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Q&A with stars of ‘Orange Is the New Black’

August 2, 2018

The sixth season of “Orange Is the New Black” is available on Netflix, and it’s going to be a season of transformational changes.

The series, dating back to its premiere in 2013, is based upon Piper Kerman’s life and memoir, “Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison,” and now has gone well past Kerman’s experiences, transforming itself into one of the most realistic stories of prison while addressing previously unexplored subjects such as lesbian relationships, prison reform and transgender people.

I sat down with three of the stars, Kate Mulgrew (Galina “Red” Reznikov), Taylor Schilling (Piper Chapman) and Dascha Polanco (Dayanara Diaz), to discuss their thoughts and experiences throughout the last 5 years.

Let’s take a look back to the beginning of the show, of which you were all a part. Taylor, tell me about developing your character of Piper.

Schilling: It’s been really beautiful. Piper Kerman, who the book is based on, was at the beginning of the show [and] we spent a great deal of time together. ... I just talked to Piper and did prison research, because when Piper went in, she had no idea about prison ... but as the second season rolled around, I did go to the women’s camp at Rikers (Island prison) a couple times with Piper.

In playing each of your roles, how have your characters changed or developed, and what part of yourself do you bring to these women?

Mulgrew: It’s been my personal philosophy, in television especially, ... when you’re cast in a big role for a television series, they’re looking at your personality. ... So the case of Galina Reznikov, strength, forbearance, fortitude, toughness and edge, all the things I could immediately bring to bear on the audition in front of that camera is what won me the role.

And then with the disintegration of the character or ... the reduction of the character, there have been added complexities and nuances I’ve loved playing because in that reduction is the humanity of the character, threatened, and I have loved that probably more than the beginning.

Polanco: Dayanara had something naive about her, but she’s obviously a victim of her vicious circle. It’s what she’s used to. At first, I found myself judging her for her choices, and that eventually stopped when I realized that we could all be in that situation. It takes one quick situation, circumstance, or ...

Mulgrew: Slip on a banana.

Polanco: ... to be there. So, throughout the time, I’ve learned that she’s been vulnerable, but I’ve also learned that she’s a survivor with everything that she’s been put through. In Season 6, you see a dramatic change. I see that this comes from not being mentally healthy.

I sensed that there was a postpartum [issue] or giving up a child, giving birth, these are all things that you’re not prepared to experience when you’re incarcerated. ... Some say this is all she knows, but I don’t think so. .... So everything that she’s reacting to is not a choice that she would want to make; it’s what she’s forced to do.

Schilling: I think in the work that I do, it’s really important to feel a very strong allegiance to the character. I have a great fidelity with Piper. .... I feel very fiercely loyal to her as an actor, and I think that that’s really served me in playing the kind of twists and turns and just the changes that she’s gone through. That’s just sort of digging for her humanity.

Mulgrew: You know, it’s the first thing we learn in the conservatory training. You have to fight for your character because nobody else is going to do it. Often standing up to the creator herself because we know them so thoroughly, and it becomes an independent thing.

Schilling: And I think that that fight over the past seven years, that fight for her and that desire to keep going for her humanity has been the greatest gift that I’ve given the character.

How has playing these roles changed your perspective regarding our prison system, if at all?

Polanco: It has educated me a lot [about] the prison system, prison reform, all the aspects that I never knew about jails ... it’s [also] been able to bring to light a lot of knowledge to the masses, so they’re able to have more compassion and not just look at them as criminals, but say these are people. These are humans who are in a different situation and should be set up to succeed, not set up to fail.

Mulgrew: Notwithstanding the confinement itself, which is harrowing, I think it’s an exquisite kind of loneliness and sadness that imprisonment evokes. But on the outside, a Galina Reznikov would never know, so in charge was she of her life. ... In the confines of this monochromatic prison, she is starved so she has to cull from this group who will love her, who in return she will not. It’s a desperate situation.

Schilling: Piper [Kerman] is the leading advocate for prison reform in the country given her experience and the way that she’s morphed it into a platform for change. It’s a problem that’s deeply banked in our society as it is right now ... The prison system has been broken since our country’s inception in the way that this country was built on the backs of stolen people.

Do you feel the show has helped in bringing an understanding to LGBTQ issues?

Mulgrew: I love this subject about our series. You take a character, a lesbian like Boo... and you give her a storyline with Pennsatucky wherein she is her protector. She is the champion. She is teaching that hillbilly how to think, how to feel, how to be a woman for the first time.

And Jenji (Kohan, writer) does that with a straight, white, hillbilly woman and a diesel dike. Who would put it together? And what it says is we have to get to each other. All of these taboos have to be dispelled. That’s the essential beauty of it.

I only have time for one more question, so this goes to Kate. You had an extraordinary start to your career, leaving home — Dubuque, Iowa — and heading to New York City at the age of 17. Looking back, are you amazed at doing this at such a young age?

Mulgrew: I look back and think that’s exactly what was meant to happen. I was sort of shot into the world. And I also look back now and it takes my breath away that it’s over. How could four decades go? Where did they go? All of the tragedies and all of the triumphs, all that I have learned and all that I have failed to learn and now it’s “Poof!” Vaporized. I was telling her (Taylor) last night, I want this last chapter to be absolute gold because it goes like the wind.

Polanco: I think every stage of your life as a woman is just difficult. It’s not set up for you to be able to have these conversations and embrace aging and embrace being a mother. So right now, when I reflect and look back, I’m like ! My twenties! I was, like, worried about so much ... setting up my future, and I was not in the moment.

Mulgrew: That’s a problem, isn’t it? I think women suffer from this much more than men. What’s up, what’s going on, protecting this person, get on this. ...in the meantime, gone. Gone! Couldn’t you weep? We’re never still.

You can catch Season 6 of “Orange Is the New Black” on Netflix to stream instantly.

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