Sunday 25 February 2018

Locked Up: The stars of Orange Is The New Black talk

Tanya Sweeney went behind bars on the #OITNB set. Meanwhile, Denise Calnan visited the cast in London for all the season two gossip...

Tanya Sweeney

It's the first law of film and TV: studio sets always look much smaller in real life than they do on screen. In the case of Orange Is The New Black's prison cafeteria – normally populated with larger-than-life characters, drama and chaos in general – the empty room is beige, nondescript, underwhelming.

Familiar yet oddly discomfiting all at once. Still, there's no doubting an electric crackle in the air on this New York soundstage, where the second season of the hit show is currently being filmed. After all, Orange is now the gleaming jewel in the Netflix crown.

Upon its inception last July, the prison dramedy was promptly hailed as a game-changer: not just changing the way we watch TV, but blowing apart representations of gender, race and sexuality on the small screen to boot. On the flipside, the pressure is now on to hit, if not better, those global viewing figures that made Orange the sleeper hit of 2013. Yet there are no two ways about it: in TV speak, Orange Is The New Black is officially Big Noise.

As fans of the show are aware, the cliffhanger at the end of the first season was suitably dizzying. So as not to spoil the suspenseful fun for viewers, the journalists assembled at the Queens, New York soundstage today are asked to sign disclaimer forms by Netflix bigwigs ordering them to keep Season 2 plots under wraps. Not that we're let in on too much; photography on-set is limited by stern PR execs. They're taking no chances at juicy storylines breaking out, either: the scene we are permitted to watch the shooting of is one played out among the Danbury jail staff Caputo (Nick Sandow), Fischer (Lauren Lapkus) and Figueroa (Alysia Reiner). Of what fate befalls principals Piper (Taylor Schilling), Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), Vause (Laura Prepon) and Healy (Michael Harney), we are none the wiser.

A day previously however, at Manhattan's Waldorf Towers, various members of the Orange cast are present and correct for a gruelling day of press promotion. In a far cry from their on-set characters, they are prepped, primped and preened for a round of global TV interviews. Out go the khaki jumpsuits and clumpy boots, in come the body-con dresses and false lashes.

Laura Prepon (rumoured to be Tom Cruise's new girlfriend), who plays Piper's on-off girlfriend Alex Vause, is conspicuous by her absence from the press day. When Prepon announced that she wouldn't return to the show for a second season, the public outcry was such that series creator Jenji Kohan reportedly worked hard to get her into 'most' of season two. (Vanity Fair reported last month however, that she will star full-time in the freshly greenlit third season). Taryn Manning, on the other hand – whose character appeared to be in spectacularly bad shape in the dying moments of season one – is very much in attendance. Make of that what you will, but also bear in mind Kate Mara did press for season two of other Netflix behemoth House Of Cards. Hmm.

Speaking to the cast on the whole, it becomes clear that everyone – from sure-footed screen veterans like Kate Mulgrew (Red) to novices like Samira Wiley (Poussey) – can't quite believe their good fortune at working on the project.

Jason Biggs (Larry), best known previously for his involvement in the American Pie franchise, is feeling more confident as the second season looms: "I came into (the show) with some insecurities and needing to exercise some muscles that I hadn't worked in a long time. But the more positive feedback comes through, the more positive I become. It's great to have something to live up to."

For Taylor Schilling – ostensibly the show's lead character Piper – the days of peripheral, faceless roles are finally behind her.

"In this process I feel more like an actor as opposed to the 'girlfriend'," she explains. "I feel more serene. I had to take off my make-up and wear a sack essentially for people to see me."

The hero of Orange is the New Black, Taylor Schilling, (Piper)

The hero of Orange is the New Black, Taylor Schilling, (Piper)

This cast of fresh, largely untested faces further adds to the show's rough-hewn authenticity. As blank canvases, it's easy to be transplanted into the tale by Wiley and Danielle Brooks (Taystee), who are box-fresh from Julliard drama school.

In an industry where they've often been relegated to minor roles, the Orange cast members are evidently thrilled at being cast as such densely rich and multi-faceted characters. After all, they're involved in that rarest of Hollywood gems: a well-received show largely starring, written by and produced by women. That many of the women on screen are African-American and Latina makes OITNB more eye-poppingly exotic against the visual Muzak of Hollywood on the whole (Kohan reportedly refers to Piper's middle-class story as the 'gateway drug' into a host of other women's stories).

"It's a wonderful thing to see in Hollywood, that women do matter, we have the power and we can pull in an audience," explains Laverne Cox, the transgender actress tha plays Sophia. "It's not just women who are tuning in. Having straight white men come up to me in the street and not hit on me ... well, it's great."

