Lorna Morello, like all of Litchfield’s prisoners, is relentless.
But while the majority of the complicated, progressive, and spellbinding women that have turned Netflix’s prison dramedy Orange Is the New Black into a binge-worthy phenomenon are relentless about getting out, relentless about getting revenge, or relentless about merely surviving, Morello—the first prisoner we meet in Season One of the series—is a sunny breath of fresh air. She’s relentlessly hopeful.
“It’s important to meet somebody friendly early on, because there’s so much intimidation,” says Yael Stone, the actress now in her third season of portraying the fan favorite inmate, known for her signature contraband red lipstick and indiscernibly musical Northeast accent.
“It’s one of [OITNB creator] Jenji Kohan’s great tricks,” she goes on. “‘Here’s this super sweet character. Oh, she’s talking about her wedding! Oh, she’s super easy to relate to!’ And suddenly you realize she’s only being nice to Piper [played by Taylor Schilling] because she’s white. And it’s not racist. It’s tribal. What does that mean?”
We’re at an oyster bar close enough to Orange Is the New Black’s Astoria set that Stone instinctively gestures at the building when she talks about the show. Just as precocious and charming as her jumpsuited counterpart—but far more worldly and astute—Stone enthusiastically plunges into the depths of her OITNB character.
“It’s always interesting that people who are the happiest and shiniest and most positive, sometimes all that belies a darker truth,” Stone says of Morello.
Such is what may be the broadest moral, or maybe even mission, of Orange Is the New Black: There is more to people than what’s on the surface.
It’s true of Morello, a character who has seen her perpetual shine tarnish as she’s developed into one of Litchfield’s most complex and tortured prisoners. And it’s true of Yael Stone, a seasoned Australian theater actress who swung big at her OITNB audition with a wacky accent and is now a SAG-winning standout of the most talented acting ensemble on TV.
When we meet Morello, she’s veritably immune to the darkness of prison life as she obsessively plans her wedding to her beloved Christopher—or, in her endearingly New Yawk by way of Bahstin by way of pure imagination accent, “Christahfuhr.”
In a Season Two episode focused on Morello’s “backstory,” we learn that the engagement is a farce. Christopher is a guy she flirted with once at a post office (where she was picking up designer shoes as part of a return-fraud scam) and whom she stalks to unsettling levels (death threats and homemade bombs are involved) from then on.
“I think delusion is a really big part of her world,” Stone says. “I actually think Lorna is kind of sick. And so deeply uninspired in her real life that it might suffocate her if she had to live it.”
The solution: invent a Prince Charming, and desperately cling to the fairy tale as reality, waiting for the happily ever after.
“She’s doing her hair and makeup every day,” Stone says. “I can barely manage to get nail polish on my hands for an interview, and she’s putting on her face in prison. Something’s not quite right. She’s putting this man up as a touchstone that everything’s going to be OK.”
Stone became a series regular on OITNB for its now-airing third season, a major promotion after being originally hired on episode-by-episode contracts for the show, and had arrived in New York City just four months before her Netflix audition—originally, she vied for Nicky Nichols, the role that would go to Natasha Lyonne.
She grew up in Sydney as one of a highly creative trio of siblings—her sister currently tours with the Backstreet Boys and her brother is a judge in the Eurovision contest. After graduating from Sydney’s National Institute of Dramatic Art, she spent seven years working steadily for all of the major theater companies in the city.
(Stone, it must be said, has insane theater chops. She’s shaved her head for a two-hander with Geoffrey Rush, has portrayed the monster in Frankenstein, and most recently played the lead in a reinterpretation of the musical Tommy—a production that’s in talks to be revived at the new St. Ann’s Warehouse.)
A move across the globe, she says, came from wanting a change of pace, and new challenges. She arrived in 2013 with a three-year plan, which would’ve ended with her moving back to Sydney had she not booked OITNB.
