Before "bingeing" entered the vernacular, Jenji Kohan pitched a show about an ensemble of women who inhabit a prison. Now, as the groundbreaking dramedy signs off, 23 key talents open up about taking a leap of faith and subverting expectations to give Netflix’s most-watched series an unforgettable ending.
It took only 13 hours for Orange Is the New Black to change the television industry and cement disruptor Netflix as a home for original content.
And it all started with a "yes" from the streamer's head of originals Cindy Holland, who, with the support of content chief Ted Sarandos, handed out a then-unheard-of 13-episode, straight-to-series order for a prison-set dramedy from Jenji Kohan. The showrunner was wrapping a long run on Showtime's Weeds when a friend gave her Piper Kerman's memoir, Orange Is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison. After Showtime and HBO passed, a fortuitous announcement about a high-profile David Fincher project put Netflix in the running for what would be Kohan's Weeds follow-up and now, seven seasons later, its most-watched original.
The hourlong comedic drama starring Taylor Schilling filmed its first season in a vacuum. An abandoned children's psychiatric center in New York was transformed into Litchfield Penitentiary — a dingy setting that was filled with vibrant characters like Taystee, Crazy Eyes and Big Boo. The audience's window into the unseen world of a federal women's penitentiary was through Piper, a wealthy, white Brooklynite who was serving a 15-month sentence for her role in an ex-girlfriend’s drug ring. The relatively unknown cast had no expectations for a company then best associated with its red envelope DVD mailers.
But that July 2013 weekend, TV viewers would meet and fall in love with a cast of screw-ups and give birth to a new industry term: binge. The series — inclusive before it was commonplace — catapulted Netflix into scripted originals, racked up Emmy recognition and became the streaming giant's (allegedly) most-watched original offering. (Per Sarandos, 105 million of Netflix's 151 million paid subscribers worldwide have watched at least one episode of the show.)
During the course of its seven-season run, Kohan would steer Orange and its breakout ensemble into groundbreaking and daring territory, with prescient storytelling and a desire to make viewers laugh while demanding accountability from the prison industrial system at large. Orange blazed a trail with inclusive LGBTQ stories, sociopolitical storylines involving criminal justice reform, the Black Lives Matter movement and now, with its final season, immigration detention centers.
With the final season now streaming, the castmembers, producers and execs responsible for Orange Is the New Black take The Hollywood Reporter behind the scenes of the show's seven-year journey.
PIPER KERMAN, AUTHOR/EXECUTIVE CONSULTANT The book was initially optioned by Ryan Murphy before it was completed. He had a Fox deal and I remember naively thinking, "I hope the show doesn't come out before my book is done." That didn't happen, and the rights reverted to me.
JENJI KOHAN, CREATOR I peppered Piper with questions for an hour, and when she left thought I had blown the meeting.
TARA HERRMANN, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER It took Jenji’s meeting with Piper to get her to give Lionsgate permission to the rights.
KEVIN BEGGS, LIONSGATE TV CHAIRMAN Orange came up when we were in the penultimate season of Weeds. Anything Jenji ever brought forward we said, "Yes, let's try it."
KOHAN First we went to Showtime, who we had just given eight years of Weeds to. They said no. So, fuck them!
BEGGS Orange wasn't where Showtime was going. Bob Greenblatt was gone, and there was a paradigm shift after Weeds, The Big C and Nurse Jackie. David Nevins’ regime pivoted. HBO called and was tracking the book. They were fans of Jenji's, and asked to hear the pitch. They bought it in the room, but then business affairs never called. There were some internal differences of opinion about half-hour or hour. The next round was going to be to take it to the market, but then Netflix announced House of Cards.
CINDY HOLLAND, NETFLIX VP ORIGINALS House of Cards was a fortuitous happening. The producers reached out when we were thinking that, at some point, we would want to get into commissioning original content. Once we made that decision, we decided we should build out a slate of programming. Orange really stuck out to me. We were big fans of Jenji and had Weeds both on DVD and on streaming, so I knew there was an audience.
KOHAN I was enthusiastic about Netflix. I had come through decades of the pilot system, which I always felt was stupid and inefficient. And here was this new thing saying, "Let’s shoot the whole season" — and with a respectable budget.
HERRMANN Without even a pilot script.
HOLLAND All the series we commissioned in that first slate were straight-to-series and full-season orders. We wanted all the money invested to show up in front of our members as entertainment, and we frankly didn't have the capacity to have a big development slate and do a bunch of pilots and then settle on a few things.
BEGGS Our production guys were ecstatic. They thought this show was going to be cheap and manageable, because you never leave the prison. And then we got the first script. It moved very quickly creatively, but then it was nine months to structure the deal template. There was a lag period because — what we have found in all the new platforms — they don’t have a template. It was a fair amount of delayed gratification, but by the time it all came together, Jenji had a room and it was going.
