BACK TO BLACK: Laura Prepon

By Scott Neumyer

Laura Prepon’s career may require she spend a good portion of her time in Los Angeles, but there’s no mistaking the fact that she’s a Jersey girl to the core. Born and raised in Watchung, New Jersey, the 34-year-old actress made a name for herself as Eric Forman’s tall, beautiful, red-haired neighbor (and frequent love interest) Donna Pinciotti on Fox’s long-running sitcom “That 70’s Show.” Prepon spent eight seasons on the show that also helped launch the careers of her co-stars Topher Grace, Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis, Wilmer Valderrama and Danny Masterson.

It’s what Prepon has done since “That 70’s Show” ended in 2006, however, that has helped redefine the talented actress and given her a chance to do some of the very best work in her career. Joining Netflix’s original series “Orange is the New Black” in 2013 as tough girl Alex Vause helped turn the streaming show into an immediate sensation. With season two of “Orange…” now streaming, things are only getting better and better for the New Jersey native.

What brought you to “Orange is the New Black” at this time in your life?

I did “That 70’s Show” and then I went on to a bunch of other series like “October Road” and this show called “Awkward Situations for Men,” which never made it to air, but I loved it. And then I did “Are You There, Chelsea?” I loved all these shows, but when “Are You There, Chelsea?” ended, I looked at everything and [decided that] I wanted to take a break for a minute and focus on movies and my directing and my writing. I told my team, “I don’t want to do TV for a little while.”

Some time went by and I was focusing on everything else and my manager (who I have been with for over 15 years and knows my tastes really, really well) called me and said, “I have a pilot for you to read.” And I said, “I’m not reading any pilots. I’m not doing TV.” So he said, “Listen, I know you. You have to read this. It’s [writer, producer, director] Jenji Kohan.” I’m a huge fan of hers, so I was like, “Fine. I’ll read it. Send it to me.” He sent it to me and I read it and I just said, “I have to be part of this show.” It was head and shoulders above anything that I had read in well over a year, so I knew I had to be a part of it.

So you went in to read for Jenji?

Yeah. At the time, they were casting the role of Piper. I knew I wasn’t right for Piper, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to go in and show them what I could do, and hopefully something would work out. So I went in and read for Jenji and right afterwards I went out of the country. When I got back, they said, “You weren’t right for the role of Piper, but Jenji can’t get you out of her head for the role of Alex.” I’m like, “Alex? The manipulative, trouble-starting lesbian Alex?” [Laughs] So I read it again with Alex in mind and I realized that Alex is an awesome character. I’d never done anything like her. So I went to New York and read with Taylor Schilling (who was cast as Piper) and it was instant chemistry. Two days later, I moved to New York.

That’s amazing.

Yeah, it was really awesome. And then, later, when I talked to Jenji, she said, “You were so awesome as Piper too, but I wouldn’t believe that you couldn’t defend yourself in prison.” [Laughs] She’s like, “Alex was you.” You have to worry that Piper is going to get her ass kicked in the first season. She’s this delicate dandelion. Jenji said, “Love you, but you’re not a delicate dandelion.”

You have to do some dark stuff in this series and you have to do nudity right from the opening moments. Did any of that worry you?

Yeah, there were a bunch of things that worried me but at the end of the day, the material was so good and when Taylor and I met, I felt super comfortable with her right away. The first scene we had to shoot was our naked scene in the shower, in the pilot episode. That was our first scene. It was like, “Cool. Nice to see you again. Let’s get in the shower!” [Laughs] Of course it’s uncomfortable, but after Taylor and I did that scene, she looked at me and said, “Thank God it’s you,” and I was like, “Girl, thank God it’s you!” It was as comfortable as it can be because, when you feel safe with your co-star or fellow actor, it really does make everything so much better. 

But, yeah, the show definitely pushes all of us out of our comfort zone, and that’s how you grow as an actor. I feel like I’ve grown a lot on this show. I’ve done things I’ve never done before. It’s great.

Streaming shows and Netflix Originals were still unproven when you went in to audition. “House of Cards” hadn’t even debuted yet. And then “Orange is the New Black” just blew up and acquired this huge fanbase online. Did you expect that at all?

It’s kind of cool being involved in this thing because we’re like pioneers on this new frontier. We’re like, “We did it now!” When we first started the show, we thought, “We’re doing a Netflix original show. Okay, cool. Whatever…” But for me personally, I watch a ton of stuff on Netflix and that’s how I watch my shows. I watch multiple episodes at the same time. So, if anything, I thought it was going to be cool. It was unproven and we didn’t really know, but the fact remains that the material was incredible, the cast was incredible, and we knew we were doing something special, no matter where you put it. 

