Laura Prepon is a fan of character-driven stories, particularly ones that can teach us a thing or two about self-acceptance. Over the years the New Jersey native actress, who credits her parents for her sense of individuality and ambition, has learned to embrace who she is. When Prepon got the opportunity to audition for Jenji Kohan’s “Orange Is the New Black” (OITNB), a story that is rich in originality and character, she knew she had to be a part of it.
If you’re not familiar with the show, “OITNB” is about Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), a former public relations executive whose troublesome past lands her in Litchfield Penitentiary, a minimum-security women’s prison. On the show, Prepon plays Chapman’s snarky, manipulative love interest (a far cry from her breakthrough role as Donna Pinciotti on “That 70s Show”). The show’s fourth season will air June 17th on Netflix, which Prepon says will pick up right where it left off. The show, which is already full of strong characters, promises to add to its cast in the new season.
In addition to appearing on “OITNB,” Prepon recently co-authored a weight loss book with renowned nutritionist Elizabeth Troy, which focuses on a 21-day plan that combines the Chinese Meridian Theory and modern food science to burn fat. In the book, entitled “The Stash Plan,” Prepon shares shopping and diet techniques from her experiences with Troy, who helped her correct her malfunctioning metabolism. We had a chance to chat with Prepon about “OITNB,” her career and publishing her book.
What intrigued you most on a personal level when you initially auditioned for “OITNB”?
The material. I was already a fan of Jenji Kohan, but the pilot of “Orange” was so fantastic and different, I knew I needed to be a part of it. At the time, they weren’t really streaming shows like they are now. Netflix has one called “Lilyhammer” which I didn’t know much about, and “House of Cards” hadn’t premiered yet. However, because the project was so good and so different, and these characters were so real— I jumped right in.
How do you feel “OITNB” has helped to change the standard of how Hollywood perceives strong female characters?
Well, first the popularity of the show has shown that people want to see strong female leads. Usually in projects you may have one strong female, our show has many! So, with our amazing fan base it really showed that people want to see this. Naturally, when my industry sees something is working, everyone wants to jump on board. Now you are seeing many more projects with strong females at the helm.
Your character, Alex Vause, is based loosely on a real person, who was subsequently part of the “OITNB” source material. In what way does that affect how you portray Vause’s character?
It’s always fascinating to play a character based on the real life person. In this case, I was given free rein to portray Alex as I wanted. As well as Taylor playing Piper. So, the fact that we could portray them with our own creative freedom was amazing. Also, when you are on a project like this, even though it’s based on a true story, it starts to take on this magical life of its own. You get actors together and see different things spark and different chemistry at work and those sprout off into other storylines as the show evolves and grows.
What attributes, if any, do you borrow from yourself when playing Vause?
Alex is a straight shooter. Yes, she and Piper have this tumultuous albeit passionate love/hate relationship, and they manipulate each other [laughs] but Alex is consistent; she calls Piper out as well as everyone else, and she has no problem confronting a situation. I tend to be like that in terms of facing things head-on and not shying away from situations that might make me uncomfortable. Alex is also very sensual. I’ve been called a tomboy many times in my life because I usually would rather be doing what my guy friends are doing than what girls normally do. But one thing Alex has taught me is to embrace that sensuality, and be comfortable and to learn the strength in that. I feel that when you play a character, you can’t help but learn from each other. Another attribute that I borrow when playing Alex is that you can’t help where your heart goes. It’s not something you can control. I feel we all have some kind of reality with that.
Other than getting locked in a dryer, what do you feel was your biggest challenge when filming “OITNB”?
Honestly, I welcome the challenges when I’m playing a character. That’s what makes you grow as an actor. There have been many times where I read a scene and it scares me while at the same time excites me, and I can’t wait to get into it. An example of this was in season three I think it was episode two, Taylor and I had a scene in the library where we had to physically fight each other then it turns into a love scene. Earlier that day, we had this emotional scene in the cafeteria where my character just found out that Piper was the one who got her caught and was the reason she was back in prison. Oh, and I was acting in a garbage bag all day that was fashioned into a dress. [Laughs] There were stunts as well as these extremely high emotions flying around. That day was a challenging day in an amazing way. We drove home that night, bloodshot eyes from crying, Taylor had a cut on her face, we were bruised, we both had rug burn— it was so satisfying. We were like, “What a great day.” [Laughs] Days like that are my favorite.
