‘It’s real, it’s honest, it’s stripped down’
There’s only a handful of TV series so popular they warrant a red carpet premiere. Orange Is The New Black is one of them.
The comedy-drama series, set in the fictional Litchfield prison and inspired by Piper Kerman’s 2010 memoir Orange Is The New Black: My Year In A Women’s Prison, started in 2013 – but in just three short years, the show’s become a global phenomenon.
“The little girl in me who dreamt of becoming an actress didn’t foresee this,” says Selenis Leyva, 44, who plays Gloria Mendoza. “We’re embracing diversity, not only race but different body types and sexual orientation. This show is really a reflection of the world we live in today.”
Her co-star Uzo Aduba, who’s received two Golden Globe nominations for her role as Suzanne ‘Crazy Eyes’ Warren, describes the response as “humbling”.
“We make our show in New York City for six months straight, and get to really work on it in the privacy of what feels like our own home, and then it’s a very exposing moment when you premiere it for others,” says the 35-year-old. “It’s like welcoming guests into the home, but we feel appreciative that the response this far has been very warm and very kind – may it continue.”
The first series introduced the audience to Piper Chapman, an engaged New Yorker who’s sent to prison for transporting drugs a decade earlier. “It’s important to note what Jenji [Kohan, the series creator] said all those years ago, that Piper was the Trojan horse,” notes Yael Stone, 31, who plays Lorna Morello. “The viewer came in on that first scene, following the blonde, doe-eyed, beautiful, amazing actress that is Taylor Schilling, and she, in turn, introduced us to all these incredibly wild characters that would usually be in the background.”
The Australian actress describes the second series as violent – “it was war among them” – and the third season as depicting “a lot of heartbreak and tears”, while the upcoming fourth series will explore the effect of outside forces on the prison. “The bureaucracy behind the machine starts to attack the women and their fundamental human rights,” Stone explains.
Dark times ahead
At the end of series three, busloads of new inmates were seen arriving at Litchfield, and as Leyva reveals: “We’re going to see over-crowdedness and how other people coming in changes things for the women.”
Actress and stand-up Lea DeLaria, who plays Big Boo, calls this series “excruciating”.
“Every season has a theme and this season, the theme is ‘it ain’t pretty being in prison’, and you’re going to see a whole load of reasons why,” says the 58-year-old. “Jenji’s totally taking on the American prison system. The privatisation of what’s going on, what that means for these people who are human beings, and how we treat them… Profit over people should be illegal everywhere, it’s just wrong.”
Series four picks up immediately where series three left off, at the lake where inmates made their way after breaking out of Litchfield. It’s here that Maureen (Emily Althaus) and Suzanne held hands as they swam, but Aduba won’t disclose whether this marks the start of a relationship.
“We left the end of season three with a door open almost as wide as Suzanne’s heart, and only time will tell whether that door closes, or is locked or slammed shut,” she says. “But I know for sure that despite whatever path her stories take, she’ll always be in pursuit of love, because that’s her purpose, what keeps her going.”
Dascha Polanco, 33, who portrays new mum Dayanara Diaz, remarks that the new faces force the characters into uncharted territory: “We see the interactions. Are we resisting, or are we embracing the new population that’s coming in?”
While Diaz appears to be “passive right now”, Polanco doesn’t believe it can last. “I sense there’s something within her that’s going to cause turmoil – and it’s going to be huge.”
Lorna’s in for a testing time too. “Maybe she’s moving back into a world of fantasy, because things are becoming confrontational,” comments Stone. “She did lose a very close friend in Nicky [Natasha Lyonne], which in some ways, has forced her into making a move to begin her pen pal experience, meeting this man and suddenly becoming married – that’s going to have some effect.”
Aduba credits the show with changing the idea “of what diversity looks like”.
“Diversity is actually having seven Latinas all different shapes, ages; six African-American women different shapes and sizes; a transgender person; gay people of multiple races; Asian, white women all different ages, co-existing simultaneously on a singular show. That’s what’s exciting about it.”
But one show doesn’t equate as the norm. “I personally reserve my standing ovation for diversity in any medium until we’ve seen a history of behaviour, as opposed to a moment of behaviour,” she adds. “There was a wonderful inclusive year in cinema just three years ago, with Django Unchained, Mandela and 12 Years A Slave all happening, and then we saw a shift just after that. I want the staple of inclusion to be something season after season.”
Viewers call the shots
Polanco doesn’t believe the show would have been as explosive if wasn’t available on Netflix. “There’s a lot more freedom of expression, not only for the actors and creators, but the viewers. You get to watch it wherever and whenever you want, and how you want.”
Stone agrees. “People took us into their bedrooms, their bathrooms, so it was a very intimate experience for that first generation of Netflix viewers,” she says. “That streaming idea did change the way people related it. On a weekly show, you might have to recap and take care of exposition, but on Netflix, you don’t have to do that. Things can move fast and if they don’t get something, your audience can go back and work it out themselves. It means it can be intelligent storytelling.”
The story might revolve around prison inmates, but DeLaria believes it holds a mirror up to society – and the viewer. “I think the reason people watch this show is because they’re so obsessed with seeing real people and real lives, talking about what life’s really like,” she notes. “When do you ever turn on the TV and see yourself? You usually you see all these glammed-up, made-up people on television, tossing their hair and with perfect bodies. We’re real women in jumpsuits, talking about [our] lives.
“It’s real, it’s honest, it’s stripped down,” DeLaria adds. “I think that draws people in.”