'Orange Is the New Black': Caged Heat

How did the unlikely stars of 'OITNB' revolutionize television?

Taylor Schilling has been to a lot of therapy. "So much," she says on a recent Sunday stroll along the Hudson River, near her apartment in Manhattan. "So much therapy." As such, the 30-year-old, whose face is makeupless and guileless in the sun glinting off the water, is supremely well-adjusted. She does not drink. She does not publicly discuss her personal life — who she's dating, why so much therapy — other than to say, "If you're really living it, life is complicated." She is grounded in her petite frame, speaking and walking very slowly, and, as a nice person, worries for my job security if I don't come away with something exciting to say about her. "Let's see how we can get you something that's fun but that's not 'how I lost my virginity,' " she says, but ultimately can't think of anything juicy. Except maybe to wonder why her bosses haven't hooked her up. "I'm paying for fucking Netflix," she says. "I wanted to talk to somebody about that."

In short, Schilling is not fucked up, unlike her Orange Is the New Black character, convicted drug-money-smuggling Piper Chapman, who is at turns clueless and manipulative and superior. Schilling calls her "not particularly endearing," but she has nevertheless captivated audiences as the lead of Netflix's biggest cultural hit since it started pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into original content. In its second season, the show became the most-watched series on Netflix, which has more than 60 million subscribers worldwide. Last year, "Piper" was on the list of most common baby names for girls.

Likable or not, Piper is exactly what Schilling was looking for. Raised in Boston by professional-class parents, Schilling dropped out of a grad-school arts program to audition for roles, and got some — on NBC's short-lived Mercy, in Argo, even in a Nicholas Sparks vehicle that had her making out with Zac Efron. "I wanted to do stuff that I believed in," she says. "But roles for women can really be like an appendage to someone else. It's either the best friend or a girlfriend — you're not at the seat of your own narrative." She had decided she wasn't going to take parts like that anymore, period, even if it took her offscreen. She was prepared to work in low-rent theater. Possibly she'd have spent a lot of time "reevaluating" at her grandmother's house, in Maine.

"It's funny, when you totally are just like, 'I am pbbbtt' " — she blows a raspberry — "that's when things come in. I wasn't reading very many scripts, but my agent was like, 'This is a really great script,' and she was right. There were so many different parts of this lady," Schilling says about her role. "She wasn't defined by any one thing."

This is why Orange Is the New Black, which has won more than 20 awards for its adaptation of Piper Kerman's memoir about her year in a women's prison, is not just a popular show but a historic event: It has ladies in it. Ladies who are doing things we never see ladies in entertainment do — the highest bar for which is currently just interacting with other ladies about topics that don't revolve around men. Orange — as the cast abbreviates it — is full of killing, fucking, supporting, loving, scheming, desperately masturbating ladies, living in a prison system we generally try hard to forget about, played by actresses we don't often see either.

This doesn't count Schilling, of course; or Laura Prepon, previously known as the tall and gorgeous Donna on That '70s Show but now as the dominating and calculating Alex, another white, femme "lesbian," who joins Piper in prison for sex, power plays and lovers' spats. After eight years on '70s and two shows after that, Prepon, at 32, had declared a moratorium on doing TV and was looking to make movies, but when she read Orange, she set up an audition immediately, originally reading for the role of Piper. She says Orange has "definitely shifted my perspective" on television. "A lot of the movies that I see right now, the material isn't even close to as good as what I get to do every day."

But for the rest of Orange's cast, creator Jenji Kohan, who became a lady everybody wanted to work with after the eight-year success of her creation Weeds, put together an ensemble of underrepresented actresses — a transgender actress in the role of a transgender woman, a big fat butch dyke actually played by one, a number of actresses who had altogether given up on the business after realizing they were too old, too African, too Latina, too gay or too heavy for Hollywood. 

