Taylor Schilling

This interview originally appeared in the MIPCOM 2014 issue of World Screen.

A favorite among binge-viewers, Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black stars Taylor Schilling as its main jailbird, Piper Chapman. In it, she plays a Waspy blonde who is forced to trade in her comfortable New York lifestyle for an orange prison jumpsuit to serve time in a women’s penitentiary. The show was inspired by the 2010 memoir of Piper Kerman and was brought to the small screen by Weeds creator Jenji Kohan. Schilling has been nominated for a Golden Globe and an Emmy in the role (a part she says that she instantly knew she wanted). Schilling tells World Screen about her character’s transformation and the dynamics of the ensemble female cast.

WS: When you first read this character and the show’s premise, how did you feel knowing that it was based on a true story?
SCHILLING: I was really compelled [by the fact] that it was based on a true story. I always find that for me, personally, in films, books, TV or plays, there’s a real hook when it’s based on a true story. It makes it fresher to have the idea of, That could be me. There’s that “What if?” factor. It’s like seeing behind the curtains into someone’s life, and that’s really exciting to me. As for the story, it was just so intriguing. I found it really powerful.

WS: Did you know instantly that you wanted this role?
SCHILLING: I did! It’s crazy; I really had this sense of, this is what I want. This is what I want beyond [anything]. There are some times that you read things, and it’s like, Oh, this makes sense. Then there are times when it’s exhilarating, but in a calm and knowing way. When I read [the character of] Piper, I said, that’s it! I get her. It was easy from there.

WS: How do you put yourself into the mindset of what Piper must be going through as an inmate?
SCHILLING: Piper has had to shed all her old ideas about what it means to be in the world. Even unconsciously she’s had to do that, just to survive. I don’t even know if she knows that she’s doing that. Who she is at a fundamental level has to come out to play in a way that never would have happened had she not been incarcerated. She’s discovering freedom in that. There’s a great sense of wanting to know the truth, and she’s surviving and she’s going to any length [to survive]. In that, she is learning who she really is and is starting to trust that. As she transforms as a human being, that then changes every interaction she has with anyone. This process is reintroducing her to the world in a completely new way.

There’s research to do and different kinds of explorations [for a character like this]. First and foremost, though, is the writing. It’s so, so good; it really provides a clear trajectory.

WS: How much have you been working with the real Piper Kerman, and what sort of direction has she given you?
SCHILLING: She was very involved in the first season and she still is. She’s a great friend, and I really enjoy my time with her. To her credit, she’s such an incredible resource, so amazing! At the same time, she’s just a fan of the show. She loves to see what choices I make; she’s excited about it. She doesn’t have any judgment; she has a completely open mind. She’s very cognizant of the fact that I am playing a fictional character at the end of the day, but she’s very much there any time I have questions or concerns. It’s really special to have her around in that capacity.

WS: How has your character evolved over the course of the series?
SCHILLING: [She started out being] quite sure of her place in the world and of what was right, or at least of her idea of what was right. Her values were based on the world she was living in, which was about maintaining the status quo, fitting in and being like other people. Her journey through incarceration has been about letting go of what others think and discovering who she is when she’s not bound by convention. She’s finding in that a new strength and a new vitality. It’s no longer about caring what other people think as much as it is about living her life. She’s taking more action now than she ever has before.

WS: It’s a largely female cast. How important is the dynamic between all of the women both on set and off set?
SCHILLING: It’s incredibly important! We support each other so fully and so genuinely, and enjoy each other so fully and so genuinely. It really does feel like a family. It sounds a bit cliché when you hear people say that, but it really is. I don’t think the work that any of us do would be possible without feeling quite so safe and cared for by our cast members, who are our friends and co-workers.

WS: The show definitely has some darker moments and complex characters. How do you feel about it being classified as a comedy?
SCHILLING: I don’t think it’s a comedy, but I also don’t think it’s a drama. I do think it’s very funny. The balance of humor and humanity that Jenji Kohan so brilliantly creates through letting people into this world so vibrantly defies categorization.

WS: What sort of creative environment have you found working with Jenji?
SCHILLING: Her clarity, her humor, her humanity. Just by virtue of writing these scripts where these characters, who so often go unheard and unseen, are given a voice, it has created a really safe and exciting place to work together.

WS: What’s your take on the Netflix model of releasing all episodes at once and the resulting binge-viewing phenomenon?
SCHILLING: It’s incredible. That’s how I like to watch things. It makes me feel better to know that I can get as much as I want. It makes me feel like I won’t be left high and dry. It’s almost frightening to watch something only once a week now, I feel like I need more!

WS: After having worked on the show and embodied this character, has it shaped your view of the prison system?
SCHILLING: Hugely! It’s opened my eyes to the work that the WPA [Women’s Prison Association] does. It has opened my eyes to the systemic nature of the problems of our prison system right now. We’re treating criminals, but [dealing with the problems in the American prison system] starts at a much more fundamental level of education and the great disparity between the rich and the poor in our country. It’s hard to tell these stories and not become politically activated in a personal way.