Netflix kicked off its big year of original programming with “House of Cards,” a political drama that brought in the major movie talents of Kevin Spacey and David Fincher as a show of seriousness. But the streaming service’s newest series (and by our vote its best to date) comes from a writer and producer whose first love has always been the small screen. Jenji Kohan has television in her blood — her father Buz is an Emmy-winner who’s written for everything from the Academy Awards to “The Carol Burnett Show” and her brother David co-created and produced “Will & Grace.” After working as a writer and producer on “Tracey Takes On…” and “Gilmore Girls,” Kohan created “Weeds,” Showtime’s lauded dramedy about a suburban housewife named Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) who takes up marijuana dealing to support her family after her husband passes away.
Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), the protagonist of Kohan’s new Netflix series “Orange is the New Black,” premiering July 11th at 12:01am PT, has also dabbled on the wrong side of the law, though by the time we catch up with her, she’s merely paying for it with a 15-month stint in women’s prison. The series, based on a memoir by Piper Kerman, is funny, outrageous and surprisingly touching, and features a terrifically diverse ensemble cast that includes Kate Mulgrew, Natasha Lyonne, Michelle Hurst and Laura Prepon as fellow inmates and Jason Biggs as Piper’s fiance. Indiewire caught up with Kohan by phone to talk about the series, flawed protagonists and whether performers still have hangups about working on the small screen.
I wanted to start by asking about your thoughts on likability. “Weeds” presented what was for a while the lone female antihero in a world of Tony Sopranos and Walter Whites. Piper isn’t a drug dealer, but she’s certainly a flawed character as well. Do you feel there are fears about or a reluctance attached to having a female character who doesn’t always act nice in a way that we don’t seem to have with male protagonists?
I love flawed characters, male or female, and I only want to talk about flawed characters, really, in what I do. I think likability is bullshit — we are complicated beings, sometimes we’re likable and sometimes we’re not… and sometimes we fuck up radically. I want to live in that gray area, I never want to sit in the black or the white — I would get bored and I don’t think it reflects reality. Women are flawed, and people are flawed, and why not talk about that?
What I do love about Piper and what I loved about Nancy was that, yeah, they screwed up all the time and they were damaged, but they were trying to do what they thought was the right thing in the moment. No one’s willfully fucking up unless they’re a sociopath which, you know, we might have a few them present. [laughs] We’re all trying, and we’re all failing, and then we’re trying again, and I think that’s compelling and something I really identify with.
Nancy and Piper are both characters from comfortable upbringings who are brought into this world of crime… What’s interesting about that idea to you as a storyteller?
There’s this whole story about how America is a melting pot, blah, blah, but it’s bullshit — it’s a mosaic. We all live in our little pieces up against each other, and I’m always looking for those places where you can lead into other groups and get a glimpse into these things. That’s what excites me, when you get out of your comfort zone and can experience other people that you ordinarily wouldn’t, and share these experiences and reactions in your own way.
Also, you know, Piper’s a gateway drug. I don’t think I could have sold a show about black and Latina and old women in prison, you know? But if I had the girl next door coming in as my fish out of water, I can draw a certain audience in through her that can identify with her, and then I can tell all of these stories once she’s in, once we’ve signed onto this journey. She’s just a great entry point for a lot of people.
And through her the show also becomes this examination of privilege from the perspective of someone who’s never thought about coming from privilege all that much.
Sure — and there are a lot of ways to sound pretentious. [laughs] We are stuck in our cycles of privilege and poverty, but we can’t talk about it; there are classes and there are oppressions and there is racism… There are a lot of people trying to deal with it, and I’m trying to deal with it too.
Piper’s a professional high-end soapmaker from Brooklyn, and there’s a certain degree of schadenfreude in the beginning of the show in watching her deal with rough prison life. How do you balance out those moments, which are really entertaining, with not just punishing this character?
In the beginning it’s the yuppie’s idea of prison, but it leads to something I think is interesting, which is the personas we adopt when we need to, how we conform to our environment and adapt to different situations. Why I also love the flashbacks is — we’re different people in different situations, and we get to see this full picture of people because sometimes they’re showing one face and sometimes they’re showing another, and the audience gets to see both.
I think to some extent we’re all guilty of that; we all play these roles and have a Zelig-like ability to conform to our surroundings. Piper has to adapt, she has to figure shit out, and it’ll be hard for her in the beginning but that’s part of the journey.
You mentioned the flashbacks, and they’re an essential part of the structure of the episodes. Netflix has offered this freedom from the traditional boundaries of TV and the originals have all played with that in different ways so far. How did it affect how you wanted to structure “Orange is the New Black”?
