Look, honey: our anxious, horny teenager is growing up. American Pie‘s Jason Biggs has been cast as Larry Bloom, the fiancé of the freshly imprisoned Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), in the original Netflix series Orange Is the New Black.
In anticipation of tomorrow’s premiere, Biggs spoke with Rolling Stone about growing into his roles, the Netflix studio experiment, working with acclaimed writer and series co-creator Jenji Kohan (Weeds) and exploring the unsavory sides of apparently likable people.
What‘s the extent of your own personal prison experience?
[Laughs] You know, zero. Zero experience thus far. But I’m still pretty young. Especially in Hollywood, I’m sure I’ll have plenty of opportunities.
Have you ever even visited one before?
I have not. The closest I’ve been, I guess – well, for this show, we filmed at a women’s prison, exterior shots. We didn’t get to go in. But I also shot once at a courthouse that was adjacent to a prison, and you walked through the corridors. We didn’t have access, but you got the idea. Apart from that, I visited Alcatraz as a tourist about 20 years ago. You get locked in the room for a minute – pay a little extra to find out what it’s like to be a prisoner for 30 seconds.
What was it that drew you to the show? Was it the people involved, or the story itself? Had you read the book?
You know, I had not. When I heard about the project, the name sounded kind of familiar. I felt like I’d seen it in the book review section or on a list somewhere, but I didn’t really know what the story was. The two things that stood out immediately were Jenji Kohan, who I think is one of the best writers out there, and the other thing was Netflix. It’s funny – if you told me five years ago that Netflix was producing quality content and they have actors and filmmakers all over Hollywood super excited to be in business with them, I would’ve been like, what? “Yeah, we want to do a show that streams through the Web.” That was experimental as of . . .
Last week. And this is still experimental. But the “Netflix” of it all is something that stood out. They’re being very selective with what they put out, and they’re betting on filmmakers and writers. With certain people, they’re trusting them and letting them do their thing. It’s the creative freedom that isn’t afforded to many people in many mediums.
Kind of like the HBO phenomenon – the quality is great, the bar is high, the writers are going to be treated well and the writing is top-notch.
Exactly. And because it feels cutting-edge. You feel like you’re part of a new age – part of the future, basically. You’re ahead of the curve a little, regardless of what they’re putting out. And then they’re backing it up with the product. House of Cards is the first example, obviously. In my opinion, that’s an amazing show. They’re not just throwing a bunch of stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks. They’re really being purposeful with their choices. And my expectations were met – exceeded, actually – when I read the script.
Tell me about Larry. What do you like about him?
For me, as an actor, it’s a departure without being too jarring. I feel like I’m at a transitional place in my life. I’m growing up, and I’m looking for the roles I do to grow up with me now. That’s easier said than done. The American Pie success has been so wonderful for me, but it’s also locked me into a certain type of role. It’s limited my options.
You don’t say.
[Laughs] Exactly. It’s sort of one of those catch-22s of success. It’s been an ongoing thing for me, trying to make calculated choices. Ultimately, it’s about finding someone who’s willing to bet on me, and Jenji wanted to bet on me. The character is one of those guys – I felt like he’s likable, but he’s tested, obviously. His conflict is very obvious. The love of his life is taken away from him physically, and emotionally the strain is quite hard. And so he’s tested. As the show goes on, he does things that are maybe a little questionable. He maybe gets selfish. Not unlike, actually, Taylor’s character, the protagonist. Jenji has a way of creating these characters that are likable on paper, and you want to get behind them, but they don’t always do the most savory things. [Piper] is in [prison] because she fucked up, you now? But it’s like that with all the characters in the prison. You’re invested in their story. With Larry, while he seems like the typical nice-guy character I tend to play, I think there’s a little more beneath the surface.
So you’re taking a step toward maybe playing a giant d-bag in your next role.
Then, finally, the roles would catch up with the person I am in real life. Almost there! I couldn’t just jump right in – it wouldn’t be credible. I’ll start with some sort of misdemeanors, then work my way up to felonious behavior, and before you know it, I’ll have my own spinoff prison show.
Congratulations on getting renewed already. Was that unexpected?
You know, I tell you – in the last few weeks or months after we’d wrapped production, just talking to the people involved, Netflix was really happy. My bullshit meter is generally pretty good, but it felt real. The short answer is yes, it’s surprising. That just doesn’t happen, really. It’s so atypical – “What, we’re picked up? The show hasn’t even premiered yet.”
At the same time, that’s the Netflix formula. They’re betting on the shows. They’re saying when we like a show, we’re putting everything behind it. Some of the best network shows, it’s a bummer – you really need time to get into them. They don’t always get a shot. A few episodes and out, because they didn’t get the numbers and the advertisers are pissed. Netflix believes that a show really takes off in its second or third season. This is what they want to do. They don’t expect people to watch right away. Their metrics are different. They’re saying, you know what? If people catch on in six months, OK. Or they’re more likely to watch the first season knowing it’s going to be on next season. On the networks, sometimes it’s “Should I bother getting into this? Is it even gonna be here next week or next season?” It all fits in with their master plan, which I think is nothing short of genius.
Do you understand the metrics, exactly how Netflix regards a success with one of these series? Obviously there’s the subscriptions, but they must monitor whether new subscribers are investing time in the new series. . . ?
I don’t want to speak as if I’m all-knowing on the subject – I’m clearly not too familiar with the business side of it. But it’s my understanding they can measure every little detail. They can tell how far into an episode someone watches, and then, importantly, what they’re linking to after that, or how they got to our show, or what else they’re watching. It’s sort of an overall data collection on these subscribers – a better understanding of who’s watching what than how many people tuned into this exact episode. Truthfully, I don’t know, but from our point of view it feels like a little less pressure.
OK, one American Pie question. Did Don McLean make a bundle from licensing the name of the song?
Here’s the thing. The title, it was originally called – when the script went out, and it was officially registered with the WGA – Untitled Teenage Sex Comedy That Can Be Made for Under $10 Million That Studios Will Probably Hate But We Think You Will Love. That was the title. Then when we started filming, and for purposes of setting up the production company and the whole thing, it was called East Grand Rapids High. But then because there is an East Grand Rapids, and the people were based on real people, legal wanted them to change it to a fictional name, so it was called East Great Falls High. Then they changed it again to Great Falls. Then, about two months before the movie’s release, well after we shot it, it was [director] Paul Weitz who came up with American Pie. At that point I don’t know the Don McLean of it all, what was legally required. I don’t know if this guy made an extra fortune off of it. I feel like they cleared it, and probably gave him some sort of something. But the movie was such a tiny, cheap thing that I can’t imagine they paid him a whole lot.
Do you have a favorite cover version of that song?
[Laughs] I only know Madonna‘s.
There’s a Brady Bunch version.
Stop it. Is there really? I don’t even have to hear it to tell you that would be my favorite cover version. But you know, the original is still the best. Not unlike the American Pie films.