Authentic. Risky. Diverse. Conversation starter. Those are the kinds of words that often pop up in describing Orange Is the New Black, and they were among the many topics creator Jenji Kohan and a dozen castmembers discussed during the prison dramedy’s PaleyFest panel Friday. “Our focus is on character, and these people are individuals,” Kohan said early on. “We talk about them like they’re people we know. And you don’t approach it like, ‘Well what does the black one do? What does the Latino one do?’ It’s like you know these people – you can’t view it as tokenism.” Said Laverne Cox, who plays Sophia Burset: “We should talk about the conversations that this show has sparked — who is in prison and why are people in prison, things we need to talk about more in this country. It’s important for the trans community; a lot of people are having conversations about trans people that they weren’t having. Amazing conversations about diversity, a lot of important things that we need to be talking about.” Kohan chimed in: “But it’s natural, its normative – it’s presented as something that’s part of everyone’s life. It’s not the ‘very special episode about the trans character.’ It’s normalizing this conversation.”
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There were plenty of such lively exchanges — 15 people were onstage — but precious few details about the upcoming second season. Instead there was a lotta love for Netflix, Kohan and one another during the panel’s 80 minutes onstage. The crowd did get a few nuggets about what’s in store when Season 2 becomes available for streaming on June 6. Moderator Andrea Mandell of USA Today asked which characters’ backstories will be getting more attention. Kohan was cagey but carefully named Lorna, the nun, Taystee, Poussey and Miss Rosa. She tried to rattle off a few more but admitted, “I forget. I’ve been in editing for weeks.” She added, “There’s also so much that we don’t cover because there’s just not enough time.”
Asked how Season 2 would expanding on the world of Piper Kerman’s autobiographical book, on which OITNB is based, Kohan said, “When we started Season 1, legal said, ‘You can’t use any of the characters in the book because Piper’s the only one who signed a release.’ So the thing very quickly became its on animal. … Season 2 is more; it’s all the little details you wanna know about.”
A good chunk of time was spent familiarizing the fans with the new kid on the cell block. Lorraine Toussaint plays Vee, a veteran street tough who ran her own drug business, recruiting children to serve as runners. When the conversation turned to her, Toussaint was deliberate, almost foreboding. “As silent as I’ve been this evening is as silent as I’ll be in season 2 – at least I enter as such, she said. “I think it’ll be interesting seeing how this character is received because Jenji has written a character who plays, and enjoys the game and is incredibly engaging and draws people into the game. And I have a great deal of fun.” Said Cox, “She shakes everything up – I mean, nothing’s the same because of Vee.”
There were several humorous moments during the evening. The crowd got a big charge when veteran comic actress Lea DeLaria, who plays Big Boo on the show, was called from the audience to join the panel — and a few failed attempts to climb onto the stage went awry. Asked whether her role on the show has affected her life, DeLaria replied: “When a 16-year-old boy came up to me on the street, they used spit in my face. Now they stop me to tell me how much they love Orange Is The New Black.” She also said she has been asked to sign exactly 44 screwdrivers — for reasons known to fans of the series. “I kept count.”
Also, Kate Mulgrew, who plays kitchen honcho Red, mentioned that many of the actresses have no idea what their characters did to earn their state-sponsored vacations. “A lot of us don’t know what our crime is,” she said. “Then I think about it and I talk about it – it works for me as an actress. I don’t need to know what my crime is. And I don’t understand why that is.” Kohan then needled her. “I do know what you did because I wrote the scene.” Mulgrew replied, “You know what I did?!” “I did, but I threw it away.” After some laughter and feigned indignation, Cox said: “It’s like we’re sitting here with God. Jenji is our God.”
The event was webcast live from the nearly 3,400-seat Dolby Theatre, where PaleyFest has relocated after a run at the 1,400-capacity Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills. The panel included eight people who also were featured when OITNB show kicked off the inaugural PaleyFest: Made in NY series in October: Kohan, Mulgrew, Taylor Schilling, Jason Biggs and Natasha Lyonne, along with three actresses who were been upped to series regular during the show’s hiatus: Danielle Brooks, Uzo Aduba and Taryn Manning. They were joined by Cox, Toussaint, Laura Prepon, Yael Stone and Michael Harney.