Glass Exclusive: interview with actress Taylor Schilling of Orange is the New Black

GLASS meets actress Taylor Schilling, who found fame with Orange is the New Black, to hear more about her collaborative approach to work.

CAPTIVATING audiences across the globe with her portrayal of Piper Chapman in Orange is the New Black, one of Netflix’s most-watched original series to date, Taylor Schilling is fast becoming a household name. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Schilling graduated from Wayland High School before studying acting at Fordham University in Manhattan. She then went on to study for a master’s degree at the famous Tisch School of the Arts before dropping out in her second year to pursue acting.

Since her first film, Dark Matter, starring Meryl Streep, Schilling has worked alongside Zac Efron in The Lucky One, Ben Affleck in Argo, and Pat Healy in Take Me. Accepting the role of Piper Chapman in Orange is the New Black – first aired in 2013 – rocketed Schilling to stardom overnight. Based on Piper Kerman’s memoir Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, the on-going series explores the challenges, both mental and physical, that inmates face within the US federal prison system. Chapman was the role Schilling was looking for. The opportunity to develop a character – especially one that is adjusting to the intensity of prison life – for not one but seven seasons is an envious achievement in the acting industry.

Since finding global fame on Orange is the New Black (OITNB) Schilling has branched out to tackle a broad spectrum of roles. This year Schilling stars in The Titan, a science fiction thriller Netflix original film directed by Lennart Ruff and starring Sam Worthington. Schilling’s compelling performance tells a unique story of discovery and loss. For Schilling, being part of the narrative is crucial, not only in her career but in her personal life too. As an advocate of equal rights, Schilling uses her platform to amplify the voices of those who need to be heard. Her twitter profile, for instance, is an abundance of positive messages, efforts to raise awareness of movements she believes in, and support for friends breaking ground on discrimination in society.

When Glass spoke to Schilling, this characteristic was as prevalent as ever. Taking a light-hearted approach to speaking about herself, Schilling shifted the focus throughout the interview to other people and their impact on her story. With a selfless attitude to fame, Taylor Schilling is a far cry from the stereotypical celebrity.

Taylor ShillingTaylor Schilling. Photographer: Ssam Kim

How did you get into acting? Has it always been a passion of yours?
It has. It happened in a little bit of a roundabout way where I had no after-school activities but there was a school play where every kid that auditioned got in. I had nothing to do and my mother said, “You need to get an activity”, so I auditioned for the school play. Then I played Tzeitel in Fiddler on the Roof when I was 11, and that’s how it all began. I remember walking home from that audition and I just remember thinking, “Oh, that’s what I want to do with my life. That’s it, there it is”. Quite simple. I never really deviated.

Your role as Piper Chapman in OITNB has earned you an Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, as well as other media association awards. How do you handle the pressures that come with success and celebrity?
We’ve now been doing the show for several years and the first few years were so magical, I mean it still is. It really is a special place to work. It’s a very tight ensemble and it’s a really extraordinary group of women – incredibly strong and talented, artistically and personally. It’s been a seminal character in my life.

I think that there was a period of time where I felt somewhat like, “What’s going to happen next?” and I think one thing, more than anything, I learnt and that I continue to learn from this job – this job is a great teacher for me – is the importance of staying focused. Certainly, if I drift towards what comes next or even put my feet in that big sea of uncertainty, which really everybody lives with, but certainly can be amplified in my chosen profession, it gets very uncomfortable. I choose not to live there; I work really hard on cultivating a group of friends and a life outside of work. That’s really my focus. It’s a matter of where you place your attention. That’s where I’m at now.

Earlier this year you finished filming season six of OITNB. Can you give us any hint of what we can expect?
The season before there was riot, and … [laughs]. Everything changed. I don’t know why that makes me giggle. But everything changed [laughs]. This year everyone is in a different prison, a maximum security prison, and that took – and I think it was kind of a brilliant move on Jenji Kohan’s part – the circumstances and the stakes got amped up so high. Everything got cranked up a notch again, for all of the characters.

My hope is that in season six it will be interesting to see people that we know have a different experience. It’s always interesting to see people in crisis; it’s always interesting to see how people behave when they’re in hot water. Everybody’s in different places, nobody’s in Litchfield any more, which was the prison that the other felons were located in.

OITNB has spearheaded female-driven drama on television. Where do you see the future of TV dramas heading
One of the things I’m proudest of about the show is that it has provided such a platform for so many incredibly talented female artists onscreen and offscreen, and I think that certainly our show is still in the minority. I don’t see a ton of what we’re doing in other places but my hope is that the work, particularly the work that Jenji [Kohan]’s done in kind of making space and saying that when women are in the centre of narratives people will watch, and across the demographics, that men are serious about women’s stories as well as male centred narratives. But that will continue to proliferate.

Taylor ShillingTaylor Schilling. Photographer: Ssam Kim

Do you think that Netflix is changing the landscape for women-led projects?
Absolutely. I think that Cindy Holland, who is the president of original content at Netflix, has an impeccable eye for all sorts of voices, men and women and everyone. What I really love about Netflix is, in my experience, working with them; they’re so artist-centric that they really create a fertile environment for people to create without really getting in the mix, and I think that’s why their platform has allowed for such interesting work over the past few years. I think that’s really what makes it work, to tell someone, “I believe in your voice and I’m going to make room for it be heard”. That’s sort of the job, that’s the gig, and I think that Netflix is doing that really beautifully – bravely, [with] a lot of courage, and it’s paying off.

