Life behind bars isn't pleasant — but making a show about life behind bars? That's a different story, based on the energy of the Orange Is the New Black panel at PaleyFest: Made in New York.
The extensive conversation included series regulars Taylor Schilling (Piper Chapman), Jason Biggs (Larry Bloom), Kate Mulgrew (Red), Taryn Manning (Pennsatucky), Danielle Brooks (Taystee), Uzo Aduba (Crazy Eyes) and Natasha Lyonne (Nicky), as well as creator Jenji Kohan, and the woman who inspired the series through her autobiography, author Piper Kerman. After a few false starts, critic and moderator Elvis Mitchell finally calmed the panelists' on-stage giddiness enough to ask about the elephant in the room: the politics of hair.
"I had long, lovely, healthy, luxurious hair — and every time I'd come up to Jenji from the make-up trailer, she'd tell me to go back," recalled Mulgrew, who sports close-cropped, dyed-red hair as Red, the kitchen kingpin of Litchfield. "Short and shorter, more and more magenta … finally, eggplant, with spikes."
Kohan's fascination with hair isn't much of a surprise, considering the green-and-purple locks she sported onstage. It's also not surprising to see Kohan tackling the subject matter of Orange, as the writer-producer is best-known for telling stories centered on characters struggling with shifting power dynamics.
"I'm [interested] in people and their relationship with power," said Kohan, most famous for creating Weeds. "I don't set out and say, 'I want to write about power dynamics.' I fall in love with characters. I fall in love with their stories. And I think power dynamics are a great story device."
Kerman, author of the autobiography Orange Is the New Black, recalled her first creative meetings with Kohan: "We met in California at a book event when the book first came out. I went to meet Jenji at her office, which was a cornucopia of visuals. We had a really long, long talk about the book, my experience, and the world of a women's prison. Jenji had read the book very closely. She had question after question after question on top of everything that's revealed in the book. From that very first meeting, I had no question that she had this curiosity and inquiry about every detail of life inside the walls of the prison. That gave me a great deal of confidence in turning the story over to her."
"My first meeting with Jenji was terrific," Biggs agreed. "I had a normal audition process and came in to read for Jenji and the director of the pilot, Michael Trim. Now, having gotten to know her better, she has so much to say on everything. I love asking her questions. I just want to hear her speak forever. But for the audition, she didn't really say anything. There weren't any questions. I figured I blew it. But months went by, and she called me in to read with Taylor. We had a great read, and that's when we first really chatted about the story and where it would go."
For Schilling, playing the role of Piper on the Netflix comedy-drama has been a matter of looking beneath the character's mask. "What's so interesting to me about Piper is that moment in time when you're smashed with circumstance, when you can't continue doing things the way you used to. You don't know what's in front of you. Going to prison is one of these ways where your world sort of explodes," she said. "She has to be plopped outside of the cultural norms and put in this place that's removed from society [so that] she can dig deep and figure out by necessity what's going on inside of her."
"I tend to operate under the notion that people don't change," Kohan said of the character. "I've amended that to, people don't change unless they're in extreme circumstances that force them to change. We found our extreme circumstance in the case of this character."
On the surface, few characters exemplify complexity better than Red, who uses her role in the kitchen almost as body armor. But Mulgrew believes Red's hard exterior dates back to before her time in prison. "You can see that in her flashbacks in the real world. She's a geek," she said, before slipping into her character's signature Eastern European accent. "She can't keep up with these women. They think she is idiot. So finally, I have to punch the tit. Don't piss me off is all I can say."
"It just came to mind," Kohan laughed when asked about the scene where Red pops a woman's breast implant. "I had this visual. I loved the idea of this deflating boob. We never quite got it right in effects, but I saw it in my head so clearly. When that character is trying so hard, and she's so frustrated, and she doesn't know what to do — she goes primal. It made me laugh."
Speaking of laughter, few characters provide greater comic relief than Taystee, the inmate played by Danielle Brooks. "She has no problem calling people meth-heads, bitches — and that's what I love about her. She's very bold," Brooks said. "But deep down inside, she's scared. She doesn't know how to work the outside world. In here, she knows how to get her TV and how to win [elections]. On the outside, she doesn't know how to sustain herself or maintain a job. Here, she's found a home. If Taystee had one mentor, she would have been okay. That's what makes it so realistic. That's the world we live in. … Whatever she wants, this is her world."
As recovering drug addict Nicky, Natasha Lyonne can relate to Taystee's outlook: "In terms of self-preservation, she's doing a better job inside. On the outside, she's self-destructing. It's similar to what's going on with Taystee. They're kind of in a better situation in their lives on the inside, because at least they know where they go and where they fit. I think she's comfortable in her skin, even though she's a deeply uncomfortable person — which I identify with a great deal."
Even if Taystee and Nicky struggle through unique circumstances, Kohan believes there's something universal about their demons. "We all experience terror. We all experience insecurity. We all deal with issues. Some of these women have very heavy issues. But some people are built to function better in this microcosm than others."
