have dipped ourselves in prison culture and lore and media, and the experience – and people. [/pullquote_left]Was it your decision initially not to talk to her before you tackled the project?
Taylor: I think so, yes. I mean, I know she was available if I wanted it. Jenji and I spoke before we started shooting about how our Litchfield Prison is a fictional place and Piper Chapman is a fictional character. So that really freed me to just sort of, you know, create from the scripts that I was given and that felt sort of like the most fertile place to begin for me.
In regards to the adaptation of the memoir into these scripts, it seems that the guards in the show are a lot nicer…
Jenji: It occurred to Piper, too. That’s one of her biggest complaints that they’re not big enough assholes. You want everyone to be a full character and no one’s just evil, or very few people, hopefully. And they’re characters, so you want to flesh them out. You’ve got to show all sides of them.
There is definitely an antagonistic relationship between guards and prisoners. I do think it flares up. It’s something we may address more in season two, but season one I was really more concerned about having full characters as opposed to just villains.
What other kind of research did you do on prison life and what it’s like to be in prison?
Jenji: We did tons of research. We went to visit a prison. We had speakers. We have read tons of supplementary material, books, articles. We are constantly e-mailing articles that – when I say “we,” I mean the writers in the writers’ room. We have dipped ourselves in prison culture and lore and media, and the experience – and people. And we really want to be as informed as possible.
You did a lot of research about prison and talked to people and had people come in, but what surprised you about the prison experience that you maybe didn’t know before you started this project?
Taylor: Well, a lot of things surprised me. There are things that I had never thought about in my life.
[pullquote_right]I’ve never thought about how your ears never really get a break from all this noise and that actually was replicated on our set pretty well.[/pullquote_right]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 and that actually was replicated on our set pretty well. 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.
Jenji: The oppression of it, just the sense of helplessness and really being part of a system and a bureaucracy that is arbitrary and, you know, losing – I never thought of the depth of losing your freedom and what that meant. And I was surprised and delighted by ways people maintain their humanity and try to survive.
How do you protect yourself legally when certain characters that are based on real people are embellished or changed in the TV show?
Jenji: We created the characters separate from the book. Early on, we were told don’t base these people on the people she wrote about. For example – (Tessa Tuckey) is a name she made up, it wasn’t the name of the actual person, and then we created a different character just using that name. Aside from Piper and her immediate family, most of the characters are creations of the room and not from the book and that’s how we protected ourselves.
Jenji, do you see a connection at all between Nancy on Weeds and Piper on Orange is the New Black, since both are women who you don’t expect to be involved in crime?
Jenji: I think they’re certainly from a similar socioeconomic background. They’re both hot. They both have that sort of adventure junkie dream in them, where they pursue danger. What attracts me is how they walked that line, and the push-pull between those sides of them, the side to be the good girl and the part of them that wants to be the rebel and feel that excitement and escape their stereotype.
[pullquote_left]I wanted this to be an hour just because it’s a big ensemble. I want to give everyone time.[/pullquote_left]Jenji, you haven’t done a ton of hour-long shows in the past, you’ve done more half-hours. Was there ever any thought given to making this a half-hour? And if not, why do it as an hour and how did you find that process compared?
Jenji: I wanted this to be an hour just because it’s a big ensemble. I want to give everyone time. I wanted to give us time to tell these stories. It’s just longer. I don’t change anything stylistically or tonally because it’s an hour, a half hour, I’m not a big subscriber to “this format needs this and that format needs that.” It just gives us more time to get into the stories and maybe a little more room for new ones or pretty pictures. But I kind of just do what I do.
Did you approach this show differently than a show like Weeds, knowing that it’d be a show that would be binge-watched and not necessarily delivered in a normal once-a-week format? Did that change the way you framed your narrative?
Jenji: It didn’t for a season because we were just sort of trying to craft our episodes and get it – just to have it done. I’d like to think about it a little more in season two, but not too much, because it seemed to work the first time around.
[pullquote_right]I think a good story well told is a good story well told, whether you’re watching them all in a row or not.[/pullquote_right]I think a good story well told is a good story well told, whether you’re watching them all in a row or not. However, it might be fun to take a closer look at how the previous episode ends and how that end relates to the beginning of the next episode.
We’re also talking a lot in the room about planting seeds that can grow over the course of the season knowing that people might be watching them in bulk, sort of, you know, bury some Easter eggs and let people find them later on.
So many shows nowadays are just going with a one title card shot. Do you think it’s important to have a memorable opening credit sequence to connect with the audiences?
Jenji: I like an opening credit sequence. It sort of sets up the audience, you know, and lets them settle in and get ready for the show. I’m also really proud of this opening sequence that we did with the (Thomas Cop) group and with Regina’s song, all the women in the opening title sequence are former inmates and I just – I love the faces and I’m really proud of it and I think it’s great.
Jenji, the theme song by Regina Spektor, how did that come about?
[pullquote_left]I am a huge, huge Regina Spektor fan. I think she’s a genius and just a lovely soul, and I wanted her voice on it. [/pullquote_left]Jenji: I begged her to write a song and she said yes. I am a huge, huge Regina Spektor fan. I think she’s a genius and just a lovely soul, and I wanted her voice on it. And she agreed, which is just the coolest thing ever and knocked it out of the park.
Do you think that you’ll keep the theme song going into season two?
Jenji: I’d love to.
You got Jodie Foster to direct an episode for you guys, and the irony is not lost that the title of the episode is “Lesbian Request Denied.” Can you talk a little about working with her and how she came on to be a part of the show?
Jenji: You know, it happened because she had a deal at Showtime to do a show, and very wisely she realized, “I haven’t done television and I want to check this out.” And when Jodie Foster says she wants to come direct your show, you say, “Yes.”
The title of the episode really had nothing to do with her being the director but it was a total treat to have her on set and at the home for that episode.
Taylor: Yes, I think she’s really smart and really good at what she does. And funny, I just like her. I like her as a person and I admire her talent as a director.
So with the early season two renewal, how long do you envision the show can continue with the predetermined timeframe that Piper’s character is in the prison?
Jenji: Four hundred years. [laughs] It’s going on forever. As long as they’ll have us, I feel confident that we can stretch this shit out forever. As long as we’re interested in these characters and the stories, it’s prison. We can make the rules.
Orange is the New Black premieres its entire first season Thursday, June 11th, exclusively on Netflix.