Those privy to a Netflix password can’t get enough of prison drama Orange Is The New Black. Stylist meets its lead star Taylor Schilling
Photography: Brian Bowen-Smith Words: Lyndsey Gilmour
Some people’s lives would make brilliant TV. And my god, is Piper Kerman’s one of them. Born in Boston in 1970 to a family of doctors and lawyers, she graduated from Smith College, Massachusetts, in 1992 – so far, so pre-watershed. But then in 1993 she found herself carrying a suitcase of drug money on a flight from Chicago to Brussels for her lesbian lover Nora and in 1998 – aged 28 – was building a career in corporate communication when she was slapped with a 15-month jail sentence.
Entering Danbury Federal Correctional Institution in Connecticut on 4 February 2004 (she served her sentence six years later due to complications with the case), she kissed her writer fiancé Larry Smith goodbye and started a new life dressed in an orange jumpsuit. And this is where it gets interesting. For while some TV is brilliant for focusing on the mundane (The Office; The Royle Family), other scripts are begging to be crafted out of bizarre circumstances. Which is why in the months that followed holed up in her minimum security women’s prison, Kerman kept a detailed account of her experiences – from the sexual harassment by the guards to the barely edible food and rats in dorms, penning her subsequent bestselling memoir Orange Is The New Black: My Time In A Woman’s Prison in 2009.
Netflix snapped up the programme rights and with Weeds creator Jenji Kohan at the helm, produced a 13-part drama that makes Bad Girls look like Porridge. Fearlessly tackling contentious issues like race relations, sexuality and abortion, Orange Is The New Black does not tread carefully – and it’s all the better for it. Which is why – with episode three ‘Lesbian Request Denied directed by Jodie Foster – it’s well on its way to achieving Breaking Bad status (it started screening in July this year). With its protagonist renamed Piper Chapman, the show isn’t a slavish re-enactment of the book; few scenarios are directly lifted from its pages and plotlines are embellished (on the show Piper discovers she’s in the same prison as her ex – now called Alex – when in reality they only crossed paths during the trial of another member of the drug ring). Neither is it the Piper show alone; the femaledominated cast, each character with their own complex back story, is equally compelling to watch.
Stepping into Kerman’s boiler suit is 29-year-old actress Taylor Schilling whose breakthrough role as Nurse Veronica Flanagan Callahan in the US medical drama Mercy (2009) led to a part in Ben Affleck’s Argo (2012). In Orange Is The New Black she is “the nice blonde lady”, but while she might look and talk differently to the inmates she shares showers with, Schilling says that under the surface she’s no different to the rest of them.
The series is based on the memoirs of Piper Kerman. How much is borrowed and how much is fiction?
This is definitely not the Piper Kerman story – as fascinating as she is. When I came to the project, Jenji Kohan told me that we weren’t doing a character study on her. That said, there are events that happen in the first season that are lifted from the book. There was an incident with a chicken that got into [the jail] but it’s a squirrel in the book, then there’s Piper insulting the food and Red the woman in the kitchen. Various other things are lifted from the book but embellished through Jenji’s brilliant eye, so it’s an interpretation.
Is Piper’s fiancé Larry [played by Jason Biggs] fictionalised?
No, Larry was her fiancé; they got engaged before she went into prison and the proposal scene was true to life. Larry’s a writer and he was a vital connection for Piper to the outside world – he wrote a column called Modern Love in the New York Times [on life on the other side of the bars].
Are the relationships portrayed in the series a true representation of what goes on in women’s prisons?
I think the sexual relationships with the women are just one aspect of relationships in there. What I found so interesting are the relationships in general between these women, they develop friendships, they develop antagonistic relationships – you cannot survive alone in prison, they really need each other on every level, nobody can be an island. It’s like a web, they are all interconnected and the sexual aspect is certainly a part of it but only one aspect.
When you first read the script, how shocked were you at some of the exploits? [In one scene, a screwdriver becomes a sex toy.]
Oh my gosh, I was constantly like [gasp] “Ooooh are we really going to do that?” And inevitably we do.
There is a scene where Crazy Eyes [a slightly unhinged prisoner] is trying to make you her wife and she urinates on the floor. What was your reaction to that?
Well, I thought that’s certainly one way to declare your love! But I bought into that world and it made sense. The story wasn’t out of context in the world we were representing.
The C word is banded around a lot, how relaxed are you with that?
I’m much more desensitised to it now – that’s for sure!
What are the concerns about taking a role like this where it’s so explicit?
I look at the character as a whole and how that plays out and it made sense to Piper’s storyline.
The sex scenes are clearly not done for the male gaze though – they’re gritty and dramatic.
I like your feedback – that’s how I feel. It’s not gratuitous, it’s about the need for connection; the struggle for the self, the “Who am I? How do I connect with this world?” It can be lonely and scary and I feel like the sexuality grew from this. It’s authentic. It’s not there to titillate.
Piper is a middle class, welleducated woman who has ended up in jail via one error of judgment…
I think one of the interesting points of the series is that her background is different but she is not that different – why she is in prison is not far off some of the others. The consequences are just as inappropriate to the crime as perhaps for all these women. So [the creators] are really saying, let’s take a look at that. Why would we pay attention to a middle class white woman and her bestselling book? You know the travesty is that the stories of all these other women are completely off the radar.
So has the series made the way you view criminals differently?
Yeah, it’s brought to light a lot of injustices that I was unaware of. The US does a really good job of keeping the prison system under wraps, it isn’t something that is talked about much and I think like most people, I had no clue what was going on in a correctional facilities unit. It’s devastating and enraging.
Your father works in law doesn’t he?
He was prosecutor for the Department of Correction in Massachusetts for a long time and now he is a defense attorney for the state. He says [OITNB] is very true to life and is glad we’re bringing these subjects to the light of day.
Injustices of the prison system, the way women and people in general are incarcerated for nonviolent drug related charges. They are not a danger to society and we are locking them up for lack of other options, not because it’s the best solution. We’re not rehabilitating people, we are encouraging people to fall deeper into maladaptive coping mechanisms. He believes that the show is sharing things that haven’t been seen before.
It has a female dominated cast – does it promote feminist values?
Just by virtue of saying that the women are at the centre of their own narrative – not as they are when they are in relationships with men – there is value in telling a woman’s story because her journey is inherently valuable. The way the show is written allows you to draw your own conclusions and it brings women into a light that we haven’t seen for a while.
Season one of Orange Is The New Black is available to watch now, exclusively on Netflix