Five years since its game-changing debut, Orange Is The New Black remains one of Netflix's best-loved (and most-binged) original shows. Not only has it made stars of its talented female ensemble cast, it's also set the gold standard for on-screen representation, deftly exploring racial, sexual and gender identities in such a way that repeatedly has us asking why all TV shows don't look like OITNB...
As the fifth season arrives online (and after that season four cliffhanger), we caught up with actress and trans activist Laverne Cox, who plays Litchfield inmate Sophia Burset, to discuss the secret to the show's success...
The fourth season of Orange Is The New Black ended on a huge cliff-hanger. Did you have to wait to find out what happened, like the rest of us?
I had to wait like the rest of you! It was a year ago that we shot it, and about a year ago that we got the script. The second it came into my inbox I stopped everything to read because I was waiting with breath that was baited to find out what happens - it’s juicy, it’s intense! I love our show. This past year I’ve done so many different things: I’ve played a lawyer on CBS [in Doubt], I’ve just done a pilot for ABC and I was Dr Frankenfurter on Rocky Horror Picture Show, but when I come back to Orange, there’s just something about this show and this cast and this writing and our fans. Orange Is The New Black fans are really the best fans in the world, I believe that. They are so incredibly loyal and they hold us up in such a wonderful way – I’m just so grateful to be part of this project.
What's the secrecy like surrounding those scripts, with the show being so popular?
Every script that we receive has our name on in on every page, so that if it’s copied or whatever, we know who has let it get out. We’re popular now so we have to be very, very careful. It's very exciting to be a part of something that people want to know more about – it’s really wonderful and I’m really so grateful for this job.
This season, unlike previous ones, is set over just three days. How did that change things during filming? Did it make things more intense?
This season was just intense because the prisoners have taken over the prison: some people call it a riot, I call it a rebellion – an uprising! So that added a level of intensity to everything: every situation was heightened and the stakes felt higher than they ever have (and we’ve had some high stakes on our show…) I think what’s brilliant is that we managed to find the fun in the midst of all of that - that the characters can be in this space of grieving and mourning and anger and resistance, because they really are still mourning Poussey [Samira Wiley], but there can be spaces of humour within that. Only [series creator] Jenji Kohan could give us this humour in the face of that: the comedy and tragedy, the balance of that.
Sophia [Burset, Laverne's OITNB character] went through some horrible things in Season Four. How did your experience differ this time, and what is on the cards for Sophia?
I don't want to give too much away, but what's wonderful is that we get to see a different skill set from Sophia this season. To be honest, I got to a point where I was in the salon and I was like, "OK, I'm gonna do somebody else's hair again, that's great, but what else are we gonna do?" They've done such a great job, particularly the past couple of seasons, of really throwing stuff at me that I've never gotten to do as an actress - a different side of Sophia that the audience hasn't seen. This last season, we've seen a totally different Sophia: her wig has been taken away, she's lost weight, she's paranoid, having hallucinations... What I love about Sophia is that in the face of everything she is a fighter: she insists that even if she's going to go out of this world, she's going to go out fighting. I love getting to play a character like that. When I read the script, when [Sophia] set her cell on fire, I was like, "This is absolutely fantastic, this is badass, this is the kind of woman I want to be."
You've mentioned the show's balance between comedy and tragedy. Was there any scene or particular storyline that you've found particularly difficult to film so far?
You know, it's interesting because you just drop in and you do it, but I have to say a lot of the stuff in season three with Gloria, with Selenis Leyva, was really rough because I had to be really mean to her and I adore her. It was difficult too because as the actress, I knew that if Laverne could talk to Sophia, she'd say, "Get it together, this is not the way you should be handling this..." [Selenis] and I would talk to each other after we had these rough scenes; we'd text each other like "Are you OK?" and try and take care of each other. That was difficult because we know and love each other.
Is that camaraderie between the cast something that helps you get through the more difficult or challenging storylines?
At this point, we've been a family for five years. I love these wonderful actresses and their work, and I love seeing them blossom outside of the show too. I don't want to single anyone out but a few of my girls have just gone on and done such incredible things. Uzo [Aduba, who plays Suzanne 'Crazy Eyes' Warren] was just here in the West End last year doing The Maids, and Danielle [Brooks, who plays Taystee] was on Broadway with The Color Purple which was just so incredibly epic: she's a Grammy award winner and a Tony nominee. I just love seeing everyone flourish and blossom - it just warms my heart.
What do you think is the secret to the show's success?
It's a few things. When you do a television show or a film, there are so many things that have to go well for it to work. And if one thing goes off, then that can ruin everything. It starts with wonderful writing: it starts with Jenji Kohan and her ideas, and then what happens in that writers' room is crucial. We've had some wonderful directors over the years and our crew is incredible - the first few seasons, it was mostly a female crew. Jen Euston, our casting director, has cast incredible actors - we click and there's chemistry. It's all these elements that just come together; it's a little like magic, it's a bit like cooking.
Do you think this is the most political season of Orange Is The New Black yet?
I think we always dip in and out, being political and then being very irreverent at the same time. Jenji has said many times that she doesn't really have a political agenda - she wants to tell the human stories. Audre Lord told us many decades ago that the personal is political. We're delving into the humanity of these women in a system, the criminal justice system, that is corrupt. There's politics there, but I think that people respond because of the human beings and stories and characters that they connect with. Certainly [in season five] there's a resistance that's happening at Litchfield and there's a resistance with people in the United States that's happening against the current administration - those parallels are pretty obvious. I love being part of a show that is also very culturally and politically relevant. I think at the heart of it are human beings who are responding to a really unjust system. It warms my heart that people in real life are responding in protest to really unjust circumstances that are happening in America.
If you could describe this season in just three words, what would they be?
Danielle Brooks came up with this earlier and I will just steal what Danielle said. She said, 'Fight the power!'
Season five of Orange Is The New Black is available to stream on Netflix now