IN HIT prison drama Orange Is The New Black, Taylor Schilling plays a snooty, manipulative – and frankly unpleasant – inmate named Piper.
Schilling’s character can be sweet and plucky but she’s often deeply self-serving and unpleasant. That a women would be portrayed in such unflattering terms is apparently too much for many, who have lauded OITNB for venturing where other television fears to tread.
“I get this question all the time question – ‘how do you feel about people not like Piper?’ “ says Schilling when we meet in a swanky Paris hotel around the corner from the Louvre to promote the forthcoming third season of Orange Is The New Black.
“It blows my mind. The conversation was not about about Tony Soprano or [notorious Breaking Bad anti-hero] Walter White not being likable. But for there to be a girl on television we might not like [is a big deal]. Even fans are going ‘we don’t like you’. It’s fascinating – and it’s wonderful that I am part of the conversation.”
Schilling is nothing like her Orange Is The New Black character. She is self-effacing and seems rather shy. Often she will answer a question with a nod or in one or two words.
She isn’t being coy or consciously obtuse – it’s just that, after three years of rapidly escalating celebrity, she remains buttoned down, wary of fame.
Of all Netflix’s cult properties, Orange is the New Black might be the closest to full-blown phenomenon.
Adapted from the prison memoir of the real life Piper Kerman – by all accounts much sweeter than her screen persona – the show has been celebrated as one of TV’s most boundary-breaking properties (and was this year lauded with three Emmys).
The cast is multiracial and the storylines deal with real life issues such as parenthood, friendship, sexual identity and depression (it also has a few pithy things to say about America’s culture of mass incarceration).
That it does this will retaining an agreeably laconic tone is a deeply impressive achievement.
It has also made a star of Schilling (30) and it is fair to stay that she is ambivalent about this. She has cordoned off her personal life and will not discuss if she is in a relationship or with whom (the internet is naturally agog with speculation).
What we do know is that she grew up in Boston in a middle class family (her mother was a university administrator, her father a lawyer) and had spent her career eking a living in so-so minor roles (including a ghastly Zac Efron vehicle) before Orange Is The New Black came calling.
She was struck immediately by the show’s intelligence and its ambition to tell stories traditionally regarded as beyond the remit of mass entertainment.
“It is such a pleasure to watch these characters,” she says. ‘You get these social issues – in a context where it is impossible for them not to touch your heart. The way they are presented, it isn’t about issues, it is about people.”
This was in distinction to many of the parts she was being offered.
“Roles for women can really be like an appendage to someone else. It’s either the best friend or a girlfriend — you’re not at the seat of your own narrative,” she told Rolling Stone recently.
“I wasn’t reading very many scripts, but my agent was like, ‘This is a really great script,’ and she was right. There were so many different parts of this lady. She wasn’t defined by any one thing.”
Nowhere is Orange Is the New Black’s commitment to toppling barriers and confronting prejudice head on more evident than in the character of Sophia Burset, a transgender woman portrayed with endless vim by real life transgender activist Laverne Cox.
The exact opposite of the retiring Schilling, Cox stomps into the interview room, yodeling at the top of her voice and immediately fills the space with her personality.
She is bubbly and chatty and, unlike Schilling, visibly basks in the spotlight. Cox has been in the news recently, having penned a passionate Tumblr post in support of freshly-declared transgender Caitlyn Jenner (formerly Bruce Jenner, Kim Kardashian’s stepdad).
“I’m too young to be an icon,” she demurs when her contribution to Jenner debate is mentioned.
“Orange Is The New Black has given me an enormous platform to speak out on issues that are important to me. My Tumblr post has been shared and quoted – I’ve gotten hundreds of Google alerts about it.”
She is reluctant to take too much credit, feeling much of the impact of Orange Is The New Black is attributable to show-runner Jenji Kohan.
‘”All the characters are written with such humanity,” says Cox.
“My job is to step into those boots and deliver the truth of who that woman is, a woman who has touched so many people and opened so many minds. That is really what it is about – when we see people as human beings, all the misconceptions and prejudices melt away. You can really achieve an awful lot on television, when the story is as multi-dimensional and complicated as Orange.”
Cox was on the cover of Time last year and was recently splashed all over Rolling Stone. As she says, the term ‘icon’ makes her uncomfortable. Still, who could doubt that, as a prominent transwoman, she has advanced the cause of sexual minorities?
“What is happening with trans people is that more and more of us are coming forward and saying this is who we are. I got a letter from a transperson who said, ‘I’ve been living in stealth for four years now’. I’m coming out now – because of you. That is a lovely thing – being able to be in full ownership of who you are.”
“Diversity is one of the finest and most important points in the show – the prison sets up is the perfect context to see all these different people. It provides an opportunity for us to see that they are not their crime. It provides a window into all parts of them.
“In fact, I think it might be harder to see those parts if it didn’t take place in a prison. There’s not much you can hide after you’ve gone that far down the scale. You’ve nothing to lose - when you hit rock bottom everything is on the table. It is a beautiful, glorious thing – everything is up for grabs.”