Last summer ''Orange Is the New Black'' became the hit no one saw coming. Now it's the prison comedy we can't live without. EW goes inside with the ladies of Litchfield. (Jealous?)


Orange Is the New Black is making Jenji Kohan sick. It happened last year around this time, too: A couple of months before the series debuted, the producer behind Netflix’s dark prison comedy was felled by a fierce cold brought on by preseason stress and long nights in the editing bay. Today in her Hollywood office, a blanket is rolled up in a ball on her couch, where she’s been catching occasional naps. Her hair, once a Jolly Rancher green, is now more of a stale-Skittle hue. Three cups of tea from Urth Caffé at various levels of fullness sit abandoned on her desk. “My body has been waiting to collapse, because we started season 2 just three days after posting season 1,” she says. “It’s from all the anxiety and the work. You want to follow up strong. You don’t want a sophomore slump.”

It’s no surprise Kohan is feeling the pressure about Orange‘s second outing, which premieres on June 6. The first season — based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name about spending a year in a Connecticut prison after being busted for once transporting drug money for her then girlfriend — quickly took over the pop culture conversation after its July 11 debut. A prison-set dramedy featuring female characters of all shapes, races, socioeconomic classes, and sexualities — in other words, the types of women who normally can’t get arrested on TV? Yeah, that was new. Netflix was so high on Orange that it renewed the show even before the launch. And though the service is notorious for not revealing specific numbers, it did disclose in a letter to shareholders in October that Orange “will end [2013] as our most-watched original series ever.” So what does a second sentence inside the walls of Litchfield prison look like? “We had a theme for season 2,” Kohan says. “A little darker, a little more fractured. We wanted to explore the groups one at a time. It was getting a little summer-campy, and we wanted to address the realities that this is prison. We needed a little more drama.”

Prison scrambled eggs must be really nasty, if prop prison scrambled eggs smell this gross. It’s lunchtime at Litchfield, or rather, Orange‘s Queens set, which is so depressingly prison-like that the paint color on the walls is actually called Sad Band-Aid. The stench permeates the set, where spit buckets sit just off camera so no actor has to swallow the mass-produced grub. “You don’t unsmell the things we smell here,” Natasha Lyonne later explains. “Even months after we’ve wrapped.” Today her character, sarcastic recovering addict Nicky, and Nicky’s former lover Lorna (Yael Stone) are taunting an idealistic new prisoner, Soso (Kimiko Glenn) — who’s on a hunger strike — with phallic sausages. A couple of tables over, protagonist Piper (Taylor Schilling) is weighing whether to open a letter from her ex-girlfriend Alex (Laura Prepon), the person who landed her in the clink in the first place. At another table, an especially nasty Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) is boldly carrying out orders from baddie-to-the-bone Vee (Lorraine Toussaint, who joins the cast this year) to pour water all over cancer patient Miss Rosa’s (Barbara Rosenblat) tray. Even after a first season that included an attempted shower stabbing, a drug overdose, and a tampon sandwich, it feels, as Kohan says, dark. Kate Mulgrew, who plays stern Russian cook Red, describes the season this way: “All hell breaks loose.”

The second after the director yells “Cut!” the actors start cracking up and debating whether those eggs were as vile as the chicken from a previous episode, and texting away on the phones they’ve tucked in the pockets of their dyed-to-bland-perfection beige uniforms. Only Mulgrew stays in character between takes; she abandons Red’s accent and steely demeanor for just a few minutes at lunch. Anyone with an Instagram or Twitter account knows this cast is incredibly close and emoji-friendly. “I used to want to gag when I’d hear casts talking about how much they all loved each other,” says Schilling. “But now I’m in the middle of it, and we really do.” Adds Aduba: “In prison you gotta find a tribe. And I think all of us have been put into, though not a prison, definitely a circumstance in which we needed to be a whole in order to make this thing work.”

Kohan cites the set’s “no a–hole” policy — an edict many shows try to enforce, to no avail — for the harmony on Orange. “You hear about these sets with lots of women and they’re all pulling s—,” she says. “It’s not okay.” Kohan, who worked for years on shows including Gilmore Girls and Mad About You, earned a reputation for being a no-nonsense showrunner during eight seasons on Showtime’s racy pot comedy Weeds. On Orange, Kohan went as far as assigning coexec producer Lisa Vinnecour to be the show’s “diva whisperer,” in charge of everything from running lines to planning camaraderie-building field trips for the cast (walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, going salsa dancing, taking in Broadway shows). One afternoon, Vinnecour could be heard exhorting a visitor not to work with a sexist director, while also organizing a weight-loss challenge for some of the actors and crew. Lunch on set almost feels like a fantasy women’s-studies seminar, with hierarchy-free tables of stars and extras all enjoying their kale salads. “The estrogen levels are through the ceiling,” says Toussaint with a laugh. “Any guy that shows up immediately scurries to the perimeters of the room.”