Kohan, a bespectacled 45-year-old who's known for dying her ringlets an array of rainbow colors, cared as much about having big stars in her new project as she does about those awards she's won ("What matters is that people are watching it and enjoying it and talking about it. In terms of the cycle of awards, they can all fuck themselves"). "I'm a huge believer in the audition process, in the right person for the right role, not because of name recognition or fame," she says. "I'm looking for actors to service the character, not the other way around."

The result is a show that's widely been touted for its unprecedented diversity. Kohan has admitted that she used Schilling's white protagonist to basically trick networks into being interested in Orange. It's not the only trick she's pulling — together her marginalized lady-cast uses its incredible talents to engage audiences with perhaps the most marginalized population of all: prisoners. Entertainment isn't the only industry that Kohan, who grew up in L.A. with a showbiz father and a novelist mother, thinks needs reforming. "Our prison-industrial complex is out of control," she says. "It's an embarrassment; it's one of these things we'll look back on and say, 'What were we thinking?' It's something that needs to get talked about, and I'd love to start that conversation. But I can't be didactic about it. I'm here to entertain. This is my activism."

This season, Orange has 14 series regulars, whose backstories humanize the invisible, criminal untouchables they play in varyingly heartbreaking and hilarious ways. As in last season, they make up so much of the narrative that Piper barely qualifies as the lead anymore. "What's beautiful about Orange is you see this motley crew of women," says Uzo Aduba, who, at 34, is one of several actresses on the show who quit the business before they got their roles — Aduba as Suzanne Warren, better known as Crazy Eyes. "When I first came to work, I would be like, 'This looks like the Island of Misfit Toys.' "

When Kohan was casting the part of Sophia, the transgender hairdresser, she couldn't have known that Laverne Cox was going to become an icon. "I can't predict the future, but I knew I wanted a real transgender actress to play the role. And Laverne was the best."

When I sit down with Cox, on a couch outside a photo shoot, the 31-year-old admits that her ideas about Orange may be "grandiose," but to be fair, the actress was working in a restaurant just three years ago, and has since been on multiple magazine covers and is set to be featured as a transgender lawyer in an upcoming CBS pilot.

"We've revolutionized television," she says. "The unprecedented diversity that we just saw in pilot season I think would not be possible if it weren't for us."

Growing up in Alabama with a single mother who "worked like a dog" and a twin brother — he plays Cox pre-transition in flashbacks on Orange — Cox liked to dance and alter thrift-store clothes, and was bullied mercilessly. Her current career was barely fathomable then, when there were zero transgender people on TV. She attempted suicide at 11. Now she is one of the most prominent faces of the transgender community, a visibility that she knows is important, "particularly in what bell hooks calls 'imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.' "

The pressure of that responsibility can be intense — "It's too much, because I'm a flawed human being" — in addition to exposing her to the constant scrutiny of bigots. The night before Cox and I meet, someone sent some transphobic commentary her way on social media. "And that hurt," she says. But Cox has loads of coping tools for dealing with bullies (she too has had therapy: "Tons. Tons"), one of which is making a list of all the reasons she is beautiful, which she did. She starts to cry when she talks about this. "I'm really tired, so I'm gonna be emotional today," she says. 

For all its ugliness, Cox credits the Internet with the progress that's been made since her childhood. "It's been a way to connect; it's also been a way to amplify our voices, to amplify our points of view. I believe there are so many trans stories to tell, and they have yet to be told."

Orange gave her the platform to tell some of them. Without the show, Cox says, "I wouldn't be here."

She's not the only one.

Aduba meets me in a coffee shop in Chelsea, wearing not the trademark knots in her hair but long, silky-straight locks and an immaculate flowing-pant and fitted-sweater ensemble. The daughter of Nigerian immigrants and a track star in high school, she'd discovered her passion for acting while studying opera at Boston University's conservatory, but before she'd quit the industry at the tender age of 31, she'd never even been on TV or in film. And not for lack of trying; she'd appeared in plays, and gone to audition after audition. But "Even in theater, I didn't see me," Aduba says. "I didn't see difference, or it being celebrated." It was the day she left an audition for Blue Bloods, a role she knew she wasn't going to get, that she quit.

