ACTOR Jason Biggs flashes an inscrutable smile. “Am I trying to get away from being the American Pie guy? Come on ... I’ll always be the American Pie guy. I realised that a long time ago.”
The scatological 1998 comedy made Biggs, now 36, a household name, but also typecast him as a clownprince of Hollywood raunch. He used to have a problem with that. Not any more.
“Two years ago, I did American Pie Reunion,” he says. “So I add to [his American Pie association] by going back. Frankly, I’d do it again. You get a little older and your perspective changes. I remember, after American Pie 2, thinking, ‘I don’t know if we can do another … we’ve exhausted it’. I have a kid, a couple of mortgages — my attitude is ‘hey man, I’ll do as many as you want me’. I have accepted that I will be known for that film. Besides, it isn’t as if I have a choice in the matter. I will never escape the association.”
Biggs is in London, promoting the second season of Netflix prison drama, Orange Is The New Black. A critical and commercial smash, the series is based on the life of Piper Kerman, a middle-class Boston woman who served 13 months in prison for money laundering. Biggs plays her husband, Larry Smith. Television is a new frontier for Biggs. “You see a lot of people you would consider film actors crossing into TV. It’s partly out of necessity — you don’t get as many opportunities in film. Then, there are a lot more opportunities in TV. I have 900 channels at home. There are loads of people looking to put out original programming. Look at Netflix, who are in the original-programming game and doing quite well,” he says.
Biggs is as shocked as anyone that Orange Is The New Black has been so enthusiastically received. The least promoted of Netflix’s original shows last year, it has been the streaming service’s second biggest hit, after the mega-budget House Of Cards, and has made a star of its lead actress, Taylor Schilling (Piper). For Biggs, there might be life after American Pie.
“I’ve definitely seen differences, in terms of public perceptions of me,” he says. “For the first time, people walk up and start a conversation and it’s about Orange, not American Pie. It is very refreshing. I want to get away from American Pie, if only because it means I am doing lots of other cool stuff.”
Though based on a true story, Orange Is The New Black is not rigorously factual. When showrunner, Jenji Kohan, cast Biggs, she said Kerman’s autobiography was a starting point, not a sacred text. “Jenji told me we would be doing our own thing. So I never felt the pressure to research what the real Larry was like,” Biggs says, but he has won praise for his portrayal. Larry is one of his loudest cheerleaders. “It was the biggest compliment anyone could pay. He said ‘you were great, perfect casting’. The truth is it was in the writing — they get Larry perfectly. I did my best. But the script had already gotten the essence of him. He’s a really interesting guy — I’ve grown quite fond of him.”
As season two opens, Larry has become increasingly self-involved and unsympathetic. He is not the bad guy, but neither is he the loveable schlub of season one.
“People have started to question him,” says Biggs. “They think he’s betrayed his wife. What has happened, I think, is that he used to always look out for other people. Now, he is finally beginning to look out for himself.”
Biggs was born in 1978, the son of a nurse and a shipping company manager. He starred in commercials as a child. By his late teens, he was appearing on Broadway and had a role in daytime soap, As The World Turns. While studying at New York University, he was cast in American Pie, a huge international hit that earned $250m at the box office, and $150m on DVD. However, the success was not the springboard he may have anticipated.
For many years, he struggled to step outside the shadow of the franchise.
Most of the drama in Orange Is The New Black takes place within the prison. Though Biggs is the best-known cast member, his role is often peripheral. He is our connection to the ‘real’ world past the barbed wired and the watch towers, serving as an audience proxy as he tries to make sense of the predicament that has befallen him.
“I only have a few scenes per episode, which is hard as an actor. I have to knock it out of the park. Because it is an ensemble show, when Larry comes in he has to do a lot in a short amount of time. The challenge is packing everything in, without making it feel like exposition — you want it to seem organic and real. That’s all in the writing.
“Of course, if it’s going to work, I need to follow through with the performance,” he says.