In season one of Orange Is the New Black, the hit Netflix dramedy set in a women’s penitentiary, inmate Taystee goes to the prison hairdresser before a parole hearing. “I want to look like Mo’Nique from Essence magazine, 2008!” she declares. The stylist, a fellow convict, suggests instead she channel “the black best friend in the white-girl movie,” and Taystee’s sidekick, Poussey, shouts examples: “Regina King … Alicia Keys … Regina King.”
When Danielle Brooks, 24 (on left), and Samira Wiley, 27, who play Taystee and Poussey, respectively, try to recall women they looked up to as aspiring actresses, they also struggle, eventually arriving at a short, very similar list: Mo’Nique and King, plus Karyn Parsons from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Kellie Shanygne Williams from Family Matters.
“When you’re a little girl watching TV, you want to see people who reflect you,” says Brooks. It was hard for either actress to imagine they’d end up where they are today: stars of an acclaimed show, renewed for a second season before the first was released; Instagramming snaps with Lupita Nyong’o; getting Twitter shout-outs from Regina King herself. Now, laughs Brooks, “we’re sitting at the cool kids’ table.”
It’s a diverse bunch. Cast members acknowledge the show—on which almost half the actors are of colour—would probably not have been green-lit without its beautiful white protagonist, Piper, played by Taylor Schilling. But by creator Jenji Kohan’s design, Piper has served as a Trojan horse to characters less represented on television.
“You get all of these underdogs, people you haven’t seen before,” says Brooks. “Different shapes, sizes, orientations, all in one room.” And it’s those faces that have emerged as fan favourites—like swaggering Taystee and mouthy Poussey, who bond in a season one scene with a riff on “white people politics.” (“Did you see that wonderful new documentary about the best sushi in the world?” “You know, I just don’t have the time. Tad and I have our yoga workshop, then wiiine-tasting class …”)
Brooks and Wiley’s on-screen chemistry is so palpable that viewers often ask them whether they knew each other before the show. They did—the actresses met at Juilliard, and have been friends for seven years. “That gives us something special that you can’t fake,” says Wiley. By way of describing their rapport, castmate Uzo Aduba (Crazy Eyes) snaps her fingers rapidly. “They’re an Abbott and Costello,” she says. “They’re a team.”
Taystee—based loosely on two different women from the 2010 memoir on which the eponymous show is based—was originally intended to appear in just a few episodes in season one, while Poussey was invented to “give Taystee a friend,” Wiley says. Season two sees Taystee promoted to a series regular, and promises to reveal Poussey’s backstory—including what landed her in prison—through the show’s signature flashbacks. The pair can’t reveal any other plot details, but, says Wiley, “in the beginning, it’s just like, Back to our heroes! And then, sh-t starts to go down.”
Season two of Orange Is the New Black debuts June 6 on Netflix