What pushed you towards your recent decision to venture into sci-fi, and the Netflix film The Titan?
When I received the script for The Titan I was so curious about the idea, and the director and writer were so helpful with this. It was presented as such a sensitive and human love story, and story of loss. These beings, which are so close to my heart, are relatable to almost anyone with any life. The goal of the movie was to put what that would look like – if that very human heartbeat were then wrapped up in a sci-fi drama.

From my perspective it was less about the sci-fi and more about the relationship between husband and wife, and particularly this woman who was losing her husband and losing the love of her life but remains strong and present for her son. She never gives up, even through grief she keeps looking for solutions, and I was attracted to that.

How was it working with Sam Worthington and Agyness Deyn? How did the collaboration differ from previous sets you’ve been on?
Coming off of OITNB, which is such a tight ensemble, and then going to really one on one scene work was a really fun shift in dynamic for me, and it gave me a chance to explore different muscles and both Sam [Worthington] and Agyness [Deyn], and the entire cast, like Nathalie Emmanuel, also such a talented actress, and Tom Wilkinson. I had such a good time; the cast were just such strong and kind team partners. I was working with people one on one more – as opposed to OITNB, which is such a vast terrain of story and character that dips in and out, for OITNB it was fun to nestle into one story line and one dynamic.

How do you prepare for these roles that pose such a contrast to your personal life? Do you use any particular methods?
I do so many different things. I went to conservatory in college, I went to NYU [New York University], and I’m really grateful for all of that training. The beautiful thing is that I have a big mash up in my brain of stuff that I pull on instinctively. But part of the fun is taking a script and just letting it sit and simmer and see what comes. So much happens on set too, there’s so much magic in casting and the environment the director creates.

Something I’m really learning to love about my job more and more than what I did when I was younger is just trusting what’s happening in the here and now, and looking to that space as well as all the prep that happens outside of set. Which is massive and takes a lot of work and a fair amount of time, but equally there’s having that all gestated and available, but then kind of letting go and trusting the people that I’m working with and playing in that way. I think I was very frightened when I was younger, I was new, and I think that going with the flow was not available to me for a while.

Taylor ShillingTaylor Schilling. Photographer: Ssam Kim

What have been the greatest challenges you’ve faced in your career so far? And what have been your greatest achievements?
I’ve learnt so much through OITNB and how the character has shifted, and also how to go with the flow as the story changes and character shifts. A serialised drama is very different from doing a play or a film, where there’s a beginning and a middle and an end, which is a little bit more of my comfort zone. Learning how to dance with writing and not knowing the endpoint or quite where you’re going has been a helpful challenge. I’ve learnt so much after spending so much time with a character that’s ever evolving.

That said, a couple of years ago I did a [Ivan] Turgenev’s play called A Month in the Country with Peter Dinklage, Annabella Sciorra, Anthony Edwards and Mike Faist. That was really fun, informative and challenging to be onstage again, and that really grew me a lot in a more visible way. When I did theatre before, I was not someone on a famous TV show. That really opened me up, and there have been a couple of roles over the past few years that I’ve found a lot of freedom in, and I’m learning that it has a lot to do with how the movie is received and how the world validates it or doesn’t.

I made a movie called Take Me a couple years ago that’s on Netflix; it was a tiny thing with the Duplass Brothers producing it, but for me that character was a fun challenge that kind of changed my work. Both of those projects I’ve just mentioned were not things that were necessarily embraced externally, but they really internally helped me feel my own strength as a creative person again.

I’m deeply proud of the success of OITNB, and I’m sure I always will be. It is a life-changing job and it’s obviously far more than a job, a job doesn’t quite sum it up, but it’s a life-changing creative endeavour. I’m very proud of that. To be honest with you, I think that the greatest achievements in my life are probably my friendships and the people I have in my life, and my own level of happiness and satisfaction on a day-to-day basis. I would never want to go backwards, I would never want to do the jobs I did again, but I think that at this point the life I have got for myself is the greatest achievement, for very quiet reasons.

Finally, with season six of OITNB, and the untitled Orion Pictures film set to be released this year, what does your work schedule have lined up next? Will a well-deserved break be on the cards?
I’m definitely taking a break right now, and I think the answer to that question is yes. I look forward to taking a break.

By Lily Rimmer

Photographer: Ssam Kim

Fashion Direction: Davian Lain

Images first published in Glass issue 33 – Vision

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Hair: Anthony Campbell at Starwroks Artists for Campbell and Camobell salon

Make up: Tina Turnbow at The Peoria Agency using True Botanicals

Manicurist: Jini Lim at See Management using Chanel Le Vernis

Fashion assistant: Brittany Bryant

Production coordinator: Windy Lee

Talent: Taylor Schilling

Image one:

Jacket YEON

Dress SALVATORE FERRAGAMO

Earrings LELE SADOUGHI

Ring BONHEUR

Image two:

Hat ERIC JAVITS

Choker BONHEUR

Earrings CHANEL

Top 3.1 PHILLIP LIM

Image three: 

Jacket, earrings CHANEL

Choker BONHEUR