In writer-producer Jenji Kohan’s new show Orange Is the New Black, a woman gets in trouble because of drugs. Sound familiar? That may be because because Kohan’s previous show, Weeds, was also about a woman getting into trouble because of, uh, drugs.
“I love it when people screw up and try to make things better,” says Kohan. “I think some of the sensibilities are the same because there’s a certain tone that I have. But Orange is its own beast.”
A caged beast, in fact. The largely prison-set Orange is based on Piper Kerman’s 2010 memoir of the same name, which details the 13 months the Smith College graduate served behind bars as a result of having, years previously, transported cash for her then-girlfriend, an international drug smuggler. Taylor Schilling (The Lucky One) stars as Piper Chapman, and Laura Prepon plays Chapman’s ex-lover and fellow inmate. Other prisoners are portrayed by Kate Mulgrew and Natasha Lyonne, while Jason Biggs is Chapman’s fiancé.
The latter character is an echo of the real-life boyfriend to whom Piper Kerman became engaged after growing out of her wild, female drug smuggler-dating ways, although Kohan says the pair’s onscreen relationship is a fictionalization: “We made all that sh-t up. But what was interesting is we would make stuff up and then Piper would sometimes tell us, ‘Wow, that was a little close.’ Which we felt meant we were doing something right.”
Below, Kohan talks more about Orange is the New Black, the entire first season of which is now available on Netflix.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you get involved in this project?
JENJI KOHAN: I read the book and then I called Lionsgate [Television, which produced the show] and said, “You have to get me this book.” Other people wanted it, so I begged Piper and she gave it to me, she trusted me with it, for which I was grateful.
How involved has the real-life Piper been in the adaptation process?
She gives notes, mostly about accuracy. You know, “I don’t think that would happen.” And she comes to set for visits, which must be strange for her. But she’s really kind of trusted us with her baby and we really, completely took off from where she started. I loved the book and I loved the characters in the book, but there wasn’t a whole lot of drama. You know, she went to prison and it sucked and she met some really cool people. [Laughs] We had to infuse it with a little more drama.
In a lot of ways, Piper was our gateway drug. We wanted to write stories about all sorts of women and their experiences. But it’s very hard to sell a show about women of different colors and different ages and different socioeconomic backgrounds. This way, we almost get to sneak in these amazing characters and amazing stories through this white girl going to prison. With each episode we explore a different character.
Tell us about the character of Piper Chapman.
She’s trying to discover who she is. And the big question in prison is: Is she the person she’s developed — because she thinks she was supposed to have this life — or is she really that girl who got in trouble and was reckless and ran around? Will she revert back to the wild child she was or maintain that equanimity of a semi-adult? I think Piper is wrestling with the macro and the micro. Like, when you’re in this microcosm, do you adopt the skills necessary to survive in prison, or do you keep your eye on the big picture? Because those are oppositional forces in a lot of ways. The things that are useful to you to survive in prison hurt you on the outside and the other way around.
What was it like working with Kate Mulgrew?
Ach, Kate Mulgrew is delicious. She’s just scary. She’s our Russian mistress of the kitchen and strong and interesting but also vulnerable. She just inhabited that role, and her [real-life] boyfriend’s really mad at us for dyeing her hair red and cutting it off. I was skeptical. I wanted a Russian and she became a Russian for me. I love her.
What about Natasha Lyonne?
Natasha is a racehorse. You just let her out and she runs. It’s so much fun to watch. She just lights up the screen.
How would you do in prison?
Not very well. The whole thing freaks me out. The system is so broken and the people are so broken. The writing staff visited a women’s prison in California, and even though the facility didn’t look that bad, within 10 minutes, none of us could wait to get out of there. You’re at the mercy of this labyrinthine, bureaucratic, arbitrary system, and it’s terrifying. I ran around the house for weeks telling all my kids: “Never go to prison! Just don’t go to prison!”
Which prison did you visit?
Chino. There’s this institutional mentality that just kills your soul. But also what appealed to me about this is, women’s prison’s are different. It’s not Oz. I was talking to the warden at Chino, and he’d worked in women’s prisons and men’s prisons, and I said “What’s the difference?” and he said, “Women are communal. Men are out for themselves and they’re animals and they’ll kill. But women will form packs and try to be a family.”
You can check out the — somewhat raunchy — trailer for Orange Is the New Black below.