On the set of “Orange is the New Black”

Monday I visited the set of Orange is the New Black in Long Island City, where I was given a tour by the production designer, Michael Shaw, and was fortunate enough to interview Uzo Aduba (Suzanne/“Crazy Eyes”), Laverne Cox (Sophia Burset), and Danielle Brooks (Taystee). I was even granted privy access to the floor to watch a scene in the making from Season 2.

Laverne Cox, Danielle Brooks and Uzo AdubaTrevor NextGen  4th Annual Fall FeteGetty Images

Details about the new season are under embargo—with even the aforementioned cast members prohibited from dishing—until the premiere date “sometime in 2014.”

Here’s what I can say about my visit:

The set is actually divided between the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Long Island City and an abandoned psychiatric hospital an hour north of New York City, in Rockland County. The primary sets are housed within the Studios, from Red’s kitchen to the bunks where “Crazy Eyes” peed on the floor.  All of the outdoor scenes are filmed at the now defunct psychiatric hospital; it also houses the sets of the library and the laundry room. Mr. Shaw spoke passionately about his vision for the various sets, from texture to color palette. He even let me take a few photos in the bathroom—you better believe I copped a squat on the very same open stall toilet where Sophia and Piper both took a piss in Season 1.

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The cast was profoundly generous with their time. Uzo Aduba and I expounded upon our mutual love of Melissa Harris-Perry and all things #Nerdland. She described how protective she was of her character, Suzanne, and how she has decided to not refer to her as “Crazy Eyes”: “The idea of me calling her by the name that outsiders perceive her as…I can’t do it…. It feels like the idea of talking horribly about a really good friend; I would never do it. I would never talk about a friend behind their back so carelessly, and that feels careless.”

Uzo Abuda is just brilliant. She articulated the origin of “the Crazy Eyes’ Gaze” as born out of a love story. “I wanted the name to do a lot of the work with the eyes,” she explained, “so I could walk in and literally hold my eyes open and that could be crazy…. But I wanted to sort of focus on two things: first, what is it that maybe could be misunderstood? And, for me, I thought, oh, ok, this is a love story I’m reading. This is a one-sided love story. [Second] I am focusing on how do I answer the question, “How far does someone go for love?” And those actions in themselves result in that passion, the actions of those passions, “and the throwing of the pie].”

While she did not write some of her most epic lines (from “I threw my pie for you!” to the poem about the sun as a yellow grape), she was given the freedom to perform those lines, and test—through intonation and bodily expression—the range of their language. She may not have invented “chocolate and vanilla swirl,” but she did, through performance, and particularly by setting the words to a particular rhythm in her mind, create “chocolate and vanil-la swirrr-rrrl.”

Laverne Cox could not stop shaking her booty to some “Yoncé” and talked about the glory that is Beyoncé, but she did pause to discuss her affiliation with GLAAD and her social activism outside the show. She also is repeatedly amazed by the warm reception she’s received by fans on the streets of New York, even though it’s taken her some time to get used to all the love: “I’m getting approached on the street by fans, [and] it’s a trip…. But it’s still New York. I guess, I moved here at a time when you had to watch your back on the streets of New York; you had to watch your back on the train. You had to be really careful, and being a transwoman of color I have to really watch my back. It’s not safe for me. I love the fans of the show, I really do…. There’s so much love—I guess part of it is that I’m not used to the attention on the street being loving and affirming. I’m used to it being threatening…. It’s an adjustment.”

Danielle Brooks spoke lovingly about her castmates, and how the racial tensions expressed within the show are so profoundly distinct from the camaraderie of the entire cast. “The cafeteria scenes on set,” where groups are segregated by table, “are so different from when we’re not on set.” Brooks understands how the show creates a space for discussion around issues of race: “this is how our world is, and we’re having to play that…. [R]acism is really hidden…. There’s that subtleness that’s happening in our country that’s disheartening.”

(Side note: Danielle and Uzo have no additional holiday videos in the works. “I’m puttin’ it on pause, right now,” Brooks laughed, but noted, “No one does a Thanksgiving song; maybe we should do one of those!”)

There is so much I want to share with you at AfterEllen about my day on the set of Orange is the New Black, but my lips are sealed…at least about this experience.

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Expect more in the new year!


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