“Orange Is the New Black” is an interesting addition to Netflix’s original content line-up. It comes from “Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan, features a largely female cast, and is set primarily in a female-only prison. It mixes big names like Jason Biggs, Taylor Schilling and Laura Prepon with relative unknowns like Uzo Aduba and Danielle Brooks, and walks a fine line between dark comedy and straight drama.
That means “Orange Is the New Black” will find itself quite at home with Netflix’s other original shows, including “Arrested Development” Season 4 and “Lilyhammer.” New viewers can at least expect that “Orange Is the New Black” will be exactly the show Kohan intended it to be, according to Natasha Lyonne, who says she didn’t ever have a sense of a “network” peering over the cast and crew’s shoulders like her friends have on other TV series.
“Let’s tell the truth. Let’s tell this story. Let’s talk about who these characters are, what they’re going through; both the funny side and the dark side and just the humanity of it all, and never shy away from something that would otherwise be too female or too scary,” she says of the attitude on set, adding that Netflix trusted the “Orange” team to tell the series’ story the best way possible.
Netflix already demonstrated that trust to the public by renewing the series for a Season 2 well before it premiered. Judging by the teases the cast told Zap2it during “Orange Is the New Black’s” press day, Season 1 will end with enough of a hook to keep audiences wanting more in a second season.
“The show is definitely set up for multiple seasons,” Prepon says. “There’s so many characters and so many amazing storylines. When you get towards the end of the season — we don’t want to give anything away — but there’s a lot of stories to tell here.”
Taryn Manning adds, “There’s definitely enough freaking characters to keep it going for a long time. … A lot of freaky women.”
“Orange Is the New Black’s” premise might seem like some fiction to come out of Hollywood — an engaged woman gets convicted of a crime she committed a decade earlier with her lesbian lover and is forced to serve a prison sentence — but it’s actually based on a memoir of the same name by a woman named Piper Kerman. There are some creative liberties taken with the story, but she tells Zap2it she finds the majority of the TV series surprisingly authentic.
“Jenji and her team have done an incredible, incredible job at a number of things. I think they’ve created this incredible community of women and characters who are so diverse and varied,” Kerman says. “The thing that is really amazing to me is that I think I was maybe episode 3 or 4 and I was like, ‘Ugh, this really feels like prison,’ and that is an incredible accomplishment.”
Though the Netflix series is an adaptation of Kerman’s story, she says she sees opportunities for the show to explore new avenues and characters. “Jenji has made some smart choices around the adaptation of the book, and some of the material that she draws directly from the book. She’s been very, very smart about how she uses it in Season 1 and she’s kept a few things in reserve,” Kerman says.
She teases, “Here’s the other thing about a setting like the prison system: there are many chances to bring in new characters, to have characters depart — sometimes suddenly. There are also opportunities to location changes. … She’s chosen a setting for this show that offers in some ways an almost infinite amount of choice in terms of characters.”
Schilling plays Piper on the show, and she says she was on board from the moment she found out Kohan was involved. She calls Piper “the most dynamic character I had read at all” and says, “I just wanted to do anything I could to get [the role]; I wanted the part. I really wanted the part.” This, to her, was the chance to show the world what she’s capable of.
Biggs plays Piper’s fianc�, Larry Bloom, who supports her even after she is forced to go to prison. As an alum of projects like the “American Pie” series, Biggs says he was grateful for the opportunity to try something different.
“I did get to go outside of my comfort zone, particularly as the show went on in some of the later episodes. There was some emotional stuff for me. I loved doing it, but it was a challenge if only because it’s not stuff that I’m often asked to do and consequently it’s not stuff that I’m the most comfortable with, as opposed to say broader comedy — or really any type of comedy,” he says. “I just know that, as an actor, I’ve learned a lot already just in this one season and I’ve challenged myself in a way that I haven’t been before, so it’s been very rewarding.”
While Schilling and Biggs needed to find new sides of themselves to play their characters, Lyonne had the opportunity to explore some of her own life experiences that she never had before on film or television. Her convict character Nicky is inspired in part from her own personal prison experience.
“I identify strongly with Nicky and I just felt glad that I was able to relate so much to her internal woes in terms of that. It was nice that for a change all that kind of intense personal experience I had could have some real purpose in a way relevant to my work,” she says. “Her brand of difficulty happens to very much echo my own and I just hope that that made it a little bit easier to kind of tell the truth and make her as a character feel more integrity-based and honest and real.”
Expect a lot of seemingly secondary characters like Nicky, Aduba’s “Crazy Eyes” and Brooks’ “Taystee” to get developed in “Orange Is the New Black” in addition to central characters like Piper, Larry and Alex, Piper’s lesbian former lover who is played by Prepon. “Nobody stays one-dimensional for very long,” Lyonne promises.
“Orange Is the New Black’s” 13-episode first season premieres in its entirety on Netflix on July 11. Says Brooks, “It’s a ride, but a fun one, so enjoy.”