For Jenji Kohan, following up her popular Showtime marijuana-mama comedy, "Weeds," with "Orange Is the New Black," an hourlong women's-prison dramedy based on Piper Kerman's best-selling memoir of the same name, was a "no-brainer."
"I was looking for something to jump onto because I'm not good when I'm not working, and although I didn't think it would happen this quickly, I couldn't pass this up because it had everything for me, starting with very fascinating characters with interesting stories to tell," the show creator told Yahoo! TV exclusively in late June at a Santa Monica junket for the 13-episode Netflix series that premieres today. "The book was a great character piece, and I fell in love with the world and these women. I knew it would make the perfect launching point for a series because of the fact that we had this gateway drug into the world in this white middle-class girl next door. I can't sell a show on black or Latino prisoners, but if I walk in with her, I can suddenly tell all of their stories."
The white girl in question is Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a privileged Brooklynite with a budding toiletries line, a self-absorbed family, and a hapless fiancé (Jason Biggs), whose decade-old relationship with drug runner Alex (Laura Prepon) comes back to haunt her. After she's convicted of sporadically carrying cash for the international ring, she's sentenced to a 15-month-long detention in a federal penitentiary alongside a variety of feisty, eccentric, and sometimes dangerous inmates, including the ex-girlfriend she suspects turned her in. It's inspired by the book's author's incarceration and her trouble navigating the baffling culture behind bars.
"I was so excited to play such a fish outta water who goes through such a deep evolution. At first, she says and does all the wrong things, doesn't know all the rules, pisses off the wrong people, attracts the wrong people because there's a giant learning curve," Schilling said. "It's really fun to be put in such deep water. Even more fun was the fact that I wasn't alone. It's rare to see one fully realized female character in a script, and yet there is space in this one show for women of all different shapes, ages, sizes, colors, orientations, all on their own heroine's journey."
Kohan sarcastically added, "And they aren't even shopping or constantly talking about their boyfriends."
They are, however, seriously flawed and fallible. "I think people will constantly ask themselves throughout the season if they like these characters or not, and that's what makes the show interesting," Schilling said. "The reality of the life I live is that nobody is just good or bad. Real human beings live in a more nebulous place. Piper's supposed to be there, and she's not a hapless victim, but she isn't an evil person either. Her coming to terms with what she did and taking responsibility for herself is a big theme we explore."
Despite the characters' shortcomings, Biggs believes, viewers won't be able to hate on anybody for very long. "Jenji is great at creating complicated characters, and ultimately I think you are going to end up rooting for everybody, even Piper. There is someone for everyone to relate to or empathize with," said the "American Pie" actor, adding that heavy use of flashbacks to flush out the backstories of other inmates, as well as to provide details of Piper's relationships, helps lure the audience to their corner. "There's a beach proposal scene that shows Piper and Larry at their most in love. That's important to set up going in because it helps the audience understand why Larry just doesn't walk away."
Schilling found an invaluable resource in Kerman, who made herself very available for questions and was often on set. "I was really nervous having her around at the beginning, but she was really accessible and never overbearing. I started to feel really comfortable around her and was able to really utilize her. As I got to know her, I developed such a respect for the bravery with which she went through such extraordinary circumstances."
Kohan, who is quick to point out that this is not just a "female 'Oz,'" also constantly consulted with Kerman but admitted that many liberties were taken in the retelling. "She went to prison, had this experience, met these people, and then went back to Brooklyn, married her boyfriend, wrote a book, and lived a good life. For a show to work, you need a bit more conflict, and these things tend to take on a life of their own. You have a room full of writers with ideas and actors bringing their stuff to it, so a true story even becomes a different animal."
Not that changes were made willy-nilly. On top of the open dialogue with Kerman, there were speakers, supplemental reading, and "oppressive and horrifying" prison tours. "You want to ground it in the reality, do your due diligence on research, and steep yourself in information to make it feel as realistic as possible because it is also a soapbox to talk about important issues," Kohan said. "The industrial prison complex is incredibly f----- up, flawed, in need of reform, and no one is talking about it. I admit I have an agenda. If I can start a conversation about prison reform while making great television, why not?"
The realism helped the cast to get into character. Sometimes a little too much."The giant underwear we wore under our burlap sacks is very authentic but not all that comfortable. And, hello, no underwire!" exclaimed Prepon. Her junket mate Taryn Manning, who plays a white-trash racist and religious prisoner named Tiffany "Pennsatucky" Doggett, added, "The set they built was so detailed, and it captured the raw, raunchy, not private, claustrophobic atmosphere so well that I was relieved that I got to go home at night."
Even Biggs, whose character only visits the big house and experiences the pain and suffering of prison mostly secondhand, had his eyes opened. "I thought a Whole Foods parking lot on a Sunday afternoon was a nightmare, but after reading these scripts, filming at a creepfest abandoned children's mental hospital, and seeing the multiple tampon sandwich props lined up [Piper gets served a used one after insulting the head chef's food], I am more than 100 percent sure I never want to spend time in prison."
Manning said that sometimes the realism went in the other direction. "For a talent show scene, the producers went around and actually asked us what our real talents are and then wrote a hilarious scene that took advantage of those answers. I hope that didn't get cut."
The attempt at authenticity would require onscreen nudity, which gave Prepon pause. "I've never played a lesbian, and I've never been naked on camera. Jenji and I had a long conversation about the fact that it's not a gratuitous thing. These women are in prison surrounded by women at all times with no place to hide. They are not going to be changing behind a towel after spending a chunk of time there. You are going to see 50 sets of women's breasts around at any one time. At some point, it's just another body part. In the end, I trust Jenji and knew this role would be pivotal for my career."
Apparently, Netflix believes the series could be pivotal to its push into the original programming market, as it committed to Season 2 weeks before the debut. "Netflix is a dream come true because they're generous, enthusiastic, new, streamlined, smart, and they knowledge what they know and what they don't know. Until I f--- up, I can pretty much do what I want to do," Kohan said. "It's also the new frontier. It's how my kids and my baby writers watch TV. I love being there first."
The jury is still out on whether she likes the fact that all of the episodes are available simultaneously. "Part of me loves a binge. It gives you instant gratification, which is usually very pleasing and unfortunately how I conduct a lot of my life. But you're denied the sweetness of anticipation and longing that you get with weekly episodes unless you impose it yourself. Selfishly, I also think, 'I spent a year making this, and someone is going to watch it in a night. There is a risk that it won't have the resonance that a traditional show has. With 'Weeds,' it was nice to hear people discussing a show for a week. But like it or not, it is here, so you might as well be a pioneer."
"Orange Is the New Black" is available to stream in its entirety on Netflix.