'Orange Is the New Black' Casting Director Reveals How She Found Diverse Stars

Jennifer Euston
Jennifer Euston
 Lance Dawes

This story first appeared in the Aug. 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. 

Growing up, Jennifer Euston mastered a pop-culture party trick: She could identify every working character actor. Upon graduating from NYU, she parlayed that skill into a career, starting out on Law & Order, and later tackling such projects as Zoolander. Her small-screen breakthrough came with HBO's Girls, where Euston, 39, honed a new skill -- the ability to find faces rarely seen on TV -- that has become a cornerstone of her brand. The prospect of diving into a fresh pool of talent, often from the New York theater scene, was what drew her to Orange: "The show gives these people that would normally play 'Cop No. 3' in one episode, 10 episodes to create a character." 

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Kate Mulgrew, 59 (Galina "Red" Reznikov)

As a self-proclaimed Star Trek geek, Euston was excited to bring in Mulgrew (aka Voyager's Captain Janeway) to read for Red. "She scared me because she's so intimidating," Euston says. An added bonus, Mulgrew was game for changing her look, later cutting her hair and dyeing it for the role of the kitchen boss. Adds Euston: "She transformed into this force of nature." (Among the women passed over for the part: Barbara Rosenblat, whom Kohan later cast as Miss Rosa, the cancer patient prominent in season two.)

Laura Prepon, 34 (Alex Vause)

Prepon initially auditioned for Piper, but she didn't quite have the girl-next-door feel Kohan had envisioned. The showrunner has said, "Laura Prepon in prison? I don't worry about her." Instead, Kohan tailored for Prepon the part of Alex, a one-time drug smuggler and Piper's ex-girlfriend. To hear Kohan tell it, she found she had no other choice: "I was so dazzled by how f—ing good she was that it just was like, 'All right, what are we going to do with her?' " Prepon will return for season three as a series regular.

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Laverne Cox, 30 (Sophia Burset)

"There's not a really big population of transgender African-American actors in the country to draw from," says Euston, who had auditioned Cox for an indie film, Adult World. Cox didn't get that part, but when the role of Sophia came along, Cox was among the first called, and her audition was the clear standout. Kohan suggests she's thrilled by the advances Cox, a recent Time cover subject, has made for the transgender community but warns: "I don't want people to confuse Laverne with Sophia."

Taylor Schilling, 30 (Piper Chapman)

"Hands down, Piper was the hardest part to cast," says Euston. "There was an element missing when I read tons of girls." Then Schilling's name came to her, and she hunted down the actress, whose last crack at series TV was NBC's short-lived medical drama Mercy in 2009. Schilling's audition tape proved she had the vulnerability they wanted. Plus, adds Euston: "She was ready to dive into a complicated role, whatever that meant for her in terms of acting, the sex involved or the nudity."

Uzo Aduba, 33 (Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren)

When Aduba came in to read, wearing no makeup and with her hair styled in knots, it was for the role of sporty track star Janae. "People always go into auditions trying to look their best, but this is a show that I don't want you looking your best," says Euston. Aduba, whose résumé was lined with Broadway musicals, didn't get that part, but Kohan decided Aduba could be their "Crazy Eyes" instead. Says Kohan: "It's so fascinating to talk to this incredibly sane, bright woman and watch her transform."

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