Back in 2010, Kohan — who was still working on Weeds but looking ahead to her next project — fought hard to get the rights to Kerman’s memoir. Though she beat out several other producers for the material, once Kohan tried to sell Orange as a series, she wasn’t greeted with excessive enthusiasm. Both HBO and Showtime turned down the project. Netflix was more game, but in the midst of prepping House of Cards and Arrested Development, the still-unproven network was hoping Orange could be its chance to make a splash with a big project full of A-listers. “Listen, my name should have been enough,” says Kohan, who has the eff-you honesty of someone who knows her worth. “But in the beginning Netflix was looking for names.” (“We weren’t particularly concerned with name recognition,” counters Netflix VP of original content Cindy Holland. “It’s really a company of actors.”) Kohan stood firm and, along with casting director Jennifer Euston, filled her cast with a large number of unknown New York stage actors. Prepon, out of work after Are You There, Chelsea? was canceled, auditioned for Piper, while Aduba tried out for Janae. Abigail Savage ended up playing loyal kitchen worker Gina instead of Nicky. That part went to Lyonne (at the time doing guest parts on shows like New Girl), who had initially set her sights on the role of Lorna. Taryn Manning got the role of the evangelical meth-head murderer Pennsatucky without even reading for it because Kohan found the former Sons of Anarchy actress “fascinating.”

Danielle Brooks spent 30 seconds in her audition for fan favorite Taystee, only to be cast and find out she’d be topless in the shower in her first scene. “I was like, ‘What did I just sign up for?'” she remembers. “You can’t hide behind anything on this show. The only downfall is when you leave set, it takes you 45 minutes to do your hair and makeup because you leave work worse than when you came in.” (Jokes Prepon, “I’m like, ‘Can you throw a sister a bone here? I have a zit — can you cover it up?’ At least my character gets to wear eyeliner!”) To land the role of fish-out-of-water Piper, Schilling, who was getting a lot of auditions to play roles that can best be described as “the pretty one,” put herself on tape, hoping to prove she had range. “Hollywood has a very myopic focus once they see what you look like,” she says. “I’ll be forever indebted to Jenji because I feel like I’ve been seen, period. That’s been truly life-changing.” Kohan rounded out Orange‘s crew with faces she liked, only later matching them with roles. And in nearly every case, she chose interesting over conventional. “What’s considered the standard of beauty is so boring at this point. It’s not sexy or hot or interesting,” Kohan says. “It would be nice to shift the perception a little, though I know it’s a big ship to turn around. I don’t set about to say, ‘Today we’re going to teach people that this is oppressive and wrong.’ My first job is to entertain and engage people. I want to be the party starter. And if people start talking about it, then I’m doing my job.”

Mission instantly accomplished. It seemed like the moment Orange debuted, it was the only show people talked about. Ellen DeGeneres inserted herself in a fake “deleted scene” on her talk show. Every day another friend seemed to be sending you another GIF, whether of Brooks’ Taystee discussing a certain condiment on certain body parts, or Matt McGorry (who plays CO Bennett) showing off his ample bodybuilding muscles. Says Holland, “We didn’t expect it to be embraced both critically and culturally in such a large way.”

A few weeks after the debut, Kohan could still make time for the occasional hike up Runyon Canyon in Los Angeles. Easily recognizable to fellow hikers thanks to her bright hair and big glasses, Kohan got the same two reactions over and over: “You ruined my life! I neglected my family while I watched the show!” and “I just watched the whole thing. I need more! When’s season 2? You shouldn’t be walking!” Gratifying, yes — but they also amped up the anxiety for the producer. “I feel attacked, but I love the passion. I’m working as fast as I can,” says Kohan. “It’s a dream come true because I didn’t want to disappear after Weeds or make something crappy. But it’s hard to step outside and feel the love. I probably should go to therapy.”

The Orange cast got its share of instant fame too. Aduba started getting stopped on the street by fans asking how she thought up Crazy Eyes’ signature gaze. Prepon scored a slew of marriage proposals from women while out and about in Los Angeles (“What’s funny is they’re all hoping I’m going to come out!”). Laverne Cox, who plays transgender hairdresser Sophia, swears TSA agents are among the show’s most ardent fans, judging by the comments she got while traveling this past year. Brooks heard from a friend about viewers who named their dog Taystee. Everyone from Jon Hamm to Tom Hanks to Martha Stewart (who walked up to Prepon at a party and asked, “Are you Piper’s girlfriend?”) has admitted to being an Orange obsessive. “I remember driving home on Halloween through Union Square and right in the crosswalk in front of me were girls dressed as Piper and Alex,” recalls Schilling. “That was a huge deal.” (She’s lucky she didn’t see Julianne Hough, who very unfortunately went in blackface that night as Crazy Eyes. Hough later apologized.) It’s all a little daunting for an Orange newbie, as Toussaint relays: “The Orange fans, they don’t play. I’ve never seen a demographic like this, from college students to grandmothers, and they’re all equally rabid. Some little old lady in Vons is going to come after me with her walker.”

