BY Moonah Ellison & Zoe Stagg
Photography by Robert Ascroft
Inspired by the memoir by the same name, Schilling’s character is based on real-life Piper Kerman, even though the show is far from a true biopic. “When we began, it was really vital to connect strongly to Piper Kerman who’s the real character that the story Orange is based on. She’s a real woman who’s extraordinary. It was very important to me to spend time with her and we visited Rikers together, and I asked her many questions. I was so nervous when she was on the set. I wanted to impress her so badly and learn about her life, some parallels in our lives, and just sort of tried to experience her.” For Schilling, a former graduate student at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, immersing herself in the character and her world, wasn’t something she could just leave at the office. “I can point to different seasons where certain dynamics were being played out on the show that felt so heavy. And it felt heavy to keep living with them because there’s not catharsis for the character or it doesn’t make sense for it or it doesn’t line up. It’s kind of living in this huge state of confusion.” She places each observation thoughtfully, her voice light and turning fondly. “But by the same token there were the first couple of years of making this show it was kind of creative piece of euphoria. It really felt honed in and exciting. So it was both things like any process. The other thing about this show was that it was very right. It never took itself too seriously.”
The experience “set her palate” for working on important material with “ferocious women,” a condition that sounds like a dream, and the perfect conditions to launch forward into her life, post OITNB. “I’m fascinated by people, like, ‘Wow, you just sat back and let yourself emerge into yourself without judging or putting your foot on the gas?’ I’m sort of in that process right now, of what does it look like, what do I want to do, what feels really joyful, what do I feel is important, what is of impact.” What it looks like at the moment, is the comedy Family, and the horror flick The Prodigy, a whiplash of projects embracing her new- found freedom. From projects to politics, Schilling doesn’t shy away from making the bold choice on the screen, or tweeting what she believes in—even in a world that seems bent on scaring us into being afraid of everything.
Where we might see a headline or a hashtag and believe the worst, Schilling sees it as a chance for magic. “There are very few people that I speak to in my personal life that don’t have some experience of fear or overwhelm of the world that we all inhabit. It’s almost like an opportunity to have some sort of alchemy—focus this fear instead of doing the opposite, taking the step in courage. I think it’s an opportunity. You can make some sort of magic if I can wrangle my own fear into something transcendent that comes out on the other side. Something that transcends fear.” In a world where sometimes it seems like the only way to survive is to just shut down, she almost treats the concept gently. “It’s a soft way of being in the world and there’s a lot of fear that gets lobbed around, and wanting to prove, or fix, or make right.” Instead of fear, she finds courage and instead of pressure to succeed, she finds room to grow. “We don’t put any value on relaxation, that’s something else that I’ve been talking a lot about lately. It’s almost like internal capitalism. This idea that we have to constantly produce—I do think that rest is a radical notion. Time for germination, or gestation, or allowing things to percolate—I’m not particularly good at it, and this is something I’m exploring in my life right now, and it takes a great deal of trust. It’s different.”
While she might be learning to let things breathe, her education is what grounds her. “It’s a reference point for myself, of myself that holds me to myself. It shows me who I am.” Schilling calls her schooling vital. “I come from a lower-middle class, working class, and my parents did a lot of work to get my brother and me into a public school system that had a good reputation.” It was an experience that made her feel like an outsider, and taught her money wasn’t what was really valuable. “I do think that there are currencies that we deal in that transcend money, and I know that that is coming from someone who has enough money to feed and clothe and put a roof over my head. But eventually the values that I barter in catch up with me and provided as much as a quality of life as the financial means that I barter in. For me that’s always important to hold, that the values that I hold are commensurate, if not far more important to the life that I’m living than however much money that I have.” It’s a particularly poignant perspective in light of recent headlines of the Rich and Famous. “The whole Varsity Blues thing has really bowled me over,” that is the college admissions cheating scandal that ensnared kids and their influential parents alike, outed for paying for advantage.
“It’s stuff that we all know. It’s hard not to get angry, not to be absolutely furious. It’s such an unsophisticated way to knock the system!” The pay-for-play disadvantage hits close to home and her incredulity pitches her voice. “I wish there was more of a pre tense, more of a show me, trying to believe that the system worked, or it’s a merit-based system. It’s really infuriating.”
Ever the alchemist, she pitches the outrage right into context. “I do not envy the life of some of these wealthy and privileged people who get what they want but are sort of bankrupt in the inner world that I’m interested in. Their outer world may be glittery, but I’m really interested in the inner world and how people are living inside themselves. And that kind of gives me solace and I think like we’re different breeds. We’re like apples and oranges.”
And this is one time that being an orange, will set Taylor Schilling free.