"Orange" Is The New Biggs: A Teen Star Talks Growing Up
Jason Biggs has matured onscreen and off since his breakthrough 1999 role in American Pie. Now co-starring in the Netflix original series Orange Is the New Black, he reflects on how he's grown — and where he might still need work.
The stigma of being a teen star can be a struggle to get past, much like a youthful webcam indiscretion broadcast to your entire high school.
For Jason Biggs, who first made his mark playing hapless virgin Jim Levenstein in American Pie, that feels somewhat accurate. Because no matter what he does, from Broadway plays to a co-starring role in the Netflix original series Orange Is the New Black, he still gets referred to as "the guy who fucked a pie."
"Do I want people to not ask me about American Pie?" he ponders. "I think the better question is, do I want them to ask me about other things? Yes. Do I want that to be at the expense of just forgetting about American Pie entirely? Of course not. Because I'm so proud of that franchise."
It's just that there's more to Biggs than American Pie: That's something audiences are coming to realize, especially with the critical success of Orange Is the New Black, in which Biggs plays Larry Bloom, the fiancé of imprisoned Piper (Taylor Schilling). Larry is a complicated character — sympathetic because of his and Piper's predicament, but also something of a manchild, living off Piper while he struggles to make a living as a writer.
That complexity is reflected in the show as a whole, which walks the line between comedy and drama. The balance allows Biggs to show new range, and that falls in line with the goals he's set for himself.
"I want to do something different," Biggs says. "Personally I've just changed: I'm married, we're gonna have kids, I've been in therapy for however many years. I'm just like, there's a depth to me that I feel like I don't really get to show that often."
But before he could prove himself to Netflix audiences, he had to prove himself to Orange Is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan. Kohan was unavailable to comment for this story, as she's currently filming the second season of Orange Is the New Black.
"These kinds of roles, even though I felt confident that I could do it, I knew I had it in me, I know that I need to go out and work a little extra hard to prove myself," Biggs says. "Even though I went in, proved myself in the room, all that stuff, there's still, I believe, and Jenji might tell you otherwise — she's so wonderful and gracious and flattering to me — but I believe she took a bit of a chance."
To be fair, this isn't the first time Biggs has done drama — he appeared in Prozac Nation and the comedy-drama Loser — but it's certainly the most notable. But because he's most known for his comedy roles, particularly in the American Pie series, he's been typecast, something he accepts with humility.
"Naturally when you're successful in a particular project or in a certain role that you're very connected to, it's harder to do other stuff," Biggs notes. "That's how it works. At least that's how it's worked for me."
It helps that Orange Is the New Black has comedic elements that Biggs saw as a sort of bridge to less familiar terrain.
"It's not a hard drama," he offers. "I don't do this 180. And the more emotional stuff for my character, it happens at a pace that's very organic. It happens naturally over the course of the season as things start to break down, as Larry starts to break down and things become more emotional for him."
Larry starts off as a supportive fiancé, but over the course of the season, he becomes increasingly desperate and ends up exploiting Piper's imprisonment for writing material. That steady transition and the balance of light and dark is part of what made Orange Is the New Black such an attractive project for Biggs, whose last TV series was the short-lived 2011 CBS sitcom Mad Love.
"When I first read the [Orange] pilot last year, I thought it was amazing," Biggs recalls. "And I'd been looking to do another television show after the cancelation of Mad Love, but I wanted, ideally, if I were able to have my cake and eat it too, something that was more character-driven and something that, if comedic, was a little less broad in its comedy, and maybe even dramatic."
The character of Larry is an interesting one: As one of the few outsiders on a show about women in prison, he's not the primary focus. But his relationship with Piper and his perspective is essential. He is, as Biggs puts it, "the window to the outside world."
That doesn't mean Biggs wasn't apprehensive about the part. He made sure to discuss the character with Kohan — both how Larry fit into the larger story of Piper's development in prison, and how that might continue as Orange Is the New Black progresses.
Through conversations with Kohan and his own analysis of the role, Biggs concluded, "It raises the stakes of Piper's imprisonment, the fact that there is still this very real relationship outside of prison. It adds to the tension."
At the onset, Larry doesn't seem all that different from roles Biggs has played in the past: he's a nice, somewhat awkward Jewish boy with overbearing parents. But as Biggs explains, the character's arc takes him from more familiar territory to something unexpected.
"This kind of nice guy veneer starts to wear off simply because he's tested so much," Biggs says. "He ultimately comes to see himself as a victim of her imprisonment and he comes to resent that a little bit and resent her, and ends up making some decisions that are selfish. It's like a survival mechanism."
At the beginning, however, there were even moments that felt a little too close to what Biggs was used to. He approached Orange Is the Black as a drama and was surprised by the direction he was given to find the humor in his scenes, even when they didn't seem all that funny.
Biggs recalls a moment in the pilot: It's Piper and Larry's last night together before she goes to prison, and their plans to have goodbye sex are nearly thwarted by a very heavy dinner.