HOLLAND The most important thing was finding the people who would inhabit and become these characters for the imaginations of the audience, and the best way to do that is to cast people you haven't really seen before on television.
JEN EUSTON, CASTING DIRECTOR People were passing. That first season was a lot of begging. Nobody knew what this was. Piper was the hardest role to cast. Jenji said she needed a unicorn, and I had nobody. I was looking for Piper the entire pilot and didn’t end up casting her until two weeks before.
HERRMANN We met with Katie Holmes and Kate Hudson.
EUSTON I had been tracking Taylor Schilling the whole time we were reading people, but she was on vacation. I finally got her in and sent her best readings to Jenji. I said, "I found her." And Jenji said, "You did." [Editor's note: Taylor Schilling was not available for interviews and did not respond to emailed questions before publication.]
HERRMANN There was a naturalism to Taylor that is undeniable. And the match was made during the chemistry read between Laura Prepon and Taylor.
EUSTON Laura Prepon came in to read for Piper and Jenji said, “I don’t believe that girl would be scared in prison. I don’t believe she would go through any of the stuff Piper goes through. I think she’s Alex.” Laura had her hair dyed for a movie, and she came to the audition with black hair and the eyebrows.
LAURA PREPON (ALEX VAUSE) A lot of the girls read for other characters. When I read Alex, I was like, "This makes way more sense." When Taylor and I read together, it was that X-factor you can never explain. When I left I thought, "That was awesome and special." I got the call and moved to New York three days later.
NATASHA LYONNE (NICKY NICHOLS) I wanted to read for Lorna. I remember thinking that character made more sense because I was really in a place of just trying to get a job.
YAEL STONE (LORNA MORELLO) I auditioned for Nicky first.
LYONNE I got the script for Orange when I was doing a two-episode finale role on Weeds. Orange felt more viable because it was like an imaginary show on an imaginary network.
STONE I had just moved to New York and got married a few days before, so I brought the one bright red lipstick I had and did one take. The little world I imagined for Lorna included her strange voice. I’m Australian, and I was terrified from the beginning about the accent.
KOHAN When we started the show, we told Jen — and she fucking ran with this — that every actress, even if they have one line, has to be top of her game. Because we don’t know where it’s going to go.
DANIELLE BROOKS (TASHA "TAYSTEE" JEFFERSON) I didn’t know anything about the story aside from that it was set in a prison and they were calling it a web series. The character was named Delicious, from the book. The role was for two episodes.
UZO ADUBA (SUZANNE "CRAZY EYES" WARREN) I walked out of the audition thinking I wasn’t going to get it because I was 25 minutes late and that this would be my 99th "no." In my heart, I quit acting that day. When my manager and agent called and said, "Remember the part you auditioned for?" I said, “Yup, the part of Janae, the track star." They said, "You didn't get it — but they would like to offer you another part.”
LEA DELARIA (CARRIE "BIG BOO" BLACK) They first brought me in for a guard. Then for Anita DeMarco, the part Lin Tucci plays. I was feeling very good about it but my manager said, "There isn't a part for you. They swear they're going to write something.” I had a hissy fit: "If there isn’t a part for me in a show that takes place in a women’s prison, then I fuckin' quit show business." Jenji said the same thing and wrote Big Boo for me.
KOHAN Jen brought in people with chops, and the bench was so deep. These were people who were underutilized for a long time because they were in New York or had been doing theater. We had that confidence that we could pluck someone from the corner and that they could rise to the occasion.
EUSTON Diversity can mean a lot of things. It was more than ethnicity. It was in types — character actors, women who weren’t stick-thin, women who weren’t “beautiful.” The satisfaction in getting many theater actresses or actresses I’ve known for years cast into roles that weren’t just "Nurse No. 1" — roles that had names, history and arcs that became series regulars — I’ve never been asked to cast that before.
SELENIS LEYVA (GLORIA MENDEZ) I had given up acting and got a call for an episode or two. My first day on set I did that one line where I say, “Oh great, another fucking coconut” [about the Daya character not speaking Spanish] and I remember Natasha Lyonne going, “Heh! You’re funny.” When you’re a day player, nobody pays attention to you. After that, people from the crew started introducing themselves.
DASCHA POLANCO (DAYANARA "DAYA" DIAZ) Everything was new to me, I had no idea what series agreements meant. In the beginning, I remember a lot of backlash: "This is a stereotype show about women in prison." And, “You have to be careful about the roles you choose when fighting for diversity.” I was planning on finishing my nursing clinicals. I didn’t even know if I was going to be a part of the second season.
LAURA GOMEZ (BLANCA FLORES) The description for Blanca was, "Crazy woman in the bathroom stall talking to the devil." I don’t think she had a name. We have all evolved.
ALYSIA REINER (NATALIE "FIG" FIGUEROA) There was a really big thing about the show where if you’re a prisoner, you had to be willing to show everything and that was important to them. They wanted it to be really authentic. I remember being excited that Fig wouldn’t have to get naked.
