Before Orange is the New Black transported her to TV stardom, there was a barefoot blonde girl running around a grassy yard, dreaming of Maria von Trapp and directing her little brother to dress up in costume.
“From when I was only five years old, I had this really intense relationship with movies and TV shows where I would get heart-wrenchingly lost in them,” recalls Taylor Schilling who, thanks to her orange jumpsuit, is one of the most recognisable faces on TV.
“I watched The Sound of Music over and over again. It was all-encompassing in its power to take me out of my own life and set my imagination afloat. It profoundly impacted me and was a very important part of my life,” says the Boston-born actress.
Her former-prosecutor father Robert and university-administrator mother divorced when she was a child. Drama would prove her salvation: “I never felt like I fit in. I felt very ‘other’ and confused about where my place was, socially or within a family dynamic.”
It was something of an epiphany when, at 10 years old, she auditioned for a middle-school performance of Fiddler on the Roof. “I felt, ‘oh this makes sense, I know who I am, this is very simple’. When I was performing it became very clear that, ‘here is my place and I’m OK’.”
Such was her passion, neither parent tried to dissuade her. “We didn’t have that kind of relationship. I was just doing it and that was it. I’d been making up skits and building stages in the back yard for most of my life. I’d dress up poor little brother Sam, paint his nails and make him be my sidekick in all my imaginary games,” she says, smiling at the memory as she slips off flat pumps and tucks long bare legs beneath her.
Remarkably, her very first film role was with Meryl Streep in the little-seen drama Dark Matter in 2007. She was days away from graduating from Fordham University when she got the call. “I was in [the shop] The Container Store buying something for my dorm room. I remember just freaking out and feeling so excited among all the containers...”
Working just two days on the movie, she had little chance to actually meet the great Streep, but still says, “it was very special”. The harsh reality of a career in showbusiness soon became apparent, however. Enrolling in graduate school, she nanny-ed for several years in Manhattan, a task she likens to “trying to herd cats. It’s tricky.”
Two years later she gratefully booked a lead role in a TV hospital drama. While it was cancelled after one season, she garnered good reviews, and it led to a starring role opposite Zac Efron in the romantic drama The Lucky One.
But it is as Orange is the New Black’s Piper Chapman, a middle class woman whose world is changed forever when she is incarcerated for a long-past crime, that she has reached a global audience she never envisaged as a struggling stage actress.
Based on Piper Kerman’s best-selling prison memoir, the Netflix original series generated more viewers in its first week than even stable-mate House of Cards.
It is now in its third season, and Schilling says there is no such thing as a typical OITNB fan. “It’s a real cross-section of people, lots of different kinds of women. Many times it’s young girls who are so appreciative and have stories about how it’s helped them build more confidence in school or helped them be more themselves.”
She is starring now in The Overnight, an awkwardly funny comedy-drama about a children’s play-date that takes a weird and sexy turn when the two sets of parents embark upon a decidedly adult encounter. “I thought it was a very tender, lewd thing. I couldn’t resist,” she says.
She was the last to join the film, written and directed by Patrick Brice, and had no time even to test the chemistry between herself and screen husband Adam Scott.
While much of the role requires minimum clothing, she was unconcerned. “I was happy there wasn’t a lot of time to over-think. More and more, I’m finding it’s an effective way to work in so many situations, to allow instincts take over.”
Besides, she’s no big believer in screen chemistry. “Chemistry is a very nebulous thing. It sometimes emerges or it doesn’t. I don’t know how much you can force it and it doesn’t always need to feel really positive or rainbow-ey for it to be effective on screen. With this it felt so simple and easy and everyone just got along really well.”
Portraying one of a couple that is new to Los Angeles, trying to fit in alongside Jason Schwartzman and Judith Godreche’s more sophisticated pair, Schilling understands well the pressure of finding acceptance. “It’s scary and it’s hard. I think it’s hard anywhere. Feeling like: ‘Do you fit in? Do you belong? Who will accept me as I am? Can I accept myself as I am?’ and all those questions. It’s hard, moving from place to place,” says the actress who keeps the same tight group of friends and swears by a good book.
“I always travel with books. I’ve been trying to reread Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, and that has become a bit of a talisman. I’ve had it in my suitcase for a few months.”
With so much momentum in her career, she made the surprising choice to return to the theatre late last year, to star in an off-Broadway four-month run of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country with Game of Thrones’ Peter Dinklage,
“I tend to challenge myself and I felt like it was time for me to get back on stage. It had been too long and if I didn’t do this particular piece, I felt like I might have been turning it down out of fear instead of [out of] feeling like it wasn’t the right move,” she admits.
“It was a huge four-month commitment with a group of people that I’d worked with before, and I felt like it was a safe way to do a play. If there’s ever a safe way to do a play, which there’s not, I can tell you.”
Directed by Dinklage’s wife Erica Schmidt, the production received excellent reviews. “Being on stage running through a two-hour arc of a story in real time requires some different muscles and it sharpens all the muscles. There’s something very intense about doing a rehearsal process and then eight shows a week. I know it’s not coal-mining,” she laughs, poking fun at her own earnestness.
She struggles to be a mistress of self-promotion, too.
“I have tweeted but sometimes I think about just not doing it at all, which I may very well do. But then I’m like, ‘why delete the account?’,” she muses, twisting a strand of her hair back into a pony tail. “I don’t feel particularly suited for it, my mind doesn’t work that observationally. I’m not really thinking about how to comment on what the experience is, so I can’t do those clicks that quickly. I totally forgot I even had an Instagram account until February when the play ended.”
There’s a scene in The Overnight where Schilling and Scott tear off the label from a supermarket brand of cheap wine for fear of judgment, something the actress says she would never do in real life. “No, I wouldn’t tear off the label! I would say: ‘This is what I had in my house – thank you for having me.’”
'The Overnight' opens on 26 JuneReuse content