When Orange Is The New Black hit Netflix in July 2013, viewers around the world became increasingly addicted to the female prison dramedy and before long, a cult-like following had formed around all things Litchfield.
But while the story of a white, upper-middle class woman who was imprisoned for carrying drugs for her girlfriend a decade prior was what originally lured audiences in, it was all of the characters behind bars with Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) that kept them watching.
Many of the cast members were relatively unknown actors — with the exception of a few (Laura Prepon, Kate Mulgrew, Taryn Manning, and Natasha Lyonne) — and that was exactly what casting director Jen Euston, who’s also worked on Girls and Veep, was going for. “I never want someone in Litchfield who is recognizable,” she told BuzzFeed. “As soon as you do that, you cross the line and you’re not in prison anymore.”
While Orange creator Jenji Kohan and the writing staff have done an excellent job detailing the inmates’ backstories, Euston knows the stories behind the actors’ auditions better than anyone. Below, she reveals how the hugely successful ensemble (particularly as Schilling, Mulgrew, Lyonne, Uzo Aduba, and Laverne Cox are all vying for Emmys this year) came together.
“Piper is a complex character and there’s a real Piper, so we wanted to respect that as well. Schilling was somebody who I always had on my list, and I was desperate to get her in. She had just finished Mercy and every time I was in L.A., she was in New York, but I finally got her in. I basically chased her down because I just had a feeling.
Schilling read scenes with Polly [Maria Dizzia]. They read the BBQ scene a lot, and the bedroom scene with Larry [Jason Biggs]. Most of the audition tapes are what was in the pilot and if people are introduced in later episodes, their first scene is what was used in the audition. But Schilling came in and she just did it. That was it. I saw it and sent it to Jenji and I was like, ‘Here ya go!’ and we were done.
You look and you look and you look and finally, someone just walks in and has everything and you don’t have to look anymore. For me, a lot of it was scheduling, so it took time. And we couldn’t cast a Larry or an Alex [Prepon] before we cast a Piper. Once we had Taylor, everything fell into place.”
“As soon as [Prepon] came in for Piper, it wasn’t right because she would never be scared to be in prison — Prepon’s composure and her confidence, she would never be someone who would go into prison scared like Piper was, or intimidated, so she was never going to be a Piper.
But she was exactly what they wanted for Alex and they had great chemistry. Prepon read a chemistry read with Schilling, but never read on her own for Alex. They came in and they looked amazing together. They’re both really tall and gorgeous. I don’t think they’d ever met and it worked right off the bat. It wasn’t forced, they just had a natural chemistry. It was really nice. They read the flashback when Piper comes out in her underwear and does a dance and Alex is like, ‘Ooh baby,’ and then she tells her to come on her trip.
And [Alex’s] glasses are from Jenji’s brain. Prepon’s hair was black for a movie she was doing, apparently, and Jenji loved it and wanted her to keep it. She’s like, ‘No, Alex should have the black hair.’”
“Wiley read for Poussey and it was just exactly what they were looking for. You start to develop a sense of what people can do even with one or two words. It isn’t like some magical thing, but it’s something — I can’t tell you how it works. It’s just that sometimes, we’re just really lucky that the actor went with the character so well. She’s a great actress. She just kind of nailed it and went on her way and it was just perfect.”
“Brooks was kind of exactly what Taystee was supposed to be in a weird way. She has a joy about her and that’s what Jenji wanted for Taystee. The whole thing with Taystee is that she’s not someone who’s down and out that she’s in prison — this is a home for her. From the get-go, we wanted the joy, and Brooks had a beautiful voice for the opening scene when they’re in the shower and she sings ‘Natural Woman.’ She was just lovely and funny and she talked about Piper’s breasts and then sang in the shower and went for it. That was all it took.”
“I was reading Janae [a part that eventually went to Vicky Jeudy] and I put Aduba on the tape for Janae, but they saw her as Suzanne. When Aduba came in with a tank top on, she’s very athletic, and she had her hair in knots just for that day — that was just how she wore her hair that day. Jenji loved her … I think I did audition a few people for Suzanne, but not that many because as soon as [Jenji] saw Aduba, it was like, Done. Jenji can just see [that someone is] talented, so Aduba didn’t have to read for Crazy Eyes; she just got it. Her presence and her acting and her face, there was just something more there, something deeper there, that Aduba brings to every character.”
“I have loved Kate Mulgrew for years. So for me, it was like she had the authority that Red had to have. Mulgrew is just a formidable actress. She came in and her hair was blonde and shoulder length and she was very put together. She read and she was amazing. She’s very intimidating. I think she’s so good at her job. She was lovely and she kicked ass. She scared the hell out of me in the reading.