BROOKS I almost didn’t take the job because I thought I had to be topless. I thought it was going to affect my career.
LYONNE The first day I saw Danielle acting and met her, she shifted from being the hardest person to this giggly schoolgirl who had just gotten out of Julliard. That was the moment it clicked for me that this was a very heavy-duty show because, other than me, there was no typecasting happening. (Laughs.)
EUSTON Pennsatucky was tough to cast because it was a very challenging role. We read people and nobody was hitting the mark. Something happened where Taryn Manning was in the tabloids, but I put her on the list because she’s such a great actress.
TARYN MANNING (TIFFANY "PENNSATUCKY" DOGGETT) I got out [of jail] and I got the part. This character is everything I am not. She’s racist and homophobic. But I made a mistake and thought I wouldn't get hired. I isolated myself and didn't make many friends that first season. As they all got along and had a great time, I was sitting over on the side in character like, "Screw them." That's when I realized that I was a little bit more method than I thought.
DELARIA There was no diva bullshit. Jenji had a very strict no-diva policy on set.
PABLO SCHREIBER (GEORGE "PORNSTACHE" MENDEZ) Because I was the villain, I was separate from the atmosphere on set. He was only called Pornstache in the script.
LAVERNE COX (SOPHIA BURSET) I remember seeing that there was a character named Pornstache and I was like, "OK, I'm in."
SCHREIBER Jenji’s one prerequisite was that she wanted me to try on mustaches, so we auditioned the mustache, not me. I had done Weeds and loved Jenji and the character she wrote for me.
JASON BIGGS (LARRY BLOOM) I wasn't sure where Larry went and if he was going to be in the whole season. They didn’t know how the first season was going to end. There are a lot of storylines and flashbacks. But Larry and Piper were, at least for that first season, the beating heart.
KOHAN When we started with Netflix, they didn’t know what they were doing. They had never really done television. Their executives would come sit on sets to see how TV gets made.
HERRMANN It felt like outlaw country that we were whipping into shape.
HOLLAND Jenji likes to surprise people who are reading drafts. She wanted to name a black character with the whitest name she could think of, so she chose "Black Cindy" Holland. Lionsgate was less receptive, so it ended up being "Black Cindy" (played by Adrienne C. Moore). When I would show up on set, they would call me "White Cindy." Someone introduced me to Adrienne by telling her, "This is your namesake." We both looked at each other and laughed.
KOHAN There were not and continue to not be any added steps from Netflix for the sake of bureaucracy and pissing in the corners. When they’d give notes, they approach it as fans and as people invested in the show. They ask smart questions.
HERRMANN And if it was about the bottom line, they were truthful about that. They didn’t hide their notes behind some money-saving situation. If they wanted to save money they would come and have that specific conversation. It’s very open and transparent.
PREPON Not having limits really let us express how we thought the characters should be portrayed. My first scene with Taylor was the opening shower scene. But it wasn’t gratuitous. I knew there was nudity and my main thing is to make sure that it feeds the story.
HOLLAND We wanted Jenji to have the freedom to tell the story she wanted to tell as authentically as she could.
NICK SANDOW (JOE CAPUTO) Right off the bat I knew this was different. In that scene where Caputo winds up masturbating [in his office], I was trying to understand him and humanize what was there on the page. I had thoughts and ideas and they gave me permission to do that.
STONE I was standing with Natasha Lyonne and we're practicing fisting, and I'm using this wild accent and thinking, "Holy shit, am I going to get away with this?"
LYONNE If I had a line about squirting, I would really lean in. I was always trying to do a very good job and they kept putting me in more episodes. I remember talking to Jenji about the whack-a-mole nature of addiction and how easily it can shift from drugs to food to sex to gambling to shopping to cellphones to whatever. And then in that season when Lea DeLaria and I are having the fuck-off [sex competition] and we're also eating cookies vigorously, that was a very real manifestation of that conversation. By that point, everything was starting to feel like we were all in this thing together.
DELARIA We had kind of a mutual admiration society. The first day I got on set, Piper Kerman came over, shook my hand and said, "When I was a drug dealer" — and she put air quotes around "drug dealer" — "I used to see you do stand-up in Provincetown."
EUSTON Kate Mulgrew was huge in the pilot. In the book, her name was Pop and she wasn’t Russian. All the names and ethnicities got changed. We were looking at real Russian actresses, but it just wasn’t having the gravitas that Kate could bring.
KATE MULGREW (GALINA "RED" REZNIKOV) I talked to Piper about Red's inspiration, and she told me, "I dedicated the book to this woman who essentially saved my life in prison."
KERMAN My single greatest fear was that the show would suck. But watching that very first scene with Red and Piper in the cafeteria, my whole anxiety level began to diminish. When they broke, they introduced me to Jodie Foster, who wound up directing episode three [and later, the season two premiere].
