If you never thought you could deeply adore a bunch of prison inmates — some of which are literal murderers — than you’ve never watched Orange Is the New Black. The Netflix series has garnered a litany of awards, including four Emmys and numerous Screen Actors Guild Awards, by addressing often ignored issues like police brutality, transgender rights and prison sexual abuse with both tenderness and humor. Only at Litchfield would inmates list Hot Cheetos and Takis among their many demands during a season-long prison riot.
Though the writing on the series is notable, it manages to remain consistently binge-worthy because of the cast. Each member was seemingly plucked out of the strangest corners of Hollywood — from cancelled ’90s sitcoms and Broadway stages to Bronx hospitals and college dorms.The casting department at Netflix made bold moves, but they knew exactly what they were doing.
With Season 6 dropping on Netflix in the summer of 2018, there’s a still a lot about our favorite cast members that you may not know.
Taystee and Poussey were real-life BFFs before ‘OITNB’
Taystee and Poussey have one of the most iconic friendships on Orange Is the New Black — from their heart-warming first meeting in the library and their hilarious impression of white people to Poussey’s gutting death scene. As it turns out, this friendship is truly the real deal. Danielle Brooks and Samira Wiley, who have dubbed their friendship Pasty (a portmanteau of their characters’ names), are actually old college buddies.
Wiley was already studying theater at Julliard when she met Brooks at the first day of her college orientation. Wiley was the orientation leader and helped Brooks move into her dorm. As most college buddies do, they bonded over beer pong and watching Planet Earth. A couple of years after graduation, Brooks landed the role of Taystee in OITNB and encouraged Wiley to audition to play her BFF. The rest is history, and Wiley ended up meeting her wife through the series. In 2017, the actress tied the knot with OITNB writer Lauren Morelli in a funfetti-themed wedding. Brooks left her some special well-wishes in a card that read, « May you both not have your periods on your wedding day. » How very Taystee.
Maria Ruiz is a total metalhead
Jessica Pimentel is leading a double life of sorts. By day, she’s Maria Ruiz, the leader of the Dominican resistance in Litchfield’s underground used-panty business. By night, she’s a death metal frontwoman in the band Alekhine’s Gun.
According to Rolling Stone, Pimentel’s love affair with metal music began when she discovered the genre as a pre-teen and used it to help cope with depression. After an off-chance meeting in 1994, she struck up a friendship with Type O Negative’s Peter Steele, who showed her the ropes of the genre. She considered him « like a big brother » before he sadly passed away in 2010. That same year, Pimentel picked up some shifts bar-tending at Lucky 13, a metal bar in Brooklyn. That’s where she met her future bandmates, who were looking for a vocalist for their Behemoth-inspired project. They named it Alekhine’s Gun after a chess move.
Alekhine’s Gun is pretty accomplished in the world of indie death metal (a not surprisingly tight-knit community). They’ve released two EPs and played gigs with the world-renowned female metal outfit Kittie. They tend to frequent New York’s most iconic dives like Fontana’s. Weirdly enough, Pimentel is completely unrecognizable as the lead singer — especially when she dons black corpsepaint. The only common thread with her day job is her unyielding toughness and grit.
Silent Norma was a punk singer-turned-pop star before landing her role
You may not realize it because Silent Norma never opens her mouth, but Annie Golden, the actress behind Orange Is the New Black’s quietest inmate, was a punk singer before her acting career took off.
During the ’70s, Golden fronted a psychedelic rock band called The Shirts. By 1979, they ditched the paisley and transitioned into a driving, aggressive punk outfit that rivaled the likes of Kathleen Hanna and became a CBGB mainstay. The former makes her leap to a hippie cult member not seem like such of a stretch, and the latter confirms Norma’s secret wild side that we always knew existed. The band signed to Capitol Records and opened for the Talking Heads before disbanding.
Without a band behind her, Golden became a full-on ’80s pop star (think: Robin Sparkles from How I Met Your Mother). Her most successful solo single « Hang Up the Phone » was featured on the 1984 soundtrack to brat-pack epic Sixteen Candles. She even performed the hit in a 1986 episode of Late Night With David Letterman (a performance that could not possibly get any more ’80s if it was, in fact, Robin Sparkles).
Today, Golden rarely uses her pipes. Her role on Orange Is the New Black doesn’t have any spoken lines, but she did manage to take her vocal chords out of retirement for a 2012 rendition of « Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. »
Piper Chapman had the worst luck with roles before ‘OITNB’
Piper Chapman doesn’t have the best luck in Orange Is the New Black. She’s an upper-middle class white woman whose life enjoying Whole Foods snacks and juice cleanses is marred by an unfortunate relationship with a drug trafficker. Anyone could make that mistake, right? As it turns out, the woman behind OITNB’s lead isn’t that lucky either.
