'OITNB': Laura Prepon Unpacks Pivotal Season 6 Scene and Opens Up About Preparing for the End

The actress explains why she was missing in the early episodes and looks ahead to the future of the "lightning in a bottle" Netflix dramedy.
Cara Howe/Netflix
Laura Prepon in 'Orange Is the New Black'

[This story contains spoilers from the entire sixth season of Netflix's Orange Is the New Black.]

Heading into the latest season of Orange Is the New Black, Laura Prepon saw her own life fortuitously colliding with the character she has played for six years.

The actress — whose onscreen relationship with Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) is at the center of the Netflix dramedy — gave birth to her daughter on July 31 of last year, the same day OITNB went into production on season six. The happy arrival of Ella, with husband Ben Foster, worked out for creator Jenji Kohan and the show's writers "because they wanted to create mystery" around her character, Alex Vause, Prepon tells The Hollywood Reporter.

When the sixth season begins, the fan-favorite inmates, whose fates were unclear after the season-five cliffhanger, are all transferred to Litchfield's maximum security prison down the hill — except for Alex. It isn't until the fourth episode that the bespectacled inmate arrives, explaining that she had been transferred to get her broken arm treated after the prison blast. For the remainder of the new episodes, Alex spends most of her time keeping Piper out of trouble, even planning a surprise wedding for the pair when it's revealed that Piper — in a major show twist — is being let out of Litchfield on early release.

With OITNB officially renewed for only one more season, Prepon recognizes that "the endgame is clear." The actress returned to the director's chair this season to helm the 11th episode, "Well This Took a Dark Turn," and since she will be directing another episode for season seven, she has already been privy to some of the future episodes.

Below, in a chat with THR, the star looks ahead to what she can say about Alex and Piper's future, goes inside the most impactful scene from the episode she directed and explains why she's hanging on tightly for the rest of the OITNB ride.

The early burning question of the season was: Where is Alex? Behind-the-scenes, production on the sixth season coincided with the birth of your daughter, Ella. How did that impact the storyline?

It actually worked out really, really great. Because of Litchfield exploding, basically, last season, all the girls get sent to Max, and it was left as a cliffhanger as to what was happening with my character. They showed me [in the first episode of season six] in a slumped ball on the floor and you don't know if I'm alive or not. That's what they wanted. They wanted to create mystery around my character in the beginning of the season. I told them that was great because Ella was actually born on the day we started production on season six.

Jenji has been doing this a long time; she's a total pro. They're used to their lead actresses having babies. I went back to work at six weeks, which is fast. But because of the storyline, it was pretty perfect that you didn't know what was going on with Alex. I was able to be at home with my brand-new baby as a first-time mom, having no clue what I was doing, while they were getting the storylines going, and then I come back for episode four.

What was it like to go back to work after six weeks as a first-time mom?

My sister is a lawyer, and I think she got around four months of maternity leave. (Laughs.) But it's part of our jobs. Our jobs are different than the norm. They are so amazing and worth it, but they do come with this caveat that we don't have the same kind of time that other people do. When we're on breaks between seasons, we can get some rest time then; you just have to plan right. It was hard going back after six weeks, but everyone was super supportive and amazing. I directed episode 11 of this season, and Ella was not that old. Directing takes up all of your time. You wake up at 4:30 in the morning, you get home way past when she's sleeping and then you have to pump and do all that stuff, which there is not a lot of time to do. You just kind of figure it out, and everyone was supportive.

Last season, you directed the pivotal 10th episode, which involved you playing Alex in torture scenes and directing while wearing only a shower curtain. What drew you to episode 11 this year?

We usually get assigned, and this one was so great. I loved the script. A lot of times you read scripts throughout the season and some you resonate more with, and this one I just loved right away. The episode last season turned out great, but this year I got to wear clothes and I wasn't held captive, so that was a plus!

The episode was written by one of our writers, Anthony Natoli, who I was already a fan of, and he wrote an awesome episode that was very balanced with all of the regular characters. I read it and I knew it was going to be fantastic. It was total kismet that Alex wasn't really in the episode. The first time was like a hazing period! And it turned out amazing. I'm fine directing myself, but it's always nice when you don't have to.

OITNB writer Brian Chamberlayne spoke about the significance of the Piper-Taystee hair salon conversation in your episode. The scene sets up what Taystee is facing in the outside world compared to Piper and highlights the white privilege at the core of Piper's story. What conversations went into that scene?

That people judge you. They have an idea of you and they make a decision without even knowing you. And both Piper and Taystee are facing it. They are each about to get out of the prison [Piper on early release, and Taystee for a trial that will determine her fate] and they both deal with these completely opposite stereotypes, but stereotypes nonetheless that they each aren't, truthfully.

I really tried to play with the mirrors in that scene. Looking in the mirror and seeing your reflection back at you and how other people see you. That was a really great scene to do and it was really well written. It's about breaking stereotypes. Even now, we're still doing that every day, and it was nice to have a scene where the audience knows these girls and knows that they aren't these stereotypes. It was a fun scene to play with those ideas.

Switching gears back to acting, how did you react when you found out that Alex and Piper were going to get their prison wedding?

