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Interview: Orange is the New Black

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“Most networks would be terrified of this show. There is nothing like this on TV.”

Laura Prepon might be right. She plays Alex Vause, one of the many inmates at a women’s prison in the new Netflix Original Series, Orange is the New Black, a show more multicultural, more female-focused, and certainly more stripped down than anything out there. Based on the memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman, of whom the main character Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) is based, the show tells the stories of women behind bars, blending humour and drama, and pushing boundaries.

“I love that our way in was this kind of yuppie white girl story,” said series creator Jenji Kohan, best known for helming the Showtime series Weeds, during a conference call ahead of the Netflix release on July 11. “If you go to a network and you say, “I want to talk about Latinos and blacks and their prison experience and the cycle of poverty,” it’s not going to be a big sale. You can kind of ride in on Piper and then expand the world and tell everyone’s story. It’s a great Trojan horse to a certain extent.”

Carrying drugs for her then felonious girlfriend (played on the show by Prepon), the real life and fictional Piper, a white, middle class woman, is sentenced to 15 months in prison. She is thrown into a world she knows nothing of, one of dirty showers, territoriality, prison politics, corrupt guards, and ugly burlap attire. While her fiancé (Jason Biggs) waits on the outside, and corresponds via phone calls and occasional visits, she fends for herself on the inside, while also crossing paths with Alex.

“I was really, really impressed that there was a woman who was sort of like the centerpiece of her own story,” explained Taylor Schilling, who plays the innocent-looking Chapman. “I think that what was so cool about this job and about this character is that the writing sort of was like a really great dance partner and just kind of like led me through like a variety of different stuff.”

“Piper’s constantly getting hit with something different and evolving as the season goes on.  She’s kind of circling deeper and deeper and deeper into herself and needing to draw from places that she previously had shut off, more and more and more,” added Schilling.

Upon arrival, Piper makes an especially major faux pas, drawing the ire of an inmate (Kate Mulgrew) who has a lot of power. We learn about her past, like that of so many others, and as Kohan remarked, while Piper is the central figure, the stories that unfold involves a multicultural and talented cast. This includes African American actress and Julliard graduate Danielle Brooks; transgender actress Laverne Cox, gay comic Lea DeLaria; Dominican actress Dascha Polanco.

The show also stars Natasha Lyonne as a recovering heroin addict, and Broadway actress Uzo Aduba as the Piper-obsessed inmate known as ‘Crazy Eyes.’ It’s a diverse collection to be sure.

“It’s empowering and refreshing, and for my first major project, I’m so thrilled to have been a part of this,” said Brooks during a press junket in Toronto. “Women are really shining now. Not that they didn’t have that spark before, and women like Jenji and Lena Dunham, they’re really doing their thing right now. It was really refreshing for me to not be the token black woman, and to work with other women of color. It feels like sometimes they’re only one role out there for us, it’s cool that Jenji has made a platform for us to shine.”

In addition to sporting a diverse cast, and showcasing stories that might not otherwise be heard on television, Orange doesn’t pretend to be glamorous – these women are in prison, after all.

“[Kohan] wanted to be raw and authentic,” said Prepon while in Toronto as well. “Going to set, if you had a zit, or you had a restless night of sleep, she’s d like, ‘this is great.’ For us, it’s freedom, you don’t have to worry about that stuff. It’s just about the story. It’s not about wardrobe. It’s not about hair and makeup. There is something kind of beautiful about seeing these women so raw. It’s about their world and the realness of it.”

“You’d leave the set having to do your hair and having top put make up on for your next engagement,” added Brooks, echoing Prepon’s sentiments.

As she had done expertly and uniquely with Weeds, Kohan has a created a series that finds humour and lightness in dark, awful places. While much is serious, and political undertones run throughout, the show is still funny, awkward, and endearing at times, while always challenging your notions of each and every character.

“My book is not comedic, but there are moments of humour, and that’s an accurate reflection of life and prison,” said Kerman, who works as an executive consultant on the show. “I think that’s the single most provocative and interesting thing about the show: the very serious themes, drawn from the book, drawn from real life, married with a comic analysis.”

“They use comedy to actually investigate what is happening in characters lives. I think it’s very difficult to bring people to this subject matter. The release value of the humour helps.”

Some of the laughs come from one of the very few men on the show, as Jason Biggs plays Larry Bloom, Piper’s fiancé who is forced to grapple with her absence. Albeit different than Piper’s plight, Larry’s internal struggle deals with guilt, resentment, empathy, and patience. The questions raised throughout are simple and powerful: is he allowed to be happy while she is gone, and is he allowed to me mad that she is gone?

It’s a welcomed departure for Biggs, who is better known for his comedic roles, especially those from the American Pie series (it may or may not be coincidental, but there seems to be a reference to that franchise early on in the series, and Biggs, during his interview, was quick to point out that once again he is in a scene where his character masturbates – he’s a lefty, Biggs also boasts).

“I’m part of something that doesn’t fit into a specific mold,” said Biggs.  “Piper has this incredible story, and Jenji has a way of creating a world for viewers to see that is just different than anything else. It’s mining comedy out of situations that are ostensibly pretty dark and heavy.”

“The women in the show are all so beautiful and different and unique and cool and human. They’re all so real, you really get invested in them.”

All 13 episodes of this, the fourth Netflix original series, are available for instant streaming. You can binge if you wish, or space them out to your desire. Even before the first episode became available, however, it was announced the series has been renewed for a second season, with endless possibilities.

“Look, it works for me. I think it’s terrific and I think it shows that – at least in my case, I think – I think Netflix has balls,” said Kohan. “They were just like, “We like it.  We believe in it.  We’re going to pick it up,” and I’m just grateful.  I think it’s awesome. “

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