"The director came in and was like, 'How 'bout when she's in the bathroom, why don't you fart or burp or something?'" Biggs recalls. "I'm thinking to myself, I do that in the American Pie films, I do that in [Saving Silverman]. I'm doing a dramatic fucking scene right now. What are you talking about?"
Watching the moment now — Biggs ultimately went with a fart — the physical comedy breaks up the tension in an otherwise heavy scene. Shortly thereafter, Piper is breaking her self-imposed rule and crying. The fart joke may typically be the lowest form of comedy, but here it becomes something human and honest.
But Biggs' reservations about fart jokes make sense: This is an actor who is trying to step away from a certain kind of humor, at least for the time being. He's not leaving it behind, but he is eager to show himself to audiences in a new light.
"In television, I came off Mad Love, and I feel like those kinds of broader sitcoms … I could do that again," he explains, "but I wanted to explore something else."
Biggs elaborates, "I love doing comedy. It is a special sort of skill set to be able to make someone laugh, and it's an awesome thing. Listen, I'm just happy to be working. But hey, you know what, what if I really was a little more calculated with my choices and try to go after something that I feel I will be more satisfied by."
Luckily for him, Orange Is the New Black offered the best of both worlds. Coming from broader comedy, it took him some time to fully grasp the balance, but he has a strong appreciation for Kohan's unique point of view, which she also applied to Showtime's Weeds.
"She takes these characters and these situations that are kind of raw and intense and complicated and dark, and she finds a way to mine laughs from it," Biggs says. "You find yourself chuckling or laughing in moments that you didn't think you would be. And that's because it's real. It's all very human stuff."
Naturally, not all of the projects Biggs takes on can be as much of a step forward as Orange Is the New Black. His most recent high-profile film was a return to the American Pie franchise with 2012's American Reunion. Biggs admits he had concerns about regressing.
"It had been almost 10 years, a decade since I had played that role," he says. "So you go, well is this going to make me take a step back, where it's going to now be even more difficult? Ultimately you go, I can't be an idiot. It's just too good of an opportunity."
And, of course, Jim Levenstein in American Reunion is not the same Jim from the original American Pie. The way Biggs sees it, this is all just part of his maturation — as an actor, as a person, and, yes, as Jim.
"I'm playing the same character," Biggs concedes, "but he's a more mature version of the character. He's older, he's married, he's got a kid. Maybe it'll actually help that in a way."
But as Biggs struggles to leave his immaturity behind, he continues to maintain an active Twitter account that is frequently vulgar and — if the outraged responses he receives are any indication — offensive.
During last year's Republican National Convention, for example, he tweeted, among other things, "I'd totes dip a pinky or two in Paul Ryan's wife's bleached asshole (she obvs bleaches her asshole)" and "I bet there's footage somewhere of Paul Ryan jerking off to a close-up photo of his widow's peak."
Biggs ended up deleting the tweets. His apology, which wasn't an apology at all, was a callback to the first American Pie: "To everyone freaking out about my tweets: you know i put my dick in a pie, right?"
Whether or not you're offended by Biggs' tweets — and frankly, they're no worse than what countless other Twitter comedians post on a daily basis — they do seem to go against his mission of growing up. But that's not the way he sees it. In fact, Biggs counters, it's all part of his journey of self-discovery.
"I feel like there's a side to me that has been unexplored — hell, by me personally until recently, thank you therapy — but also and most certainly in the roles that I have played," he explains. "Twitter has been a really interesting thing because it's sort of been a vehicle for me to sort of play with people's perception of me. It's intentional."
Because in addition to being boxed-in as a teen star, Biggs has also been typecast as a nice Jewish boy. (He isn't even Jewish, as Woody Allen was horrified to learn after he cast Biggs in Whatever Works.)
"I shock people," he admits. "There's a shock value element to [my Twitter feed] that I just love. I love that kind of humor in other people, and I love doing it. I love people going, 'Wait, what did you just say? You're Jim from American Pie.'"
It's not as though being a husband and father — Biggs recently announced that he and his wife are expecting — is mutually exclusive from writing tasteless jokes. But there is perhaps a contradiction in trying to be taken seriously as an actor while simultaneously tweeting material that has gotten Biggs accused of misogyny and homophobia.
Biggs insists it's tongue-in-cheek. "The intent," he says, "is to highlight the ridiculousness of it." The tweets are part of a persona, not who Biggs really is, in the same way he's not really Jim from American Pie. As to the question of whether audiences can sort it all out, Biggs admits, "That's something I am currently trying to figure out."
Ideally, he offers, people can separate him from his current work, focusing on his maturation as an actor and less on his past roles and the controversial humor he puts forth online.
It's a question he asks himself: "With Orange Is the New Black, can my maturity as an actor — that is, to some extent and to some people, being revealed with Orange — will that be hindered in any way because of what I do [online]? I like to think no."
He pauses for a moment, continuing to work it out mentally.
"I hope that it doesn't," he concludes. "But again, maybe I'm being an asshole."