Netflix prison drama Orange Is the New Black is defined by the chemistry of its ensemble cast, as characters of disparate backgrounds, races and worldviews struggle to stay sane in an insane environment. One of those characters is Nicky Nichols (Natasha Lyonne), a drug addict with a tough exterior and a troubled past. And in a new cast-and-writers roundtable interview with The New York Times, Lyonne says her onscreen prison life has at least some inspiration from her own brushes with the law.
“In my experience of living, for a time, in the underbelly of society, I spent a lot of time in various holding cells,” says the actress. “As wild as I was, when the cops show up, and suddenly you’re being handcuffed, it’s so deeply shocking and terrifying, the loss of freedom. I don’t want to make myself off as tougher than I am. I was never put in the prison system, which frankly would not have happened if I wasn’t some actress with a fancy attorney.”
The interview also features insights from series creator Jenji Kohan, actresses Taylor Schilling (Piper), Laverne Cox (Sophia) and Uzo Aduba (Crazy Eyes) and writer Piper Kerman, whose memoir about her year in prison inspired the show (and the character Piper). Throughout, they explore a variety of topics, including the anti-Hollywood “gorgeousness” of the cast. “The day we filmed the rap battle [for the episode “WAC Pack”], when I looked around, that’s when it hit me: I have never seen this on TV before,” says Cox. “I’d never seen a show with this many women, who look all these different ways, different backgrounds, races, ages, body types.”
Elsewhere in the in-depth feature, the actresses touch on the responsibility of playing imprisoned women. Lyonne shares a recent conversation she had in Palm Springs, California, when a criminal court judge from Texas told her she “never realized that the people (she) was sentencing were really people.”
“It was one of these shocking moments,” Lyonne says. “I said, ‘Oh, thanks so much,’ but I want to be, like, ‘You’re provoking a violent response in me.'”
Kohan – who previously created the Showtime dramedy Weeds – also briefly teases OITNB Season Two, even addressing the possibility of carrying on the show after Piper is released from prison.
“I got burned on Weeds, where you’d change things, but there’s also a tradition of shows that evolve, and different characters come in and you fall in love with them,” she says. “With prison, there are new stories every day. If the audience is willing to take that ride and follow the next interesting person, it can go on for a long time. I may not be standing, but it can go on for a really long time.”