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The Women of ‘OITNB’ Are Really Smart (And They Know It, Too)

Variety logo Variety 5/6/2017 Emily Mae Czachor
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More than two years ago, “Orange Is The New Black” actress Samira Wiley sent a cryptic text message to two of her then co-stars (and real-life best friends), Danielle Brooks and Uzo Aduba. “We need to sit down over a glass of wine,” the text message read.

The message, it turned out, was the precursor for Wiley’s impending “goodbye” — spurred by the forthcoming death of her beloved “OITNB” character, Poussey. And, while Brooks and Aduba were somewhat blindsided by the news, Wiley had been privy to it for months already.

“It was heavy,” Brooks remembered, of filming the chilling — and, startlingly relevant — scene in which Wiley’s character (a black female inmate) is senselessly strangled by a white male correctional officer. “It was hea-vy.”

Mostly, though, the women grieved the loss of Wiley herself. In addition to co-workers, the women of “OITNB” are, firstly, a family. “Selfishly, I was sad and upset,” Aduba said, gesturing to Wiley. “She’s pure love.”

Poussey’s death, as well as its implications, was a focal point of Netflix’s screening and panel event Friday evening at North Hollywood’s Saban Media Center. The sit-down featured a moderated conversation between Variety‘s Debra Birnbaum and the leading women of “Orange Is The New Black” — Laverne Cox, Taylor Schilling, Taryn Manning, and Blair Brown, in addition to Wiley, Brooks, and Aduba — ahead of “OITNB” Season 5.

Birnbaum addressed Wiley first to kick off the discussion. “We’re happy to see you alive and well,” Birnbaum joked. “I’m happy to be alive,” quipped Wiley, the 30-year-old actress who has already begun to establish her artistic prowess outside of “Orange” with her comparably resonant supporting role in Hulu’s screen adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

The panelists laughed. But Poussey’s death, and the incalculable real-world deaths it’s meant to represent, are anything but blithe. And, in the wake of Trump’s political regime, the stakes feel particularly high.

“Our show seems relevant now more than ever,” Cox said. “There’s a resistance that’s happening at Litchfield right now, and there’s a resistance that’s happening in the country.” “It’s our responsibility as artists to reflect the time that we’re living in,” Wiley echoed. “It’s an incredible responsibility that we have.”

But despite the scope of “OITNB”‘s socio-political reach, the actors try not to feel too encumbered by it. “I don’t think the action is to be an activist,” Aduba agreed. “But it forces the audience to be responsible. You’re forced to see [the characters’] humanity.” And that humanness — the relatability of it — she says, makes all the difference.

And it’s true; in so many ways, the incisive, quick-witted authenticity with which “OITNB” gives voice to narratives not-oft showcased in mainstream TV is something of a revelation. It is a show that, from its onset, has unapologetically built its narrative clout on the three-dimensional, thoroughly-developed, and acutely heartrending stories of female inmates — many of whom are women of color, hold LGBTQ+ identities, grapple with mental illness, and struggle with substance abuse.

In mirroring the evolving socio-political zeitgeist throughout its four-season lifespan, “OITNB” has tackled a conveyor belt of nightmarish real-world issues, including (but certainly not limited to): prison privatization, police brutality, and Black Lives Matter. And, in doing that, it has catalyzed a wider series of dialogues and a heightened awareness of those issues and how they manifest outside of the show.

“Just by being honest, there’s a ripple effect,” Schilling said, reiterating writer/creator Jenji Kohan’s mantra that “the personal is universal.” Schilling, however, tries to focus predominantly on her role as a storyteller first, advocate second. “Crossing those lines is a political act,” Schilling said, “But that’s not the genesis of it.”

In just a 30-minute timespan, the panelists also managed to touch on a medley of topics, both practical and theoretical, including the philosophies behind Netflix’s push toward innovative TV and “the osmosis of character” (Aduba’s delightfully thoughtful — albeit, roundabout — response to the question “If you could play any character besides your own, who would it be?”).

“My cast is smart,” Brooks cut in, finally articulating the sentiment that had been hanging in the air for the duration of the evening. “That’s all I have to say. Intelligent women.”

Season 5 of “Orange Is The New Black” debuts on Netflix June 9.

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