When Orange is The New Black launched in 2013, the now-familiar concept of “binge-watching” was still new. The thirteen episodes that made up the show’s first season were delivered to Netflix subscribers at once and it immediately became a phenomenon. Earlier that year, the streaming service had premiered an American version of the U.K. political drama House of Cards in a similar fashion, but OITNB was still a creative gamble for the service. The bet paid off: according to Nielsen data, the show was one of Netflix’s top 10 most watched shows last year, making it only one of two Netflix Originals on that list. Now after seven successful seasons helmed by creator Jenji Kohan, the show delivered its final season, on July 26, and is bidding farewell to its loyal following.
Based on Piper Kerman’s 2010 memoir on her year-long stay in a women’s prison, the show was a platform for untested and diverse talent. Three of those stars who found solid career footing after the show are Danielle Brooks, who plays the natural born leader Taystee, Uzo Aduba, whose portrayal of Suzanne aka “Crazy Eyes” netted her two Emmy awards, and Adrienne C. Moore, whose character Cindy converted to Judaism behind bars. Those three actors got on the phone with WSJ. to trace their memories about the show’s beginnings.
WSJ.: What from the first scripts or auditions made you want to do the series?
Danielle Brooks: Because it was a check. [Laughs.]
I think the thing to be noted here is that when I first got the audition, I didn’t have the script… I was going off of good faith, hoping that the show would be decent enough for me to do this start off my career. At the time, I almost didn’t take the job because I was nervous about playing an inmate, playing a stereotype.
It really was the fact that, you know, I needed to eat. And I needed transportation, and I needed to take care of myself have a start somewhere. As you know, the show was considered a web series in the beginning. So we had no idea what this was going to be. But what did seal the deal for me is when I did go into my audition and the casting director, Jennifer Euston, said, “Taystee isn’t mean or malicious in any way. She really is the joy of this place and she finds joy in her hardship.” I already wanted to go that direction with the character to get out of this stereotype.
Adrienne C. Moore: I was working in theater at the time, so I really didn’t have a lot of time to devote to the audition or even really get to the audition, because the day that I was called for the audition was our last day of tech. We were opening for previews that night. So I didn’t really see myself having time for it, but the part that was important to me, as Danielle, eloquently stated, was the check. Then I heard it was Jenji Kohan doing the project and I was a fan of hers from Weeds. Having already been familiar with who she was as a writer, I was interested in what she was going to do. Since it’s Jenji, it’s going to be good. She doesn’t write for fluff. She writes thought-provoking material.
Uzo Aduba: I had been auditioning for film and television a lot that summer and was being met with a lot of nos at the time because I don’t think a lot of space existed in the world for people like myself or any of the people on our show, quite frankly, at that time. I didn’t audition for Suzanne, or “Crazy Eyes,” I auditioned for another part—for [other inmate and former track star] Janae [Watson].
I remember reading [the script] that summer. I got the pilot with my audition and I remember thinking it stood out from the rest. I had read well over 50 scripts and it was one of two that I thought were good. I just thought if felt very vivid and alive and unlike anything that I had ever read before. I just remember thinking this script was really exciting. That was the strongest image in my mind. I thought it was really good. And I’ve said this before in the past, but it felt like a picture book, like when you turn the pages in those kid books and like they can stand up and they’ll be talking about a castle and the castle is in 3-D. Everything felt in 3-D.
WSJ: Did you think the show was going to be received as well as it was?
DB: I can speak for myself, but I didn’t have a clue, you know, that it was going to be the phenomenon that it was. I didn’t know that it’s going to have an impact. I didn’t know that it would reach the masses, be international. I didn’t know that we could change lives when it came to certain communities being affected by this show and feeling like they had a voice. I had no idea of the power that this show was going to have.
As time goes on in the beginning stages, it was challenging to adjust to it. I remember one time we did a Pride parade and at the end of the Pride parade, we get off the float and people are chasing us into our car. It felt like felt like the Jackson 5 or or something.
I really feel like in the matter of 13 hours, our lives had changed. It takes 13 hours to watch the season.
UA: I had no idea what it was going to be whatsoever. I think people have to remember when we were making it, even though we had House of Cards as a point of reference—it came out that winter—but we had already started working on the show. So there were three months where there was no such thing as “Netflix Original Programming” on Netflix. So I I feel like a lot of us had really no idea what that meant. Like is that a web series or are we going to be on YouTube? Is it a DVD that’s going to come to your house? Like I had no concept of what this actually meant.
Echoing with Danielle said, we were so insulated in that way. Personally I love year one the most out of every year we did it for that reason. There was zero expectation attached to it. We were just a bunch of actors and artists making work and telling stories.
AM: There were no expectations on us, in a sense, to follow up from some great show. Some actors that had very great careers, but by and large, a lot, a lot of us were very new. There was no skin in the game, so to speak. For a person like myself, I love when I get to discover new faces on television—and there were a lot of new faces that people could discover. I [thought] people are going to latch on to that, especially because it’s so diverse. There’s something for everybody.
But I had no idea that it was going to become what Uzo and Danielle said about it becoming a worldwide phenomenon. I was talking today about the fact that over in Scotland, you know, half the majority of the prison has converted to Judaism so they can get better meals. And it was based off of Cindy’s story line. So to know that, something like that would happen? No, but I sensed very early on that this was going to be big
WSJ: This show is such a benchmark for having a diverse cast on TV. What’s one specific thing you learned from one of your costars on the show?
UA: Laverne Cox taught me the real, real power of television and art-making, or maybe the real life example of the power and effects art can have, and television can have on culture at large.
I remember [during shooting season 2], I do not recall the episode, but I just remember we were in what was our old hair and makeup room. Even though I had met trans people before in my life, Laverne was the first trans person that I knew. Does that make sense? We were talking in there and I don’t even remember what started the conversation, but she—long story short, she gave me a lesson, not like a teachable moment kind of lesson, but just talking about her life.
She was talking about how important this was to her and talking about visibility. She was talking about not seeing people like herself on a television. This was a long talk because this is when I used to wear my hair in Bantu Knots and that takes 45 minutes and she was going on the whole time.
I just remember at the end of it, I said, “You are going to change lives.” And the truth of the matter is, it did happen. The reality is, the stories that we have now that are so plentiful and the representation you see now, whether it’s from Transparent to Pose—all of these are things came after her…she held enough space that people wanted to hear from her and then gave it rightful space to exist.
That in tandem with all the different faces, shapes, races, genders, sexual orientation that we have as the makeup of our show— you can make art that is both entertaining and impactful. We all had each other as black women, or each other as Latina women, white women, Asian women, LGBTQ women. But Laverne was there holding that candle by herself. That’s a big deal when you really think about it.
DB: I don’t think I can single out a person. I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned is there’s no limitation to what one can do as a woman in this industry. I think working with the women on the show has shown me there’s nothing that I cannot do and it’s all at my fingertips. From having women on the show, like Diane [Guerrero] write books, to Natasha [Lyonne], creating, writing in, starting her own shows, to Uzo being a history maker, winning two different Emmys in two different categories for the same show, to having, you know, Yael [Stone] and Laura [Prepon], be mothers while shooting this show. I felt like they’ve all shown me in a different ways that you can create whatever story you want for your life. I think that’s why I’ve been so ambitious—because they’ve shown me it was possible.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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