Kohan tells these universal themes through very specific points of view, thanks to one very important rule in the writers' room: "If you can stick one character's line in another character's mouth, then you're not doing your job. These are whole people. These are people with stories and traumas and back-stories. These are their own people. When we write them, we write for them. These are not generic scenes in anyway."
Orange Is the New Black takes great creative liberties with Piper Kerman's actual experiences, but the author said the series nevertheless stays true to the heart of what she went through.
"There are some things from the first episode that are closely drawn from the book, like the proposal scene, the scene where Piper and Larry go to talk to their family … there are scenes that transport me back instantly," she said. "But then, of course, there are other departures. That's one of the things that keeps me completely fascinated as a viewer. The way that Jenji takes literal conflicts from the book and themes from the book and blows them up, it's fascinating for me to watch."
"I was so fascinated by the book and so in awe of Piper's experience," Schilling said. "When we started the process of working, Jenji gave me permission to set the book aside. The Piper Chapman we were creating is a fictional character. So I never felt bound by the book. I was inspired by it, but not bound to it."
Kohan said that she decided very early in the process to move away from the real-life Piper Kerman and toward the brand-new Piper Chapman. "I can't imagine how torturous it would be to watch your actual story reflected week after week. This was inspiration and source material, but it quickly became its own animal. I rely on Piper for details and technical things, I want her approval. I want to know I'm doing right by the incredible material she trusted me with. This show is a different medium. We have to serve a different audience and present it differently because it's a TV show."
"Well, it's a streaming show — you can watch it on any device," she added with a wink.
"I gotta watch this show," Biggs joked. "I hear it's good."
Kidding aside, there's some truth to Biggs' wisecrack; as Larry, his scenes are primarily with Schilling's Piper, and rarely with the other inmates. Toward the end of Season1, however, Biggs enjoyed a one-on-one scene opposite Laura Prepon as Alex Vause, Piper's former flame, also incarcerated inside Litchfield.
"Laura is amazing," he said. "The intensity of the scene … it was a great scene to play."
"Alex is a fascinating character," Kohan said. "She's just formidable and she's a hustler. Underneath is someone who craves love, popularity and acceptance, all of these things. She's vulnerable. She's a person. It's complicated."
Kohan revealed that Prepon, who is rumored to have a limited role in Season 2, was briefly considered for the part of Piper. "But I don't worry about Lauren [being in prison]. I needed someone who I can worry about," she said, a comment that spawned a big laugh from Schilling and the crowd. "Laura's going to be fine! She'll do okay. Taylor evokes a different … I want to take her home and brush her hair."
Manning is another one that Kohan doesn't worry about. As the drug-addicted, born-again Christian Pennsatucky, Manning is perhaps the most violent force of nature on the show, particularly when up against Piper.
"I got a call from my manager who said, 'Well, Taryn, this one's interesting,'" she said with a laugh. "Two eyes into the script, I thought, this was epic. I was sold. It came at a perfect time. It happened very quick for me, like, a three-day turnaround. … It was all on the page. It's been fun bringing her to life."
"It's not just on the page," Kohan disagreed. "It's a combination of what's on the page and the amazing things you never know you're going to get when the cameras roll. It's thrilling. … I knew [Manning's] work. I was a fan. And she just took it."
With only a couple of minutes left, the panel opened up very briefly to the audience. One fan said hi to Captain Janeway (aka Mulgrew, who played the character on Star Trek: Voyager), while another asked Kerman if she keeps in touch with her old inmates.
"Yes," she said. "After the book came out, people emerged, and after the show came out, some more emerged. It was wonderful. I treasure the friendships with many of these women. Some have stayed a constant in my life. Others have disappeared into the ether. A small number of them have gone back to prison."
Another audience member asked about the legendary chicken from "The Chickening" episode. "Is the chicken just a chicken, or is the chicken a metaphor? Will we see more of the chicken? Will the chicken survive?" The line of inquiry got a huge round of applause, and more than a few sly remarks from the cast.
"I think you know what the chicken is," Mulgrew said in her Red voice.
"The chicken was supposed to be on the panel tonight," Biggs added. "It had another engagement."
"The chicken is whatever you want it to be," Kohan said. "I don't know if the chicken will come back. We haven't talked about it a lot. But maybe it needs to."
Next, a fan stood up to make the memorable declaration: "Orange is the new awesome." She asked the cast if they know what put their characters in prison, in the cases where that information hasn't been revealed yet.
"No, that's part of the challenge," Brooks said. "When you get that information, sometimes it lines up with the story you've created for your character. Sometimes it doesn't. That's the beauty of television."
Finally, Kohan was asked if she views Piper Chapman as an antihero, a la Walter White from Breaking Bad.
"I don't set out to write heroes or antiheroes," she said. "I write characters, flawed characters. Piper is a flawed character. Sometimes you're going to love her and sometimes you're not. Sometimes you think she's making great choices, and other times you're going to scream at the streaming device. It's all about characters. It's not about archetypes and labels. It's just about getting into these people and watching them make mistakes and recover from them and try to do the right thing and fuck it up and rally and all these things. It's the complications of being human."
Season 1 of Orange Is the New Black is streaming on Netflix. Season 2 returns in 2014.