For all the accolades, Orange‘s first outing didn’t get much love on the awards circuit. Though it was honored by AFI and received a Peabody award, it was shut out of the SAG Awards and earned a lone Golden Globe nomination for Schilling. “No one knows where to put us,” says Kohan, who will submit the show in the comedy category for the Emmys. “The comedy people say we have to write three jokes a page. The drama people say it’s not serious enough. Part of me thinks the system is broken. Is it a bummer? Yeah. Does it affect us financially [with budgets]? Yeah, absolutely. But a little part of me is relieved I don’t have to buy a dress.” Holland denies the lack of awards has any impact on the show’s production: “Financial decisions about series are purely made on how the series is doing.”

Kohan might yet have to buy that dress after season 2 — not that she’ll reveal any trophyworthy tidbits from the upcoming 13 episodes. The cast is so well trained not to spoil anything that every divulged droplet of information about the new episodes is quickly accompanied by a “Jenji would kill me if she knew I said that” moment. Still, here are a few details that slipped out: The season will open a few weeks after Piper’s epic beatdown of Pennsatucky in the finale. Piper and Red (whose hair takes on a slightly different shade early on) become bunkmates, and later Piper goes on furlough and looks in on Red’s family in Queens. For reasons too spoilery to explain, the production shot for two days at a prison in Suffolk County, N.Y., that houses both female and male inmates. We’ll also get backstories on a number of the inmates, including Lorna, Poussey (Samira Wiley), and Miss Rosa. One episode will explore Taystee’s past — and her connection to the sinister Vee. A drug dealer who recruited children to be her runners, Vee brings such a “summer camp from hell” vibe that Toussaint immediately put this show on her 9-year-old daughter’s list of her work not to watch until Mommy’s dead. And as you may have guessed, Alex leaves Litchfield.

When rumors started circulating last summer that Prepon would appear in only one season 2 episode, it sparked a frenzy of speculation. One theory: Prepon, a Scientologist, had quit the series because her church objected to her playing a lesbian on TV. “It’s ridiculous because it’s not true,” she says. Alex shows up in at least three episodes, and Prepon says the limited number is due to a producing project she’s not yet ready to announce. “I’m a huge supporter of the LGBT community. I try to have a good spin on [the maelstrom], which is ‘Okay, cool, people are huge fans of the show and my character.'” For the record, before season 2 even wrapped, Prepon had already reached out to Kohan about coming back full-time in season 3 — something the showrunner was thrilled to hear. Says Kohan, “It goes a long way to hear someone is committed.”

Of course, the third season has yet to be announced. Kohan is in the midst of renegotiating her contract with Lionsgate, the production company behind Orange; she’s also developing a period drama for HBO about life in witch-phobic Salem, Mass. “I’m officially supposed to say ‘I don’t know’ until something happens, but if I’m going to do both shows I have to get started right away. I can’t screw around with all this negotiating gamesmanship, which drives me crazy.” She must be feeling hopeful enough, though, because she has blueprints for a production office, complete with writers’ rooms for both projects. (And — sisterhood alert — she’s even allocated space for a nursery to help out her staff with kids.)

But even if Kohan gets her deal, it’s unclear who will fill those industrial bunk beds. Lyonne has signed on to star on the Amy Poehler-produced pilot Old Soul for NBC, and Pablo Schreiber (a.k.a. Pornstache) is busy on a new HBO comedy, The Brink. “I was not on a regular contract, so they always knew there was a possibility that they would lose me,” he says. “At the end of the first season, they left it open-ended where he could come back at any time and it also wouldn’t be weird if you never heard from him again. And I think they’ve written a similar ending for him at the end of this season, and we’ll see what happens with everything else that’s going on.” It seems Orange may have opened so many doors for its once-unknown cast that the series might not be able to get all of them back. “It’s really hard,” Kohan admits. “Sometimes I take it a little too personally, but I understand intellectually people are trying to build careers. But, like, don’t leave me! I have so much more to write.” Says Lyonne: “We’re figuring it out. Logistics are exhausting. Luckily, I have this great new puppy calendar from the Laundromat and I’m really excited to fill it out.”

Kohan doesn’t sleep well to begin with because her mind is “constantly churning,” so the uncertainty about her future isn’t helping. “The best I can do is have a plan and then a backup plan.” Plan B for Orange includes an endless rotation of new inmates. It’s hard to imagine Orange without any of the gems that adorn its crown, from Black Cindy (Adrienne C. Moore) to Sister Ingalls (Beth Fowler), but Kohan is confident she can make it work if the audience is game. “If I could keep cycling people through and bringing in new people, the show could go on forever. We could do something in the ER or Grey’s Anatomy model.” Kohan lets out a big breath, perhaps realizing she may have done her job a bit too well. “If I could control everything in the world, I would, but you got to let go of some things. You can’t keep this cast down on the farm. And you’ll never replace them. The best I can say is ‘Look over here. Shiny! Shiny!'”

Episode Recaps

Orange Is the New Black

Jenji Kohan’s absorbing ensemble dramedy, based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, takes viewers inside the walls of Litchfield, a minimum security women’s prison where nothing’s as simple as it seems—especially the inmates.

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