EUSTON I was looking for a transgender character for a movie earlier that year and read Laverne Cox. You’d think that Sophia would be the hardest part for me to cast, but that was actually one of the easiest because there was no competition.
COX I was in a lot of debt, behind on my rent and felt like I needed to go back to grad school and do something to make some real money. I booked it and had little to do in the first two episodes.
ADUBA I remember being in hair and makeup one day and Laverne was giving me a trans education — a better trans education — and I said to her, "You are going to change lives." And she just laughed.
KERMAN Laverne Cox's casting is one of the most important things that has ever happened on television.
MULGREW There was a hierarchy but it was an absolutely equal playing field. Characters would be dropped and picked up again, so there had to be a certain humility.
BROOKS Taystee got out on parole during season one, and I didn’t know if she was coming back. I had done 10 episodes and made the most money I had ever made. We got a bump in the middle of shooting season one. I first started making minimum, which is a little less than $1,000 an episode, and I was making $5,000 an episode that first season.
STONE I was going from episode contract to contract each time I would come in. If Jenji was on set, I was genuinely avoiding her because I thought, "If I just stay away, then she won’t notice I’m on the show and I won’t get fired."
ADRIENNE C. MOORE ("BLACK CINDY" HAYES) Black Cindy was introduced in the seventh episode of the first season. I felt like she was definitely on a case-by-case episode trial, where they said, "Let’s see what she can do."
DIANE GUERRERO (MARITZA RAMOS) I was shy but Jackie [Cruz, who plays Marisol "Flaca" Gonzales] and I were witty together. She was always trying to get me to do something I was nervous to do. She’d call me out and say, "We got drunk last night and Diane wanted to kiss me!” I would scream she was lying. But she would say, "They’re going to write for us if we do this.” And they did.
KERMAN They had been in production for a while when they told me about the concept for the opening credits [a montage to Regina Spektor's "You’ve Got Time"]. They asked, "Can you help us find some formerly incarcerated women who would be willing to participate?" I was among them, and that was a beautiful sign of Jenji's creative intention.
DELARIA Kate and I filmed a scene near the end of the first season, and I was thinking, "This feels like a hit to me." I turned to Kate, and there must have been something about the look on my face, because she said, "Don't say it out loud. Don't jinx it."
HOLLAND It was certainly risky to renew Orange for a second season before the first launched. But we were confident in Jenji's vision and we wanted to keep on a schedule. And I was excited about having a season two launch help serve as some of the Emmy campaign for season one.
BEGGS The idea that 13 episodes would just materialize at one moment was so foreign. There was a fair amount of unsettledness about how it would work. What if they watch them all in one day and then it's 11 months and 30 days until they see more? Does the social conversation keep going?
HOLLAND We had some anxiety around the term "binge" and we kept trying to find other verbs to help people through. But it's what the media and audience kept coming back with and stuck to, so we just learned to love and accept it.
KOHAN The reaction was very positive. But we were working so much trying to break stories [for season two]. We were in a bubble, and the outside reception of it really was not at the forefront for us.
HERRMANN The people who felt it the most were the actors in New York who were being recognized at their day jobs.
BROOKS In the course of 13 hours, our lives changed. On July 12, 2013 [the day after the show launched], I remember coming from my apartment in Harlem and getting on the bus and people were asking for photos and saying, “Are you that girl?”
MANNING I thought I'd be assassinated for this role. She's such a horrible person! I was with Lea in New York the day after it came out and it was like The Beatles were walking down the street.
PREPON Cameron Esposito was asked who the Channing Tatum of lesbians is and she said "Laura Prepon." And then people were like, "Oh my God, you’re the Channing Tatum of lesbians!"
SCHREIBER I got all different versions of reactions from real prison guards from, "It's so realistic — that's exactly what it's like" to the opposite to "I know a guy exactly like that."
PREPON When young girls come up to me and say that watching my character gave her the courage to come out to her family? That is huge. People felt represented by Alex and Piper. People were dressing up like us for Halloween.
BEGGS They didn't tell us a [ratings] number after season one. At Lionsgate, we came up with a verbal scorecard from Netflix, which was "amazing," "really great," "exceeded expectations" or "we'll see." Orange seemed to be an "A" right out of the gate. They indicated there was a large percentage of people that watched all 13 episodes from midnight through to the next day and our heads were just spinning on the notion that people would stay up all night and binge the whole season. They didn't share anything past that in the next year.
HOLLAND I said, "All you have to know is they were pleased, Jenji." She just teased me about that recently.
KOHAN We’re still not sure what the numbers are! It’s very freeing, but it makes it much harder to negotiate. (Laughs.) So, it’s a double-edge sword.
STONE We started off in small backyard garden parties at Ted Sarandos' house and then this company just exploded. We were watching incredible people smash glass ceilings and do things that seemed very unlikely from a ragtag group of unexpected performers.
