Jenji Kohan talks life behind bars for 'Orange Is The New Black'
(CBR) Life behind bars isn’t pleasant — but making a show about life behind bars? That’s a different story, based on the energy of the "Orange Is the New Black" panel at PaleyFest: Made in New York.
The extensive conversation included series regulars Taylor Schilling (Piper Chapman), Jason Biggs (Larry Bloom), Kate Mulgrew (Red), Taryn Manning (Pennsatucky), Danielle Brooks (Taystee), Uzo Aduba (Crazy Eyes) and Natasha Lyonne (Nicky), as well as creator Jenji Kohan, and the woman who inspired the series through her autobiography, author Piper Kerman. After a few false starts, critic and moderator Elvis Mitchell finally calmed the panelists’ on-stage giddiness enough to ask about the elephant in the room: the politics of hair.
“I had long, lovely, healthy, luxurious hair — and every time I’d come up to Jenji from the make-up trailer, she’d tell me to go back,” recalled Mulgrew, who sports close-cropped, dyed-red hair as Red, the kitchen kingpin of Litchfield. “Short and shorter, more and more magenta … finally, eggplant, with spikes.”
Kohan’s fascination with hair isn’t much of a surprise, considering the green-and-purple locks she sported onstage. It’s also not surprising to see Kohan tackling the subject matter of "Orange", as the writer-producer is best-known for telling stories centered on characters struggling with shifting power dynamics.
“I’m [interested] in people and their relationship with power,” said Kohan, most famous for creating "Weeds". “I don’t set out and say, ‘I want to write about power dynamics.’ I fall in love with characters. I fall in love with their stories. And I think power dynamics are a great story device.”
Kerman, author of the autobiography "Orange Is the New Black", recalled her first creative meetings with Kohan: “We met in California at a book event when the book first came out. I went to meet Jenji at her office, which was a cornucopia of visuals. We had a really long, long talk about the book, my experience, and the world of a women’s prison. Jenji had read the book very closely. She had question after question after question on top of everything that’s revealed in the book. From that very first meeting, I had no question that she had this curiosity and inquiry about every detail of life inside the walls of the prison. That gave me a great deal of confidence in turning the story over to her.”
“My first meeting with Jenji was terrific,” Biggs agreed. “I had a normal audition process and came in to read for Jenji and the director of the pilot, Michael Trim. Now, having gotten to know her better, she has so much to say on everything. I love asking her questions. I just want to hear her speak forever. But for the audition, she didn’t really say anything. There weren’t any questions. I figured I blew it. But months went by, and she called me in to read with Taylor. We had a great read, and that’s when we first really chatted about the story and where it would go.”
For Schilling, playing the role of Piper on the Netflix comedy-drama has been a matter of looking beneath the character’s mask. “What’s so interesting to me about Piper is that moment in time when you’re smashed with circumstance, when you can’t continue doing things the way you used to. You don’t know what’s in front of you. Going to prison is one of these ways where your world sort of explodes,” she said. “She has to be plopped outside of the cultural norms and put in this place that’s removed from society [so that] she can dig deep and figure out by necessity what’s going on inside of her.”
“I tend to operate under the notion that people don’t change,” Kohan said of the character. “I’ve amended that to, people don’t change unless they’re in extreme circumstances that force them to change. We found our extreme circumstance in the case of this character.”
On the surface, few characters exemplify complexity better than Red, who uses her role in the kitchen almost as body armor. But Mulgrew believes Red’s hard exterior dates back to before her time in prison. “You can see that in her flashbacks in the real world. She’s a geek,” she said, before slipping into her character’s signature Eastern European accent. “She can’t keep up with these women. They think she is idiot. So finally, I have to punch the tit. Don’t piss me off is all I can say.”
“It just came to mind,” Kohan laughed when asked about the scene where Red pops a woman’s breast implant. “I had this visual. I loved the idea of this deflating boob. We never quite got it right in effects, but I saw it in my head so clearly. When that character is trying so hard, and she’s so frustrated, and she doesn’t know what to do — she goes primal. It made me laugh.”
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