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TV Goodness Q&A: Creator/EP Jenji Kohan and series star Taylor Shilling Discuss Netflix’s Orange is the New Black [INTERVIEW] 


We’ll admit it. You had us at hello. When we heard the name of this new series we were instantly intrigued. What could it mean? And we’ve been fans of at least of few shows set in prison. Based on the acclaimed memoir of the same name, Orange is the New Black is a series about engaged Brooklynite Piper Chapman, whose decade-old relationship with drug-runner Alex results in her arrest and year-long detention in a federal penitentiary. To pay her debt to society, Piper must trade her comfortable New York life with fiancé Larry, for an orange prison jumpsuit and a baffling prison culture where she is forced to question everything she believes about herself and the world at large. As she struggles to adjust to her new reality, she finds unexpected laughter, tears, conflict and camaraderie amidst an eccentric and outspoken group of inmates.

TV Goodness participated in a press call with series star Taylor Schilling and Creator/EP Jenji Kohan. They discussed what excited them about these characters and this story, the Netflix experience, and about the early season 2 renewal.

Q: What blew up your skirt about the premise of this show in general and about your character in particular?  

Taylor Schilling: “God, I love that. Well, what blew my skirt up? I was really excited that Jenji [Kohan] was attached to the project. I had a hard time on TV the last time, so I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that again. But, I really am a big fan of Jenji and I knew 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 was a role that was in reaction to a man and like it just seemed – and she was driving her own – sort of she was 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.”

Q: How do you think you’d fare if you were in Piper’s jumper in real life?  

Taylor: “I think I would probably be eaten alive.”

Q: The show is based on a memoir, but what other kind of research did you do? Did you research what it’s like to be in prison? 

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 – when I say “we,” I mean the writers in the writer’s room. We have dipped ourselves in prison culture and lore and media, and the experience – and people. And we really want to be as informed as possible.”

Q:  How actively involved was Piper Kerman in transitioning her story to the small screen?  

Jenji: “Piper reads the scripts and we e-mail a lot. Most of her comments [are] 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, I always want her involved because she’s the mother of all this.”

Q: Taylor, did you talk to her before you started playing the role? 

Taylor: “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 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 was pretty cool.”

Q: Was it your decision initially not to talk to her before you tackled the project?

Taylor: “I think so, yes. I mean I know she was available if I wanted it. One of the coolest, most strange things about this project is that Jenji and I spoke before. We started [talking] 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.”

Q: The guards are a lot nicer on the show then they are in the book.

Jenji: “Right. That’s one of [Piper’s] biggest complaints that they’re not big enough assholes.”

Q: What went into making that decision? In the memoir, the tension between the prisoners and the guards is a big thing. 

Jenji: “Right.”

Q: To a great degree, that seems to be gone.

Jenji: “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 flesh 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.”

Q: When you fictionalize a real person, how do you protect yourself legally?

Jenji: “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 of the room and not from the book and that’s how we protected ourselves.”

Q: You’re fleshing out a lot of the prisoners by explaining exactly how they got in prison in the first place. How many characters are going to get that treatment? 

Jenji: “I wouldn’t set a number on it. As long as we’re interested and curious about someone, we’ll tell their story.”

Q: What motivated you to adopt Piper’s memoir and why call your project a ‘comedic drama’ rather than a ‘dramedy?’ 

Jenji: “I don’t call it anything, other people do. So, that’s not me. Personally, I’m not a fan of labeling so I can’t say that comes from me at all. The book works for me as another page on so many levels. It’s one of those prisoners, one of those places where you can juxtapose all sorts of groups and the 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. Because 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.”

Q: So this is going to be a very diverse world in terms of what we see.

Jenji: “Absolutely.”

Q: What surprised you about the prison experience that you maybe didn’t know before you started this project?  

Taylor: “Well, a lot of things surprised me. 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. And 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.”

Jenji: “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. And I was surprised and delighted by ways people maintain their humanity and try to survive.”

Q: Jenji, do you see a true line or a connection at all between Nancy on Weeds and Piper on Orange is the New Black? Is there something about this particular predicament that attracts you?  

Jenji: “I think [they’re] certainly from a similar socioeconomic background. They’re both hot. They both have that sort of adventure junkie dream in them that, 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.”

Q: Jenji, have you always been fascinated with women who break the law?

Jenji: “It’s not necessarily women who break the law. I’m just – 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.”

Q: Taylor, what’s been different about this and do you think part of the difference is being on Netflix versus being on quote-unquote traditional TV?

Piper: “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. And 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 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 sort of shared with an audience. It felt more cohesive.”

Q: Taylor you do a lot of tough, emotional scenes throughout the series. Which ones were the hardest for you?

Taylor: “I think that what was so cool about this character is that the writing sort of was like a really great dance partner and just kind of led me through like a variety of different stuff. 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. So it was just exciting all the way through.”

Q: Can talk a little about working with Jodie Foster on directing the episode “Lesbian Request Denied?”

Jenji: “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.’bThe title of the episode really had nothing to do with her being the director but it was a total treat to have her on set and at the home for that episode.”

Q: Taylor, did you enjoy working with her?

Taylor: “Yes, I think she’s really smart and really good at what she does. And funny, I just like her. I like her as a person and I admire her talent as a director.”

Q: And the show has a lot of like sort of little lesbian elements to it…

Jenji: “Yes.”

