Do I have to explain why it’s so exciting to watch the Netflix series Orange is the New Black, about life in a women’s minimum-security prison, whose second season dropped Friday? Do I have to spell out, in a world where women actors are woefully underemployed, and women characters underrepresented, what a relief it is to watch a piece of expensive, well-made, serious pop culture about the experiences of so many different women? Do I have to trot out the show’s vocal, loyal following – it’s Netflix’s most-watched original series, surpassing even House of Cards – as proof?
Do I have to tell you how great it is to watch just OITNB’s opening credits – a series of closeups of women’s eyes, in faces white, brown, black, plump, gaunt, wrinkled, made-up, pierced, tattooed – because they put more women on a screen in two minutes than one sees in a year of blockbuster movies? Do I really have to go into how rare it is to watch dozens of women of such ethnic, economic, and – for want of a better word – aesthetic diversity, and to see them all be given full-blown personalities, complete with desires, flaws, senses of humour, mood swings, fearsomeness, grace? And then, to be able to watch those women’s lives unfold over a season of television, instead of the small piece we usually get to see, which is one per episode being murdered or raped and then left behind, as men take over the plot – I don’t have to elucidate why that’s thrilling, do I?
“Last season, as I was watching a rap-battle scene being filmed, I had this moment of, almost dizziness,” Taylor Schilling, who plays OITNB’s lead character, Piper Chapman, told me when she was in Toronto in September. “There were a bazillion extras that day, 60 women and not one man in the frame, and nobody was having sex.” She laughed. “It’s like, when does this happen?”
Schilling, who is as blonde, blue-eyed and conventionally pretty as any woman you’ve ever seen on a screen, is the Trojan Horse that OITNB’s creator, Jenji Kohan (working from Piper Kerman’s memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison) trundled out to lure network folks and viewers into a women’s prison with her, so she could tell all kinds of stories, about all kinds of characters. (Kohan’s previous series, Weeds, also broke ground for taking a suburban mom in financial distress, played by Mary-Louise Parker, and gradually turning her into a drug queenpin.)
Each OITNB plot mixes current-day events in a fictional women’s penitentiary in Litchfield, N.Y., with flashbacks into one or another of the prisoners’ former lives, to show not only how they got there, but who they are.
Yet despite her conventional charms, Schilling’s character is, like everyone else on the show, revealed to be much more than she first appears: intuitive, manipulative, unself-aware, regretful, defiant.
“Piper gives off this whole doe-eyed thing, but it’s bull, and she and I both know it,” says Laura Prepon, who plays Piper’s ex-lover, a drug mule whose mistake landed them both in prison.
“The show really exploits all that complexity.”
In person, Schilling, who will turn 30 in July, has a high, sweet voice and a dreamy delivery reminiscent of a young Jessica Lange. She grew up in Boston, and appeared in her first play at the age of 11. “I auditioned only because I needed an after-school activity and I wasn’t good at sports,” she says. “But I loved it. I remember coming home from the audition and thinking, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what I’ll do, I’ll be an actor.’ And that never changed.” A self-described “weird kid,” she filled her days with pretend games and imaginary friends, including two human-sized, walking Idaho potatoes she named Dickle and Lessa. “I have no idea where that came from,” she says, laughing. “Or those names.”
She moved to New York to study acting at Fordham University, where she found herself “shaving my head to play parts, and playing old women, and men, babies, trees, Russian women, doing all this weird shit,” she says. As a result, she never felt pigeonholed as the pretty girl, even though her first professional roles called for little more. “I never saw myself that way. I never had any attachment to my looks,” Schilling insists. “And now this role [on OITNB] has freed me from any of that.”
I should mention that in addition to OITNB’s seriousness of purpose – its examinations of racial divides and economic disparity, its condemnations of the U.S. penal system – it’s also full of raunch and sex and humour. “You get all these colourful characters together, and the comedy comes out,” Prepon says. “It’s not setup-joke, but these women’s personalities are so quirky and funny that the humour just emerges naturally. One minute you’re laughing and the next is this emotional scene. It’s a delicate tone to achieve, but we did it.”
“It feels like a family,” Schilling says. “A troupe, a crew, our little prison gang. There’s something that runs through the cast – none of us has famous parents, or knows people in the industry. We’ve all come to where we are on our own, picking our way through life. So there’s this feeling of rooting for each other. There’s a really strong feeling of, ‘I have your back and you have mine.’ So I feel like I’m finally able to share all of who I am, creatively,” she sums up.
“More parts of me are able to come out.”
The truth is, we see so few women on any screen (TV is better than film, but the balance is still way off), and what makes that disparity worse is that each woman usually is on hand to be just one thing: the sweet victim, the scheming mother, the lying girlfriend. But OITNB has earned such a passionate audience because it’s the opposite of that. The point of each episode is to blow open stereotypes, to show us that the tough Russian cook is devoted to her husband, or that the heroin-dealing predator also makes squash soup and flaxseed bread and insists that her table be set with placemats.
“That’s really a testament to Jenji,” Schilling says. “She has the ability to see a woman for who she is. Actually see. In the way that drawing is really about learning to see. If you try to draw the shadow and light, the result doesn’t have anything to do with life. That’s a good metaphor for how people usually write for women. They’re not inside the experience. But Jenji sees. Because of that, it does feel like we’re doing something special.”