Entertainment

06.04.14

My Visit to the 'Orange Is the New Black' Prison

I went to the set of Litchfield Prison and witnessed the magic behind Orange Is the New Black's incredible pop-culture rise. Spoiler alert: it was the best day ever.

The girls are having a sleepover.

Don’t be fooled. There are no pillow fights or makeovers or games of Truth or Dare—though a little girl-on-girl experimentation isn’t entirely off the table. There’s been a weather-induced blackout at Litchfield Prison, and that means the inmates—Piper, Taystee, Red, Crazy Eyes, Black Cindy—have all been forced to evacuate their dorms for security reasons and bunk together in the facility’s cafeteria and common room.

It’s the tail end of filming for the second season of Orange Is the New Black, and turf wars are coming to a head…among sleeping bags. Give credit to Netflix’s out-of-left-field breakout hit: Not many TV series could turn the idea of a veritable slumber party into a hotbed of dramatic tension.

But that’s the secret sauce that makes OITNB so delectable and addicting. (There’s seriously no quick, fun way to refer to this blasted show in shorthand besides that wonky acronym.) It’s as silly as it is audacious, as refreshing as it is boldly repugnant, and as quirky as it is dramatically adventurous. If you watched a second of the show’s first season—and if you watched a second, there’s no way you didn’t watch the whole darned thing, and probably in one binge sitting—then you know why the idea of these characters confined together for a night is ripe for must-see-TV.

Now, this is a sleepover, and in the grand tradition of such gatherings, someone somewhere is going to be left out, sad, and jealous. Not to rub it in your faces, folks, but that person is you, all of you, because I scored an invite to the slumber party, and—nanny nanny poo-poo—it was one of the best days of my TV-loving life.

I went to Litchfield Prison, and I got to see the magic behind OITNB’s incredible pop-culture rise.

Few words describe the show, which finally unloads its second season on Netflix on June 6, and its sheer domination of the zeitgeist as well as “incredible.” When Netflix announced it was endeavoring into original program, all eyes were on the buzzy, star-studded soiree of political camp that was House of Cards and the revival of the cult favorite Arrested Development.

But then this scrappy little Orange Is the New Black show was released, a loose adaptation of Piper Kerman’s fish-out-of-water memoir about her time in a women’s prison, and stunned critics with its blend of whimsical characters, cutting dialogue, celebration of diversity and femininity, and sharp commentary on our judicial system. Viewers were less stunned than they were delighted, and OITNB eclipsed Kevin Spacey, Jason Bateman, and company to become Netflix’s biggest hit to date.

Because of Netflix’s equal parts pleasure and pain model—an entire season of a show is released at once for rapid consumption, and even more rapid withdrawal—fans of the show’s first season have been tortured with what seems like an life-sentence of waiting to find out what happened since we last saw Piper (Taylor Schilling) punching the godforsaken life out of Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) in the snow.

They’ve used that time to debate, almost incessantly, the show: Which character is the best? Which character’s storyline got the shaft? Why is the show so popular? Should it be so popular? Will it ever come back? Really, though...will it?

My day in prison—well, actually it’s Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, New York, where the show’s set is built—confirms that it is indeed coming back, and my screening of the upcoming season’s first six episodes confirms that they’re worth the wait. (Guys, they’re so worth the wait.) But chatting with the cast and watching the series filmed also gave some valuable insight into some of those larger questions, like why the show strikes such a nerve.

Mostly, though, it was just really damned fun.

***

A tour through the halls of Kaufman Studios’ Litchfield Prison set, for an OITNB fan, is akin to what I’d imagine a walkthrough of Buckingham Palace or the Taj Mahal would be like for someone whose cultural passions are more of the globe-trotting variety and less of the “I’m going to lay on my bed and watch 13 hours of a Netflix series on my laptop without moving” one. In other words, it is a religious experience.

I am a TV fan and this TV jail is my Mecca.