Taylor Schilling had numerous brushes with fame before landing her breakout role in the Netflix series — they just all happened to go horribly wrong. Her first film, Dark Matter, starred Meryl Streep, an actress that pretty much launches every film she touches straight to the Academy Awards. Unfortunately, its release was pushed back because it involved a university shooting that resembled the then-recent massacre at Virginia Tech. After Dark Matter floundered, Schilling landed a role on the TV drama Mercy, but it was cancelled after a single season. In 2012, she landed her next breakout role: Ben Affleck’s wife in the Academy Award-winning flick Argo. Most of her scenes ended up on the cutting room floor.
Not all was lost for Schilling. The few positive reviews she received from Mercy allowed her to star alongside Zac Efron in The Lucky One, an adaptation of the eponymous Nicholas Sparks novel. A Nicholas Sparks film is a one-way ticket to stardom, and she landed the role of Piper Chapman shortly after.
Crazy Eyes quit acting 45 minutes before landing a role on ‘OITNB’
Crazy Eyes is one of the most captivating characters on Orange Is the New Black. Her childlike innocence coupled with a scary lack of inhibition unfolds in so many layers that it’s hard not to adore the character despite her faults. Without Uzo Aduba, the actress behind the fan favorite, it’s hard to imagine Suzanne’s delicate psyche would have the same feeling. Unfortunately, we almost didn’t get the Crazy Eyes we know and love.
Aduba was already a Broadway star by the time she got a role on Orange Is the New Black, but she was growing wary of show business. She had originally auditioned for the role of Janae Watson, but was asked to play Crazy Eyes, who first appears in the second episode. Though Aduba claimed the character was a « really great fit, » she actually quit acting before getting the call.
« Forty-five minutes before I got this job, I quit. I know how lucky I am—I only signed on to do two episodes, » she told Marie Claire in a 2015 interview. « When they said, ‘We’re going to keep you around a little longer,’ I just thought they meant a third episode. »
The truth is that Suzanne was never meant to be a major character, but Aduba’s performance was so captivating that they hired her as a Season 2 regular. She later won two Emmys for her role.
Sophia has an identical twin brother
There’s a reason Netflix was able to totally nail the multi-faceted character of Sophia Burset — she was actually played by two different people. Laverne Cox, who transitioned into a female during her 20s, starred as Litchfield’s favorite transgender prison hairstylist. Marcus Burset, the New York City fireman and husband who committed credit card fraud to finance his gender reassignment surgery, was played by Cox’s real-life identical twin brother M. Lamar.
« Initially, [series creator Jenji Kohan] approached me and said that they would hire someone [to play Marcus], » Cox told Yahoo. « She didn’t — this is [the] amazing support I got on set — she’s like, ‘I don’t want to traumatize you, by having you play a man again.’ You know, because I tried to play one for many years in my real life, and unsuccessfully. But, I’m an actor. I can play this … I got this. I can do it. »
The episode, titled « Lesbian Request Denied, » was directed by Jodie Foster. Though Cox originally tried to play Marcus, Foster felt like her facial features were still too feminine. Cox’s twin brother, who’s an experimental musician with little to no acting experience, ended up landing the role.
Alex Vause got her start acting in bizarre ’90s music videos
Most of us know Lauren Prepon from her iconic role as Donna in That 70s Show. The Jersey-born actress starred on the series from 1998 until its final season in 2006. It took her a couple of years to shake the ginger-haired girl-next-door vibe, but she eventually proved her versatility as an actress. After starring as Karla, the murderer-slash-mental patient in the eponymous 2006 film, and landing a recurring role on How I Met Your Mother as the wholly unlikable Karen, Alex Vause seems like the perfect amalgamation of both.
Prepon’s acting career may seem like it had a normal trajectory — from sitcom to feature length film and Netflix series — but she actually got her start in ’90s music videos. When she was a teenager, she made her debut in the video for Sneaker Pimps’ « 6 Underground, » and if you didn’t already know she had a credit, you would never have recognized her.
Oddly enough, the Sneaker Pimps never really gained too much mainstream success in America, but they did pretty well for themselves in the UK garage circuit. As for Prepon, she’s now synonymous with her OITNB role, and the black dye job certainly helped remove herself from Donna.