Truthfully, it came out of not wanting to spend 24/7 in the prison, as someone who was spending her days writing this stuff and living this stuff. I found it so oppressive to be trapped in there. I didn’t want to live my life that way. This is the creative team’s way of getting blue skies, of getting some real life, of getting a breather from those walls and those bars. And, as I said before, a way to add more dimension to all of these characters. They’re not just who they are in prison. They have lives outside, and they behave differently in those lives.
Was the idea always to start exploring the other characters and their backstories as well?
How much of that was in the book vs. how much ended up getting built out in the show?
The book was really a launching point. I loved the beginning and the characters that Piper talked about — the real Piper. But the book was relatively conflict-free, you know: “I went to prison and I was scared but then I met all these really interesting people and I had this experience and then I went home and married my fiance.” You start with that but then it becomes its own animal — we departed from the book pretty quickly. And I think to a certain extent, it’s a relief for the real Piper — you’d have to ask her — you don’t want to see your real life reflected back at you. At a certain point, this character is not her. She becomes her own person and we start telling her story, and all these other stories that aren’t necessarily in the book. The show takes on a life of its own.
How much did you keep in mind the possibility of audiences binge-watching when making the show?
This first season, not enough, maybe. I rolled up my sleeves and it was time to make the donuts and this is how I make TV. As we went along, I realized I should go back and tweak things. If we have a season two [Ed. note: which has since been greenlit], I would certainly plot a little differently and plant more seeds and give some more Easter eggs because if people are watching it at once they’re not going to forget necessarily what happens or they can go back. For the most part this season, I just kept my head down and did the work and didn’t think about the larger context of how it was presented. I’d like to think about that a little more maybe.
What’s the possibility of more seasons with this story? It does seems to have an obvious end point.
Oh, I can spread this shit out for years. Season one, we looked at it after, and it was really like three months when we counted real time. So I could keep this shit going. We could slow down. There are no rules. It’s Netflix. I could do a whole season in a week if I wanted, not that I necessarily would, but that’s the joy of this.
As you mentioned before, this is a series about characters you don’t get to see on the small screen that often. Can you tell me a bit about the casting process and if there’s any find you were really happy to be able to put on TV?
Oh my God, there are so many finds. You have these incredibly deep pools of actresses who never get to flex, who are always in auxiliary roles or playing the criminal on “NCIS.” You have these pools of Latina actresses and black actresses and older actresses that are untapped and they run deep and we just found incredible talent. All you want to do is write for these women because they’re great and it’s like, “Where have you been?” And they’ve been here, there just wasn’t the opportunity.
In terms of our leads, Taylor was perfect because she is that shiksa cool blonde girl next door All-American thing but she’s actually a hot girl who can play comedy — which is incredible. She was so much more complicated. That was a gift. I have to think shows have a certain destiny and they attract who they need when it’s supposed to be, and that’s happening here. We got the people who were supposed to be here, and boy, they rose to the occasion.
Natasha Lyonne’s hilarious — I’m happy to see her on screen again.
She’s a fucking genius and endlessly fascinating. I love watching her. I love writing for her. I just… respect.
How much did you think about prison cliches in film and TV? Part of the series seems to be about challenging them, setting up a scenario where you think you know what’s going to go down and then not going there at all.
You definitely want to subvert the paradigm, but also you want to give a nod to them because… well, I open on showers. That’s my homage. There’s got to be a shower scene. It’s a prison. It’s women in prison. But yeah, you don’t want to write a cliche. You don’t want to write stereotypes. You want to write people. I think we hopefully avoid some of the cliches because we’re so invested in characters as individuals and telling their story instead of just picking a trope and following it. And sometimes stereotypes are true, and sometimes cliches are there because they’re there. There’s only a certain number of experiences in prison. There’s an endless number of people and stories, but prison is prison. There’s the bars and the walls and the beds and the showers, and you have to address some of that.
Having done ‘Weeds’ and now “Orange is the New Black,” what are your thoughts in terms of how television is changing? We have all this talk about the “golden age of TV” and how it’s rivaling film — do you feel that’s fair?
I do. I do. I do. First of all, I think this is the new frontier. I have three kids. They watch, but they don’t watch television. They watch what they want when they want, and they cherry pick, and they binge. That’s the future. I think there’s something incredible happening in television now because it’s a medium where the writer is king, which is lovely. I think [studio] film has become a product by committee governed by fear. It’s just not as interesting. I love the small screen.
It seems like whatever hesitation there used to be in terms of filmmakers or acting talent coming over to TV, that’s faded.
It’s not entirely gone. For a lot of people film is still the dream — the captive audience in the darkened theater — but I love TV. I think it’s fantastic. I think people would be foolish to dismiss opportunities in television because it’s not the movies, particularly actors. I don’t necessarily need film directors coming in because they’re too slow. But I would love to see performers embrace television as equal to film because the material available to performers in TV is phenomenal and I hope really talented people take advantage of that.