She read the tit punch where she’s trying to get in with the other Russian woman where they’re mean to her, and the scene with her husband where he tells her, by punching her breast implant, they’re now screwed. It’s an emotional scene because she’s kind of blowing him off in the beginning, but then she gets very vulnerable because she has to admit, They didn’t want me. They don’t like my jokes. They don’t like me. So it was a hard scene, a very hard scene that really ranged emotions and she was fantastic. To me, I was like, That’s it, because Red has to have the vulnerability, but also had to be able to run a kitchen with a look.
That whole scene with Piper with the yogurt, that’s what I kept picturing when I would think of Red. How’s that going to play? And as soon as Kate came in, I was like, She’s going to nail that. She’s the loveliest woman, but she’s intimidating! Her accents were perfect. Originally, I think Red was Greek — they changed it to Russian — so she read it doing a Greek accent, but obviously she can do any dialect we needed.
I had to tell her manager, ‘Look, she’s going to really have to change her look for this. Is she down?’ And she was like, ‘Yeah! She’s down with it.’”
“Natasha was originally supposed to read for Alex, but we changed it right before she came in and she read for Nicky. Jenji knew Natasha. It wasn’t a big stretch for her to figure out that she could do Nicky with her eyes closed. She was perfect. I don’t know who else she would have really been right for. It was perfect.”
“Yael read originally for Nicky, but then we had her come back in and she auditioned for Lorna. She’s Australian and she did this great 1940s accent and it was so specific and such a great choice and gave Lorna this adorable personality. They wanted that for Lorna — they wanted her to be that likable and [they wanted the audience to think] that she must have done something not that bad! You want somebody who could be your friend. She did something, she got caught, whatever. And then, they hit you with, Oh, by the way, she’s going to try to blow someone up with a bomb. But when she read, I was just thinking about someone nice, normal, and helpful. She read the scene in the van with Piper. I just needed a very helpful, nice, sweet Italian girl.”
“I knew Cox before. I was casting Adult World and there was a man playing a woman in the movie, so I auditioned real transgender actors and guy actors who would play transgender and that’s when I first met her. I thought she was great, just gorgeous and amazing and had such a presence about her. And beautiful — she’s just stunning. As soon as we got the script and we saw Sophia was in it, I just said, ‘Well, we’ll just hire Laverne.’ There’s not a lot of working transgender actors out there. I was not going to be allowed to cast a guy dressing up as a girl — they did not want that. I read a few, but knew Cox was the best. She fit the role perfectly. She’s supposed to be a hairdresser and Cox is so elegant and you just believe she knows how to pull it together and make someone look good. You want her to make you over. She was my first thought. I had to put her on tape for Jenji, but I just knew. She had the attitude, she had the right everything. For me, that one was a no-brainer. The description was her.”
“Daya was a hard part to cast. We had to see a lot of people for that. I brought Dascha back a couple of times because I really believed in her and really thought she was right for it. That was one we weren’t getting for some reason, but I knew Dascha was kind of right because physically and her demeanor was what Daya had to be. Plus, with Aleida [Elizabeth Rodriguez] in the prison with her, she has this dominant mother figure, so Dascha I brought back a couple of times because I wanted to try her again because I thought she could do it.”
“All McGorry did for his audition was literally, when Pornstache is taking the picture of Piper and Bennett is sitting in the chair and he’s listening to his iPod, he takes his iPod out and he’s like, ‘Oh, I don’t think it’s plugged in.’ And Piper’s like, ‘Yeah, I think there’s a plug there.’ And Pornstache is like, ‘Shut up!’
He was funny. He did a dance move. He was listening to his iPod and he kind of did the shoulder brush and I saw that. As soon as he left, I said, ‘He’s getting the part. That’s it.’ It just worked out perfect. As soon as he did that, I knew. He gave the character a little flavor. And that was it. They loved him.”
“We already knew Schreiber was going to be Pornstache and Harney was going to be Healy. Those were people that I watched on Weeds and I’ve known Pablo for 15 years. And it’s like, Why would you ever mess with perfection? I couldn’t think of anyone better.”
“Manning was off a list. She was someone Jenji really liked. We just offered it to her. She didn’t even read.”
“I read a lot of women. Toussaint put herself on tape and she was great. She had the sort of gravity that we needed to go toe-to-toe with Mulgrew — acting-wise, character-wise, everything. So that was the trick there and Toussaint could do it and she does do it. She had a mischievous side to her and the thing with Toussaint was, in addition to being on equal footing with Mulgrew, she had to be charming. Snakes have to charm to get what they want. You saw that. Vee had to charm Crazy Eyes, even Taystee. She’s manipulative and that was there. You could tell she was being very nice but was doing it for her own business, so that’s what I needed. Toussaint just brought it out when she read for the character. It was like, OK, you have that, that, and that. OK, we’re good.”