The Litchfield Prison set, first of all, is designed with all the functionality of a real prison, which is actually quite astounding to see. Unlike the three-walled sets of Hollywood soundstages, this is made for every nook and cranny to be filmed.

As such, being led through the set by production designer Michael Shaw is a journey best described as “claustrophobic jubilation.” There’s the attention to detail everywhere that sparks fun sense memory of the most memorable moments from Season One. But, like, it's also jail.

“Hairnets must be worn!” reads the sign hanging in the cafeteria kitchen where the infamous tampon sandwich was first served. The cafeteria marches right into the common room, where “Please do not place your feet on the wall” is plastered on a sign near where Taystee and Poussey did their brilliant riff mocking how white girls talk—one of the funniest moments from last year’s TV season—and where, later, Yoga Jones confessed the crime that landed her jail—one of the year’s most heartbreaking moments.

Venture down the hall a bit to the dorms, and a crew member is cuddling one of the gray wool prison blankets—$5 apiece from Prison Supply—and taking a nap next to a hallowed fan locale: the floor on which Crazy Eyes peed.

But here’s the thing: While visiting all these spots is enough to make even the most casual OITNB fan (is there such a thing as a “casual” OITNB fan?) giddy, it’s also hard to shake the uncomfortable, at times even suffocating, feeling of being in a prison.

“Piper Kerman actually came in and was freaked out,” Shaw says, when asked how realistic the production design is. “She said, ‘This is making me really upset,’ which was the best compliment. Everyone feels incarcerated here being here day after day. The crew’s like, ‘I need to go outside!’”

That belies the genius, though, of Orange Is the New Black, a series irreverent and outlandish enough to delight fans with arcs about tampon sandwiches and floor piss, but also gritty and authentic enough to really say something about incarceration, the judicial system, and how women relate to each other.

While visiting all these spots is enough to make even the most casual OITNB fan (is there such a thing as a “casual” OITNB fan?) giddy, it’s also hard to shake the uncomfortable, at times even suffocating, feeling of being in a prison.

“I was at a Motown event and there was a gentleman who had been incarcerated for 24 months who was a fan of the show and he was talking about how real he felt it was and how relatable he found it to be to his experience in a men’s prison,” Uzo Aduba, the genius actress who plays Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren, tells me in between takes. “And he couldn’t believe that the female prisoners were acting in the same way. It’s incredible.”

Count Aduba among the cast’s many, many breakout actresses. She gives a misunderstood character like Crazy Eyes surprising amounts of humanity, so that as she travels precariously close to the edge of instability, she keeps her on solid ground and, most importantly, endearing.

“I call her Suzanne,” Aduba, who was just nominated for a Critics Choice Award and is a front-runner to snag a Guest Actress Emmy nod for her performance, says about her character, hinting at the approach that brings such depth to OITNB’s quirky delight.

“The idea of me calling her by the name that reflects how outsiders perceive her versus how she really is—I can’t fix my mouth to do it,” she says. “I feel like I’m disrespecting a person I know very well to be more than just that one thing. It would be like talking really horribly about a really good friend of mine.”

There’s good news coming for fans of Aduba’s performance, too. Crazy Eyes gets a “backstory” early on in Season Two, one of those amazing character and acting showcases OITNB has become known for that tell through flashbacks how an inmate arrived at Litchfield.

Suzanne’s backstory gives more insight to what’s going on behind those Crazy Eyes, though Aduba’s had a sense of that from Day One on OITNB. “The first script had this line, ‘She's innocent like a child, except children aren’t scary,’” says Aduba. “That said everything about who she is.”

On the subject of how OITNB favorites earned their crazy nicknames, the origin of “Taystee,” the nickname for Danielle Brooks’s gregarious ray of sunshine Tasha Jefferson, is also revealed in an early Season Two episode. We interrupted Brooks’s impromptu dance session to the latest Beyoncé song with Laverne Cox, who plays Sophia Burset on the show, to ask her what she thinks of her character’s name, now that we’re getting a better sense of where it comes from.

