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[This story contains major spoilers from the final season of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black.]
Orange Is the New Black was inspired by the story and memoir of Piper Kerman. But when the Netflix series would wrap its acclaimed run seven seasons later, the love story between Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) and Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) would go on to diverge wildly and not even the stars behind the show’s central romance knew how it would end.
In an oral history with the cast and team that launched OITNB into TV phenomenon status, Prepon was among the 23 people who spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the early days of her character Alex, who came into Litchfield Penitentiary as the drug-smuggling ex-girlfriend of protagonist Piper, who had a fiance (Jason Biggs) on the outside. But Alex and Piper quickly became the show’s central romance, which broke ground for LGBTQ representation in 2013. Over the course of OITNB, the tortured soulmates would embark on a will they-won’t they affair that ended with a prison wedding and, in the series finale, a commitment to each other while Piper makes a clean start in Ohio and Alex finishes up a four-year sentence in the nearby maximum security prison. The final scene of the series saw the pair laughing together in a visitation room, as the real Piper and her husband, Larry Smith, made a cameo nearby.
The full-circle tribute, Prepon tells THR, was one more layer of emotion for the scene partners to swallow while saying goodbye to the characters who will continue to be a lifeline for each other after the screen fades to orange. Below, Prepon reflects on her seven-year journey as Alex Vause and explains why the happy ending felt right: “At the end of the day, love is love is love. And Alex and Piper love each other, so you just figure it out.”
You shared your audition story [Prepon first read for the role of Piper before creator Jenji Kohan tailored Alex for her]. During your chemistry read with Taylor Schilling (watch here), they said the match was made. What do you remember?
As soon as I met Taylor, I totally got it. Such a wonderful actress who has this softness to her, but also through the years, you really lean into her strength. She was just perfect for Piper. Then as soon as we worked together, we knew this was going to be great. And you can only hope for that type of thing to happen. It’s rare — I’m telling you, it’s rare. After having the good fortune to do this for over 20 years, it’s rare when you have those moments of that special connection and we have that.
The first episode ended with Alex’s arrival at Litchfield, but the writers didn’t even know how the season was going to end when they were casting. What did you know about OITNB when you signed on?
Netflix hadn’t taken off yet, we were on that streaming ride with them the whole way. So when I first read the script, it was explained to me as a webisode! And I was coming from primetime network television — I was on That ‘70s Show for eight years, and then I did October Road on ABC and Are You There Chelsea? on NBC. But I’m always willing to take a risk for something that I believe in. When I looked at Alex, I thought she was an incredible character with a lot of potential. One thing I’ve learned is that it’s about the material. And the material really, really spoke to me. At the time I was seeing a lot of scripts because I was a free agent, and I was being very particular with what I wanted to do. When this script came around, you had to pay attention to it. I loved it so much. That ‘70s Show went for eight years but it was a different time. It was us, Everybody Loves Raymond, Friends and Seinfeld. You had these stable shows in the home. Orange is a totally different ballgame. We broke new ground in so many ways and I know how fortunate I am to be part of it.
You filmed the first season all at once and in a vacuum. What was it like when you got to set and you and Schilling filmed your first scene?
Taylor and I had the chemistry read and then our first scene ever was that opening shower scene [in the first episode]. We were so comfortable with each other and immediately just very respectful. Taylor is a total pro. Whenever we were doing a scene like that she and I talked everything out: “My hands are going to be here, what are you comfortable with? What are you not comfortable with?” It’s always a little weird being like, “I’m naked in a shower with this woman I just met and there’s a camera and a crew out there!” But it wasn’t gratuitous. I knew there was nudity and my main thing is to make sure that it feeds the story. Not having limits [with Netflix] really let us express how we thought the characters should be portrayed. And it gave Jenji the creative freedom to tell the story she wants to tell. It’s very cool having that, rather than having a network micro-manage everything.
Alex and Piper became an overnight “Ross and Rachel” at a time when a starring same-sex relationship was groundbreaking. What was it like to be on the receiving end of that?
It was totally new. When the show really took off and was becoming mainstream, there wasn’t another relationship like Alex and Piper anywhere. That’s one of the amazing things about Orange, is that we take on these storylines that are not normally represented. I was just so happy to be portraying a relationship that women could relate to when there wasn’t anything out there for them. People were coming up with things like #Vauseman and dressing up like us for Halloween. But the thing that really matters to me is that people felt like they could identify with us and that they felt represented by Alex and Piper.
Hearing you say that, does it now feel even more right that they end up together in the end? They get to live on in the hall of fame of TV couples.
You have to do that. Who knew what was going to happen with the fact that we do go against so many norms on this show. Truthfully, I didn’t know if Alex and Piper were going to end up together. But I hoped, because you want them to be together. You’ve invested all this time with these women — the good, the bad and the ugly of the relationship. Piper and Alex have gone through so much. You want to see them together and you want fans to feel fulfilled. It would have been an injustice to not have them together at the end. I’m really glad that that happened.
