'Orange Is the New Black's' Laura Prepon on Alex's Harrowing Season 4 Experience: "She Really Needs Piper"

"Ultimately, you just can’t control where your heart goes," Prepon tells THR about the magnetic pull between Alex and Piper that continues in the latest season of the Netflix prison dramedy.
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Laura Prepon as Alex Vause on 'Orange Is the New Black'

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the first eight episodes of Orange Is the New Black season four.]

When Orange Is the New Black fans began binge-watching season four on Friday, they didn't have to wait very long for answers on the fate of one of their favorite characters.

When viewers last saw Alex Vause, played by Laura Prepon, on the finale of season three, the Litchfield inmate was trapped in the greenhouse with a man from her past who had been sent there to kill her.

"Everyone knows that I’m back, but nobody has any idea what the storyline is going to be," Prepon tells The Hollywood Reporter while discussing the new season. "You can’t really guess what happens."

She's right.

In a premiere twist on the Jenji Kohan-created series — and one of the many reasons fans will find season four as shocking and addictive as ever — Lolly (Lori Petty) ends up saving Alex's life by attacking the hitman, but when Alex returns to the greenhouse later that night, she finds him on his last breath and has to kill him with her bare hands. Later, Frieda (Dale Soules) offers her assistance and the three dismember and bury the body in the garden. 

"She’s never personally had to do that to someone," says Prepon. "It completely rattles her and it just haunts her."

The trauma, and Alex's subsequent vulnerability, has her inching her way back to Piper (Taylor Schilling) in what seems to signal a slow-burning reunion — the pair broke up in season three when Piper left Alex for Stella (Ruby Rose).

"Alex really needs Piper and needs that relationship to kind of humanize her again," says Prepon about Alex's headspace. 

Piper, meanwhile, experiences her own shocking trauma in episode seven when, after playing "Godfather" of prison, she finds herself unintentionally heading up a white-power group and getting branded a Nazi by the Dominican girls. Led by Maria (Jessica Pimentel), they burn a swastika into her arm.

Viewers will have to keep bingeing to see how the relationship plays out, but Prepon talks to THR here about what the first eight episodes mean for Alex and Piper, what it was like to shoot the insane premiere scene and Alex's evolution: "At this point, she doesn’t know if she’s a good person or not." 

You are alive! We knew you were back this season, but are you happy to be able to talk about it and have fans see the first episode?

Yes! I'm alive, luckily, which is awesome. Everyone knows that I’m back, but nobody has any idea what the storyline is going to be, so it’s great. And the way that it goes down, where we have garbage bags taped on our arms and we’re doing that whole crazy montage. You can’t really guess what happens and I think fans are going to love it. 

This season sees a lot of dark "firsts" for the characters and thanks to you (and Lolly and Frieda), Orange gets its first dismembered and buried body on the prison grounds.

Yeah … in the garden.

How do you think killing (and then dismembering) someone with her bare hands impacts Alex — immediately and then in the long run?

In the drug world that Alex used to work in for Kubra, she would witness him doing all of these terrible things and yes, she was part of the whole thing, but she’s never had to do something in the way that she had to in season four. She’s never personally had to do that to someone. And it’s kind of this necessity and it’s something that really, as you can imagine, completely rattles her and it just haunts her.

Alex eventually goes to Red for help, giving you and Kate Mulgrew some time together this season.

Yeah, that was awesome because I never really have scenes with her. And also, this kind of weird friendship she has with Lolly. It’s such an interesting dynamic where they started out at odds, thinking Lolly’s trying to kill her, and now they’re united in this whole thing. It’s a really interesting friendship formed on the show. 

Last season we saw Alex paranoid, and now we see her struggling to keep a lid on this secret and massive cover-up. How do you describe Alex's emotional state compared to in the past? 

I think that when Ayden came into the greenhouse at the end of season three, it was vindication because she was like, “OK, cool, I’m not crazy.” The whole season, Piper thought she was losing her mind and would basically make Alex seem like she’s paranoid. When that happens — it’s like when anybody is trying to convince someone of something and they keep saying it’s not true — you start to think you’re crazy. When she actually had to deal with the situation with Lolly: Alex has never had to do something like this. She’s put herself in dangerous positions before, but this is next level. And the way that she handles it, it definitely haunts her, for sure, and we get to see all these different things that she’s going through. Not only did she have to kill him out of necessity, but then the scene where they’re like cutting up the body [laughs] — it’s intense, man!

It was like a scene out of Dexter.

Yeah, totally! But we loved shooting that scene. We shot it in the dead of summer in the greenhouse, which already traps heat, and we had garbage bags taped on our wrists and arms and everything. We were dripping sweat the whole time, I literally felt like I was cutting weight like a fighter, thinking: “I’m cutting weight for a weigh-in, this is insane.” I loved that scene so much and I knew it would turn out great. But then, dealing with the aftermath: Alex really needs Piper and needs that relationship to kind of humanize her again.

