What's it like to play the villain on the most talked-about show of the summer? Orange Is the New Black star Laura Prepon wouldn't know — because she doesn't see her character, Alex Vause, in that light.
[WARNING: This article contains major spoilers about the first season of Orange Is the New Black. Read at your own risk!]
"When the show first starts, you think that ... Alex is this evil person," Prepon admits. "And then as the show progresses .... you start to see that Alex — at the end of the day, yes, she's a drug dealer — but you see that she's a vulnerable person and she has really intense feelings and love for [Piper]."
For those who are unfamiliar (and seriously, by now you shouldn't be) with Netflix's Orange Is the New Black, it's about a sheltered, upper-class woman named Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) who's sentenced to 15 months in prison for her (small) role 10 years prior in an international drug smuggling ring led by her girlfriend at the time, Alex (Prepon). OITNB fans are united in their love for the truly addicting series, which is based on a memoir of the same name. But fan reaction to Alex — a love-her-or-hate-her character if there ever was one — has been more divisive. Is she a master manipulator or just misunderstood?
TVGuide.com recently spoke with Prepon about her character's "jailhouse rockabilly" style, whether she supports a Piper-Alex romance, and what's ahead in Season 2.
People are obsessed with Orange Is the New Black! Are you surprised at all by the response?
Prepon: It's pretty cool. Honestly, whenever you're doing a project, you never know how it's going to be received, but I knew when I was actually shooting it that it was definitely something special. I don't think any of us really knew how big it was going to be, but it's pretty amazing. It just totally validates what an awesome project it is.
Alex is a very polarizing character, and a lot of what's been written about the show refers to her as the "villain." Do you see her that way? Do you like Alex?
Prepon: Alex is amazing. But what's interesting is that, when the show first starts, you think that Piper's, like, this little innocent flower and that Alex is this evil person. And then as the show progresses, you really start to see that this girl was the love of Alex's life and she totally broke her heart. Alex — at the end of the day, yes, she's a drug dealer, but you see that she's a vulnerable person and she has really intense feelings and love for this woman. And you start to see that Piper is actually a very manipulative person, and she's not this cookie-cutter homemaker that everyone thinks she is. She's actually not a good person. When you're in prison and we're left to our own devices, you're stripped of everything and you really get to see who these people are, the good and the bad. That's one thing that's really cool about the show. I think the arcs of all the characters are really awesome. They're real.
It's interesting, because Alex seems to think of herself as a bad person but maybe she isn't, whereas Piper is so convinced that she's a good person and is totally taken aback whenever anyone challenges that.
Prepon: Right, exactly! That's the other thing that's so great about my character. She does call it like it is, and Piper doesn't. And at the end, it's like, of course [Piper's] going to choose [her fiancé] Larry (Jason Biggs) because he's the safer bet. And it's awesome to me, because Alex is like, "You're just so scared of being alone that you will marry this guy."
So, should people be rooting for Piper and Alex? Do you think they're good together, or is theirs just a toxic, codependent relationship?Prepon: Oh, man. That's a tough question. I don't know. I mean, honestly, I'm a little biased because I love my character. Obviously you want Alex and Piper to be together and it to be amazing — but it's not. Alex is a drug dealer, and Piper is a manipulative narcissist. It's an interesting, tumultuous relationship. But I don't know if they should be together, honestly, because what happens at the end of the season, when you see that Piper chooses Larry, it's like, you know what? Good. Get away from me. Because Piper is just as toxic as Alex is.
From your perspective, what was it that made Piper different from the other girls Alex had running drugs?
Prepon: Piper, in my opinion, was not just a beautiful face. She's smart, she's funny, she's years beyond most of the girls that Alex had to deal with. And it's like a moth to a flame. Alex is just completely drawn to her, and vice-versa. We always talked about our relationship being that Alex is the spider and Piper's the fly. I always make her come to me. Even in the strip scene [in the pilot], I make her come over to me. So, I think that as much as Alex was drawn to Piper, it was the same in reverse. I just think Piper was just head and shoulders above most of these girls that Alex dealt with.
There's also an age gap between them and Piper goes into the endeavor sort of wide-eyed and naïve, whereas Alex is maybe a little more jaded. Was that part of the appeal to Alex as well?
