TAYLOR SCHILLING ON SEXUALITY, SISTERHOOD, AND WHY ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK IS STILL WOWING AUDIENCES FIVE SEASONS IN
“The cast of Orange are my sisters”
I thought I was over Orange Is The New Black. Five seasons in, I struggled to see how this once-radical show could maintain its unorthodox edge, and there were a few episodes in the middle of the season it almost lost me. But as I sit almost breathless, the edge of my seat a distant memory, for the finale of the latest season, I realise Jenji Kohan’s brilliant claws are still firmly embedded in me – and in many of you, too, judging by the huge audience numbers it continues to pull in. Orange is Netflix’s most-watched original series with almost seven million viewers in the US alone, and was streamed more than any other show worldwide in 2016.
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It might not feel as revolutionary as it once did, when it first showersexed its way onto our screens in 2013. But it’s always been bold and brave, and remains so. Take sexuality, for example. From the beginning, Kohan, and the show’s writers, made sure that Orange positioned its queer credentials front and centre at a time when LGBT representation was far less visible than it is today, inviting other shows to do the same and explore sexuality in a more nuanced way. It has changed TV, and in turn, changed the world a little too.
One person who knows more about the show’s game- changing credentials than anyone is Taylor Schilling, who plays the dramedy’s central character Piper Chapman. She has been there since the get- go, has seen – and lived – its evolution, and firmly believes the show has changed the conversation around issues like sexuality, telling the Evening Standard recently that the world has “become a little more Orange”. “In the first season, all people wanted to talk about was what it was like to kiss a girl,” the 32- year- old says. “Now, if someone asks me that, there’s a complete understanding if I say, ‘ I’m not going to answer that question’.”
Another thing that’s changed in the last five years is the interest in Schilling’s personal life, but her reluctance to talk about it has not. She’s never confirmed or denied a rumoured relationship with Sleater- Kinney guitarist and Portlandia star Carrie Brownstein, and it’s almost as if she’s talking in riddles when the subject of her sexuality has come up, shirking labels and describing herself as “a very expansive human”. Questions about her romantic life are, in her words, “pretty invasive”, but for the first time she appears to have acknowledged that she’s not straight, telling ES: “I’ve had wonderful relationships. I’ve had a lot of love, and I don’t have any qualms about where it comes from.”
Schilling’s role in the show has also changed – and significantly so. Based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, the Boston- native was the golden girl in season one of Orange but is now on the periphery, and she’s very much aware that the show is no longer about her. “It’s interesting to see the cast in relation to Piper,” she told Refinery29. “I think of her, in some ways, as negative space sometimes. You actually need — to be able to make sense of the composition of what’s happening on the inside — to have space in between, and breath. Her purpose was to lead everyone into this story, and now she can tie things together. It’s an ensemble show and it has been from the get- go. [ Piper] is not the story we need to focus on right now, culturally. There are larger stories to tell. There’s more cultural [and] social significance.”
It doesn’t take a genius to work out the cultural and social significance Schilling is talking about, and Jenji Kohan has always been very open about Piper’s role as her “trojan
horse”. “You’re not going to go into a network and sell a show on really fascinating tales of black women, and Latina women, and old women and criminals,” she once said. “But if you take this white girl, this sort of fish out of water and you follow her in, you can expand the world and tell all of those other stories.” Those “other stories” need to be told, and Schilling knows it, telling the Independent: “If a show representing the prison system in the States – which is, I think, over 80% women of colour – was told only through the eyes of an upper- class woman, that would be the epitome of racism and it would represent the status quo. This show has been anything but the status quo.”
Indeed, while extremely contentious, the tragic death of fanfavourite Poussey Washington – played by Samira Wiley – at the hands of an inexperienced guard in season four, was definitely not status quo, and has allowed the show to move into important territory this season, exploring the Black Lives Matter movement and getting to the heart of the issues a affecting women of colour in the prison system, who in the US are incarcerated at four times the rate of white wome women. “It reflects the stretc stretch and reach of the series,” Schilling says. “The relevance in the writing to the real world, away from Litchfield prison, especially with Poussey’s death, that has more impact culturally and societally because of the current climate we’re living in. And that is very gratifying yet acutely daunting on so many levels. It makes it feel like what we do as actors in one sense is so inconse- quential to the bigger picture. But on the flipside, there’s a duty to echo and portray for a wider audience what’s happening on the outside.” While important, it certainly wasn’t easy, and Poussey’s death has clearly stayed with Schilling. “We only found out a week, 10 days before,” she tells us. “And that was really hard. The night we shot it, when we knew it was coming, it was awful. We were shooting ’til the middle of the night and by the end, there was this overwhelming numbness. We are a family. We have a collective temperament, a collective mood. There is so much laughter and humour and song – a lot of song. There’s this amazing connection and the chemistry, I’ve certainly, absolutely never experienced anything similar to it before. We can communicate without words. So to do this without her was really sad. I think Samira, her death scene, has had the most impact on all of us, not only because we’ve lost a piece of our family, but what it represents in reality and how the horror of these actions have ended lives and devastated families. That storyline, above and by far, has left a mark on me more than any other storyline.” That connection and chemistry between cast and crew, says Schilling, is very rare, and has a lot to do with Kohan’s “no assholes” policy. “I have no idea what her vetting process is, but whatever it is, it works really well. I love every single person who works in my job, and I don’t know if I have been able to say that. To have a cast that for all intents and purposes is a motley crew
of extreme brilliance. I feel like each and every one of these amazing actors and writers and people working on the show were meant to be a part of my life. They are my soulmates. I was meant, at 28, to discover some of the closest people I will ever be with. They’re my sisters.”
There are more changes on the horizon for Schilling. With lots of film projects – including indie comedy Fam- i- ly – in the pipeline, the future is bright – but it’s not necessarily Orange. The show has been signed on by Netflix for at least two more seasons, and while some might struggle to imagine the show without her, Schilling isn’t sure if there’s mileage left in her character. “In Jenji’s world, anything can and will happen. No one’s safe, I’m not safe. Even though there’s definitely going to be two more seasons, that doesn’t mean I’m going to be a part of it.” Is that uncertainty scary? She shakes her head. “That means you can really, truly salivate and enjoy every day in character. You wring it out and soak up as much as possible because it could be your last day. It’s a positively intentional, very purposeful way of working. I like it. I like the unknown. I like the unknown in life. It keeps it significant. Everything you do, the most mundane, has pinpoint significance.”
So will the newly engaged Piper and Alex get their happily- ever-after in a post- riot Litchfield? With filming only just underway for season six, it’s going to be a long wait until we find out. But take comfort that, like us, Schilling has no idea what’s next. And that’s what’s so great about Orange. “I feel like Piper at this point to me, she’s a part of me. We’ve been together for five seasons but at certain points, whether it be in the flashbacks or the present, there were paths and choices she made that I never could have predicted. Ever. But that’s the beauty right there, watching Piper, still trying to find her feet. After all this time, still unfolding.”
Orange Is The New Black seasons 1-5 are streaming now on Netflix
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