TORONTO — Taylor Schilling knew she was a part of something groundbreaking when women from all walks of life began thanking her for Orange is the New Black.
As fans binge-watch the newly released second season, and shooting begins on the third, Schilling says she’s blown away by the mass appeal of Netflix’s dark comedy about female inmates.
“One thing that I think storytelling can do is kind of identify that universal chord that runs through all of us, even though the externals may be different and our experiences may look different,” she said in an interview.
“We’re seeing reflections of ourselves in people that we thought were very different than us … and that’s ideally what storytelling can do.”
Schilling stars as Piper Chapman, at first glance a doe-eyed and guileless blond woman, who lands in the slammer several years after being a drug mule for her ex-girlfriend Alex Vause (That ’70s Show’s Laura Prepon).
Creator Jenji Kohan has said that Chapman is a “Trojan horse” — a familiar point of entry with her pretty face and privilege — to draw viewers into a women’s prison and meet diverse female characters unlike anyone they’ve seen on TV.
Among those characters is Suzanne Warren, better known as Crazy Eyes, played by Uzo Aduba.
While she is first introduced as part comic relief, part villain — urinating next to Piper’s bed after she refuses to be her “prison wife” — Crazy Eyes has become a complex, tragic character, driven by a childlike desperation to fit in.
Aduba, who with a chic haircut and in a fitted dress looks shockingly different from her wild-eyed character, joined Schilling for a round of interviews Monday.
She said working on the show with so many talented actresses has been a “life-changing experience.”
“It’s unbelievable. It’s impressive to me to see how deep the bench goes, if that makes sense. There are just so many women and a lot of them that I’ve never met before or seen before have such an offering of talent,” she said.
“I watch in awe. I just watch them, playing a scene, and ‘Wow, Taylor was just constantly open. She can stay open and that’s amazing.’ Or Danielle (Brooks, who plays Taystee) reads jokes that land really well.”
Chapman, meanwhile, has also transformed since the early episodes of the show — from a terrified new prisoner to a self-described “lone wolf,” someone who casually threatens to rip another inmate’s throat out.
The show raises the question of whether prison changes people or forces them to confront who they really are.
When her father says he can’t visit his “little girl” in prison because that’s not who she is, Chapman snarls, “That’s exactly who I am.”
While far from a villainous character, Chapman has discovered that she is capable of a savagery she never dreamed possible. Schilling said Piper is learning how to become honest with herself, but it’s a painful process.
“I don’t think it’s ever a linear process finding yourself or finding your truth,” she said.
“But I think she’s on that path. She’s on that path and sometimes kicking and screaming, ‘What is real and what is me being honest? What is me being really me?”’
Chapman moves more into the periphery of the show in the second season as other inmates’ back stories are explored in flashbacks.
In the third episode, it’s revealed that Crazy Eyes was raised by adoptive white parents who pushed her to conform.
Aduba said she knew nothing of her character Suzanne’s family life, apart from the fact that she had white parents, before reading the episode’s script.
“It just started to breed the question for me of nature versus nurture and how if someone’s hyper-sensitivity or hyper-activity isn’t supported or nurtured in a different way, how it might end up helping to unravel someone,” she said.
“She’s never fit in and all she’s ever wanted was to belong. Every kid wants to blend in. Nobody wants to stand out for anything. She did already stand out … so it helped to explain a lot of her need to cling to people and get their validation.”
While filming of the third season has begun, fans will have to wait for new details. Aduba and Schilling said it’s too early in the filming schedule to tease any upcoming episodes.
“We don’t know anything,” said Schilling apologetically. “I can’t even make a joke, I know so little.”