Taylor Schilling might just play a prisoner on TV, but the actress says her lead role on Orange Is The New Black has helped her understand the problems plaguing women in the country's prison system. "There's really no way to do this kind of work without it opening me up personally to these issues," Schilling told NYT reporter Patricia Cohen Thursday night, adding that the show gives incarcerated women, "a name and a voice."
Schilling, who plays prisoner Piper Chapman on the hit Netflix show, spoke as part of a panel on Powerful Women in Television for the paper's TimesTalks series. She told Cohen she'd been working with the Women's Prison Association, a criminal justice advocacy group on whose board OINTB inspiration Piper Kerman currently serves. Cohen asked Schilling if she believed the show, centered on the lives of women at a fictional federal prison in upstate New York, was having an effect on prison policy; she pointed to a recent Congressional hearing on solitary confinement at which Kerman testified.
"I do hear from people who have been incarcerated, and feeling like the show is kind of an accurate depiction of what prison life is like, and also more than anything, from people who work with prisoners as well," Schilling, who later told the audience she and other cast members visited prisons while researching their roles, said. "People who are working on alternatives to incarceration and working with women who are transitioning from prison life back to civilian life are really finding value in the show, that it's giving the population they've been working so hard for a name and a voice."
Schilling was joined by actresses Maggie Gyllenhaal, Lucy Liu and Miro Sorvino, all of whom have starring roles in television shows. Gyllenhaal is the lead on the BBC/Sundance series The Honorable Woman , which premieres on Thursday and centers on the life of a British arms businesswoman living in Israel. Sorvino stars in the upcoming BBC thriller show Intruders, and Liu currently co-stars on the CBS show Elementary, where she plays Watson to Johnny Lee Miller's modern day Sherlock.
All four women discussed the dearth of strong, interesting roles for females in the film industry. "[Studios] are more willing, oftentimes, to make bigger pictures, bigger explosions, bigger action movies. That's what you're seeing now, because that's what they're willing to invest in," Liu said. "They want their money to come back, and they want it to come back big. And what does that require? A lot of testosterone. A lot of guns. A lot of ammunition." Both she and Gyllenhaal pointed out there was little way for women-driven independent films to get distributed.
"There are all these great young women who are writers and directors and cinematographers, and the studio movies, because everybody got scared about money, mostly they just need to make their money back," Gyllenhaal said. "Now's the moment of television. That's where everyone's gone, women and men." And as Schilling added, "There's freedom, and the rules don't apply as much. What happens on Netflix, there aren't barriers to telling the story. The creator leads the way."
You can watch the talk in full below: