Over the last several years, television has undergone a renaissance with a daring new wave of shows that has seen series like True Detective, Breaking Bad, Homeland, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, et al. change the programming landscape. One of the most eclectic of those series is Orange is the New Black, a comedy/drama set in a women’s prison and based on Piper Kerman’s eponymous memoir of her year behind bars. The series stars Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman, a woman serving time in prison due to a decade-old drug-trafficking charge, and has generated massive attention as much for its depiction of the hot lesbian sex scenes between Piper and Alex (played by co-star Laura Prepon) as for its insights into the twisted lives of its inmates. Even President Obama has declared himself a fan.
The series, now entering its fourth season on Netflix, has turned Taylor, 31, into a cult star for her brilliant and engaging portrayal of Piper, and helped earn her roles in films including The Overnight, Stay, Argo, and The Lucky One. In the meantime, however, Taylor is basking in the spotlight of OITNB. Although the series has attracted a major following within the gay community, it’s popular with audiences across the board, and Taylor is keen to remind people that the gay element must be seen within a much broader context.
“The lesbian aspect of the story is important, but much more important is the fact that these women are mothers, daughters, girlfriends, and working women,” Taylor says. “The real breakthrough is that audiences are able to see these women as fully developed characters — who their families are, what their backgrounds are, and what went wrong in their lives. And it’s within that context that our show examines both straight and gay relationships and doesn’t judge them or differentiate between them. That’s what’s truly remarkable about Orange.”
Taylor Schilling grew up in the suburbs of Boston where her father was a state prosecutor (how ironic!) and her mother worked as an administrator at MIT. After her parents divorced when she was 15, Taylor divided her time between her father’s home in West Roxbury and her mother’s place in Wayland.
Having long nurtured a dream of becoming an actress, Taylor earned her BA in acting from Fordham University and then completed two years toward an MFA at New York University before dropping out and “following [her] gut” to try her hand at getting series work.
Taylor, what do you think accounts for the popularity of OITNB amongst a wide spectrum of the viewing public?
Our series has shown that audiences are just as interested in women’s stories as in predominantly male-driven stories. Orange is a very well-written show that gives women their own narrative and presents us in a very compelling, complex, raw, and vulnerable way. The series is very close to life and people are hungry for that kind of authenticity.
How does it feel to be the central figure in this kind of unique series?
I’m thrilled that I’ve had the chance to play Piper and even though we see things through her eyes, Orange is really written as an ensemble show and there are many great and diverse characters who are part of her world.
Has it been important to you to be part of a series that is centred on women and which has openly depicted lesbian relationships?
It’s important that the series that has been able to reflect issues that are vital to the LGBT community, as well as issues regarding prison life.
Another thing that’s very meaningful is that it allows women to be presented in different ways and shows so many different aspects of our nature. But when I’m working on the set I’m not thinking about any of those things, really. I try to focus on Piper and do justice to the character above everything else.
Were you ever expecting this Netflix series to have such a massive impact?
As soon as we starting working on it, I had the feeling we were doing something special. It felt different and I was pretty confident that Orange was the kind of series the public wanted to see and that it would find an audience.
How has your life changed in the four years you’ve spent working on OITNB?
I think I’m more relaxed and at ease with myself although I can still take that process further. I’m more willing to be myself and that helps me in the way I can relate to other people.
You grew up in Boston. How close do you relate to Piper, a preppy Connecticut woman?
She’s quite different from me. Also, I’ve never been in jail so I can’t directly relate to that kind of an experience. But I understand the perspective of someone who was meant to follow the rules of getting married, having children, and being successful. But then she discovers that she was never meant to fit into that world and that she’s really an outsider and has to figure out her place in this difficult new world she’s been thrown into.
I grew up feeling very different and that’s something I understood about Piper and how she has to abandon the facade while she’s in prison and stop trying to keep up appearances. As soon as I started playing the character I was fascinated by all the dilemmas she’s facing in terms of who she really is and who she’s been pretending she is to others in her life. I identified with those questions immediately.
Do you think European audiences view the lesbian love scenes differently from the way American audiences do and which have created a lot of fuss?
Nobody should be shocked by [lesbian sex scenes]. It’s all very natural. In the end, these are beautiful love stories and the sex scenes are far less important than the underlying dramas that the characters are experiencing.
It’s rather ironic that your father worked as a prosecutor.
laughs Until I got the part, I didn’t even realize that all my life I’ve been surrounded by the issues that Orange is dealing with. I grew up listening to my father saying that good people may not be good all the time, and that prison guards are not always behaving the way they should and that the world is not black or white.
What does he make of the sex scenes?
We don’t talk about that. I’ve forbidden him to watch them. laughs