Daya was a teen mother working at a hospital before landing her role
Uzo Aduba wasn’t the only one who nearly quit acting before landing a role on Orange Is the New Black. Dascha Polanco, who plays the tough-as-nails Daya Diaz, almost called it quits because she was considered plus-sized in Hollywood. At a size 10, she felt like she had to work twice as hard to get the same opportunities as other, slimmer actresses. When she signed on to play Diaz, she was actually working a pretty normal job.
Before acting full-time, Polanco was a nursing student who managed an instrument room at a hospital in the Bronx. As if she wasn’t busy enough attending school, working a 9-5 and achieving her acting dreams, she was also raising a daughter that she had when she was just 18. That’s right: Polanco was a teen mom before fame, and later added a young son to her growing family.
« Nothing’s wrong with [having kids at a young age], » Polanco told Latina magazine (via E! News). « It just makes it a little bit more challenging. »
Even though Polanco eventually dropped out of school, she remains an inspiration to teen mothers everywhere. We actually get to see her daughter, Dasany Kristal Gonzalez, in Season 5 of OITNB. Gonzalez, who was 15 at the time, played a teenage version of Daya. The pair looked almost identical.
Everyone forgot about Pennsatucky’s awesome indie rock band
If you were a teen in the early ’00s, there’s a pretty safe bet you’ve opened up the pages of Alternative Press and read a blurb on Boomkat, an indie rock band that seemingly rose to fame as quickly as they fell out of it. What you might have not realized is that Boomkat was the brainchild of Taryn Manning, who plays Pennsatucky on OITNB, and her brother Kellin Manning.
Boomkat achieved some minor mainstream success landing soundtrack spots in some of the early aughts’ most epic teen Blockbusters (think: Mean Girls and Crossroads, where Manning also starred alongside Britney Spears and Zoe Saldana). They even appeared in a 1994 episode of Nickelodeon’s variety show All That. After Manning garnered acclaim for roles in films like 8 Mile and Hustle & Flow, her music started getting even more attention. Unfortunately, DreamWorks went bankrupt in 2004, and Boomkat lost their record deal with Geffen.
Today, most of Boomkat’s existence has been scrubbed from the internet barring a couple music videos, reuploads and decades-old interviews. Manning is still pursuing music as a solo artist and released the EDM-tinged single « GLTCHLFE » in 2017.
There are no words to describe Jason Biggs’ strange prostitute incident
It’s a pretty safe bet to say Jason Biggs will always be known for his role in American Pie — the film should be regarded as a national treasure. It turns out that Biggs can’t escape the film even though it’s been nearly 20 years. It’s not his fault that his real life is something straight out of the Jim Levenstein playbook. Even Stifler would be rolling his eyes, presuming he ever actually grew up.
Two years before Biggs landed his role on OITNB, his wife Jenny Mollen hired a prostitute to give him oral sex before writing a personal essay on the subject. The whole thing is pretty on par with the iconic scene where Jim gets caught embarrassing himself via webcam. According to some excerpts pulled by Uproxx, it went down like this: Mrs. Biggs poured champagne and celebrated the bizarre birthday gift as Biggs nervously paced around the room (he was afraid of getting arrested as prostitution will do). Apparently, there was some sort of miscommunication because they accidentally hired a regular old massage therapist. After that embarrassment was out of the way, they hired a new hooker for $600. They described the main event as boring. You can’t make this up.
Nicky Nichols’ drug problems hit close to home for Natasha Lyonne
Natasha Lyonne, who happens to be very well-acquainted with OITNB castmate Jason Biggs from their American Pie days, has always been open and honest about her struggle with drugs. This made her role as Nicky Nichols, an incarcerated heroin addict, particularly biting. During the series, we learn that Nichols had heart surgery after developing a bacterial infection from persistent heroin use. Though Lyonne had been sober for five years, she underwent the same surgery in 2012. The scar that’s regularly shown on Nichols’ chest isn’t some fancy FX makeup. It’s real life.
Things started to fall apart for Lyonne after American Pie. She got a DUI in 2001 and was later admitted to an ICU with a collapsed lung and Hepatitis C. In 2006, she attended court-ordered rehab, and that’s when things started to change for the better.
« I was definitely as good as dead, » she told Entertainment Weekly. « A lot of people don’t come back. That makes me feel wary and self-conscious. I wouldn’t want to feel prideful about it. People really rallied around me and pulled me up by my f***ing bootstraps. There was a warrant for my arrest, which helped too. »
Lyonne was able to channel her struggle into her work on OITNB, which helped land the cast three SAG Awards for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series.