"I was like, 'I am done. I give up and I'm giving it up,' " she says. "And I was on the train in tears, not like bawling, but you know, that kind of cry — the tears you can't, like, stop them. I had given up on all of it. It was so hard on my heart, because I loved it." She was going to go to law school. That would make her family proud, anyhow.

Aduba went home and ordered sushi and wine to facilitate her pity party, and turned on a recorded episode of Oprah's Master Class to keep her company. There was Lorne Michaels, talking about how in the beginning SNL had been panned and he was debating whether to quit, and a dreamy image came onto the screen during his voice-over, a swing hanging from a tree backed by a pink sunset, and then the words, as he said them, "Keep the faith." It was 5:43 p.m. on September 14th, 2012, and she felt the message all the way through her. And her phone rang. It was her agent. She'd gotten a part on Orange.

Later, she went back and watched the Lorne Michaels Master Class episode again. At the part where she saw the image and the words "keep the faith": They weren't there on the screen. They'd never been there.

When I ask how she feels about having manifested-slash-hallucinated an epiphany in a Lorne Michaels Oprah special, Aduba, who is all seriousness and graceful gestures — not that jerky stuff Crazy Eyes does, but a dancer's moves — toward her heart or the universe as she talks, says, "Who cares? Because I know that's real."

There are enough real-life redemption stories within Orange's fictionalized redemption story to fill an entire episode-long montage. Take Selenis Leyva, the 40-year-old Cuban-Dominican-American who plays Gloria, the Santeria-dabbling kitchen goddess. Raised in the Bronx, before Orange, she'd been a working actress for 20 years, getting parts on everything from The Sopranos to The Good Wife, but "I couldn't find continuous work," she says. She was getting old by Hollywood standards, and she was told after auditions that "I'm not Latina enough, because a Latina's not supposed to be Afro-Latina."

Leyva had a daughter to support, so she decided to quit. "I was at a point in my life where I wasn't going to act anymore," she says. But then her agent called, and . . . well, you know how this goes now.

Or take Lea DeLaria, the aforementioned and self-proclaimed big fat butch dyke who brings you Orange's Big Boo. Drinking a glass of vodka the size of her face at the Palm Restaurant on the West Side of Manhattan, she recounts over a steak lunch how a few years ago she quit acting, and the rest of the country along with it. Tired of getting little walk-on parts, she packed up her things, got rid of her apartment and got on a plane to London, where she'd been making a great living off her career as a renowned jazz vocalist and stand-up comic. She'd only just landed when she saw she had 12 missed calls from her manager telling her she better get her ass back for this Jenji Kohan role she'd just got.

DeLaria, 57, is a former Midwestern Catholic schoolgirl who is as crass in person — she told me a joke over lunch about diarrhea so graphic that it would be cruel to repeat — as she is on the show. She too invokes a cast comparison to the Island of Misfit Toys, where "old showbiz Broadway ho's" like herself, 63-year-old Annie Golden (Norma), who was in Hair, and 74-year-old Beth Fowler (Sister Ingalls), who's been in Sweeney Todd, work with Kate Mulgrew (Red) of Star Trek: Voyager fame as well as "all these young girls who've never worked before." 

For her part, Big Boo contributes heavily to the show's confrontation of "normal" TV sexuality. "Having me have sex with a dildo was, like, the greatest thing ever," DeLaria says of a scene in the new season. "Because when do you ever see that?" Kohan has said that her policy toward sex, in general, is the more sex, and the more graphic, the better. Consider a line in Season Two — validating to women who have sex with women everywhere — when the character Poussey (who is also a lesbian in real life) and her girlfriend are impotently attempting to smash their vaginas together until the former gives up, and says, "I told you scissoring wasn't a thing."

"I laughed so hard at that," DeLaria says. She shakes her head, lamenting scissorlocking, and a culture that can only understand lesbian sex as physiologically ridiculous. "What a fucking waste of time."

