Life behind bars is no picnic for the heroine of Orange Is the New Black (debuting July 11 on Netflix), but it sure does make for one unexpected, compelling drama.
The new original series — from Weeds creator Jenji Kohan and based on Piper Kerman’s memoir Orange Is The New Black: My Year In a Women’s Prison — stars Taylor Schilling (Mercy) as a yuppie who once transported drug money for her girlfriend (played by That ’70s Show‘s Laura Prepon). Now, her experimental phase has caught up with her, forcing Piper — currently engaged to Larry (American Pie‘s Jason Biggs) — to serve a 15-month sentence in prison.
Below, Kohan previews Piper’s difficult journey and shares some real-life horror stories about what lies beyond the barbed fences.
TVLINE | How much of what we’re seeing in the show is real, and how much is embellished or fictional?
The book was really a launching [pad]. The book was relatively conflict-free. Piper is Piper, and it’s not our Piper. Once we took the initial notion of a white girl in prison, it really became its own animal. The characters became their own characters. And also, for legal reasons, we didn’t use a lot of the stories from the book. [Laughs] You start with what Piper’s story was, and then we completely took off and made it our own thing.
TVLINE | Who is your Piper, in the show?
She’s complicated. Part of what the show is is figuring out: Who is Piper? …Was it the privileged white girl from Connecticut who went to Smith? Was it the experimental enthusiast of her early 20s, the risk-taker? Was it the domestic, nice lady in Brooklyn that she became? Or the many masks she’s trying on in prison? …Part of why Piper got into this situation is because she doesn’t know who she is, and she’s been trying on a lot of hats.
TVLINE | How does she start to change as her prison sentence unfolds?
I don’t know about change, but different aspects of her personality emerge. Hopefully, it’ll lead to a place where she’s got to decide which nest fits best in this environment. I think she’s toggling still. She’s got to wonder why she feels this need to please or conform… She’s got to figure out what’s important. There’s a big push and pull between the micro and the macro when you’re in prison. To keep an eye on the big picture of who you are outside and what you want your life to be when your focus [is] on surviving, day to day, and what you need to do… They’re very different skill sets and character traits.
TVLINE | Did you go to any prisons in your research?
Yeah, we went to [California Institution for Women in] Chino. We got there, and it’s like, “This isn’t so bad.” It’s a campus out there. And then within 10 minutes, we wanted to get the f—k out of there. The walls closed in. It got oppressive. We were under other people’s control. The prisoners were trying to say things to us, and the warden’s marching us through. You realize how awful it is. It really affected the staff.
TVLINE | Was there anything you were shocked or surprised to find out that you incorporated into the show?
The culinary aspect of prison, like the creative cookery. When we first started the show, one of the things in the book was prison cheesecake. Netflix sent over a prison cheesecake. They followed a recipe. It was horrendous — although it might have been good if they hadn’t also sent a real one. The prison one was gray and horrible. Mostly how people’s survival skills kick in and what people do to maintain their humanity and feel like a productive person and not fall apart and what reserves they’re able to tap or not tap in that situation. And who finds solace in it and who falls apart.
TVLINE | Going forward past the pilot, is there a prisoner-of-the-week model?
Yeah. We want to build an ensemble. It’s everyone’s story. Piper’s our way in. I’m not that interested in just telling the white girl’s story, week after week. Part of why I was so intrigued by this book is, here’s my way in. Here’s a relatable way in for a premium cable audience, so to speak, and then I can really expand it and say, “Hey, look over here. She’s really interesting, too. He’s really interesting.”
TVLINE | Have you given any thought to what happens after she completes her sentence — if the show is successful?
When we looked at Season 1, it turned out to be four months. I feel like I can stretch this s—t out. I don’t think it will be a problem. Because you cannot do huge time jumps. Or maybe she does something horrible and has time added. We’re not beholden to anything. It’s also good control if any actors are rude. [Laughs]
TVLINE | Piper and Larry’s relationship is quite strong despite what’s going on. What makes them work? And how will their relationship be tested?
What makes them work is they’re both fascinated by the otherness. They both feel like they’re being exotic to a certain extent. They had both agreed on this life that had bonded them, that was working and was successful. Prison will certainly test them. The journey of this season is the journey of this relationship. It starts out strong and hopeful, and there are problems.