Orange Is The New Black juggles a sprawling cast made up of breakout stars

Blair Brown (above) joins the cast, which includes Laverne Cox, in the fourth season.
Blair Brown (above) joins the cast, which includes Laverne Cox, in the fourth season. PHOTOS: NETFLIX
Blair Brown joins the cast, which includes Laverne Cox (above), in the fourth season.
Blair Brown joins the cast, which includes Laverne Cox (above), in the fourth season.PHOTOS: NETFLIX

Orange Is The New Black is the most-watched original series on Netflix and juggles a sprawling cast made up of breakout stars

Netflix drama Orange Is The New Black probably deserves a special prize for the sheer number of characters it juggles.

As it returns for its fourth season, the Emmy-winning comedy-drama set in a women's prison is adding even more players to its sprawling cast, which has so far featured some two dozen major characters, each richly imagined and with his or her own back story.

Joining lead actresses such as Taylor Schilling, Uzo Aduba and Dascha Polanco is Blair Brown, who plays new inmate Judy King. She is a scandal-plagued cooking-show host serving a sentence for tax evasion - a wink at real-life miscreant celebrity chef Martha Stewart.

Her arrival finds the prison a powder keg because of overcrowding as its new corporate overlords try to maximise profits and the inmates are increasingly divided along racial and ethnic lines.

The show, the most-watched original series on Netflix and adored by critics, has won four Emmys since it debuted in 2013, including Outstanding Casting for a Comedy Series and two acting nods for Aduba.

Speaking to The Straits Times and other press in Los Angeles earlier this year, creator Jenji Kohan says it will continue to use Litchfield Penitentiary as a microcosm of society.

Because of the overcrowding in the prison, you push all the different groups together, and you (get) alliances that are unexpected, and animosity that’s expected and unexpected. That was ahead of the curve of what’s happening in the world now. 

ACTRESS BLAIR BROWN

This season, even more of those big ideas will be layered over the human drama.

"Sometimes we start with political agendas, the corporatisation of the prison, the stratification of people into their little mosaic pieces within the prison… and some things from current events that we want to filter through our lens," says Kohan.

Brown, 70, hints that a few of the new plot lines have been prescient, parallelling the socio-economic divisions happening in the real world.

"Because of the overcrowding in the prison, you push all the different groups together, and you (get) alliances that are unexpected, and animosity that's expected and unexpected.

"That was ahead of the curve of what's happening in the world now."

Helping to tie it all together is another big name from the world of prestige drama, Mad Men creator and nine-time Emmy-winner Matthew Weiner, who directs the heartbreaking final episode.

For Brown and the rest of the cast - many of whose careers were made or revived by the show - Orange Is The New Black has been nothing short of life-changing.

This is especially because of its groundbreaking casting, which has unearthed actresses in a wide range of ages, shapes, ethnicities, and sexual and gender identities as it moves the focus away from the original protagonist Piper (Schilling), who is based on Piper Kerman, author of the 2010 prison memoir that inspired the show.

One of these breakout stars is Laverne Cox, who is still pinching herself at getting to play Sophia Burset, a transgender prisoner unfairly put in solitary confinement after being the victim of a hate crime at the end of Season 3.

The 32-year-old, who became the first openly transgender performer recognised by the Emmys when she was nominated for Outstanding Guest Actress in 2014, says: "I've been so blessed over this journey of being on this show, of having so many moments where I'm like 'I am a black transgender woman from Mobile, Alabama, and this job has changed my life.' I'm just really grateful.

"And to have a show that prioritises the experiences and stories of women of colour, queer women, older women and gives each story such care and such humanity, is unprecedented in TV."

She adds that what happens to Sophia reflects "the reality for so many trans women who are incarcerated - most spent their time in solitary confinement, and usually trans women are also in men's prisons".

For Brown, whose last big TV role was the comedy The Days And Nights Of Molly Dodd in the late 1980s, this show has been a latecareer surprise.

"On this job, everybody works really hard. There are lots of laughs. Everybody keeps raising the game of each other. There's incredible generosity. Coming in late, I was completely welcomed by everyone.

"That just rejuvenated my soul and made me very happy to be in this business and made me like acting again."

As inmate Poussey Washington, Samira Wiley, 29, also has a major and racially charged story arc this season and she promises that with it, this edgy series will demonstrate that it is not done "pushing the audience to challenge themselves, so you're not just sitting down being entertained".

The goal, she says, is to "slip in some lessons and learn some things about the justice system and also who you are as a person, (which is) being mirrored by the women that you're watching on television".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 06, 2016, with the headline 'Show keeps breaking new ground'. Print Edition | Subscribe