‘Orange Is the New Black’ Star Taylor Schilling on Her Path to Prison
The star of Netflix’s ‘Orange Is the New Black’ tells Marlow Stern about her bumpy road to TV stardom.
Taylor Schilling, the star of Netflix’s critically acclaimed prison dramedy Orange Is the New Black, has had her share of bad luck.
Before landing the role of Piper Chapman, a former Connecticut debutante who finds herself dodging toothbrush shanks and pools of urine during a 15-month stint at a women’s federal prison in Litchfield, N.Y., Schilling was just another aspiring actor. With a twist: after graduating from Fordham University in 2006, she booked what any aspiring actor would consider a dream job—a part opposite screen legend Meryl Streep.
“I was so excited,” she says. “I threw my graduation cap in the air and was like, ‘Woo! I’m going to Utah to shoot a movie with Meryl Streep!’”
The film, Dark Matter, centers on a Chinese prodigy enrolled in an American university who, after failing to graduate, shoots up the school. Since distributors felt it too closely resembled the Virginia Tech massacre, the film was cast aside.
“My first job is the only Meryl Streep movie that was shelved,” says Schilling with a laugh.
Then Schilling landed the lead in the NBC medical drama Mercy, about nurses in a fictional Jersey City hospital. But the series was canceled after one season due to low ratings. The bad luck continued after she was cast as the lead in the Ayn Rand film adaptation Atlas Shrugged: Part I, which not only became a Tea Party vehicle but also was ripped to pieces by critics. Roger Ebert called it “the most anticlimactic non-event since Geraldo Rivera broke into Al Capone’s vault.”
“I thought maybe I’d never work again,” Schilling says of the film's poor reception. “And it’s this weird thing where you take jobs because you’re so young and new, and think, Will I even be able to pay my rent? I’m glad that’s not my modus operandi anymore.”
If that weren’t enough, she also appeared in the supporting role of Christine Mendez, the wife of Ben Affleck’s CIA exfiltration specialist Tony Mendez, in Argo. And, while the movie would go on to win the Best Picture Oscar, Schilling’s part was almost entirely cut.
“It’s also a funny story because there was a lot more in the script initially, but she had to fall by the wayside to keep the momentum of the story happening,” says Schilling. “Hopefully, she’ll live on in DVD extras.”
All the professional hardships make Schilling perfect for the role of Chapman, a WASP-y young woman struggling to negotiate the ins and outs of prison life in Jenji Kohan’s Orange Is the New Black. If you haven’t binged on the series yet—and you must, it really is fantastic—Chapman’s storybook romance with fiancé Larry (Jason Biggs) is disrupted when she’s busted for a crime she committed nearly a decade earlier.
“I love the idea of something coming back to haunt you once you’ve changed and you’re at a different place in your life, and that nothing is ever quite certain,” says Schilling. “I’m curious about how people act in really shitty moments and how they scramble to get back on their feet.”
The show is shot at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, N.Y., on the same soundstage as The Cosby Show and one floor down from Sesame Street. And Orange really is an ensemble, packed with a diverse array of intriguing characters. There’s Miss Claudette, a woman who ran an illegal immigration service for children; Yoga Jones, the resident yoga instructor who operated a marijuana farm; Sophia Burset, a transgender woman/ex-firefighter busted for credit-card fraud; BFFs Taystee and Poussey; and the list goes on.
According to Schilling, the cast gets along like gangbusters, and she describes filming as “one big party.”
“We all really get along,” she says. “It’s a lot of ladies on one stage, but everyone’s always talking, yelling, and laughing. There have actually been rap battles. And we’ve got some pretty good dancers too. My personal favorite is Lori Chinn [aka Chang], who can do these African tribal dances, which I think is kind of amazing.” She laughs. “I feel very white.”
Schilling grew up in Massachusetts and split her time between her divorced parents—Tish, an administrator at MIT, and Robert, a prosecutor-turned-criminal defense attorney. As a prosecutor, her father used to pay regular visits to Walpole State Prison, now Massachusetts Correctional Institution, and the family would discuss his prison visits at the dinner table.
“The DOC has always been in my lexicon,” she says. “When we were shooting, I sent him a picture of me in my prison uniform with DOC on the back, and he just laughed and laughed.”
Her adolescent years, she says, were “very difficult,” but she wouldn’t elaborate further.
“I definitely was motivated to get out from where I was, and I was motivated to change my life,” says Schilling. “I had a lot of energy behind me, because I didn’t want what I had. It didn’t work. There’s a great deal of motivation in a lack of options, and there was no other option for me.” She pauses. “I guess it’s just like Piper.”
Although she had very little desire to attend college, she says, she desperately wanted to move to New York, and she enrolled at Fordham University. There, she did a play called Top Girls, directed by Erica Schmidt—who’s married to the actor Peter Dinklage.
“Peter called agents for me, and people came to see me in that play, and I ended up getting an agent from it,” she says.
After graduating with a B.A. from Fordham, she filmed Dark Matter and then received a fellowship to study acting at New York University. But following her second year, she says she “got antsy” and was ready to move on from classrooms and into audition rooms.
So she left grad school and moved into a cramped apartment in the “hipster Disneyland” of Brooklyn that she describes as “like a prison.”
“I was living in Brooklyn with three roommates and we got bed bugs, and it was fucking terrible,” she says with a chuckle. “My musician-roommate was always playing Lou Reed really, really loud, and I lived right on North 5th and Bedford, right above a restaurant and under this blinking light, so I could never sleep.”
When she wasn’t auditioning and fending off bed bugs, Schilling paid the bills doing “hardcore nannying” in New York City.
“So many stories, so many crazy kids,” she says, laughing. “I had a little kid that I’d pick up from school, and he’d get really upset and lie rigid on the sidewalk. He was just big enough that I couldn’t really wrangle him, so it was a horrible situation. He’d just be lying on the ground, stiff as a board, screaming.”
It wasn’t until late 2011, when Orange Is the New Black got picked up by Netflix and she was cast in a lead role opposite Zac Efron in the adaptation of Nicholas Sparks’s The Lucky One that Schilling moved out of her crummy Brooklyn digs.
Orange Is the New Black begins filming its second season this week, and Schilling says she couldn’t be more excited about where the show—and her career—is going.
“Piper is adapting to prison life very quickly, and all bets are off,” she says. “And when I look at where I’ve come from, I just could not be more proud of the show and what we’re doing.”