Kohan and executive producer Tara Herrmann told each of the series regulars how your character’s stories would end ahead of the final season. That’s also when they officially shared that the show was ending with season seven. Were you surprised?
I knew that it was going to be the last season. I just knew. Because I’ve been on another long-running show before, you can feel when it’s coming. I knew with the last season of ‘70s. We had done eight years. It was a wonderful series. And we all bawled our eyes out and were, like, hyperventilating crying; I started that show when I was 18 and we all grew up together. But you knew the end was coming and the same thing happened with Orange. After season five, I felt we probably had one to two more seasons once we started with Max. And then when we got the word, I said, “I understand. I get it.” I was concerned for some of the other girls because this was their first long job. I knew to expect all the grief, the crying. And there’s a little bit of a postpartum after it ends. After ‘70s, I had quite a bit of a postpartum period where it’s an adjustment. So when Orange ended, I was prepared. I love the women I work with; I love directing the show. Our crew is so awesome. You miss all of that. I miss playing Alex. But you learn and take those things with you. There’s so many amazing relationships I made on this show that will continue, no matter what.
They also gave you the “gift” of telling you how the final season would be play out. [That Alex and Piper would try an open marriage, but end up together in the end.]
For the first time, we found out what our character arc was going to be. They were definitely more secretive on this show. Every show is its own microcosm and the microcosm of Orange was that it was very secretive and you never really knew what was coming, and you learn to roll with it. That was really something that I had to adapt to, the fact that there was a lot of mystery and you didn’t know what was going to happen to your character. That was a muscle I got to learn and flex. But I knew my character so well because I was living in her skin for so many years. You just kind of knew who she was, and the writers knew who Alex was so they really wrote great stuff for her. I always love the way that Jenji wrote Alex.
What was it like to film that final Alex and Piper scene to end the series finale?
We just kind of laughed. That wasn’t actually our last day. It was the last scene of us together, but Taylor and I still had more days on set so that freed us up to have fun, so we weren’t crying the whole time! When we were doing this last season, we were happy that it ended with them being together. Because we do a lot of things that are realistic on our show, a lot of times it’s not a happy ending. I wasn’t sure if they were going to go the ultra-realistic route and keep them apart, or if they were going to give that to the fans and have Alex and Piper be together. Luckily, they did. Piper Kerman was there that day and Larry [Smith] — the real Piper and “Alex” are sitting to our left in that visitation scene. Taylor and I were really just in the moment. We were embracing the fact that the series was coming to an end and we got each other through it. Taylor and I are great friends, but who knows when we’re going to be on camera together again? We were reveling in how special this whole journey has been.
How do you picture their future after the screen fades to orange?
Well, Alex and Piper end up together. I think they both learned a lot from these years in prison and they’ll take that with them. I’m hoping that they use that to treat each other a lot better, which I’m sure they will. Because at the end of the day, love is love is love. And Alex and Piper love each other, so you just figure it out.
You also returned to the directing chair this season and helmed the powerful fifth episode, “Minority Deport,” which sees the deportation of fan-favorite Maritza Ramos (Diane Guerrero). How did that episode come to you and can you talk about the decision to have her vanish on the plane?
Anthony Natoli wrote the episode. He and I work great together; he wrote the episode I directed last year. My two prior Orange episodes were towards the end of the season, which is when everything is exploding. They had told me my episode this year was going to be earlier and I was excited for my own directing education. I loved Anthony’s script. I thought it touched on so many things and that it was very powerful. The whole story with Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez) and what was going on with her family in terms of the generations of incarceration. The immigration storyline with Maritza was just heartbreaking. And doing those immigration court scenes with Blanca (Laura Gómez). You have these very intense storylines and still moments of levity, because you need to have those moments. You have Piper having her situation with her brother on the outside, so it was this wonderful juxtaposition of all these problems that people were dealing with.
That vanishing treatment was a special effects shot. Exactly what we got on camera was what I had pictured in my head when I first read the script. You film it in place and choose where you want the people to disappear like a puzzle. But there were a couple technical things. At first they told me we didn’t have an airplane or stairs, just a tarmac. I told them, “Get me stairs and we can make this work.” So we shot that entire opening of Diane walking up and stepping onto the plane in three different locations — and it turned out to be this flawless, powerful thing. I’m really proud of the episode.
Where are you in the process of saying goodbye to OITNB?
This show has been one of the most special experiences I’ve ever had in my career. Being a part of this cast, portraying Alex. You can’t really think about it in terms of, “Where do you go from here?” I’ll take all of it with me and it will inform the next project I do, but I don’t take it for granted. And we really wouldn’t be here without the fans of the show. We became the sensation that Orange became because of the fans supporting us, and the fact that Netflix let us express ourselves in the way that we did. So it’s always all about the fans and I’m just so appreciative of all of it, truthfully.
Bookmark THR.com/OITNB for continuing season seven coverage of OITNB, which is streaming on Netflix.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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