She certainly doesn't look like a former prisoner at first glance -- Piper Kerman resembles your average businesswoman, nondescript, clad in a suit. But when she starts talking you realize that there's so much more below the surface, that there are stories she can tell that would blow your mind.
She and Netflix are doing just that with "Orange Is The New Black," a TV series based on her memoir of the same name. Brought to television by "Weeds" mastermind Jenji Kohan, "OITNB" follows Piper Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling) as she navigates her way through a 15-month prison sentence. She's a fish out of water, big time, and we get to watch her succeed and fall on her face as she morphs into a different person.
HuffPost TV spoke to the real-life Piper on a press tour in Toronto, where she came clean about how much of "OITNB" is real, the most harrowing aspects of staying in prison, and whether or not she ever talks to "Alex" anymore.
HuffPost TV: Everyone wants to know: Are all the characters on the show based on real people?
Piper Kerman: The characters are their own characters, but they're very real to me! [Laughs]
Are they based on real people that you met in prison?
Not necessarily. Some of the characters are completely made up. For example, Madeline Brewer [who plays corn-rowed Tricia], her character is a total creation of the writers' room. That's just one example. She's just like lots of women I met in prison, though, so she's very real to me. That character is not drawn from the book.
What about Laverne Cox's character, Sophia? Did you meet transgender women in prison?
Oh, yes! The Sophia character is one of the ones I was most thrilled to see. Laverne is absolutely stunning and stellar. In the book, I was incarcerated with a transgender woman, and she lived right next door to me for many months ... and when she went home I moved into her bunk. Long story. [Laughs] But I was really happy that they decided to include a trans character. Sophia is an adaptation, she's not exactly like Vanessa in the book. I changed all the names in the book.
Oh, so the names in the book are also changed. So technically each of these women has three names: their real name, the book name, and then the TV show name.
I've got a three-way chain going here. I have to keep all the adaptations straight. It can be confusing. But I feel like the character of Sophia is a brilliant example of how the adaptation works.
What about Crazy Eyes? Is she based on a real person?
Crazy Eyes on the show has romantic ideas about Piper, but the character on the show is very, very different from the real-life inspiration. I mean, she's a different race, she's a completely different person. Again, they take this idea and add onto it. Jenji has taken the themes from the book -- friendship and empathy, guilt and shame, substance abuse, mental health issues -- and blown them up. And that's fantastic. The book is the true story of what I observed and felt, and while the show changes storylines and characters, it's very true to the spirit of the book. The single thing that is most important about the book is how my life intersects with the lives of these other women. I mean, we love Piper Chapman, but the reason to watch is the ensemble.
How much were you on set?
Not every day, but often. They shoot on a soundstage in Queens, and on location, north of the city at an abandoned children's psychiatric hospital -- a tragically horrible place. When I say it's abandoned, it's super creepy. There's all this detritus still there. It's great for them to shoot there, because it has this heavy blanket of failure and cruelty. It has this sadness. For the actors, it must be really useful.
Speaking of that feeling, what was it like that first time you set foot in prison? Was it dread? Absolute petrifying fear?
I was very scared, but you know ... I had been living the last six years of my life under control of the federal government. I was indicted in 1998, and I didn't actually go to prison until 2004. For years and years, it was this very strange holding pattern. I knew I was going to prison, I just didn't know when. So I was very frightened, but was also really ready to get it over with. Even that first day was the beginning of the light at the end of the tunnel, on some level.
How long did it take you to adapt to prison life?
Oh, I adapted rather quickly. You have to, you have no choice. It's trial by fire. If you don't, then you're really going to suffer. Those were the women that suffered the most, those who were resistant. It's a treacherous thing, because the more the prison becomes your home, the harder it is to go home when you get released. My bunkie served eight years, and I knew so many other women with long sentences. They knew about cell phones and computers, and that scared a lot of them. They knew the world had changed [outside] without them. They had been frozen in time.
How accurate is the show in terms of race? When you arrived in prison, would you say the majority of women were black? Hispanic? White?
Danbury Prison, when I was there, was about 45 percent Latina, 25 percent black, 25 percent white, and one percent "other." There was one Indian woman, and one Chinese woman ... I always wondered what their experiences were like. That idea of having a singular experience is very intriguing to me -- hence the inclusion of the Vanessa/Sophia character.
How much input did you provide to Taylor in terms of playing this role?
I met Taylor for the first time, on-set, when they were shooting the first episode. I watched them film a very complicated scene with a lot of different characters and a lot of undercurrents going on. It was funny, but she was also very scared in the scene. I watched them and thought, "She's going to be great." It was very reassuring. I've gotten to know her and she's lovely. She's come to Riker's Island with me, visited some women's advocacy groups with me. She's done her research, but I thought it was important for her to go into this like I did, knowing nothing.
Do you keep in touch with anyone from prison?
Yes, I do. I don't ever go back to Danbury ... I'm not sure they'd let me. I've done talks with female prisoners, and surprisingly, probation officers and guards have really taken to the book, and I often get emails from them. That's probably been the most surprising reaction to the book.
Is there anything you miss about prison?
I miss the people. A lot of them. But I most certainly don't miss prison. Or the bathrooms. I'd say the bathrooms are pretty accurately depicted in terms of their grody nastiness.
How realistic are the guards on the show? Especially Pornstache...
Pablo Schreiber is wonderful, isn't he? He's creepy and awful. But I'll tell you, there are some creepy and awful guards in prison. There's a person in the book who's a horrible guy -- he's better in some ways and worse in some ways. In other words, it's a complicated thing. The depiction of the guards is accurate, in that working in prison is a hard job, and they're human beings. The small acts of kindness that a guard or staffer sometimes extends is really important to a prisoner.
You and Larry are together now. How on Earth did you make it work?
The prison system makes it very difficult to maintain relationships. For one thing, we had the resources. Larry was physically able to make it to the prison every single week to come visit me, I had the money in my prison account to make phone calls. Those contact points are lifelines. It was a deeply difficult and challenging experience for him, me, and our families. The interesting thing is it provides perspective -- it makes you realize what's important and not important in your relationship. Someone I know from prison said it best: "They do our time with us." No strip searches for them, though. [Laughs]
Do you keep in touch with "Alex"?
I do not. No.
Not at all?
Well, that's one of the biggest departures from the book. That's a really good reason to compare and contrast the book ... and I don't want to give away any spoilers. Nora [her name in the book] is a character in the book, and not only in flashbacks. I'll leave it at that.
Would you say this entire experience has made you into a stronger, more insightful person?
Definitely. I don't know if I'd describe myself as insightful, but I have a much deeper and stronger awareness of inequality. That's something you can't walk away from. I've had this recognition that people are incredibly resilient, and are survivors. I got treated one way, and other people got treated another way. Why is that? You can't leave that behind when you forge these strong friendships with people.
You can stream "Orange Is The New Black" at any time on Netflix.
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