You’ve also co-authored a book earlier this year with nutritionist Elizabeth Troy entitled “Stash Plan,” a 21-day diet regimen that combines the latest food science and Eastern holistic medicine. What inspired this project?
A few things. First, I always had trouble keeping my weight down. Which in my industry is a pressure that comes with the territory. However, I love what I do, so this is something you just have to deal with. I had tried so many diets and different drastic measures that my body was utterly confused and revolting against me. I am one to research and experience things on my own, but in the world of diet fads, this is an unwelcomed notion to your body. I had seen countless doctors, spent thousands of dollars and tried everything. Aside from this, I had always wanted to do a book about food inspired by my mother. She was a gourmet chef, and she taught me how to cook. Cooking and entertaining is a huge part of my life. I never wanted to just do another celebrity cookbook, I wanted it to mean something. I started working with Elizabeth and learned things I had been searching for, for a long time. I started to heal and feel better, lose weight and find solutions for life not just a quick fix. From our work together, I asked her to do a book with me. We educate people on why their body is revolting against them and how our modern environment and the way we treat food is adversely affecting us, while teaching them how to get back in the kitchen and take charge of their health.
What was your favorite part about the creative process of publishing a book?
My father was a surgeon and I grew up in a family of Western medicine. Had I not become an actor, I was going to be a doctor. And that’s the direction I was heading when acting fortuitously found me. I love studying the body and anatomy, and I love learning about how people eat. What they eat to fuel themselves, what diets they’ve tried. This is my hobby. Elizabeth’s theory is based in Eastern medicine. I always had fun taking the science and turning it into something fun and easy for readers to understand and apply. Like making a cartoon dynamic duo called The Digestive Duo, who are a Liver and Gallbladder wearing capes and eye masks ready to fight the evil forces of evil invaders we eat that wreak havoc on our bodies. We even have an image of The Digestive Duo in the book! It’s fun. One of my favorite books about food is called “Fit for Life” by Harvey Diamond. He writes with such common sense and great metaphors, I still refer to his writings from memory because they stuck with me. Doing this same type of thing in our book was a fun part of the process.
You’ve worked in so many different mediums, from modeling to TV and film, and now print. How do you feel coming from a close-knit New Jersey family has influenced your creative drive and/or work ethic?
First, my family has always been supportive of my endeavors and having that support really helps. In terms of drive, that’s something I’ve always had. My mother was very unorthodox and we grew up in a very free-spirited environment with no reins. In my case, I thrived off that freedom, whereas others might need more structure. Growing up, my mother was always very inspiring to me because she would take on tasks and never, I mean never give up. [Laughs] It was almost to a point of stubbornness but as a child, seeing this beautiful woman attack things with such tenacity and grace, it inspired me. My father was a surgeon, who has since passed, but growing up he had the most amount of cases in two hospitals. All he did was work. He loved his job. So, I also saw his work ethic as well which made me want to work harder.
I was always beyond my years and started working at a young age. At 15 I told my mother I was moving to Milan to model by myself. She said, “Okay, whatever you feel you need to do.” So, off I went. And I’m so thankful that she let me go. She knew I had a good head on my shoulders, she knew that I could take care of myself and she trusted me to do the right thing. Moving to Milan when I was 15 led me to where I am today.
You developed a love for acting at an early age. What piece of advice would you offer young New Jersey students interested in pursuing a career in acting?
Never give up. If you are going to pursue this career, you must be all-in and not listen to the word “NO.” It is a tough industry, but when you are fortunate enough to get a job you love, it is all worth it. We won best ensemble at the 2016 SAG Awards and Uzo (Aduba) won for best actress in a comedy. Her speech was so inspiring. She said, “Continue to keep trying, to keep plugging, no matter if anyone tells you to get out of that line that you’re waiting in— stay in line. You have the chance: it is yours.” So, my advice to my fellow Jersey students is to keep going! Keep learning. Keep improving. So when you get to the front of the line, you can show ‘em what you got.