NEW YORK — Entering the set of “Orange is the New Black” at Astoria Studios in Queens, New York, is reminiscent of main character Piper Chapman’s entrance into prison. First you enter the shower room – where the photo for the promotional poster for the series was taken, then you continue to the dining hall and then to a large space divided into prison cells. All around, wherever you look, women in khaki prison garb are sitting in pairs or groups, sipping coffee, laughing and chatting. Some are regular actors on the show and others are extras.
The entry is similar, but the experience is quite different. On the vast set, without the lighting highlighting or concealing different sections as needed, and without the camera that lends everything a different scale, the spaces in the studio appear smaller, dimmer and dustier. The large dining hall that holds the entire prison population on the show is a rather small room with just two tables – no more than that was needed for filming that day, at least. And of course, the atmosphere is different. It seems more like a summer camp filled with familiar and beloved faces, than a threatening and dangerous place.
Right as we enter, Taylor Schilling, who plays Chapman, passes by dressed in colorful athletic gear. She has finished shooting for the day and is about to bike home. The rest of the actors who came to film that day, late in September of last year, were very happy to be together. For some, it was the first time they had met. Jason Biggs, who plays Larry Bloom, says that since he plays Piper’s boyfriend, who’s not in jail, he hadn’t filmed scenes with most of the rest of the cast for the whole first season. There’s a friendly vibe as people meet, and some of the actors also take time to chat with a visitor to the set.
The Netflix series “Orange is the New Black,” returns for its second U.S. season on June 6, and just four days later, it will begin airing on HOT in Israel (On HOT 3, the 13 episodes will be aired one per day, and on HOT VOD all the episodes will be available at once). The show is loosely based on Piper Kerman’s memoir “Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison.” The events of the second season are quite far removed from the book. Created by Jenji Kohan (“Weeds”), most of the series is set in a women’s prison in the United States, with brief forays outside for the prisoners’ background stories. It centers on Piper, an upper-middle-class white woman sent to prison for a crime she committed 10 years earlier, when she smuggled money from a drug deal for her lover at the time (Laura Prepon of “That 70s Show). Before having to serve her 15-month sentence, she is living with her boyfriend (Biggs of the “American Pie” film franchise), a writer, in a trendy Brooklyn apartment. The world of crime, which she was never really a part of, is about as far from her as orange is from black.
The series was well-received, winning much critical praise in the United States and abroad. In Israel, it set a record for VOD downloads, with more than a million orders. Perhaps its success here can be ascribed to all the parallels with mandatory military service, which can sometimes feel like a prison sentence – the countdown until liberation, the strict routine, the separation from loved ones and one’s familiar world; or maybe it’s just due to all the nudity and the numerous sexual encounters among the women.
The series presents a universe that is practically devoid of men, and there is romantic love between women, although one character tells the newly arrived Piper that it’s not a given. “Orange is the New Black” manages to tell a complex story through multiple points of view. There is plenty of despair and hardship, but also plenty of humor, tension and drama, along with fascinating characters.
We are prohibited from disclosing anything about the scenes that were filmed on the day we visited the Astoria Studios set, located right near the wonderful Museum of the Moving Image. But conversations with cast members revealed certain details about the upcoming season, and much about the previous season, which can hardly be called spoilers, though that term tends to be interpreted very strictly. Keep that in mind before deciding to read further.
Let’s begin with the fact that prison guard John Bennett, as the promos for the second season indicate, is still in the picture. This means that the prison authorities are not aware that prisoner Daya’s pregnancy is the result of an illicit affair with Bennett. The plot by Daya’s mother Aleida (also an inmate) and another inmate to pin the blame on another prison guard appears to have succeeded so far. The fact that the actor who plays Bennett, Matt McGorry, is now shooting the new Shonda Rhimes (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal”) series “How to Get Away with Murder,” due to begin airing this fall, may offer a hint of his fate in prison. On the set, McGorry seems firmly entrenched as a prison guard. He has no idea what the future holds for his character, he says. “We are very much going on an episode to episode basis. We get the script about two weeks before start of filming and we don’t really find out much information until it’s presented to everyone. The fun and beautiful thing about TV is that the characters go on journeys over the seasons and get to change.
“I was actually surprised at how much our – Daya and Bennett’s – story stuck out,” McGorry said, suggesting that it may be due to the fact that it’s one of the only male-female relationships on the show, which is usually the main point of other shows.”
Do you have a favorite storyline that is not yours?