I knew halfway through the season that the wedding was going to happen. We usually don't know what's going to happen with our characters. We heard something about it, but then Jenji called us and told us, "Just so you know, this is going to happen." After the proposal last season, I knew that it was coming. I knew that it was going to be within the season somewhere, and I assumed it would be toward the end.

Fans have been wanting to see that for a while. Alex and Piper are in love and they have a tumultuous relationship, which is why they're so interesting to watch. They also both know each other really, really well to call each other on their shit. I thought that was really nice how that happened. I love that Nicky [Natasha Lyonne] and Lorna [Yael Stone] were involved. I thought it was really cute the way the whole thing went down and that Alex planned it. That scene in that moment was about their union and their love, and they did what they could with it, considering they are in a max prison. And then all hell breaks loose in the finale. (Laughs.) [Read more from Prepon and Taylor Schilling about the wedding here.]

When did you find out that Piper was getting out of Litchfield?

I believe it was in the same conversation with Jenji about the wedding, halfway through the season, and I wasn't surprised. She said we're getting married because Piper is getting out and it's something that you [Alex] know that she wants. But you kind of know these things are coming. You hear different things and when I'm directing, I know what I have to set up and what's to come. I knew that Piper was going to get out at some point, and I assumed it was going to be the last episode.

How do you feel about her release in terms of where it can move the show? And do you think it pushes the endgame forward?

Well, the endgame is there. As of now, season seven is our last season. So, the endgame is clear. But the reason that it bums me out, obviously, is because I love working with Taylor. She and I love working together. We've been working together for six, seven years now and she's a wonderful scene partner. We were just together the other day and she was saying, "This sucks. I'm out of prison. When am I going to do scenes with you!" (Laughs.)

Through the glass, in visitation?

Seriously! So, that's a bummer. That's obviously the main bummer, because I'll miss her. But our writers are great, so they will always come up with something. These characters are so well-crafted, especially now. When you get to do a show for this long, you can really craft characters that are full, multidimensional people. And at this point, you've been with these women for six seasons, so our writers can just have so much fun playing with all these storylines.

How do you envision Alex's role in prison evolving in Piper's absence since she has made so many decisions based on Piper? And what does it say that she ripped up her grad school application?

We all know Alex is a straight shooter and that she knows what's up. She's very smart and intelligent; she knows the deal. She knows what she's good at, and she's really trying to stay on the straight and narrow for Piper. But even toward the end of the season, she walks in and talks to Carol and says, "Badison is messing everything up. This is what you have to do." She basically falls on the sword to make sure that Piper gets out, because she knows that's what Piper wants.

I think Alex sees the reality of the situation and knows how much more time she's in there for. I think in the back of her mind, she knows she's going to have to do some things to survive that aren't going to lend itself to taking classes. And it's unfortunate. Alex is really smart, but it's just one of those realistic things where, especially now with Piper gone, she's going to have to survive.

How confident are you that their relationship can survive Piper being out with Alex facing four more years?

It is a long time. With these two, who knows! You don't know. I don't know. You would hope, but Piper is out in the real world; she can do whatever she wants. You just never know what's going to happen.

The show made a few changes this year: It jumped the outside timeline to 2018 and narrowed in on a smaller group of characters. There were references to #MeToo and the immigration crisis. Did it make this season feel especially relevant?

You know, it's funny: Jenji always says she didn't set out to write a political show, but I think there are so many things that correlate with what's going on in the microcosm these girls live in. We reference everything — we reference everything and we make fun of everything. You cannot take anything personally on our show. Every girl has been attacked in specific ways, and you just go with it. But with those kinds of statements, I think it's just naturally what is happening in this microcosm. Does what's going on politically influence what they write? I don't see how it can't, truthfully. I don't see how it couldn't affect it.

If season seven ends up being the final season, are you prepared for the end of OITNB?

I was fortunate enough to be on That '70s Show for eight years. I started when I was 18; my entire 20s were spent on that show. That cast loves each other so much and is so wonderful. So to be able to be on two amazing series and now to be on Orange for seven seasons, that is a blessing. I really take it in stride.

The relationships everyone has on Orange will continue on; they aren't just going to end when the show does. It's always bittersweet when a show like this ends, because you love your character and your cast and crew, and you've all built these amazing relationships.

Seven years is a long time, especially now. For a show to run this long is rare with all the different streamers and shows pulling the audience in all different directions. When I was doing '70s, you had us, The Big Bang Theory, Everybody Loves Raymond, Friends and Seinfeld on the air. You had those staples that you don't really have anymore. So to be on another show that has made that kind of tread of seven years is incredible.

And to be on a show that has paralleled so many things going on in the world, to be a part of that and to raise awareness in different ways — you really just have to look at the beauty and positivity of it. Will it be sad? Of course. But we have to look at how fortunate it was for us to be a part of, because this show really was lightning in a bottle. It's the first time anything like it was made. Sometimes you get these shows and they are lightning in a bottle and they're so fantastic, and you just hang on and go for the ride. You just live it and be it, and it's an incredible experience.

I don't know if I can say that I'm prepared for the end, but I've been doing this for a long time and I know that there's always going to be more after that. It will just be different. Orange is its own special thing, just like '70s Show was, and I'm so happy that I get to be a part of it.

What do you hope to see from Alex's storyline in season seven? Sound off in the comments below, and bookmark THR.com/OITNB for more season six coverage of Orange Is the New Black.

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