Taylor Schilling on Life Before 'Orange is the New Black'
By Gretchen Voss
Golden Globe nominee and Boston native Taylor Schilling breaks out her prison coveralls for an even more suspenseful season of Orange is the New Black.
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Oh. My. God. Taylor Schilling had that same gut-wrenching reaction to the final scene in Netflix’s breakout original series Orange is the New Black as all the rabid fans out there binge-watching the prison dramedy last season. Collective jaws dropped as Schilling’s formerly prissy character, Piper Chapman, completely—not to mention, violently—loses it. “It was pretty spectacular,” says the 29-year-old Massachusetts native by phone from her home in New York.
Netflix subscribers are hungering to see what the new season—available for streaming June 6—serves up next. It’s been a delicious feast so far, following along good-girl-gone-bad Piper, a WASPy Smith College grad who peddles artisanal soap and is engaged to an earnest young fellow. She gets sentenced to 15 months in prison for a crime she committed 10 years ago (that would be laundering money for her sexy older girlfriend, who was part of an international drug ring).
“The thing that is so exciting to me about this show is the arc that they’ve given Piper,” Schilling says. “She’s dancing really fast, trying to be who she thinks the world thinks she should be, but now she’s forced to look at what’s really happening inside of her.” That dance has been a thrill to watch, as Schilling believably two-steps from a wide-eyed ingénue to a come-hither seductress to a broken-down woman unleashing 13 episodes of rage on a born-again hillbilly.
Perhaps the reason that the show has never crumbled under over-the-top clichés is that Schilling really gets her character. “She makes a lot of sense to me. I always think there’s that negotiation between what you think you need to be for the outside world and what your own honest experience is,” Schilling says. “I certainly think I’m on that quest myself; I relate to that. She has to figure out how to play by her own rules. That’s an interesting journey people go on whether or not they’re in prison. That’s kind of what life is about.”
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Schilling’s life—which has propelled her from the Boston ’burbs to being a Hollywood It girl—is a testament to not following a set of preordained rules, which is notable in a hyper-competitive region where kids plan out their PhDs in elementary school. “I just kind of do things and show up without thinking about it that much. Then I look back and say, ‘My God, I can’t believe I pulled that one off,’” she says. “Now that I’m older I can see that as being a really valuable part of who I am.”
But she didn’t question it when she was growing up and splitting her time between her prosecutor father in West Roxbury and her MIT administrator mother in Wayland (her parents divorced when she was 15 years old). “It was a nice experience,” she says—Friday night pasta dinners in the North End, jaunts through the Arnold Arboretum, eating eggs Benedict at Mel’s Commonwealth Café in Wayland with her mom, and hitting Red Sox games at Fenway Park with her dad.
The experience that would someday change her life happened when she was 12 years old, and cast in a middle-school production of Fiddler on the Roof. “I don’t even know why I did the play,” she says. “But I remember walking home from the audition and just thinking, Oh, that’s what I’m going to do. And I just knew it.” Not that she knew how to go about doing it. “I thought the closest thing I could do was go to a TV station and see what they do there. I don’t know what I was thinking,” she says of the internship she took at WCVB’s Chronicle her senior year. “I loved it. It was awesome,” she recalls.
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After graduating from Wayland High School in 2002, Schilling earned a degree in acting from Fordham University and then completed two years toward an MFA in acting at New York University before dropping out. “I had nothing lined up when I left school, I just knew that NYU wasn’t making sense to me anymore. I felt done,” she says. “And it was scary to leave, but it felt like following my gut, my intuition.”
It only took four months to be rewarded for following her instincts, when she landed the lead role in the NBC medical drama Mercy as the tough-cookie nurse Veronica Flanagan Callahan. “It was baptism by fire—such a wild experience. It was the first television show I had ever been in, and I was number-one on the call sheet and in most of the scenes,” she says. “I did not know what I was doing at all. But I’ve always had this thing where I just do it, I don’t even think. It was the same part of me that decided to go to New York or drop out of school or become an actor.”
Mercy was canceled in 2010 after just one season, but Schilling quickly made the switch to films, including a role as Zac Efron’s love interest in the syrupy-sweet Nicholas Sparks rom-com The Lucky One. She also landed a role in Argo, as Ben Affleck’s wife. “He’s such a great guy,” she gushes. “But they had to cut my part almost completely. I was so bummed when that happened.”
That was 2012, and Schilling was a bit burned out, pining for a vacation. So she escaped up to her beloved grandmother’s house on an island in Maine, simply looking forward to decompressing over scallop dinners. But her agent was begging her to read the script for Orange is the New Black. Schilling was reluctant. “I really didn’t want to do television again,” she says, thinking back to the frantic, overwhelming shoot of Mercy. Still, she curled up on a hammock and paged through the script. “It was amazing,” she says. “I read it with my grandmother and I was like, This is really special. It was so cool to have my first experience with the script in Maine because I really, really love it there; it’s such a special place to me.”
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Plenty of actresses might have run screaming from playing such a complicated character—variously called an “emotionally manipulative narcissist” and a “wide-eyed ice-princess uptight thing” by fellow orange-jumpsuited women on the show—but Schilling’s gut, once again, told her to go for it. “I was really blown away by Piper, how dynamic a character she was and how she had so many places to explore,” Schilling says. “She was driving her own story, and that feels so rare to me in the scripts I read. Her function is not to flesh out a male protagonist’s emotional life. She really was there because her own story was important, and that really meant a lot to me.”
And while mum’s the word on any plot direction for the upcoming season, Schilling promises we’ll get to peer even deeper into the prisoners’ former lives. “The thing that I love about this show is the idea that everybody is kind of a breath away from prison. None of us are angels, and looking back at my past I think, My God, I can’t believe I got away with that,” she says. “It’s like the what-if scenario gets played out every episode of the show. This season that happens a lot more clearly with a lot more of the characters, so we really get to see where people are coming from and why they’re there and what happened to them."
What’s happened to Schilling is that she has exploded into a bona fide star with an instantly recognizable face. “It’s alternately exciting and terrifying for people to know me all of a sudden,” she says of the legions of fans who stop her on the street. This year’s Golden Globe nomination was just the icing on the cake. “I can’t really wrap my head around it. It totally blows my mind,” she says of the honor. “It’s such a fun group of girls and we have a great time, and then to have people respond to that so well… It’s like a dream come true.”
Schilling doesn’t know when filming will commence for the third season, but she does know that she’s hoping to get back as often as she can to New Bedford, where her father now lives. “I love going there; it’s such a cool place,” she says. In an interesting art-imitating-life mash-up, her dad is currently working on the legal staff for the Department of Corrections, trying to redirect kids from prisons to various programs. “I’m in the Hollywood version of the prison system, and my dad really works with people who would be incarcerated,” she says. “He talks about how the show has brought more awareness to the population he works with, and more respect for those kids. He loves the show.” And so, of course, do we.
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