"My politics and my humanity are more important to me than anything," DeLaria says. "Laverne and I see what's happening for us as an opportunity to advance some politics that are very dear to us."

The gay agenda, I joke?

"Well, for Laverne, it would be the trans agenda. For me, it's the butch agenda. Just to fuck as many girls as I possibly can."

Make no mistake: a crew of self-identified misfits does not an offscreen disaster make. "We are not going to be the example for how women don't work together," Aduba says Kohan (whom she calls "a mama bear") made clear.

"Jenji said from the beginning, 'I don't want any assholes on my show,' " says Leyva, who attributes the no fighting or bitching and the good feelings to the struggles the actresses have been through. "We're all grateful for this opportunity to be on a show that's not about how skinny or young you are," she says. "We know what it's like to audition and be told you're not the right type."

There's Dascha Polanco, who says, "I don't take the opportunities rendered for granted because it's hard for me as a Latina in Hollywood. You know, the insecurities of growing up not being able to see someone you can relate to in the media." Polanco's prison-guard-impregnated character, Daya, is so über-calm that I'm completely unprepared for how animated she is, putting her hands on my arm or leg frequently to emphasize a point — or for her to kiss me, which she does immediately when we meet. She was a single mother who was working in a hospital when she got the role in her late twenties.

There's Danielle Brooks, the 25-year-old "baby" of the regulars, who plays Taystee. She struggled to get roles after graduating from Juilliard — "Actor years are like dog years. I was struggling so much and I was auditioning so much and I got so many no's" — as well as with "self-love as a curvy, plus-size woman." Fans have told her that they connect with Orange because "people see themselves."

There's Ruby Rose, the Season Three genderqueer newbie who, OK, as a 29-year-old Australian supermodel is not the last person you'd expect to see on TV, but who had to compete with more than 50 actresses for her part. And since the show's "acting is at the highest level," she worried "a little bit, like, am I gonna be good enough? Am I gonna do a good job?"

Whatever the reasons these women aren't assholes, "This is my life," Kohan says of her policy against working with hard cases. "I spend the bulk of my life at work, sadly, and it's too short to spend your time with people who make life unpleasant."

Therefore, as DeLaria puts it, "There's not one diva bitch cunt on our show."

If you've ever wondered if the actors who play your favorite prison personalities are the types of people you'd be lucky to serve time with — or have as, say, best friends or wives — the answer is yes. As I meet and talk on the phone with a parade of actresses, each one is as kind and adjusted as the last. Many of them perhaps owe their compos mentis to the amount of therapy they've been through. In addition to Schilling and Cox, DeLaria went to "10 years — it was a lot of therapy"; Leyva says that anyone who hasn't gone to therapy, "I need to talk to them and ask them what's going on"; Aduba has been, too. Those of them who aren't into therapy are at least into spirituality. Brooks, the daughter of a Baptist minister, calls herself "grounded in faith." Polanco says she's into "energies" and "practices" like reiki and stones. "I would call myself spiritual," says Prepon, who was raised Catholic and Jewish, and is now a Scientologist. Prepon says she never gets upset, and when I press her to remember the last time she was, about anything, she comes up with nothing. 

Kohan says she doesn't accept the perception that to be a genius, one also has to be a maladjusted dick — "I call bullshit" — and Polanco says the sense of entitlement you might see on other sets is nonexistent on Orange. Leyva thinks the show has to be about the work, because it sure as shit isn't a beauty contest. "We have no makeup on, or added imperfections — they give you bigger pores, or highlight a pimple or bags under your eyes. We all look bad."

Except, Leyva says, for Prepon. "She manages to make that look sexy somehow. She always looks good, but I'll forgive her."

Of all the redemption stories surrounding Orange, Natasha Lyonne's is the most dramatic. "She was looking for a second chance in the business," says DeLaria. "And she hit the ball out of the park."