“It’s who she is,” Brooks says. “It’s her, period. And it’s beautiful.” Then, after one of those light-up-the-room laughs that infected a legion of OITNB viewers with an addiction to all things Taystee: “But after, if you find more about where it comes from, I don’t know if you’ll agree with me if it’s beautiful or not.”

“Beautiful” is a word that's used often, actually, when talking about Orange Is the New Black. Not because the show looks beautiful—a walk through a dingy-looking, pinkish-beige door I’m told is painted a color called “Sad Band-Aid” confirms that. (Also, that’s a fantastic paint-color name.) It’s because the show’s existence is, in many ways, beautiful.

The series is heralded as a showcase for diversity: of race, size, sexuality, and just about every facet of what it means to be a woman. If there’s one tale as old as a time in Hollywood, it’s the one about how the industry treats women, specifically women who aren’t young, thin, and blond. And that tale doesn’t have a happily ever after. At least, it didn’t have one until now. And that happily ever after is Orange Is the New Black.

Critics of OITNB—though they’re not a very large group—argue that too much stock is put into the celebration over its diversity, to the point that it maybe clouds objective judgment of the show’s quality. That’s a valid concern, but it shouldn’t downplay the radical nature of the message it’s sending the industry, about how it could be time for a series that features leads of different shapes, sizes, and colors to no longer be “bold” and “radical” and “adventurous,” but the norm. The extent to which audiences are embracing it surely suggests that.

“Being surrounded by so many women of color who are different on one show, I think that definitely changes the dynamic and lets the world know that you don’t have to have just one black person on a show at a time,” Brooks says. “We have personalities. We don’t just come in one type and that’s it; we’re so many different shades, internally.”

Just look at her Beyoncé dancing partner, Laverne Cox, for more proof of the impact that OITNB isn’t just having on pop culture, but Culture, at large. (Need to attribute something to a TV show’s explosive popularity? Search no further than audiences’ feeling that they’re watching something “important.”)

Cox is a transgender actor, and her character on OITNB, Sophia, is a transgender as well. She’s confident and complicated and funny and heartbreaking and, more than all of that, an important symbol for the trans community. So important that Cox covered a recent issue of Time magazine, posing proudly besides the headline “The Transgender Tipping Point: America’s Next Civil Rights Frontier.” (As it happens, the cover was published mere weeks after Cox, for a brief time, topped the public poll for Time’s list of the 100 Most Influential People.)

“I’m not used to the attention that I get on the street being loving and being affirming,” Cox says, recounting a fan encounter she had on the train to the set that morning. “I’m used to it being negative, and I’m used to it being threatening.” The shift in tone, she says, is “beautiful”—there’s that word again—“but at the same time, I’m adjusting. It’s an adjustment.”

Cox, who was also recently nominated for a Critics Choice Award, was one of the actors gifted with one of those backstory episodes for her character in the show’s first season, which spotlighted, for the first time on an outlet this mainstream and popular, the struggles a trans person goes through when transitioning: the surgeries involved, the emotional and physical pain, the effect on a person’s family.

The positive reaction to Sophia? “I was bracing for the opposite,” Cox says. “I was honestly bracing for negative everything, based on my previous experiences. So I’m honestly surprised and happy and immensely grateful.”

***

Back at the sleepover, a new character, Vee, played by the formidable Lorraine Touissant, is plotting with her girls, Aduba’s Crazy Eyes and Adrienne C. Moore’s Black Cindy among them, about how to regain their status as the prison’s ruling faction. Things are getting dark and unsettling—Touissant is so good in this role—so, like any slumber party attendee who gets a little uneasy when the bedtime story gets too scary, I run to the bathroom.

Of course, I’m on the Orange Is the New Black set, so I’ll be damned if I’m not going to take a proper Instagram photo while I’m there. As you see, though, I might have broken a rule. I hope they don’t send me to the SHU.