You’ve spoken before about how Alex and Piper are magnets to each other. Is Piper Alex’s soulmate, albeit a damaged or twisted one?

I definitely think that there’s a part of that. Ultimately, you just can’t control where your heart goes. Anybody would look at that relationship and be like: Alex needs to get as far away from Piper as possible, and maybe vice versa. The fact remains, you can’t control it and it’s one of those things where you almost can’t help yourself.

The first half of this season sees them off on their own storylines. You know the fans are watching the first six episodes and just waiting for more Alex and Piper. 

In season four there is a lot of Alex and Piper, it’s just a different dynamic. They always have that magnetic thing, but it’s more about how they’re both going through these crazy things. Their dynamic has kind of changed a little bit. It’s also like the Ross and Rachel thing [from Friends] where you can’t always have them together. They have to break up and get back together again, and break up and get back together again. Alex and Piper are really different from Ross and Rachel, obviously, but it’s that thing of: You can’t keep the main relationship together, you always gotta keep it interesting.

What do you enjoy more: The scenes where they're a happy couple, or the ones where there’s the push and pull? 

Honestly, I love all their scenes together. I love the crazy library scenes from season three and I love scenes where she and I are just hanging out and talking and whatever, so it depends. Taylor and I just have great chemistry so I love when they do scenes together. In season three, there was so much of that tumultuous tension, especially in the beginning of the season with the hate-sex and all of that, but then this season when they’re together, it’s more because they need each other. They’re always going to have a tumultuous relationship no matter what, that’s just the way they are.

As the season progresses, we see them start to gravitate toward each other again. How much of that is Alex needing Piper, and then how much of it is Piper needing Alex after her swastika attack goes down?

I think both of them realize: When stuff goes down, they go to each other for help and for love and for a lot of different reasons. They have their different kind of fights, but when it comes down to it, when they need each other, they’re there for each other. We’ve seen them go through so many things, but it’s always grounded in the fact that they do really love each other. So when everything hits the fan, they go to each other.

When Alex, Red and Norma (Annie Golden) are fixing Piper’s tattoo in episode eight, that seems like the moment where Alex and Piper are really reconnected.

Piper started acting like this big fish in this little pond and Alex is just like, “No, I don’t think so. This isn’t you.” So when the branding thing happens, it’s like Piper learns a lesson and in that moment, when we see that she’s totally freaked out and scared and in over her head, I think Alex is there for her and realizes she’s going to be there for her because she’s just in over her head.

With everything being upped in intensity this season — and more is to come during the show's final episodes — do you see Alex and Piper getting to a point where they need each other on a deeper level, and maybe even where they won't break up every few episodes? 

Honestly, I don’t know. Alex and Piper, because it is a tumultuous thing, I don’t know if people like that can stay together for too long. Something happens where they break up but because they really care about each other they get back together, and it’s this whole push-pull thing. That’s not going to change anytime soon, I don’t think. Because they would literally have to become two different people. 

Alex has questionable morals — that’s what landed her in prison — but it does seem like she's trying to do the right thing, in the ways that she can. Is prison changing her?

All these girls are constantly growing. If you look at season one from where they are now, you can’t help but grow and expand and especially with the things Alex has gone through, dealing with her integrity and her personal ethics and morals. At this point, she doesn’t know if she’s a good person or not. 

Do we know how much time Alex has left on her sentence?

I don’t know, actually. Piper, I don’t know how much is left on hers either now. It’s vague. It’s kind of like on That '70s Show, we were all technically in high school but we never actually went to school or showed us in the time-frame: Are we juniors, are we seniors, did we graduate? [Laughs.] So it’s kind of this mysterious thing.

The show always speaks to timely issues. What societal impact do you think this season will have and how much do you enjoy being on a show that thrusts itself into conversations that need to be had?

It’s amazing because its not just a job you’re going to, there’s a bigger message. Besides the fact that I get to act with amazing women, the fact that we do hit on these social issues: the overcrowding and transgender issues. When the show came out, besides The L Word, there wasn’t another show with a same-sex couple at the helm like Alex and Piper. Our show became a voice for this new kind of generation of the LGBT community and it’s incredible to be a part of something bigger. Whenever you do something that raises awareness, it’s always a great thing. To be involved in something like that where I love going to work every day and it’s more than just an acting job is just incredible. I love this season. I think it encompasses exactly what our show’s about and who we are. And I’m just really excited for people to see it.

Season four of Orange Is the New Black is streaming now on Netflix. For THR's complete OITNB coverage, including cast interviews, keep up with The Live Feed here.

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