“I love to get dressed up. It feels nice to get dressed up. It feels nice to get your hair and your makeup done. It feels nice to try new dresses” – Orange is the New Black’s Uzo Aduba
There is a moral balance at the core of Orange is the New Black, an inside versus outside conflict that favours the former. That’s why it’s fitting that the Canadian press junket for the show’s second season was being held in Toronto’s Shangri-La Hotel.
The Shangri La holds up everything that the show so expertly throws away as unimportant, shallow and artificial. Taylor Schilling (who plays series protagonist Piper Chapman) and Uzo Aduba (fan favourite Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren) spent the better part of a day giving interviews in a building that, at around $400 per night (on the lower end of the scale), is the epitome of “outside.”
After all, what is Litchfield Prison if not a terribly shitty hotel, guarded around the clock by rapists, and with government mandated check-out times? A hotel in which the inmates are forced to live while navigating smuggling operations, attempted murder, and an emerging race war? Not to say that the executive suite lifestyle isn’t depicted in Orange is the New Black, it’s just vilified.
Uzo Aduba and Taylor Schilling exemplify this balance too. Both, in person, are just simply beautiful, articulate actors, while on screen they are in various states of shedding that idea of outside, superficial femininity. Their characters are on a journey to find the good on the inside.
“We’re not playing in the world of superficiality and shoes,” says Schilling. “We’re playing in the world of character and truth and human struggle. Humanness and all of the infinite varieties of that.”
Schilling’s Chapman, as the character through whom we are introduced to this volatile setting, gets to play the role of audience surrogate as she progresses through the stages of superficial separation anxiety. By the beginning of season two, having returned from a trip to Chicago on the heels of an extended stint in solitary confinement, Piper returns to Litchfield as a darker protagonist. She’s getting used to the virtues of not having anything but herself and she is stronger for it.
“In a way, the setting gets rid of one more obstacle,” she continues. “Costumes and elaborate hair and makeup can be very beneficial toward moving everything along, but here, it’s really nice to just be able to play. And the rawness of the state that most of these people are in, it makes sense for them to be that stripped down. They aren’t stripped down emotionally.”
Agreeing with her on-screen prison-mate, Uzo Aduba recalls Natasha Lyonne (Nicky Nichols on the show) summarizing it perfectly: “All you have is the work.”
The anti-outside morality that the show builds over its two seasons is also present in a sort of Shawshank Redemption effect. A pattern is emerging in the show, often praised as a deft balance between drama and comedy, but emerging as a familiar season structure and major theme. Prison begins as alienating for the characters, becomes less dangerous and then finally builds into a chaotic climax in the final few episodes, reminding you that yes, Litchfield is in fact a dangerous place.
In that middle stage, prison starts to seem beautiful. I ask if this has changed the actors’ ideas about incarceration.
“I’m not itching to go to prison now if that’s what you’re asking,” Aduba tells me.
But working on the show has changed her perspective.
“Before the show I probably had a one dimensional view of what the world is and what the penal system is.”
Reading the scripts, Aduba’s internal conversation changed. “I only know these people from the news and for the one thing that they’ve done and now it’s informing me of a more rounded version of this person that they’re more than just the one crime.”
The flashback structure of Orange is the New Black is really what seems to have changed her perspective. Not on prison, but on the inmates. She says that starting the show through the eyes of someone we know and then revealing their past actions – not even necessarily what led them to a run in with the law – hammers home that these jailbirds are actually people.
“It’s like, ‘Oh, wait, then there can probably be more people like that: [people] that have stories, that are truthful and have a lot of texture without having to do with this one thing.’”
Both Aduba and Schilling’s characters have become more relatable as the show goes on, and it’s a process of discovery that gives the show it’s forward momentum when it is spending time in that beautiful-prison territory.
“I like how raw Piper is,” says Schilling, going on to appreciate the opportunity that Chapman has given her to shed social graces that she, Schilling, might feel the need to uphold. She finds the character more liberating the further from outside freedom Piper journeys.
“She’s sort of gaining this new recklessness and honesty and fearlessness. Which can be debated as to whether that is a good thing or bad thing but she’s living more vitally than she ever has. And that vitality, whether it’s in more of the absurdist, goofy comedy stuff or whether it’s really the darker stuff, it’s really exciting for me. It’s getting more exciting as she has less and less to lose.”
As if to bring balance to that power found in letting go, Uzo thinks that the strength of her character is in her inability to avoid a childlike hope.
She says, “I like that despite the number of times that Suzanne is met with rejection, she still believes in love and she’s willing to expose herself and her heart completely, take it out of her own chest and continuously hand it over to someone else.”
In situations where Piper is being coarsened, learning the lay of the land by rejecting values of the outside, Suzanne finds new opportunities to be vulnerable, exposing what’s inside her. In season one, it was her doomed love affair with Chapman, this year she gave herself over to Vee Parker (Lorraine Toussaint), a mother figure who takes advantage of Suzanne’s good faith.
It all adds up to the same endearing quality though. Sure, Crazy Eyes is hurt in the end, but there is never a doubt in our minds that she’s the good guy. She’s very in touch with the inside.
“I like that despite the ending sometimes, she is still willing to give it her all and go into that vulnerable place with everybody,” says Aduba. “Like she still believes in Santa Claus or something.”
And therein is the heart of Orange is the New Black. The vulnerability of being able to hope even after having everything taken away. The ability to be beautiful in the absence of shoes and makeup. What’s on the outside is shallow, those things are bad. It’s what lives inside that’s good.