“I’m the first one to tell you that I was not doing well, not getting many callbacks,” she says of those first months in New York. “I don’t slot easily into many roles. I’m short. I’m not very pretty. I don’t look great in a bikini. It’s not easy to categorize. I have an intensity and a vague neurosis that means I’m not the girl next door. So the roles that come to me are few and far between, but they’re very cool.”
She auditioned for OITNB the day after getting married at City Hall. While waiting for her turn to audition, she never spoke, worried that her native Australian accent would somehow throw the casting directors off when she finally launched into the more whimsical American accent she concocted for Morello.
The accent is a subject of much obsession among OITNB fans. Most still don’t realize that Stone is Australian. “I actually just went back to Australia and let me tell you, nobody knows,” she laughs.
The idea for Morello’s accent—which she refuses to pinpoint to one Northeast dialect—came from one phonetically spelled word in the sides she was given, “like a ‘ya’ instead of a ‘you,’” she says. She also took a cue from a note in the script that Morello was wearing makeup, which gave her a sense that the character was a little bit larger than life.
“Like, why would somebody make themselves up every day in prison?” she says. “At the lowest of the low, why are you making yourself up every day? Because maybe you’re putting on a little show. You take one idea that the writers give you, a gift, and tease it out.”
Still, she admits, the accent could’ve been a total disaster. “It was a bold choice, I do know that,” she says. “I make terrible mistakes in acting all the time, because I make bold choices and often they’re wrong. But that’s how I work.”
She, it becomes very clear over the course of our conversation, works with a level of intelligence and commitment not just to her show, but to her show’s cause.
We begin talking about an event for the Women’s Prison Initiative she had recently attended, where a former prisoner’s story about how she ended up behind bars and her struggle to acclimate to life again when she was released particularly moved her. Several times, she casually and confidently drops statistics illuminating the startling state of the American prison system. She also, as it happens, is working with the Liberation Prison Yoga program to teach yoga to inmates.
More than that, though, she recognizes the power of OITNB to humanize an entire population of women who are unfairly vilified or mistreated at the mercy of a convoluted justice system. There are critics who have accused OITNB, which often paints empathetic portraits of its characters, of heroizing criminals—something that Stone takes umbrage with.
“I don’t think we’re lionizing these women,” she says. “I think this is a conversation we need to have.”
It’s not putting criminals on a pedestal. It’s creating empathy.
“I think we feel deep compassion as human beings for those stories because we know it could’ve been us,” she says. “Given slightly different parenting. Given a few more temptations. Given a few more challenges. Kate Mulgrew [who plays Red on the show] always says it’s the situation of them slipping on the banana peel.”
Being educated about prison reform and prisoners’ rights and working on behalf of the incarcerated community, then, is a necessary, logical, and welcome part of her job. “I feel a sense of responsibility,” she says matter-of-factly. “I’m doing interviews and talking about this stuff and if I just sat here talking about myself and my acting, we would be missing the point.”
Not that Stone isn’t giggly while talking about the more glamorous aspects of the show’s rise. She remembers, for example, the comparatively quaint Season One premiere of Orange Is the New Black at the Brooklyn Botanical Garden three years ago.
“It felt like Jenji’s bar mitzvah party,” she laughs. “We were all just like, ‘Yay, look, we made a show!’” The red carpet was tiny. “No one wanted to take photos of any of us. No one wanted a photo of this Uzo Aduba person, which is crazy to think now.”
And as we wrap up our happy hour conversation, Stone recalls her recent trip to London for the BAFTAs, where she was flown out to represent OITNB. She was about to step in front of the photographers on the red carpet when she noticed that the woman in front of her was a goddess: “Twelve feet tall. In black lace. Just the hottest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
The handler ushering her down the carpet then announced Stone and nudged her in front of the cameras. Not one photog turned their lenses from the gorgeous British starlet.
“They just ignored me,” she says. “I laughed. And took the humiliation deep into my heart. These are the moments I like to remember, because they’re much funnier than any glamorous moment. I take great joy in humiliation. Right when you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m so fancy. I got flown to London.’ And no one gives a shit.”