HOLLAND We didn't know it would become as popular as it has. We knew that we loved it and that there was some audience for it. Then, after season one launched, to see the number of people watching, the speed with which they were watching, the outpouring of support on social media and the fact that it is a show that does travel around the world, we were excited.
BROOKS There were so many of us that were starting out at the same time and just trying to navigate this new opportunity that had been opened to us on every level.
COX My Katie Couric interview in January 2014 was the first time that I saw transgender people on television pushing back against a narrative and lines of questioning that objectified us, that sensationalized our bodies and experiences. After that, things kept exploding. Time put me on the cover. The next season of Orange was coming out and the Emmy nomination came later that year.
EUSTON After the Emmy nominations, agents came knocking and big names wanted to be on the show. We said no. Once you put a celebrity in that prison, the show's over.
PREPON You can never imagine that something is going to take off the way that Orange did. It’s like lightning in a bottle and it happens very rarely.
HERRMANN When we had gotten picked up for a season two before season one came out, Laura said she was not going to come back.
PREPON People were pretty upset when they found out that I wasn’t actually contracted on the show. I was on That '70s Show for eight years, then I did October Road and Are You There Chelsea? and I didn’t want to go on to another full six-year contract just yet. I did have another job that I had to figure out. Before we were finished filming the first season, I knew they wanted me to come back.
HERRMANN We had been working on writing Alex out of the show, so it was great news when we found out that Laura was coming back. It was a lot of work to go back and re-break those stories — but it was welcome news.
PREPON Jenji and I had a very open conversation and I told her that I wanted to be there as much as I could. It all worked out the way it's supposed to. The second season, I did four episodes [when Piper runs into Alex during her transfer to Chicago], and then I came back for season three. Jenji and I both wanted Alex on the show and so we figured it out.
EUSTON When Piper gets shipped to Chicago [to start off season two], that was another prison I had to cast entirely. When Jenji told me that, I almost fell over. We had a gigantic recurring cast and only owned the series regulars, so we had to work around 40 recurring character schedules a week, sometimes more. Matt McGorry, who had played C.O. Bennett the whole first season, got How to Get Away With Murder. Jenji has a relationship with Shonda [Rhimes] and so they wrote him out.
POLANCO People were more upset about Bennett leaving Daya than they were at the beginning of their romance. They were mad about the relationship to start, and then they got mad when he left!
HERRMANN We would have loved to continue on with the Bennett-Daya storyline. Although, what we ended up doing with the story we told was beautiful.
KOHAN You shift and you discover more road. We try to give people the freedom to do what they can. Sometimes they can't come play with us and we have to work around it. We don’t begrudge them. But it can make life very difficult in the room!
SCHREIBER I was offered a series regular gig for the second season and I decided not to do it. I chose to do The Brink on HBO, which at the time felt like a no-brainer because it was a chance to do comedy and be a lead. And I liked Orange as a recurring gig. It will always be a show about women's prison and not prison guards. I always wanted to keep the character alive, but I didn't want that to be my main show.
BIGGS The Larry-Polly [Maria Dizzia] affair was the nail in the coffin. I wasn’t surprised that by season three I wasn’t coming back as a regular. It was a bummer to not return, but I got a lot more out of it than I thought when I first read the script.
REINER At the end of season two, Jenji wrote me the most beautiful note before she sent me the last episode. She said, "We love you so much. This is where we’re going with the character. It has nothing to do with you. Please don’t take it personally." I cried for days. But the gift of that was that I mourned it and let it go, so everything that came after was just amazing icing.
COX As a guest actor, I always had the freedom to do other things. For a while, being a series regular was a dream of mine and the first time it happened was with [CBS drama] Doubt. Being more engaged in Orange was not something that was presented. My role was whatever Jenji wanted it to be. I'm so insanely grateful because this show changed my life.
BROOKS I don’t know if I ever felt secure on Orange. The only time I felt like they couldn’t get rid of Taystee is when Poussey (Samira Wiley) died. Because Poussey is such a beloved character and Taystee is such a beloved character and they’re so close, they couldn’t kill Taystee off after Poussey.
KOHAN We tried to think of all sorts of characters to kill instead, because no one wanted to lose Poussey. But ultimately, that’s why we had to lose Poussey — because it had the most impact. There was so much hope. We told Lauren Morelli to tell [Wiley]. And then we had the follow-up conversation. [Morelli, a writer on Orange, and Wiley met on the show and are now married. Editor's note: Wiley was unable to participate due to scheduling conflicts.]
HERRMANN Samira trusted the process and the story. There were no hard feelings. She was sad to lose a job and also a character she has grown to love, but she totally understood what we were doing.
HOLLAND She lived with that secret far longer than the cast. We kept it quiet and soldiered on. It was a turning point in the show and a maturing event for all of us.
ADUBA People are able to separate themselves from Black Lives Matter because they don't know those very real people who are dying. But they do know Poussey Washington and they are going to feel something. We were actually making that season in the midst of Eric Garner’s death, and Jenji had already written it.
