Orange Is the New Black: ‘So many people felt invisible, because there was no one like them on TV. And people are able to see themselves now’

Black, lesbian, transgender . . . The Netflix hit has been the ‘breath of fresh air we didn’t even know we needed’, according to its stars Taylor Schilling, Laura Prepon, Uzo Aduba and Laverne Cox

Two summers ago Orange Is the New Black brought Netflix both a hit and critical acclaim. Based on the prison memoir of Piper Kerman, it featured a large cast of women who seemed readymade for posters, Halloween costumes and Gifs. Now Orange Is the New Black has a global audience and joyous fans. The writing is sharp and funny, the casting is superb and, most of all, the show has heart. It's little wonder that it was renewed for a fourth season shortly before the third season appeared, last weekend.

On a hot day in Paris, at the type of hotel where the bar nuts arrive sprinkled with truffle powder, Laverne Cox, Taylor Schilling, Uzo Aduba and Laura Prepon are talking to the media. "There's a sort of effervescence," Schilling says about the lighter tone of series three. Schilling plays the lead, Piper Chapman, who negotiates her way through the maze of prison life, with fighters and lovers behind every corner.

Schilling says has a lot of empathy for Piper’s trajectory. “She has gone from trying to please a lot of people, and have the right relationship, and live in the right place, and have the right career, and have her life tied up in a bow that satisfies the status quo. As she has been forced to shed those layers, elements of who she really is are coming to the fore. New elements. I think that’s so universal, to try to say ‘what part of me is real right now?’ ”

Schilling is perhaps the least starry of the cast. In person she is, endearingly, slightly awkward; celebrity doesn’t seem to sit easily with her. “People can recognise me, and that’s an adjustment,” she says. “There’s a part of it that’s beyond thrilling, that people are passionate about the show. It’s humbling that people want to say something and are excited about it. And then there’s also a part that is weird. It can feel really weird. I’m very private, and oftentimes I feel a little nervous around people.”


Booming laughter

Schilling’s quietness contrasts with Laura Prepon, whom you hear before you see, with the type of booming laughter that leaks down corridors. She’s in the middle of a wardrobe crisis, having been invited at the last minute to a “crazy wedding”, by a host “with more money than God”, but is gownless, “and I’m going to show up all schlubbed out”.

She’s in the right town for a gown. “Yeah, but where do I go?” Chanel is across the street, “but do I really want to spend €3,000 on a dress? Crazy. Know what I’m saying? Not that we need to be wasting time on that. What’s happening?”

Having starred in That '70s Show for eight years, Prepon was preparing to take a break from TV to mourn the passing of Are You There, Chelsea?, which ran on NBC for just a season with her in the lead role. "Then the script for Orange came along, and I was just, like, 'What the f**k! What is this? I have to be a part of this. I have to be a part of this f***ing show.' "

Prepon’s part became Alex Vause, the lesbian drug dealer in a relationship with Piper, and whose downfall led to Piper’s being yanked from her very regular life into the confines of Litchfield Penitentiary. Alex, which is also to say Prepon, is a lesbian-fan favourite. “I’ve been called the lesbian Channing Tatum,” she says, laughing. “He’s hot, so thank you. How do I take it? Girl, in stride. It’s amazing.”

Prepon revels in playing Alex. “She just is who she is, and she owns it. She’s a little bit of a loner, which gives her this allure. She’s kind of like a cat. You know the way cats are, like, ‘I don’t need you. Okay, fine, you can pet me.’ ”

Prepon praises Schilling as a costar, especially in moments of rawness. “This year especially I’ve gotten to those moments where I’ve literally been, like, ‘F**k it.’ You trust your costar so much, and you feel so safe that you are completely exposed . . . I’d be driving home at night, all black eye makeup on my face, eyes bloodshot from crying all day, and just feel so incredible.” She claps her hands. “Like, man! That was a good day’s work.”

Although Uzo Aduba initially auditioned for another part, it's difficult to imagine anyone else playing Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren. Aduba inhabits the character, for which she has been rewarded with Emmy, Critics Choice and Screen Actors Guild awards. Before Orange Is the New Black Aduba worked largely in theatre. Her poise and eloquence are as far removed from Crazy Eyes as one could imagine.

It's the group work on Orange Is the New Black that Aduba values. "I love that type of environment. I find that thrilling and exciting and informative. I think it also grows you, because you're forced to rub up against other people and their processes. You're forced to be right in front of another actor and really learn how to make the thing go and not survive entirely on your own. So it's impossible for it not to bleed into you."

Aduba says Orange Is the New Black was a televisual "breath of fresh air we didn't even know we needed . . . We wanted something new telling us, 'This is how women are. This is what diversity looks like. This is what gender issues feel like. This is what sexuality can be.' I think that's the attraction. I feel like, when I watch it, I'm watching a show that feels like the world I step out into."

Transgender visibility

Orange I s the New Black celebrates women, racial diversity and sexuality by default; the star of its representation of gender diversity is Laverne Cox, the Alabama woman who has broken new ground for transgender visibility. When Cox got her part she hadn't acted for nine months and was thinking of going back to graduate school. Her bills were late. She was months behind on her rent. Her landlord set her up with a payment plan so she wouldn't be evicted. She stood in tears in a queue at housing court, "thinking, How did I end up here? Again?"

Then everything changed. "My rent is paid now. I've paid off student loans. I've been nominated for an Emmy for guest actress in Orange Is the New Black. I won an Emmy for producing The T Word" – a documentary about seven transgender youths – "I was on the cover of Time magazine. I'm on the cover of Essence magazine now, Bust magazine, Variety magazine. I've got to tour the United States on my speaking tour and meet thousands of young people who say my work as an actress and advocate has changed their lives, has given them hope. I've gotten to work with some of my idols: Jodie Foster, Lily Tomlin. I've gotten to do things as an actress that I've dreamed about for years but never got the opportunity to do. I could go on . . . I was in the Time 100 this year. I mean, like, that's a long way from barely paying your rent and working at a restaurant."

Cox says about her role as an advocate for trans people, “To whom much is given, much is required,” adding, “There are so many things I want to do, so many policy issues I feel need to be addressed. I don’t have time to do them right now, but, God willing, hopefully in the future I will have time to do it. Hopefully other folks will be inspired to do that work, maybe in part because of the work that I’m doing.

“But just to say, ‘I’m good now, because my rent is paid and I’m living my dream’? And so many other transgender people aren’t? Oh my God, that would be horrible.”

A few weeks ago Cox was speaking on a panel with Danielle Brooks, who plays Tasha "Taystee" Jefferson. "Danielle said it so beautifully . . . She said, 'When I was a kid I didn't see anyone like me on television: dark skin, curvy, black woman. And it means so much to me that now I'm that girl. Now people can watch TV and see me. And if they're dark-skinned and curvy they can see somebody who looks like them.'"

Tears threaten Cox's eyes. "For so long so many people of colour, so many people of different sizes, so many trans people, have looked at television and felt invisible, because there's no one like them on TV. We don't have every category on Orange, but we have so many, so people are able to see themselves now. That is so deeply validating. It means so much."

The third series of Orange Is the New Black is now available on Netflix