NEW YORK — Piper Kerman sits next to Taylor Schilling, the woman playing Kerman’s younger self on Netflix’s new original series, “Orange Is the New Black.”
The two could pass for cousins. They’re both impeccably dressed for media appearances, their blond hair styled, their smiles genuine. They order the same salad for lunch (tuna Nicoise). Kerman is relieved to wear flats to her interview, while Schilling slips her heels off as soon as she sits down at the table.
If you get them talking, they’ll tell you they also have geography in common. They both have parents who live around New Bedford. Schilling grew up in Wayland and West Roxbury, while Kerman graduated from Swampscott High School and Smith College. They both reside in New York.
The biggest difference between the two, besides age (Kerman is 43, Schilling 28), is that one of them served time in prison and the other just pretends she did.
“It’s the best female character that I’ve read, period,” Schilling says of playing a fictionalized Kerman in the drama, which was picked up for a second season before the first was even released to Netflix subscribers.
“Orange Is the New Back” — which became available for viewing this month — is based on Kerman’s 2010 memoir about her 15-month sentence in a Danbury, Conn., correctional facility. She started serving time in 2004 after pleading guilty to criminal conspiracy for carrying money for an ex-girlfriend, who was part of an international drug ring. Kerman had met the woman in Northampton after graduation and committed the crime years before she was implicated.
Kerman’s time served inspired her to write her memoir, also called “Orange Is the New Black,” which chronicled her life in prison and relationships with fellow inmates. Soon after the memoir’s release, it was optioned by “Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan, whom Kerman met on her book tour. By 2012, “Orange” was being filmed as an original series for Netflix, with Schilling playing the renamed Piper Chapman, Jodie Foster and Andrew McCar-thy on board as episode directors, and a supporting cast that included Natasha Lyonne, Laura Prepon from “That ’70s Show,” and Jason Biggs of “American Pie,” who was cast as Kerman’s fiance, Larry Smith (now her husband), who was Kerman’s regular visitor in prison.
The show debuted to rave reviews, and Schilling and Kerman have been traveling internationally to promote the series, with stops in London, Toronto, and most recently for Kerman, Brazil. On Thursday, Netflix garnered 14 Emmy Award nominations, which can only fuel further interest in its original programming. (“Orange” will be eligible next year.)
For Schilling, this is a dream gig. Her first significant on-screen acting job was on NBC’s hospital series “Mercy,” which was canceled after a season. After that, she was cast in the Nicholas Sparks adaptation “The Lucky One” opposite Zac Efron (“High School Musical”). That film exposed her to a wide audience, but, as she puts it, “It did not change my life by any means.”
More recently, she appeared in Ben Affleck’s “Argo” as his character’s wife. It was a coveted role, but most of her screen time was cut during editing. All that was left was a short, wordless scene in which Affleck greets her at the end of the film.
Schilling has no hard feelings and said it was an incredible experience. Affleck’s wife, Jennifer Garner, even sent her a handwritten letter to make her feel better, and Affleck was instructive and kind during the process. “He’s such a good director,” she said.
After that, Schilling looked for her next big step. And despite her focus on movies, she found an ideal television role, one that would have her playing a well-educated New Englander whose one big mistake in her 20s landed her in prison.
“I read the script almost a year ago. I was in Maine at my grandmother’s, and I was on a hammock,” Schilling says, remembering her first look at the meaty part, which she says opened her eyes about prison life. “I could get my foot in the door through prison, through her character.”
Kerman, who works in communications for nonprofits and serves on the board of the Women’s Prison Association, became a consultant for the series and brought her husband to the set. She and Smith, founder of SMITH magazine, were led to the filming area, which was a loose replica of Kerman’s prison packed with actors and extras in jumpsuits. “Both Larry and I had this sort of crazy stomach drop,” Kerman says, remembering her first impressions of the set.
For Smith, who had “never made it past the visiting room” in Danbury, he explained, the visit was an awakening. He saw what Kerman calls the “chow hall,” as well as a replica of the area where she slept for those 15 months. “We had chills,” he said. “It was a pretty emotional moment. The phrase ‘out of body’ experience’ has never been more apt.”
Kerman, who’ll return to the set with Schilling later this summer, says that even though the show deviates from her life, showrunner Kohan is keeping it real in the most important ways.
“What I really wanted to do in the book is for people to come away with a different sense of who’s in prison, why they’re there, and what happens to them — which I think is very different than conventional wisdom, and the show absolutely does that,” Kerman said, adding with a sarcastic laugh, “Things get a lot worse for Piper Chapman after the first episode.”Meredith Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.