In Orange is the New Black – the new Netflix sensation that takes place in a women’s prison, Alysia Reiner’s character is incredibly callous. She plays Natalie “FIG” Figueroa, the tough assistant warden of the prison, who keeps a tight rein on everything that goes inside the prison.
It proves she’s a really good actress because she’s nothing like her character in real life. In a recent interview with Alysia in New York City, she said: “Fig is so the opposite of me. I am the girl who wants to change the world and help have GEDs and meditation classes in prison.”
Inspired by Piper Kerman’s memoir, Orange is the New Black is the story of a woman who ends up in a tough women’s prison in Litchfield, Connecticut having been implicated by an ex-girlfriend who worked for an international drug cartel. The show created by Jenji Kohan is loosely based on the book, taking themes and characters and fully fleshing them out. It should come as no surprise to anyone that Kohan is also the creator of Weeds, another female-inspired series.
The show looked so promising that Netflix picked up a second season before the first one even aired. Not only that, but the show is performing better than any other show Netflix has released including House of Cards and cult favorite Arrested Development. And it’s a show by a woman, about women.
Alysia says that appearing on the show has not only been huge for her career, but it’s impacted her professionally and personally.
On our show we have a crazy talented writers room with more women then men in the room, as well as awesome women directors, fabulous female producers and of course our mind blowing female ensemble cast.
Last week Netflix created history for the streaming video network after receiving 14 Emmy nominations. Alysia easily notes the differences to working for a Hollywood studio:
Having fallen for House of Cards, when the offer came in I was so excited. And clearly from the Emmy nominations, I am not the only one who felt that way. Netflix is a different level of creative freedom. The writers write more like a 13-hour movie. In the pitch process, Netflix hears the journey of the first season before the series is ordered. They read scripts, they see cuts, but we aren’t held to the same standards as broadcast or cable, or even technically a week-to-week schedule, so even the story structure is different. We have a lot more leeway in how you tell the story.
When she was called to audition for the show, it was initially for Alex, the former drug-dealing girlfriend of lead character Piper, but when Alysia was offered the role as Fig, she didn’t mind. She has spent her career creating the kinds of roles she wants and isn’t the type to sit around and wait around for the right part to come along. Despite recent research that there is a dearth of roles for women in Hollywood, Alysia feels more confident about women in Hollywood:
I am such a Pollyanna, and I hate it when people say ‘its so hard’ – even if its true, I always like to look at the bright side. Here is the bright side: There are incredible women doing extraordinary things right now. Women of every shape, size, age, color and demo. I am so incredibly inspired by people like Lena Dunham – who is writer, producer, director, actor and Emmy nominee. Do I get offered the kind of roles I want? Well, I have, I just did, hopefully will more; and in the meantime I can help create them. I am attached to an incredible script called Wonder Drug, about the DES drug disaster. It’s a female-based drama, and I am so proud to be a part of because hopefully it will help evoke change – not only in our industry, but in the battle again corruption in big pharma.
In the show, Kohan paints a vivid and subversive picture of female inmate’s lives behind bars. She gives them each a story and humanizes the prison experience in a real way. There are stories of women from all different ages and socio-economic backgrounds and it deals with complex issues, everything from rape to transgender to homosexuality to racism. About these stories and whether the show is a commentary of where women are in society, Alysia says:
I think it’s a show about the human condition & the prisons we all create. I just saw Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell and loved it – I so love her work – another female writer/director/actress. I have always loved the idea of the stories we tell personally, but it made me so aware of it artistically. The stories we tell ourselves, how they inform our choices and create our world. I think our show is about that too in a big way.
Reiner knows she’s very lucky to be a part of such a great cast and crew which includes Taylor Schilling, Natasha Lyonne, Laura Prepon, Jason Biggs and Kate Mulgrew and Jodie Foster and Andrew McCarthy directed episodes during the first season.
We have such a spectacular group of talent – starting of course with the incredible Jenji, the writers and producers, and the cast is amazing. Jenji is so warm and delightful, so incredibly humble, so incredibly loyal, you can’t believe the genius that comes out of her. Honestly, she gave us a lot of freedom. I feel like I made some big choices about Fig from the beginning and I think the team liked them (I sure hope so) because I was never directed to pull back or change. It’s also in the amazing writing. Our writers give us so many clues in the writing about how to play things.
If you haven’t checked out Orange is the New Black it is currently streaming on Netflix.