KOHAN Samira was comforting other castmembers when they were so upset.
MOORE You see what was so powerful about her death in the seasons that came after: the prison revolt, setting up the memorial fund and the library.
DELARIA None of us knew what the show was going to look like when the riot ended. I loved that season's politics and what they had to say about women and race and what's happening in prison.
KOHAN We're proud of season five and those writers. It was a transitional time for us.
HERRMANN It was ambitious to do the full season over just a few days. [Season five played out over 72 hours.] I’m bummed of all the seasons that it didn’t get some awards attention.
LEYVA When I saw the criticism of the riot I was like, "Do you understand how hard this season was?"
SANDOW Nearly the whole time I was in boxers. And for a good chunk of it, I was in a Porta-Potty.
REINER It is so hard for seven years in a prison to really create new circumstance and stakes that make people want to keep watching. And yet, they did.
BEGGS There was a lot of hand-wringing about when they left Agrestic in Weeds. What if it falls off a cliff? I was freaking out about that and I was wrong. We learned that Jenji is focused on not resting on her laurels. Every season has to be propulsive and have something new and bold. Sometimes that comes with a big price tag — usually a $2 million set. When they moved prisons [to go down to Max for season six], that didn’t make us nervous creatively but it was a big added build.
GUERRERO I was surprised when Flaca and I were separated. There were rumors: "There are some people going on a certain bus and those people won’t be back for season six." It raised the stakes. Viewers felt how awful it is to be forcefully separated from the only friend you have or the only love you know, and that’s what we experience when you’re separating families by imprisoning them.
HERRMANN The riot took us where we needed to go in season six.
DELARIA I got a phone call from Jenji telling me I wasn't going to be on the show anymore. I thanked her. When did we ever see a positive portrayal of a butch character before Orange? I went from being the first openly gay comic to perform on TV in America to being the first dyke actor to use a dildo on TV. (Laughs.) Butches have always been ostracized within our community and Orange changed a lot of minds around that.
KOHAN We miss all of the characters who didn’t come back. We miss the meth twins (Emma Myles and Julie Lake), we miss Sister Ingalls (Beth Fowler), we miss Yoga (Constance Shulman). But sometimes, you gotta kill your babies in this business!
GOMEZ There were rumors of season eight happening while we were shooting season six.
BROOKS "Is this going to be it?" "I think it’s going to be it." "Jenji told me it’s going to be it." It was like that schoolgirl game of telephone. It felt like that until when we were getting closer and everyone is trying to renegotiate their contracts that it became real.
HOLLAND We didn't have a lot of conversation about the endgame. I let Jenji know how much we loved the show and I wanted the decision of when and how it ended to be in her hands. At some point, we looked at each other and she said, "I think season seven will be the last one." And I said, "OK."
KOHAN We didn’t plot the ending until we were in the room for season seven. Actors sign seven-year contracts and we were not going to keep this gang down on the farm. We could have brought in more people, but it was a combination of that, going out while we still felt strong and wanting to psychologically get released from prison — because when you work with this material, that’s where you’re living in your head and it can get very oppressive. There were a bunch of factors.
ADUBA You could feel the sun setting. It wasn't surprising when those calls came around.
BROOKS I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had done one more season.
HOLLAND I got a good handful of texts. Some of them thought their character was going to be killed off.
PREPON For the first time, we found out what our character arc was going to be.
KOHAN It was a little gift for our final season. Instead of computers, we gave them their arcs. (Laughs.)
HERRMANN Since season one, the joke ending that would come up occasionally was to get super meta and cast an actress to be Jenji who goes into Netflix and pitches a show!
KOHAN Piper having a meeting and then selling the show and having her watch someone playing her. We toyed with it. I was at dinner and joking about it and my 13-year-old son was like, "No. You cannot do that."
HOLLAND I would have laughed at them if they had pitched that to me.
HERRMANN That made it all seem fictionalized and a joke, and the show deserves more than that.
BEGGS Last season and this final season — in writing about the war on immigrants — Jenji was cranking out episodes as if she knew all along this is where it was going.
ADUBA Too many times it felt like something I would read in the news later. I don't know what magical newspaper Jenji is reading, but while we’re shooting this final season and talking about ICE, that was happening. And she had written these episodes six months before.
HERRMANN We went to a detention center in Adelanto, California. We had the privilege, I guess, of visiting just like you see in the prison behind glass on the phone with people who are just begging for some social services. It’s heartbreaking.
KOHAN We had speakers, lawyers and experts in the area of immigration come to the room. The visit to Adelanto was devastating. And now it’s sadly worse than what we even saw then.
[Warning: Final-season spoilers ahead.]
GUERRERO There was a moment that I had to pick between series. I expressed how important Orange was to me in telling this story but I also wanted to do these other jobs. Everyone made it work.
