Here’s a NEW Taylor Schilling interview and photoshoot for ELLE
Warning: Spoilers for season 6 of Orange Is the New Black below.
Taylor Schilling is on the top floor of The Standard Hotel, in a room overlooking the East Village. Clad in a robe, gold under-eye masks in place, the actress is arranging a dog sitter—she lives in Brooklyn so it wasn’t too hard to get here, she says, as a nail artist asks her to untuck her feet for a swipe of polish. If this were another celebrity, I might comment that this is the most undone I’ve ever seen her—chatting casually with her hair untouched and no makeup on. But for Schilling, this is actually more glamour than audiences might be used to, considering her work for the past six seasons as Piper Chapman on gritty Netflix series Orange Is the New Black—a show that helped change the landscape of television and made Schilling a household name.
Six seasons—that’s six years. “That’s the predominant thought running through my mind every time I think about the show right now,” the 34-year-old actress says with quiet awe. “Six years. It’s so hard to wrap my head around that.”
“I think it speaks to the point, that we can have a sexual predator running the free world held up against stories we’re telling of women who have been assaulted and violated in a million different iterations,” Schilling leans forward; she’s passionate about this. “I think that that’s the beauty of this show—it plays out far behind the headlines so you can see the impact of sexual assault in a woman’s life. And I hope in some small way it might somehow bring even starker relief…the criminality of Trump, and the depth of his violence toward women.”
Orange Is the New Black, one of Netflix’s most-watched shows, has grappled with the evils of privatized prisons, injustices against the trans community, and police brutality. So it’s unsurprising for it to tackle another issue that’s nationally and politically resonant. “It’s so retraumatizing to have a perpetrator in The White House,” she says. “It’s a daily assault. I think the show deals with that on so many levels and in so many storylines.” In particular, there’s the plight of Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning), who’s forced to continually interact with her rapist, a correctional officer—and the relationship turns into something resembling Stockholm Syndrome.
Schilling feels the same way. “I tried for years to love Piper,” she says. “You know what I mean? And it’s confusing.” There’s a weight to that statement: Schilling never got there. I try to compare Piper to Breaking Bad‘s beloved anti-hero Walter White—who started a life of crime to take care of his family—and she cuts me off.
“Walter White was interesting because his actions, in a horrific way, were always somewhat justified. There were always these heightened circumstances and such heightened needs, you know? He always had a reason,” she argues. Whereas, she says, “Piper’s behavior oftentimes feels groundless”—that may be why it’s harder for people to connect with her. “The audience can’t quite grab onto Piper’s behavior. It seems like it’s coming out of nowhere.”
As we learned with Taystee (Danielle Brooks), who returned to Litchfield after violating her parole, being released from prison doesn’t necessarily mean you’re out for good. But there’s something that feels more final with Piper’s farewell. Schilling seems tired. She asks me if I’ve read Equal Justice Initiative lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s book,Just Mercy. “This man worked with the furthest-lying outliers in our culture—men who are on death row and have been cast aside—and talks about how people are not to be judged on their worst moments, but their best,” she says. “I think about that with Piper, because I’ve often thought that some of the twists and turns we’ve made in the course of this show aren’t particularly redeeming.”
So, is Piper worthy of our forgiveness and mercy? “I think people are always redeemable,” Schilling says, before dropping in a caveat. “I think that’s confusing about Piper for me. As an actor, you can always love a character. You can love a murderer when you understand where they’re coming from. And I think it’s hard to understand where Piper is coming from.”
The way Schilling speaks about the character she’s spent six years with is almost wistful; I wonder if there’s an end in sight for Orange Is the New Black. The actress exhales, then almost laughs. “Yes. Of course. I don’t think I can say exactly when, but we’re coming up on it,” she says. She, at least, has her eyes on a future post-Litchfield. “I love loving the humans that I play. I’m excited to tell different stories, of people that I love. It’s not about a fairy princess,” she clarifies, “it’s about people whose choices I understand. Yeah, I feel like I’m chomping at the bit to express something different.”