“I really enjoy watching Jason Biggs work because I was such a fan for a long time. The ‘American Pie’ movies came out when I was 12 – I was at camp and I remember the experience of seeing it and it being very much in the cultural lexicon of my age group. And in some ways he has somewhat a similar sense of humor to me – sometimes juvenile and sort of nervous.”
In the dining hall they’re filming a scene about Valentine’s Day. Outside the room, the director, assistant director and producer are sitting on tall chairs, with earphones on, watching the monitor and listening to the conversation between aging hippie inmate Yoga Jones (Constance Shulman) and Big Boo (Lea DeLaria), a hulking, somewhat masculine inmate who takes care of a dog inside the prison walls. As the scene is shot over and over, the assistant director leads me to the hall that’s divided into prison cells. This space is used for all the cells that are filmed in the series. On the side is a set of drawers holding all the wall pictures other items for each cell, which are placed and removed as needed — with the exception of the cell of the long-time inmates which remains unchanged.
The new season picks up just days or weeks after the conclusion of the events of the first season. Therefore, the pregnancy pillow under Daya’s uniform, which actress Dascha Polanco proudly shows off, won’t grow very much. Daya is in the Latina gang and is the only one serving time alongside her mother. In the first season, scenes from her background story show that her mom was not about to win any prize for Mother of the Year.
Daya doesn’t seem like a violent character, yet she’s in jail. Do you think that is something we will see in the future?
Dascha Polanco: “I hope so, so I can bring some of the other aspects of her personality. But we all have the good angel and the bad angel in us — a boiling point that we reach that results in something negative, in this case ending up in jail. Daya is her mother’s daughter – the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
“She will probably try to mend the mother-daughter relationship with her baby but she is likely to repeat her mother’s mistakes. There are also a lot of differences between Bennett and Daya – physical, race-wise, etc. Meanwhile, she escapes to her drawings – to her fantasy world. Her mean side will come out when that reality strikes that she’s a criminal, she’s in prison, and having this kid will not take her out of prison. That’s probably going to be the breaking point for Dayanara.”
The most famous actor on the show, at least up until it went on the air, is Jason Biggs, who plays Larry. New Jersey-native Biggs, 36, began his acting career at age five. “”My older sister was in a dance group in New Jersey and a lot of the girls started going into New York to try to get agents and managers and do commercials so when I was five I followed and I started doing commercials and voice-overs and then eventually television and theater.”
On this day on the set, he warmly greets one group of actresses after another. This is the first time he is meeting many of them. He’s in a terrific mood, and like most of the crew is quite generous with the time he devotes to speaking with a visitor. He jokes about himself and his family, and is also curious and asks questions.
Amid all the female criminals in the prison, it’s Larry, Piper’s boyfriend, whom viewers seem to have singled out as the bad guy. He’s clingy and annoying, and even though his living conditions are much better than Piper’s, he complains a lot and, worse, betrays her trust. Hatred for him reached peak intensity when he published a column in the New York Times about life with a girlfriend who’s doing time even though Piper expressly asked him not to do so (Piper may be having an affair with her former girlfriend but, to the audience, that’s a different story). Worst of all, he watched episodes of “Mad Men” without Piper, despite his promise to her that he wouldn’t.
Will we see much of Larry in the second season?
“We are not quite half way through filming and scripts are still being written but so far it looks like last season. Larry raises the stakes for Piper – he is on the outside, he is the relationship and when she hooks up with Alex (Laura Prepon) there is real tension. So that continues throughout this season. The way that I see it is that Piper and Larry really took advantage of each other and I wonder how long that can continue. I don’t have any current experience with that, I’m married and I’m faithful – for now – I’m kidding. But once they betray each other’s trust – she sleeps with Alex, and I do the radio thing – it’s not clear how much longer that can continue.”
Did you read the book “Orange is the New Black”? Did you meet the real Piper and Larry?
“Yes, I read it. When you meet the real Piper you see that she’s just a smart, regular woman that was adventurous and made some wrong choices. It’s a fascinating thing. I since had the pleasure of meeting the real Larry. I look somewhat like him – that Jewish, bookworm Brooklyn-type. There’s a resemblance.”
You get all these parts even though you’re not Jewish.
“I play Jewish almost exclusively. If it’s not said in the character description or in the script somewhere – it’s at least implied. I think my mom had an affair with a rabbi and I am the product of that and she hasn’t told me. If you meet my dad – he’s this short little Italian guy – 5’4” stocky Italian dude – I look nothing like him. It’s all very suspect. Plus my mom’s a slut. Just kidding, the rabbi is the slut.”