GOMEZ We were exploring what circumstances would have taken Blanca to the U.S. and the difference in Latin America in the '90s to have migrated from one country versus another. Blanca gets her freedom back and she gets her justice, and still chooses love. It’s not traditional — it never has been between them — but you can’t get more real than Blanca sacrificing everything to go with Diablo to this country after he gets deported. She is the most unlikely character to have such a beautiful love story.
MULGREW Using the kitchen as the aperture into ICE and the detention center was such a powerful device. When I walked onto that set I had to stand still and say, "Oh, my God. This is what we are doing." It’s being reflected for the first time on this show. The creative accountability is great and the creative risk is even greater. She’s got some balls, Jenji Kohan.
KOHAN We’re always hopeful [it can make an impact]. Our mandate is to foster empathy. And recognize humanity. And this is an extension of that.
GOMEZ What we did with season seven is going to be more of a source of information for many people than the news. You can escape the news, but not your favorite show.
REINER I lost it when we were shooting inside the immigration courtroom. We did three takes and I couldn’t stop crying. Our writers told us, "We went to these courtrooms. We didn’t candy-coat this, but this is not as bad as it actually is right now."
GUERRERO The treatment of Maritza’s ending was a portrayal of how people treat deportations — that sentiment that you vanish is true. It’s as if you’ve never existed. Martiza is on that plane to an uncertain life.
ADUBA Jenji and Tara said Suzanne was going to grow up. She was childlike; now, she's going to go to teenager. This is the first season I felt like Suzanne was in full possession of herself.
KOHAN Adrienne was the one who had the most impact on her storyline because we were going to a much darker place with Cindy and she really informed the direction we went in.
MOORE Initially they said that Cindy’s story would end with her being homeless. The show was created because every sentence — as our tagline says — has a story. If you condemn Cindy, what are we really saying about when people make mistakes? Do we just continue to punish them? Jenji called me a couple months later and said they changed her ending.
KOHAN Not an abject tragedy, which is where we were headed!
HERRMANN Kate's mother went through Alzheimer’s, so she was one who really held us to task.
MULGREW I just said, "Please don’t make it Alzheimer’s." Because we don’t have enough time to explore and do it justice in the 13 episodes we’re allotted. Let’s make it dementia or PTSD, whatever you want to call it that happens when you're hit too hard, too many times. And that’s what happened in the end. I was babbling Russian, cradling Lorna in my arms.
STONE There was such a tenderness and such rest in the unrest in that final scene with Lorna and Red. Nothing good was to come, except for this embrace. It was like the mother-daughter relationship both of them have always needed. But they’ve been abandoned.
MULGREW Jenji gave hope to the one I loved. Nicky put on Red's hat and coat and was telling people what to do in the kitchen. Natasha told me she could hardly get through it. We were crying when we read it. In the end, Red does get what she wanted most, which was love.
LYONNE Nicky really did go through the wringer. It was a very honest journey for the way she became the parent and the way the dynamic between Red and Nicky flipped.
MANNING I loved hearing that Pennsatucky was going to get really into school and excel and we'd see a positive situation — and then they said she's going to die of fentanyl. That it was just going to be too heavy for her body. It made me kind of bummed, to be honest, because Pennsatucky is so much smarter now. But I understood because it was going to really evoke emotion.
KOHAN Sometimes, as much as we want to grow, it’s very hard to escape past trauma and some people make it and a lot of people don’t.
MANNING Not everybody can make it after you're in that system. That's why it's devastating because she was actually getting better because of jail. What happened was an accident, for sure. What was on purpose was self-sabotage.
POLANCO I wanted Daya to have a moment of closure with Bennett. I wanted more of Pornstache, though we do see him [at the end] with Daya's baby. I wanted to see Daya actually inquire about her daughter. Her curiosity as a mother, her artistry — that all became obsolete. That’s what happens when you have no hope.
HERRMANN Taystee's story was one that we struggled with. She was such a beacon of light in the pilot and first season, and we struggled with leaving her on not the best note. I think a lot of people wish it could be different, and we all do, but in the end, we needed to tell the truthfulness of the story.
KOHAN The injustice of it.
BROOKS I was shocked Taystee contemplated suicide. To put a noose around my neck was uncomfortable on so many levels. Taystee was able to find the light at the end of the tunnel, but for so many people it’s not the case.
HERRMANN It didn’t come out of the blue that it became heavy. Starting from season one, the story progressed to lead us to this place. We have talked about Piper as the Trojan horse and we opened season one just giving the audience a glimpse of what this world was like, and sort of teetering on almost it not being dramatic enough for the world that we were talking about. Along the way, the fact that we progressed into a darker world was where it needed to go.
KOHAN And we were ever-vigilant of finding those moments of humor and light and ridiculousness, even when we got dark.
BROOKS I do realize they are saying something by putting Taystee in the forefront. I appreciated that shift within our story to not only give me a platform but so many other black women on this show an opportunity to be more than just a recurring or guest star. They’ve always kept the parallels of these two women [Taystee and Piper, who had the show's first prison scene] present. What we see in America is this struggle of really seeing the privilege and the difference, but this show allowed people to swallow that horse pill in an easier way because we also did it through humor.