Prepon: Yeah. I mean, as a woman, you know how we'll meet a guy who's like a lost puppy and we're like, "Oh my God, I'm going to save him. I'm going to make his world amazing"? I think it's kind of the same thing. Alex has all this experience and is so confident in who she is and she's like, been there, done that, seen it all. And then here's this girl who is wide-eyed and hasn't really experienced much of anything. Alex wanted to rock her world — literally and metaphorically. Bring her all over the world and do all these amazing things, and also to really show her this new amazing thing. Whatever she wants, Alex pretty much gets, and I think that Piper was kind of like a little project for her.
How much of your portrayal of Alex is informed by conversations with Piper Kerman, who wrote the memoir on which the show is based, about the real-life person Alex is based on? Or is she more of your own creation?
Prepon: I wanted to meet "Alex," but she's kind of MIA. [Laughs]. But the thing that's so great about the show is that, even though it's based on real people, they really trusted us to do our vision of what we wanted these people to be like. I know that Taylor [Schilling], she's like, "I'm not trying to be Piper Kerman. I'm doing my own version of this woman." And I'm doing the same thing with Alex. [Creator Jenji Kohan] and all the writers really trusted us to do our versions of these women, and we never have to aspire to be a certain thing. They trusted our take on it, which is amazing.
Alex has a very distinct style, with her glasses, tattoos, eyebrows, fashion sense, etc. How much of that was your decision and how much of it was written into the character?
Prepon: Jenji had a very specific Bettie Page vision, and then from that Bettie Page vision we kind of took it into what it became. We knew we wanted her to be rockabilly. So it was always like, okay, how can we still show my rockabilly side but be in prison? In flashbacks, she really tried to do it up a little bit more and really show what she was. You can see the drastic change. But in prison, every girl has their way of being an individual. Sophia, who has the salon in the prison, she tailors her own clothes. My character, I find a way to smuggle in black eyeliner so I can have my rockabilly eyeliner, and I roll my sleeves up and have my tats and everything. That's kind of like my flair, so to speak.
What's your favorite part about playing Alex and what's the most challenging part?
Prepon: My favorite thing is that she's a badass. [Laughs]. She's a total badass. She's great. I've never played a dark, messed-up character like this before, and it's fun to do. I think the most challenging thing is, people do liken her to the villain or whatever. In any character I ever play, whether she's good or bad or whatever, my most important thing is heart. As long as she has heart and believes wholeheartedly in what she's doing and she feels it's right and actually has integrity, that's my most important thing. So I'm like, yeah, I'm playing this girl who's a drug dealer and does all these terrible things, but she is in love with Piper. She's power-hungry. So for me it was just really making sure that I can relate to her and make sure she has heart.
Do you have any issues with anything Alex has done, like when she lies to Piper about naming her to the Feds and then immediately says "I've never lied to you"?
Prepon: No! Not at all, actually. Because everything that Alex does is to survive. She's very much like that. And in anything that she does, she's totally justified in her mind. She just looks out for herself. She just very much does what she has to do to survive. She's had to do that her whole life.
What's the strangest Alex-themed fan art you've received?
Prepon: Whenever I get fan art, it always blows me away. I never consider it strange. I am a little flattered and overwhelmed that people draw all these pictures of Alex and have her as their screensaver and stuff.
Orange Is the New Black was picked up for a second season before the first one even premiered. Now that you've started shooting Season 2, is the vibe on set any different? Is there a sense of pressure to live up to all of the expectations created by the response to the first season?
Prepon: You try not to really think about it. All the women I work with are so awesome. You don't let things like that affect the work. You don't fix what's not broken.
Are Alex and Nicky (Natasha Lyonne) going to have a romance in Season 2?
Prepon: I can't tell you that! [Laughs]. I think they have a cool relationship, and I think in that moment [in the Season 1 finale] it was just like, why not? Also [Piper had just chosen Larry over Alex], so I think Alex was kind of like, screw you.
Most of what we've seen of Alex in flashbacks, with a couple of exceptions, has been in relation to Piper. Will we see more of their relationship, or Alex's own drug-running backstory, in Season 2?
Prepon: Yes, definitely. I think there's still a lot of story there left to explore.