In a deft demonstration of corporate synergy, Netflix tapped new talkshow host Chelsea Handler to moderate a Q&A for “Orange Is the New Black,” the streaming service’s Emmy-nominated dramedy, on Monday night.
The “For Your Consideration” panel, held at the Directors Guild of America theater in Los Angeles, gathered series creator Jenji Kohan and Emmy-nominated cast members Taylor Schilling, Kate Mulgrew, Uzo Aduba, Natasha Lyonne and Laverne Cox, along with fellow stars Lea DeLaria and Jason Biggs. The series is nominated for 12 trophies for its first season, while the streaming service has garnered 31 Emmy nominations in total this year.
The raucous panel was dominated by the outspoken and playful cast — at one point Cox joked, “don’t you love how relaxed this is? You’re in our living room!” — while a mellow Handler seemed content to let the stars shine without much interference. The actors asked questions of each other and Kohan in the freewheeling session, seemingly discovering things about their costars they had never heard before, despite two years of working together.
“I’m fascinated you two got a full script,” Mulgrew drawled after Schilling and Aduba shared their memories of auditioning. “I got two pages! But I loved those pages. … While I was doing the audition, I felt the kismet. It’s like love, it’s like sex, it just felt so great. But then you made me wait — just like sex.”
DeLaria admitted that her own audition process had its share of stress, after she read and was told that the producers loved her, but not for the role she originally auditioned for. She was told they would keep her in mind for another part, and noted, “you hear that how fucking often? I’m still waiting for that part they’re gonna write for me on ‘Law & Order’… I looked at my manager and I said, ‘If they are making a television show that takes place in a women’s prison and there isn’t a part for me? Fuck showbusiness, I quit!” After her self-proclaimed “hissyfit,” DeLaria flew to London and got off the plane to find 12 missed calls from her manager, telling her that they had indeed written a role for her.
Biggs recalled that he had to wait a month to hear whether he’d secured the role of Larry, finding out on the panel that it was because Kohan had scheduled a family vacation to a remote Irish castle around the same time and hadn’t been able to watch audition tapes while there. “I’d go on the roof to try and get signal … I could barely make a call,” the creator admitted apologetically.
The cast seemed just as fascinated as the audience by what goes on in the writers’ room, with Cox admitting she’d love to pay the show’s writers a visit.
“Yeah, no,” Kohan laughed. “Because of the nature of what we do, it needs to be private. We were offered some magazine thingy, like, ‘it’s a cover, they want to spend a week in the room!’ I was like, ‘that will never happen.’ We have to have the freedom to be as horrible as we want, and vulnerable. … What’s lovely about our group is that you can only fight about story. We’re all a bunch of open wounds and what’s really great is that we all take it out on ourselves in general, so the fights are about the work. It’s not people attacking each other, it’s about the work and what they believe should happen.”
Mulgrew asked Kohan what happens when a writer passionately disagrees with her about the direction of a story. “One of two things happens … they all gang up on me — in the ‘Weeds’ writers’ room they used to put items up for auction if they could talk me out of a joke,” she laughed. “But ultimately, usually, they lose — it’s my show!”
The creator admitted that even though the actors will (apparently) never be permitted into the writers’ room, writing the characters has still become more collaborative as a consequence of how fully the stars have embraced their roles. “As these women have inhabited these characters, we hear them as we’re writing and they know what they’re doing as they’re performing and it becomes this other thing,” she observed.
The actors had nothing but praise for Kohan’s work, even when it pushes them out of their comfort zones. Schilling admitted, “There are things that are clearly, for me personally, very nerve-wracking, and I had to have a lot of discussions about every time I took my clothes off… [but] there’s always a counterpart emotionally or in the story of the character’s development. It feels weighted and it feels honest, so there have been moments that are frightening physically — it feels like a physical risk and it’s more like my mind gets scared about what’s going to happen — but it’s always matched by the character going in a new direction or some really extreme shift, finding a new part of herself. That’s equally as exciting and challenging.”
Aduba revealed that a simple line of character description in the first script helped her to get a handle on exactly who Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren is. “The thing that I found that really was a good anchor — they had written this line in the script in her first episode, I’m paraphrasing it right now, but it said something like, ‘and there … Crazy Eyes: she’s innocent like a child, except children aren’t scary.’ It just drafted this image in my mind of a grown person with a pacifier and a sledgehammer, and this innate juxtaposition… I thought it was an interesting idea of an adult who was innocent, which then made me think of somebody who was entirely pure, and then for me, that changed the way I focused my attention into trying to get this woman. Then I realized everything she does, she is doing with no agenda; there’s no malice, there’s no calculation, it’s 100 percent of her heart. She’s just trying to get that thing that she loves. … I was very thankful, and am very thankful, that the writers and Jenji just kept nurturing her and injecting her with dimension.”
Lyonne agreed that the show’s groundbreaking writing is a huge part of “OITNB’s” appeal. “For those of us women who feel like there hasn’t been a space to be heard in that way, all these characters … it’s what’s so extraordinary about this show, it gives voice to so many specific kinds of experiences,” she pointed out.
That emotional honesty helps viewers to connect to the series, according to Cox, who pointed out that the best way to spur social change is by showing viewers that prison inmates aren’t so easily categorized or stereotyped.
“We incarcerate, in America, more people than any other country in the world, and that’s important to think about,” she noted, citing the work of an organization called the Sylvia Rivera Law Project in New York City, which works with transgender, intersex and gender non-conforming people, especially those in prison. The organization has hosted screenings of episode three of season one, “Lesbian Request Denied,” to “spark a conversation about trans people in prison” according to Cox. “I think that when we connect with people as human beings, all of our misconceptions about people who are different from us melt away. I think that can have the biggest impact on changing public policy in this country around incarceration, around a whole plethora of issues.”
When an audience member noted that a prison in Saginaw, Mich., changed the color of its jumpsuits because the local county sheriff thought that the show made the orange outfits look “cool,” and asked Kohan how she felt about being able to affect change and shed light on the broken prison system in America, she admitted, “That guy was such an asshole, quoted as saying, ‘we don’t want anyone feeling any empathy for these inmates’ or something to that effect. … A huge part of my goal for the show is to start conversations about things. It is, to a certain extent, my soapbox — I’m not secretive about my political agenda. It’s great that the themes of the show have entered the national conversation and international conversation and that people are talking about issues that they were never talking about before, and seeing the prison industrial complex in a different light and seeing prisoners in a different light. I think it’s awesome.”