Orange is the New Black: ‘A 13-hour movie’

By Sarah Jane Griffiths
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

image copyrightNetflix
image captionThe colourful ensemble cast breathe life into the multi-layered, seamy prison drama

As the second season of prison drama Orange is the New Black hits Netflix, the cast talk about its runaway success, the culture of binge-watching and how they're helping to change the face of television.

When Orange is the New Black launched almost a year ago, as one of Netflix's first original productions, it was uncharted waters for everyone involved.

"House of Cards hadn't aired yet and none of us knew" how it would go, says Laura Prepon, who plays drug dealer/love-interest Alex Vause.

"We were just like, 'this script is amazing', so we took this leap of faith."

The comedy drama, set inside the fictional Litchfield women's prison, has gone on to become Netflix's most popular show (although the company doesn't hand out exact viewing figures).

When we meet in a London hotel, the cast all agree being part of the "unique" show, with its strong female characters and fearless storylines, is "something special".

"I do not know of a show that is so diverse, that has so many women on the show," says Danielle Brooks, who plays Litchfield inmate and library worker Taystee - now a series regular.

"I feel like we are changing the game, changing television - and hopefully film and theatre as well," she adds.

image copyrightNetflix
image captionThe character of Piper was inspired by - but is not based upon - the real-life story of Piper Kerman

The drama revolves around New Yorker Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) who is forced to leave her fiance, Larry, to serve time for a 10-year-old drug crime.

Her former lover, Alex (Prepon) shopped her to the police in return for a reduced sentence. Alex also happens to be an international drug-runner, and an inmate in the same prison.

Many Orange is the New Black fans will have cleared a large portion of this weekend to binge-watch all 13 episodes of the new season. But apparently that was the writers' plan all along.

"The whole streaming thing is changing the way writers are writing television now. It's basically a 13 hour-long movie," explains Prepon.

"The writers know they can take more time exploring certain characters and storylines because you'll see the other characters in one or two hours."

Creative freedom

With writers penning "a 13 hour movie" it was perhaps inevitable that Hollywood production values would become necessary.

"The quality of television is so great that the lines are completely blurred now between television and film," says Prepon.

"When I was growing up [as an actress] on That 70s Show, there was a much more definitive line. Now that's not there at all."

image copyrightNetflix
image captionLaura Prepon's character is one of the most complex - nurturing at times, vicious at others

"Films are just getting harder and harder to make," comments American Pie star Jason Biggs, who plays Chapman's spurned fiance.

"You have all these filmmakers coming over to television and making very grand epic cinematic shows, like True Detective. That was incredible, that was a movie."

Being on Netflix instead of a traditional TV channel has affected the show in more ways than one.

"Creative freedom" is a buzzword for the cast, and they frequently mention the lack of "micro-managing" that would be par for the course from other broadcasters.

"You'd have to make certain sacrifices for this show to live somewhere else," says Biggs.

"The fact Netflix doesn't rely on the ratings system is really integral to the success of the show.

"Because they're not catering to advertisers, they can stand behind the creators of the show.

"These writers have the freedom to create characters that cross lines and boundaries and storylines that don't apologise."

image copyrightNetflix
image captionThe show has given transgender actress Laverne Cox a breakout role

Emotional back-stories

Producers got fully behind Orange is the New Black early, commissioning season two before the first one aired, and season three has started shooting this week.

The show, nominated for Golden Globe and Writers' Guild awards, has also won praise for casting transgender actress Laverne Cox as Sophia in the show.

She recently appeared on the cover of Time magazine fronting an article called The Transgender Tipping Point.

The new series promises to continue breaking boundaries with plenty more back-stories, a new villain and a darker outlook.

"I feel like this season intensifies in all aspects," says Brooks.

"With the humour and the drama, with the sex and the pain and the fear - the whole pulse of the show intensifies."

Other mild spoilers include a "temptation" for Larry, whose relationship with his imprisoned fiancee is described as "precarious at best".

Chapman herself is changing - as viewers will know from the violent cliff-hanger at the end of series one.

"She's becoming someone even foreign to herself," says Schilling.

"She's trying on different guises like 'does this fit? Who am I? Who do I want to be in here?'"

The show has made a star of Schilling, whose previous career highlights certainly did not include ending up on the cutting room floor of Oscar-winning drama Argo.

"It's interesting to feel more 'seen' as I walk down the street," she says.

"I think it's kind of great. I love that people like the show so much and it's nice to receive that kind of feedback - intense sometimes, but good."

The show is based on the memoir of Piper Kerman, who is a consultant on the show, although Schilling insists the character she plays is "fictional", and Biggs adds that the cast are in "completely fabricated territory" for season two.

"I know the real Larry and the real Piper are together in real life," he says. "They have a kid, but that doesn't mean that that's going to happen in the show."

Biggs admits that as one of the few men, and one of the only characters not in prison, life on set can get a bit lonely.

"I'm basically working with my iPhone the whole time. I'm like, 'ok, action' and it's me, talking into my phone. Again."

image copyrightNetflix
image captionLarry and Piper's relationship is sorely tested by her spell behind bars

However, he is pleased the show has diverted the public's attention away from his role in American Pie.

"It's been really refreshing. For the first time in like 15 years people want to talk about something else.

"Twitter is amazing in that it's a direct link to the fans and I read what people say. People have a real visceral reaction to Larry's behaviour."

"I'm slightly biased but I really see Larry as a victim in all this. But the show is brilliant in that you have these women who have done something wrong, committed crimes, and yet we fall in love with all of them and we root for them."

President Obama is one such fan - he referenced the show at a recent White House dinner - but the show attracts viewers from all walks of life, according to Prepon.

"One of my friends told me her 85 year old grandmother had just binge-watched the whole thing and said, 'can you please watch the show so we can talk about it?'.

"I was like, 'this woman who is 85 is in love with a show where the main storyline is a same sex relationship?'.

"It just shows how far we've come as a society, which is incredible."

Season Two of Orange Is The New Black premieres on Netflix from Friday, 6 June.

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