Orange is the New Black hasn’t even aired a single one of its 13 episodes yet, however Netflix is so sold on the show they’ve already given the green light for a season two. The series, based on Piper Kerman’s popular memoir, stars Taylor Schilling as an engaged New Yorker who has to serve time in prison for a crime she committed a decade prior when she was involved in a different relationship. Jenji Kohan (Weeds) adapted Kerman’s memoir and serves as executive producer along with Lisa Vinnecour, Michael Trim, and Sara Hess. And in support of the show’s debut on July 11th, Schilling and Kohan took part in a conference call to discuss Orange is the New Black, adapting the memoir for television, and the appeal of this Netflix project.
Taylor Schilling and Jenji Kohan Interview
What was the appeal of Orange is the New Black?
Taylor Schilling: “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. But, I really am a big fan of Jenji and I know this is her next thing and so I read it. 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 [wasn’t] a role that was in reaction to a man; she was driving her own [story], and she was sort of 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. 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 were in real life in Piper’s shoes?
Taylor Schilling: “I think I would probably be eaten alive.”
How long do you envision the show will continue with the predetermined timeframe that Piper’s character is in prison?
Jenji Kohan: “Four hundred years. It’s going on forever. As long as they’ll have us, I feel confident that we can stretch this s**t out forever. As long as we’re interested in these characters and the stories, it’s prison – we can make the rules.”
What kind of research did you do on prison life?
Jenji Kohan: “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…and 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. We really want to be as informed as possible. ”
Did you approach this show differently than Weeds knowing that it’d be a show that would be binge-watched possibly and not necessarily a thing delivered in a normal once-a-week format? Did that change the way you framed your narrative?
Jenji Kohan: “It didn’t for a season because we were just sort of trying to craft our episodes and get 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. 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 bury some Easter eggs and let people find them later on.”
How actively involved was the real Piper in transitioning her story to the small screen?
Jenji Kohan: “You know, Piper reads the scripts and we e-mail a lot. Most of her comments on [it were] more technical: ‘This wouldn’t happen. This is against the rules.’ This and that. She’s been extremely respectful of our 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.”
Taylor, did you talk to her before you started playing the role?
Taylor Schilling: “No. I met her when we were shooting the first episode. And 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 the minutia of experience, like a lot of the sensory details and things like that were pretty cool.”
Was it your decision initially not to talk to her before you tackled the project?
Taylor Schilling: “I think so, yes. I mean I know she was available if I wanted it. You know, one of the coolest, most strange things about this project is that Jenji and I spoke before we started shooting about how our Richfield Prison is a fictional place and Piper Chapman is a fictional character. So that really freed me to just sort of create from the scripts that I was given, and that felt sort of like the most fertile place to begin for me.”
The guards in the series are a lot nicer than the guards in Piper’s memoir…
Jenji Kohan: “That’s one of [Piper’s] biggest complaints that they’re not big enough a**holes.”
What went into making that decision?
Jenji Kohan: “[…]You want everyone to be a full character and no one’s just evil, or very few people, hopefully. They’re characters, so you want to flush 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.”
How do you protect yourself legally when you change characters based on real people?
Jenji Kohan: “We created the characters separate from the book. Early on, we were told don’t base these people on the people she wrote about. And (Tessa Tuckey) was 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 and not from the book – and that’s how we protected ourselves.”
You’re fleshing out a lot of the prisoner characters by explaining exactly how it is they got in prison in the first place. How many characters are going to get that treatment?
Jenji Kohan: “I wouldn’t set a number on it. You know, as long as we’re interested and curious about someone, we’ll tell their story.”
Jenji, what motivated you to adapt Piper’s memoir?
Jenji Kohan: “The book works for me as another page on so many levels. It’s one of those places where you can juxtapose all sorts of groups and experiences and force them to deal with one another. I’m always looking for crosswords like that. I love that our way in was this kind of yuppie white girl story, because 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 write in on Piper and then expand the world and tell everyone’s story. It’s a great Trojan horse to a certain extent. And, I just fell in love with the characters in the book. I felt this is such a rich world inhabited by real people with great stories.”
What surprised you about the prison experience that you didn’t know before you started this project?
Taylor Schilling: “Well, a lot of things surprised me. What I did find, what could be really interesting was there are things that I had never thought about in my life. 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. Those are some things that I didn’t know about prison.”
Jenji Kohan: “You know, the oppression of it, just the sense of helplessness and really being part of a system and a bureaucracy that is arbitrary. I never thought of the depth of losing your freedom and what that meant. I was surprised and delighted by ways people maintain their humanity and try to survive.”
Jenji, do you see a connection between Nancy on Weeds and Piper on Orange is the New Black?
Jenji Kohan: “I think that’s 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.”
Taylor, what’s been different about this experience as opposed to your previous show and do you think part of the difference is being on Netflix versus being on traditional TV?
Taylor Schilling: “For sure. It feels really nice to know that there’s going to be 13 [episodes]. It feels very settling and it feels like you can really spread out and sort of juice around in the process. It felt really nice to not have anybody talking about numbers and no one’s talking about ratings. And also, from my experience, 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 like 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 shared with an audience. It felt more cohesive.”
There are some tough emotional scenes throughout the series. Which one was the hardest one for you to do?
Taylor Schilling: “I think that what was so cool about this job, 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. And what I do like a lot is that 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. It was just exciting all the way through.”
How did you get Jodie Foster to direct an episode?
Jenji Kohan: “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.'”
Jenji, can you tell us what you saw in Taylor’s audition that made her right for the role?
Jenji Kohan: “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 so, there was that she looked the part. 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.”
Jenji, have you always been fascinated with women who break the law?
Jenji Kohan: “It’s not necessarily women who break the law. I’m deeply fascinated by flawed characters and the more deeply flawed, the better. I think underground economies are a great place to find them. And I think we all have the bad girl or bad boy in us and it’s fascinating to me how it’s handled.”
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