HERRMANN When we broke Taystee’s story, the idea for the Poussey Washington Fund came organically in the room. It was inspired by a story Jenji heard when she went to San Quentin Prison.
KOHAN It was a prison TED Talk about financial literacy. I spoke to a lot of people there.
HERRMANN We wanted to give that story to Taystee and let that be her legacy. Then along that came the story of setting up micro-loans for recently released inmates and to call it the Poussey Washington Fund. I came in the next day saying, “I don’t know why we can’t actually do this.”
KOHAN We realized that we can’t set up our own charity, because we have other things to do and there are charities in place that are already doing really good work. So, the fund identifies and supports those charities.
HERRMANN Piper Kerman helped us make the list. A couple of them come from people we used for the immigration story as technical advisers and some are charities that our cast has been associated with over the years.
KERMAN Two of the organizations work on immigrant detention and the other six are organizations around the country that focus on women in the criminal justice system. A number of them are led by formerly incarcerated women. These are programs that should be replicated in every state in the country, so I am very hopeful that the fans will take their enthusiasm and channel it into giving to the fund and/or making efforts in their own communities.
KOHAN It is our legacy. We hope the cultural impact of Orange is empathy and recognition of the humanity of the other, of people who aren’t familiar to you; of broadening opinions and feelings and opening up empathy.
KERMAN What we want for ourselves and those we love is for people to be judged not only for their worst choices but also for their best choices and the best things they are capable of. The idea that we would extend that consideration and forgiveness to all the people who are filling up our prisons and jails is revolutionary.
PREPON I hoped Alex and Piper would end up together [after Piper's release]. It would have been an injustice to not have them together at the end. At the end of the day, love is love is love. And Alex and Piper love each other.
BIGGS That’s what everyone wanted. When I left after season two, I felt like something was incomplete. To be able to come back and have this final moment with Taylor gave some closure personally and creatively.
KERMAN The story of Piper Chapman has diverged so wildly. Larry and I are still married, we are parents. But that Orange’s Piper and Alex get to be together is a tribute to all of the prison families, whether it's romantic partners or parents or children who fight to stay connected to their loved ones who are behind bars. That's something you will see in every single prison visiting room in this country. Some version of love. And those lifelines to the outside world are totally essential.
PREPON Taylor and I were happy that it ended with them together. Piper Kerman and Larry [Smith] were there that day. The real Piper and "Alex" make a cameo — they were sitting to our left in that visitation scene.
KERMAN That’s the first time I've put on a prison uniform since I was released from prison.
KOHAN People would do their final scene and then we would grab their goodbye, so it was this rolling two weeks of emotion. It was a lot. And also, really gratifying that everyone was so invested.
BROOKS I wrote "Seasons" [the song at the end of the finale] because I was grieving the loss of working with my castmates and wanted to honor what we’ve built together. I added as many girls as I could in the lyrics. I shot the final scene of Orange. Right after we took the cast and crew picture, I took the bullhorn from Jenji and told everyone I wrote a song for them. I had no idea Jenji and Tara would ask me if they could use it for the finale.
BEGGS Obviously we would like it to go forever, who wouldn't? It's a fantastic business and there are so many more stories to tell, or there could be. We would love to do a spinoff. We have been lobbying Jenji for a long time. I assume Netflix would embrace one, too, if it was the right creative. I think probably 10 people a day are talking to Jenji about a spinoff.
HOLLAND With respect to spinoffs, I'd be happy to have the conversation, which Jenji knows. I certainly wouldn’t order one without Jenji's blessing.
HERRMANN There will not be a reunion show, no [despite the series finale line between Alex and Nicky: “Maybe one day we'll do a reunion tour”]. We're really sad to say goodbye to these characters. Maybe an idea will pop up and we'll bring someone back to life.
KOHAN No promises. But we also like to think that the show and these characters are continuing on in some parallel universe and that we left it open to people's imaginations that these stories go on, and they do.
GERRERO I would welcome a detention center spinoff.
MULGREW Orange Is the New Black is incomparable. I don’t think that Jenji Kohan was properly recognized for this towering achievement. Emmys should have been thrown at her.
BEGGS There was a little bit of early Netflix resistance in the Emmy categories from traditionalists.
KOHAN We’ve always been hard to define. And people like a clean, "This is a comedy, this is a drama." Whatever. We’ve switched categories.
HOLLAND Jenji and Tara and everybody really stuck the landing and took us on this journey and ended with real purpose. This was the biggest show that we've had. There was some expectation that House of Cards would be good because of David Fincher — not because of us. And there was a lot of chatter in the industry that you can get lucky once. Orange proved we weren’t just a one-trick pony. And it certainly galvanized in consumer's minds that Netflix was a good place for original content.
KOHAN “We are very pleased.”