Q: And the book had those too. Was that something you intentionally wanted to play up?

Jenji: “I don’t think it’s particularly lesbianism as much as sexuality. Sex is so many things.  It’s – you know, its emotion and it’s closeness and it’s expression and it’s oppression, and it’s so many things. And I think I’m a big adherent to the [Kinsey] scale where there’s 10 percent – and 10 percent, I mean the random we all float in the middle. And when you’re in prison, you need that expression. You need your sexuality, and if the only people there are women and you might express yourself with other women. I think certain people in the prison are absolutely lesbians and I think others who might be gay for this day. But more than an exploration of lesbianism, I think it’s just about an inherent human need to express yourself sexually.”

Q: Jenji, what sold you on Taylor for the role? And Taylor, can you tell us about the audition? 

Jenji: “I mean, 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 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.”

Taylor: “Thanks.”

Jenji: “You rock.”

Taylor: “That just made my morning.”

Q: Taylor, what as the process like for you?

Taylor: “Like I said a little earlier, I was so taken by the script and such a huge fan of Jenji’s. I just really wanted to be involved with it. And so, I don’t know. I mean the process itself was pretty normal, going in and reading except it felt really easy. There’s some parts that just feel like – they fit a part of that – has been kind of lacking something, and all of a sudden, I feel fuller with it and this kind of just sailed. So it’s been fun. It’s been fun from the very beginning.”

Jenji: “I think this is an element of destiny to it. You know, the right person came to inhabit the role and Taylor is so complicated and so fascinating and she brings so much to this role and it was easy in a way because it was meant to be on us, I think.”

Taylor: “Yes. I love this.”

Q: Jenji, with your experience with half-hours, why do this as an hour show and how did the process compare?

Jenji: “I wanted this to be an hour just because it’s a big ensemble. I want to give everyone time. I wanted to give us time to tell these stories. It’s just longer. I don’t change anything stylistically or tonally because it’s an hour, a half hour. I’m not a big subscriber to ‘this format needs and that format needs that.’ It just gives us more time to get into the stories and maybe a little more room for new ones or pretty pictures. But I kind of just do what I do. And if it’s an hour, it’s longer; if it’s half hour, it’s shorter. ”

Q: Congratulations on the early season two renewal of the show. With the predetermined time frame that Piper is in prison, how long do you guys envision the show will continue?

Jenji: “Four hundred years. It’s going on forever. As long as they’ll have us, I feel confident that we can stretch this sh*t out forever. As long as we’re interested in these characters and the stories, it’s prison. We can make the rules.

Q: What do you think about what do you think about getting renewed for season two before the first season has been released? 

Jenji: “Look, it works for me. I think it’s terrific and I think it shows that Netflix has balls. 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.”

Q: Are you excited about the new technologies in which television and film can be delivered to viewers? This seems like so futuristic, but the future is now in a lot of ways, isn’t it? 

Jenji: “I think it’s awesome. It’s instant gratification, which has its pluses and minuses but it’s so nice to be able to get what you want when you want it.”

Q: Did you approach this show differently than a show like Weeds knowing that it’d be a show that would possibly be binge-watched? Did that change the way you kind of framed your narrative?  

Jenji: “It didn’t for this season because we were just sort of trying to craft our episodes and just to have 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.”

Q: With this series, do you think the audience is better served spacing the episodes out, taking time to think about them in between, or do you think Netflix thought it would work well watching them all at once like it’s a 13-hour movie? 

Jenji: “I think people should watch however they want. It’s their experience and they should choose how to have it.”

Q: Where you were when you found out about the renewal and what was your immediate reaction?  

Jenji: “I don’t know where I was. And I think my immediate reaction was, ‘I’m so tired. I need a little more time.’ But it was very quickly followed up by excitement. It’s very flattering and it’s a wonderful vote of confidence and this is what we dream of – getting to do what we do.”

Taylor: “I don’t remember where I [was] either, but I know I’m so excited to be able to go back to work and explore this character and work with my cast mates for another chunk of time. I feel really privileged. This is a really fun experience.”

Q: How did the Regina Spektor theme song come about?

Jenji: “I begged her to write a song and she said yes. I am a huge, huge Regina Spektor fan. I think she’s a genius and just a lovely soul, and I wanted her voice on it. And she agreed, which is just the coolest thing ever and knocked it out of the park.”

Q: Do you think that you’d keep the theme song going into season two?  

Jenji: “I’d love to.”

Q: Is there any particular prison that you based the production design on more than any other and did you – did you visit Danbury?  

Jenji: “We did not visit Danbury, we went to Chino. But Michael Shaw, our genius production designer, did his own research and really created that world, physically. He’s just great at what he does and I think part of my job is to let really talented people do what they do and so I have to give credit to him and his team.”

Q: So many shows nowadays are just going with the one title cards shot. Do you think it’s important to have a memorable opening credit sequence to connect with the audiences? 

Jenji: “I like an opening credit sequence. It sort of sets up the audience and let’s them settle in and get ready for the show. I’m also really proud of this opening sequence that we did with the Thomas Cop group and with Regina’s song. All the women in the opening title sequence are former inmates and I just – I love the phases and I’m really proud of it and I think it’s great.”

All 13 episodes of Orange is the New Black will be available on Netflix at 12:01 am PT, Thursday July 11th.

Edited for space and content.

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