Belfast Telegraph

Prison becomes nasty as Orange Is The New Black returns

Orange Is The New Black has made waves thanks to its powerful themes, diverse cast and break-out stars. Georgia Humphreys finds out from some of the cast why series six might just be the darkest instalment yet

Since launching as one of Netflix's first original shows back in 2013, Orange Is The New Black has remained a trailblazer in the world of TV.

Based on Piper Kerman's book about her real-life experiences, it follows a group of women living in a prison in Connecticut and the back-stories behind their sentences.

And creator Jenji Kohan has been applauded for how unapologetically forward-thinking the comedy-drama is.

"I know for a fact Orange was talking about #MeToo before #MeToo was even being talked about, dealing with the injustice and the guards taking advantage of the inmates," remarks Danielle Brooks (28), who plays Tasha 'Taystee' Jefferson.

"What I like about this show is they're not afraid to go there."

Here, Brooks and co-stars Natasha Lyonne and Jackie Cruz tell us what fans can expect from series six.

TURMOIL AHEAD

Season five, which played out over three days during a riot, ended on a cliffhanger.

We saw officers break into a bunker where 10 of Litchfield's finest, including protagonist Piper Chapman and former heroin addict Nicky Nichols (played by Lyonne) had been hiding out.

"We go to maximum security prison, which is going to be a whole new world for Nicky," New Yorker Lyonne (39) says of the new episodes. "She's really used her smart mouth and her wit to maintain a version of power or good relations, and in max that game isn't going to be quite as cute anymore."

There are some seriously dark scenes in series six - the women, sent to different prisons and separated from their friends, are tortured by guards, and have possible life sentences hanging over them.

Taystee is particularly struggling to stay above water, after almost taking her life at the end of the last series.

"There were some tough days," Brooks (28) recalls of filming. "She's depressed and just wanting to give up and that was hard, to stay in that state for little less than eight months.

"I can't come out and make a joke with somebody... I'm very much focused, because it's too important to me to waste such good writing and storytelling."

SHAPING CHARACTERS

Georgia-born Brooks had only just finished studying at Juilliard in New York when she got the role of Taystee, and identified with her from the start.

"Taystee having this opportunity to get out of prison but coming back because she felt that people wouldn't take her seriously - I definitely felt that way at the beginning of my career. Feeling like I'm this young 21/22-year-old, coming into this big show, and, 'Will people take me seriously? Will they think I'm a fake, a fluke?'"

Notably, all cast members have had a part in moulding the women they play.

"They take a little bit of your life and add it to the character, and that's what I feel makes the show so authentic," says Jackie Cruz (31), who plays music-mad Marisol 'Flaca' Gonzales.

When it comes to her preparation for the role each series, Lyonne says it's an actor's job to stay open to what's happening in real life, noting the "new, more fascist world that we accidentally found ourselves in while shooting the sixth season".

"The underlying theme of Orange is always going to be about losing free will, and understanding really, in a profound sense, what freedom means," she suggests. "There were themes that, quite clearly, we are experiencing in real time."

PIONEERING PARTS

The show boasts a diverse cast, and Cruz, born in the Dominican Republic, thinks her character is important for representing first generation Latinas like her.

"To be honest with you, Orange Is The New Black is the first time I saw 'myself' on TV," she says. "I never grew up watching TV being like, 'I wanna be like her', because there was no-one like me."

Meanwhile, Brooks, who has used her fame from the show as a platform to talk about sizeism and beauty positivity, loves how Orange Is The New Black shows all different types of women on screen.

"What I pray is that we don't just make it a trend, but that it's something that we stick with in this Hollywood entertainment business for a while, and I think it will, because women are not playing around right now," she adds.

Does Lyonne see the show continuing for a long time yet?

"I do. There are so many stories to be told."

LIFE-CHANGING

Cruz started off with just a couple of lines, but has since become a series regular and is keen to discuss how unique the show is for the sisterhood vibe she's experienced on set.

"I thought that the whole of Hollywood was like this, but it's not," she admits. "We all support one another and it's a beautiful show to start off on in Hollywood, because it grounded me."

Meanwhile, being part of the show has cemented in Lyonne's mind that people can keep going even when feeling hopeless - which, she reflects, is something she did as a young person battling with drug addiction.

"We are wired to survive and fight for what we believe in and I think it's what's so beautiful about Orange Is The New Black, we really see that on a macro and a micro scale," she says.

"So, it's been powerful, personally, as a lesson and in a more global sense, to see what we can learn from that."

Orange Is The New Black season six launches on Netflix on Friday, July 27

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