Why Taylor Schilling feels liberated as an anti-hero

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Declaring one’s principles is often quite easy; living them out, however, can be another challenge entirely, as Taylor Schilling is discovering. “I would always say, ‘The real me is who I am on the inside.’ ” The actor shoots me an exaggerated eye roll. “But that’s me talking the talk. I am finding it is so much harder to walk the walk. I am finding that I actually had a real attachment to being a certain size and shape, to being a thin person.”

The star of Orange Is the New Black has just wrapped filming on Fam-i-ly, an independent comedy-drama in which she plays the emotionally stunted aunt of a 13-year-old girl. Schilling’s character Kate has “some food issues”, which required the actor, ordinarily Hollywood-issue-slim and yoga-toned, to gain nearly seven kilograms. 

Taylor Schilling arrives at the 67th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards. Taylor Schilling arrives at the 67th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards. Photo: Gregg DeGuire

That wasn’t, she reports, the tricky bit. “Are you kidding me? I’m a 32-year-old woman. I just had a lot of dessert,” she says, laughing. Leaving her new eating habits was harder. It took almost two weeks for the sugar cravings to stop and her pants still don’t fit. The result has been some radical rethinking of her self-image.

“It’s been really powerful to walk around being a different size,” she says. “I feel liberated. I’ve realised that my body was one standard I held on to, thinking I was always going to be this little size. And that’s about being ‘f…able’. But I don’t make career choices based on that. When you start caring about vanity, you are inhibiting yourself.”

Taylor Schilling in Orange is the New Black. Taylor Schilling in Orange is the New Black. 

When Schilling meets me in the stuffy masculine bar of a Manhattan hotel, we giggle at the incongruity of it; we’re the only women here, except for the staff. She’s stylishly casual in black, wide-legged trousers and a leather jacket, her blonde hair tied in a messy bun.

The Brooklyn, New York, resident is promoting the fifth series of OITNB, as well as her new film, Take Me, a dark comedy about an entrepreneur who specialises in high-end simulated kidnappings. Schilling plays a wealthy would-be victim/punter who turns the tables on her captor. Part of the appeal of the role was that Anna “has something that’s a little antithetical to Piper”. 

Piper, of course, is Piper Chapman, the protagonist of OITNB, the middle-class white girl who ended up in prison thanks to a decade-old drug-mule incident with her former girlfriend, and the role that catapulted Schilling into acting’s major league. Which is not to say that Piper is a sympathetic character; indeed, she is often cited as one of the first female anti-heroes in popular television. “I don’t think there’s anything likeable about Piper,” agrees Schilling. “But everything she’s doing is in reaction to being a fish out of water; she’s trying to find her feet.” 

OITNB was one of the first big hits for the streaming service Netflix and remains one of its most popular programs. So valuable is the show deemed to be, in fact, that it was recently held to ransom by cyber terrorists who hacked into a production company’s system and attempted to blackmail Netflix by releasing the entire new season on a pirate torrent site.

Four years in, it’s easy to forget how radical OITNB felt when it burst on to the scene. Long before Big Little Lies could boast an almost all-female cast, the drama, set in the unlovely environs of a women’s prison, featured barely a bloke. It took a more complex approach to female sexuality than had ever been seen on television, exploring the experiences of bisexual, lesbian, queer and transgender women – along with issues of drug abuse and mental illness – in fully formed characters, not ones who were defined by their sexuality.

OITNB has had an enormous impact, in a very short time, on wider societal attitudes and norms. “In the first season, all people wanted to talk about was what it was like to kiss a girl,” Schilling sighs, looking incredulous. “Now, if someone asks me that, there’s a complete understanding if I say, ‘I’m not going to answer that question.’ 

“The things that are happening in this show, and to Piper, are not about the gender of the person she’s sleeping with. And that’s only four years. I do feel that things have changed – the world has become a little more Orange.”

Schilling’s own sexuality, outside of prison walls, has been the subject of scrutiny, too; she has reportedly dated actor and musician Carrie Brownstein in recent times, but has never spoken about her private life. 

“I think it’s pretty invasive,” she says. “I’ve had very serious relationships with lots of people, and I’m a very expansive human. There’s no part of me that can be put under a label. I really don’t fit into a box – that’s too reductive.” 

She’s currently single. “I’m working all the time – I don’t really have anything else going on,” she shrugs, without self-pity. “But I’ve had wonderful relationships. I’ve had a lot of love, and I don’t have any qualms about where it comes from.”

She’s more unsure about whether she wants to have a family. “I don’t know. Not really. So, maybe that means no,” she ponders, fiddling with the lid on her teapot. “I really crave stability. But I don’t know what that looks like yet.”

Schilling spent the first years of her life in West Roxbury, a working-class area of Boston. “I was the only white kid in my class until I was eight,” she recalls. Her father, Bob, a former assistant district attorney, and her mother, Patricia, an administrator at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, then moved the family to the wealthy, predominantly white, suburb of Wayland “for better schools”.

“It was a real culture shock for my brother and I,” she says. “I felt like an outsider and I was always telling the other kids, ‘You guys don’t know how privileged you are.’ There was a fire in my belly, I was a bit angry.” 

Where did the urge to act come from? “My family are all goofballs, they like to talk and perform. Acting was also something I was good at, and I didn’t really want to spend that much time at home.” Her parents divorced when she was 15, and the years preceding that weren’t the most harmonious. “It was complicated. Some day I’ll write a good book about the whole thing.”

She studied acting at Fordham University in Manhattan and was two years into a master’s degree when she dropped out to work. It wasn’t all plain sailing. Her first film, 2007’s Dark Matter, starring Meryl Streep, had its release pushed back because of its subject matter, a 1991 university shooting that closely resembled the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech. Her first major TV role, Mercy, about a nurse recently returned from Iraq, was cancelled in 2010 after one season, and most of her scenes were cut from Argo, in which she played Ben Affleck’s wife. However, her performance in Mercy won her positive reviews and led to a starring role opposite Zac Efron in the romantic drama The Lucky One.

Schlocky it might have been, but the 2012 adaptation of the Nicholas Sparks novel gave her a higher profile and put her in the running to play Piper. Netflix released the entire first season of OITNB at once, sending Schilling from relative unknown to rather famous almost overnight.

Perhaps because she hustled hard until the right role found her, she is cautious about the trappings of fame. “There’s a difference between celebrity and acting,” she says. “And I’m really not comfortable with the celebrity role. I love talking to people who also really love the show,” she explains. “When I was young, and I was having a hard time, my life was impacted by shows I loved, and I can really see that in some of the girls I meet. But I can’t get that experience via [she looks unimpressed] Instagram.” 

She has an Instagram account – with 2.1 million followers, no less – but is a less-than-enthusiastic participant. “I’m not interested in having a public identity outside of my work, and it’s also not a place where I want to share what I did with my girlfriends last night.”

Having campaigned for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, she’s even more wary of social media. “I’m trying to become a more conscious consumer of everything that enters my brain,” she says. “The more time I spend on social media, the more I find I’m getting a narrow slice of the world. That is part of what got me to the place where I thought Hillary Clinton’s victory was a no-brainer. I was so complacent.”

That fire in Taylor Schilling’s belly is definitely still very much in evidence.