Prepon's dramatic announcement at leaving the show might have previously raised eyebrows, but fortunately we're past the point of assuming that a cast of female characters is automatically a cauldron of competitiveness and bitchiness. Much of the success of Orange lies in the fact that the cast members are genuinely respectful of each other outside of work. Their Instagram and Twitter feeds are replete with genuine evidence of friendship. Freshly anointed with fame and success, they're clearly enjoying the ride together.

Yael Stone (Morello) and Uzo Aduba (Crazy Eyes)

Yael Stone (Morello) and Uzo Aduba (Crazy Eyes)

The press morning is predictably peppered with the cast members paying breathless, OTT lip service to each other, but still, those hoping for on-set catfights and girl-on-girl rivalry can definitely look elsewhere.

"There's something about wearing a potato sack and no-make up that is the great equaliser (on set)," explains Manning. "As catty as it sounds, it does come up on set with other women. I've made women feel a certain way, and they've made me feel a certain way ... but here, everyone is just so supportive."

Adds Mulgrew: "I'm used to spending hours (on set) in hair and make-up, and there being this heightened sense of 'why did she get the better costume?', or 'why did she get an extra 20 minutes with the make-up artist?' The whole culture can be despicable, so imagine how liberating this is for us. Fifteen minutes, I'm ready, let's go."

Last July, Netflix decided to post all 13 episodes of Orange Is The New Black in one day. It turned out to be a wily move: within days, tens of thousands had taken to social media, bragging of binge-watching the show. Courtney Love proclaimed on Twitter that she had stealthily gobbled it in one sitting, and was itching for her next fix. With audiences left gasping for more, it was a masterclass in word-of-mouth PR.

"It's something that Netflix can do that no one else can do," asserts Biggs. "The fact that everyone is so amped for a second season is why we went into production a little earlier."

And in Netflix this groundbreaking innovation trickles back down to the productions: no sticky-fingered TV network execs get involved in Orange's creative process, for instance, preferring to let Kohan & Co do their thing unfettered.

"I do know that Netflix is right on the forefront of doing pioneering stuff," acknowledges Uzo Aduba (who plays breakout character Suzanne 'Crazy Eyes'). "And for what we do to be done so honestly ... I think that resonates with people."

Laura Prepon and Taylor Schilling from Orange Is The New Black.

Laura Prepon and Taylor Schilling from Orange Is The New Black.

Ultimately, Orange's horsepower lies in its storytelling; the incremental, delicious unfolding of each character's lives and motivations. There's a healthy realness there: criminality aside, the characters are all flawed and fallible. Certain televisual tropes have been nicely subverted, too. As in the real prison system, women do not come out on top in the tousles with their prison guard superiors.

"Men get to play roles that are that complicated all the time," explains Schilling. "I love hearing people say that they don't root for Piper. She can be petty, shallow and human, and that's brilliant."

"Larry's an asshole and I love that," smiles Biggs. "People come up to me all the time, 'why is he such an asshole?' It's really cool. I'm used to being recognised by one demographic and for one role, so to have people of all ages come up to me in the street is incredible."

Orange succeeds where countless prison dramas have failed: they place the reader in a particular mindset: 'One false decision or two, and that could be me in there.'

"That's what's really incredible about the show," says Uzo. "By inviting us in with humour, you really do get to meet these people properly. You think 'what must it be like to be judged by just that one thing?' It's easy to blank-face these women in real life, but when someone has a name or story, you can't just generalise them anymore."

Bad girls: (L-R) Danielle Brooks, Lin Tucci, Natasha Lyonne, Yael Stone, Emma Myles, Laverne Cox in a scene from Season 2.

Bad girls: (L-R) Danielle Brooks, Lin Tucci, Natasha Lyonne, Yael Stone, Emma Myles, Laverne Cox in a scene from Season 2.

For now though, there's no 'blank-facing' these actresses. With anticipation running at fever pitch for next week's airing, the OITNB cast are fast getting used to their new lives working on a global smash. For now, the truly toxic side of celebrity – the paps, the personal life column inches – evades them.

"I want to be able to leave my house in sweatpants and buy my cat food without someone taking my picture," notes Wiley.

Brooks, for her part, already has greater plans in mind: "I went to the Emmys this year, and I thought, 'wow, we are really gonna be here next year'," she says. "I mean, I joke about it: 'some of us might even be nominated'." As any Orange fan will no doubt attest, that joke probably isn't so funny anymore.

The second season of Orange Is The New Black premieres exclusively on Netflix on June 6

First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent

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