In person, Lyonne is as rowdy as any fan of her character, Nicky, the ex-junkie, acerbic but sweet, semi-predatory lesbian of Litchfield penitentiary, would hope her to be. We sit in her Manhattan apartment, which is full of World War II and Holocaust memorabilia ("See, this is also after the war, 28th of December, 1945, 'cause my grandparents are Holocaust survivors, so I guess they had, like, fur coats. . . . And now see this, this is a drawing of SS officers killing Jews, see?"), having a smoke break (Marlboro's shortened 72s, because "I'm, like, five feet two or something, so I feel like I probably have smaller lungs; real cigarettes are made for a person five-five or taller") before we take a car to Midtown to drop off a borrowed diamond bracelet to her godmother ("This was a gift from one of my godmother's lovers to her. Yeah, I do think that she must be very good at having sex"). Lyonne tells me she's going to pee, then clarifies, "From my peehole." Then she asks me how many holes I have down there, and then blames the question on her character.

"This is it, Nicky is in my blood now," she says. The character's confidence has bled into her psyche, and it makes her more "cocksure" about asking questions, hitting on people and sending text messages. Not so much in bed, though. "Mostly just because sex is distracting, and if it feels good, you aren't really being like, 'Oh, I'll show you my next move.' Hopefully you're not that in your head about the whole thing, like, 'You're never going to believe this shit I can do.' "

Unlike the rest of her castmates, who as children were children, Lyonne has been on TV since she was six, starring in Pee-wee's Playhouse. When she was in her twenties, after a big part in American Pie, she drove onto a sidewalk in Miami Beach and was arrested for DUI. Later, she was very publicly evicted for allegedly harassing neighbors and threatening to molest a dog. After that, she was hospitalized for a long time for heroin addiction, hepatitis and a heart infection. "I had to learn how to walk again," she says. 

As soon as she read the script for Orange, "I started telling [Kohan, and the producer and the director], 'Listen, all this junkie business, I know all of this stuff. This is my language, guys.' "

She never did hard time, but she was arrested a few times. In a way, she was perfect for a show adapted from a book that was written "to get people to think differently about who's in prison and why they're there and what happens to them there," says Piper Kerman, the real Piper, whom I meet in Washington, D.C. These days, when Kerman's not writing, she's a prison-reform advocate. Though she lives in Columbus, Ohio, where she's teaching writing at two prisons, she's in town as the keynote speaker for a fundraiser. "From my perspective, the show does that as well." It's a happy dovetailing, the visions of this activist/former convict and the activism project of a famous producer.

Piper in real life actually bears some resemblance to Schilling's Piper on the show — but tougher. At the fundraiser, for Voices for a Second Chance, an organization that supports people during and after their incarceration, she stands sure and sturdy in a sea-foam dress with back cutouts and killer heels. Every eye in the crowd is on her as she talks about the impossible odds stacked against the 700,000 people who are released from prison every year.

Orange is not a documentary filmed in real time, obviously. And as the episodes have progressed, the adaptation has moved further away from any truth about Kerman, who is an executive consultant on the show. "Like the screwdriver," she says, referring to a plotline involving a stolen tool and some DIY dildo-making. "There's a whole thing with a screwdriver in the book, and they did something really different with it on the show." But "a book affords you the opportunity for introspection and can illuminate internal conflict in a way that is verging on impossible to put on the screen. A show that tried to do that would be incredibly boring. You need external conflict." What matters is not whether Orange's material is fiction, which it almost entirely is — just that its viewers "recognize these millions of people who are in prison right now as human," Kerman says, "and as interesting and as people who are of value."

According to Lyonne, no one is better suited to that cause than Orange's actresses. "They found a lot of us at a moment in our lives where we had already been through our own personal hells," she says. Those travails are far from ending up in prison, but the cast "can draw on it" as they play these real-looking people making choices, and having sex, that can be bumbling, or self-serving, or life-ruining.

"It's important to be frank about all these things," Lyonne says about her own past. "It would make it easier on all of us if there was not so much shame around being human." She says, "That's very much why people respond to the show as much as they do." Because ultimately, we humans like watching other humans who fuck up, but still have good hearts, offering some hope that we might be redeemable, too.