Orange is the New Black: set report from New York

Last year, I flew to New York for The Sunday Business Post to meet the cast members of Orange is the New Black and watch them film their final scenes in the first series — as the new second series goes out on Netflix, here’s a look back at what I found…

“Rolling!” The shout goes out around the set, and everyone quietens. In the cafeteria of Lichfield Prison, the inmates – dressed in their regulation prison garb of orange and beige jumpsuits – begin arguing.

Black girls, white girls, Latino girls: aggression cuts the air as they jab fingers at each other, clustered together tightly at the ugly table. Spittle flies as they make their points like battling rappers, each not giving an inch.

Even from a safe distance, listening in on headphones well behind the camera’s gaze, the air of intimidation is palpable – and impressive. We’re a long way from home, Toto. Even if, thankfully, we’re not actually in a federal prison, but on Stage E of the Kaufman Astoria studio in New York, the venue for the glossy new Netflix production Orange Is The New Black, a prison drama with heart and humour.

That we find ourselves here is testament to the muscle and might of Netflix, which extended its massively popular online streaming TV and film service to Ireland a mere 18 months ago, but already feels like an intrinsic part of our televisual furniture. Last January, its gripping political drama House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey, arrived onto Netflix screens. Now it’s time for Orange Is The New Black, a 13-show series based on a true story and helmed by Jenji Kohan, the creator of Weeds.

Considering as we have flown the whole way to America, it would be awkward indeed if the production wasn’t much cop. Happily, Orange Is The New Black is a piece of whip-smart programming, fitting in somewhere between Breaking Bad and The L Word in the televisual spectrum, with rich characterisation, an underlying comedic tone and some of the best casting I’ve ever seen on a series.

Set largely in a women’s prison — a federal jail populated by women who have committed so-called paper crimes — the series is based on the real-life experiences of Piper Kerman, who found herself doing jail time in the US when her international drug smuggler ex-girlfriend revealed to police that Kerman had been a small part of her operation. Strip-searched, intimidated and subjected to racial segregation, the Waspish Kerman had to adapt fast to cope with prison life.

In the series, the role is played by Taylor Schilling, who wears a bright smile to greet me, but nonetheless looks physically drained – and no wonder, they’ve come to the end of a gruelling process of shooting the first season, one which depicts her as naked and vulnerable in both an emotional and physical sense.

“Jenji requires a lot of all of us,” Schilling explains. “To go there, physically, emotionally. All of these stories go to the heart of whatever got these girls into prison. It goes to the heart of who they really are, and I don’t know if that’s ever really comfortable, as a human being.”

One of the first scenes in Orange Is The New Black shows Schilling in the shower, being soaped down by her then-girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon). It’s the first of several graphic, Sapphic scenes, which make a clear statement about the no-holds-barred ethos of the show.

“It’s bad-ass,” laughs Laura Prepon. “Girl, we are not PC on the show. We are just, like, forget it!” The one-time star of That ’70s Show, Prepon still has that husky voice, but the red hair of Donna is gone, replaced by a black curtain. As she strides into the room, coffee cup in hand, Prepon has an immediate confidence and wry-eyed boisterousness that makes her instantly likeable.

“A lot of my co-stars are lesbians and I think they appreciate [the show’s openness],” she adds. “There are stereotypes all over the show, but it’s true to prison. You need to have a certain amount of fearlessness [as an actress] and on this show we all have it.” Sex, drugs and prison life – there’s certainly little left to the imagination. But it’s also surprisingly warm in its emotional palette. Although Piper has a hard time, she’s given support by new friends, and not just from Crazy Eyes, the nutty inmate who wants to make Piper her “prison wife”, and, in one hilarious scene, pees by her bed to mark her territory.

A number of the actresses involved in the production, such as Natasha Lyonne (American Pie), have had their own real-life struggles with drugs documented at length in the media. Black kohl-eyed and with a New York drawl, Lyonne can smile about it now. “I was in the rare and lucky position where my own life experience prepared me to have to do less research than most of the other actresses on the show,” she says wryly. Like most of the actresses we meet, she’s very glad to be here.

Orange Is The New Black marks an intriguing and important moment in the journey of almost all the actresses involved in the show. Search for many of their names on the internet, and you’ll find little about them. Most of the cast – with the exception of Jason Biggs as the long-suffering boyfriend of Piper, and Star Trek’s Kate Mulgrew as Red, the cafeteria head – are simply not stars, at least not yet. And that’s part of the plan.

From the outset, series creator Jenji Kohan declared herself distrustful of big names.”I’m not a huge fan of star-driven material,” she says, as she settles into a chair in the visitation room on the set – with dummy cameras in the walls, a Coke machine in the corner and a look-out spot for the guards. “I want people to identify with the character and not the name behind the character. I love casting people who are relatively unknown, because they don’t bring any baggage to it.”

Kohan is best known for her television series Weeds, which starred Mary-Louise Parker as a suburban American mother who just happens to deal drugs to the neighbours. She’s a bit of a hero to her admiring cast, who look up to her as someone spearheading the foregrounding of women on screen. Kohan herself laughs bitterly when she talks about her own role models growing up. “There weren’t a whole lot around, including my mother, who told me that men are naturally funnier than women.”

Kohan is certainly pushing the boundaries now, with a cast that is overwhelmingly female and brilliantly funny and ballsy. It’s been a while since a show really seized hold of the public imagination in the manner of The L Word, which finished its run in 2007. Add to that the popularity of shows such as Breaking Bad, and there’s definitely a market for a series that pushes the boat out, talking about real issues, but never failing to locate the comedy.

“I love the fact that I have a voice and I can stand on my soapbox,” says Kohan. “I am political to a certain extent and I have definite opinions. But ultimately, beyond the issues, I want people to enjoy the show and fall in love with the characters and be entertained.”
You can feel the excitement and heat that the show is already generating. “Oprah is coming to see us,” laughs Schilling as she talks to a production assistant. “Oprah could be here – it’s that big,” comes the reply.

Before we have to leave the set, I grab a word with Kate Mulgrew, who, as a former icon of Star Trek: Voyager as Captain Janeway, knows a thing or two about futuristic dramas and boldly going where no one has gone before.

“Netflix is hot, my sons tell me,” she says. “And it’s smart. I’m not in the know that much. But I know that.”

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