I think the belief in the project was enough for all of us to keep going and be positive. Our show is so outside the normal box. It’s amazing. The fan reaction to it has been so awesome. It proves that audiences are smart and they want different stuff.

It’s such a good mix of drama and comedy.

There’s a lot of heart in it too. At the end of the day, it is funny and it is dramatic, and then you have this love story to latch onto. Piper and Alex’s relationship is like this tumultuous love. That’s what really drew me to the story. It’s this crazy love story too. You’ve never seen a love story like this in prison with two women, which is really cool.

Do you think there’s still a chance for Alex and Piper?

Yeah, I think that there’s always a chance for Alex and Piper because they love each other. When people love each other like that, you never know what’s going to happen. It’s hot and cold, for sure. I’ve had relationships in the past where it’s on again, off again and there’s just this thing that keeps pulling you back until finally you’re like, “Ok, I have to stop this.” It makes for good TV. [Laughs] But there will definitely be more stuff with Alex and Piper.

How has it been for you, as an actor and a woman, to see such a diverse cast of amazing women getting the chance to really be front and center?

Being an actress on this show is amazing because it’s not your typical thing. None of these women are stereotypical women. We’re all different shapes, sizes, color, creed, everything. We are a melting pot of actresses and it’s so incredible and so diverse. No other show has what we have. 

As an actress, there’s normally so much pressure to look a certain way and be a certain way, and we totally throw that out the window. It’s just these incredible women doing amazing work, and we all look so different. If anything, it just proves the point that [you can] be who you are and be true to yourself. It’s an amazing message to be a part of because a lot of shows don’t have that.

It’s kind of beautiful to see.

It is! It really is, and it’s a great thing to be a part of. All these women are so confident in who they are. When we do our photo shoots and everything, they are working it. It’s amazing.

Well, they’re finally getting their chance to shine.

Yeah, absolutely. And they fully deserve it because they’re great.

You nearly broke the Internet when rumors started circulating that you weren’t coming back for season two. How did that even happen?

It was crazy! It was really flattering though. [Laughs] But it was crazy. Besides being an actress, I’m also a writer and a producer and a director and I have all these other things that I’m doing. “Orange is the New Black” is my priority, because acting is my priority and right now, “Orange… “ is the main job I’m doing. At the time that season two came around there was a scheduling thing with another project. It just had to do with scheduling. I love the show and I love the girls and I love Jenji, so I had a long conversation with her about it and we came up with a really great solution. It’s great. We’ll do as many episodes as I can. The Internet got wind of it and it literally went crazy. [Laughs] I absolutely would have done more than I did and if we get picked up for season three, I already told everyone my plans. Everyone is very aware. Before season two even happened, I already told them, “Listen, season three I want to be fully involved in the show. I won’t have any conflicts.” It was just a scheduling thing. There’s only one of me, and we do what we can. 

It’s so flattering, though, that people love the character like that. It means so much to me. I think [season two] is going to surprise audiences. Jenji likes to keep people on their toes. So when we do get picked up for season three, I really look forward to being with these amazing women every day.

“That 70’s Show” was such a big part of your early career.

Oh, dude, it was like my childhood.

That was like your whole life growing up at that point, right?

Fully. Imagine starting something when you’re 18 and doing it for 8 years. It was amazing. We were all little babies. We had no clue what we were doing and it was such an awesome time. And all of us moved on to amazing things. It’s so crazy.

Did you ever imagine that Jackie and Kelso would end up together in real life?

[Laughs] I don’t really comment on my friends’ personal lives, but I will say that they’re amazing. It’s great. It’s awesome.

Do you miss the red hair?

What’s funny is that I never really realized how important my hair color is to people. I tend to do things on a whim, which probably isn’t the best thing. After season one of “Orange…” I had black hair the whole season and right when I finished I said, “I want to dye my hair back to red.” So I went and dyed my hair and my manager is like, “What are you doing?!” And I chopped it off to my chin. He called me and I said, “I sent you an email.” [Laughs] He’s like, “You can’t just do that.” 

It was so funny, but he wasn’t surprised. People were freaking out. When stuff started hitting the Internet about season two, people were like, “And her hair is red! What does it mean?” [Laughs] Now I’m starting to grasp that it confuses people. People are worried that I’m going to show up with purple hair. I’m starting to realize that I have to be a little more chill about changing my look so drastically.

You can’t be tamed. You’re from Jersey!

I know! Exactly! You can take the girl out of Jersey, but you can’t take Jersey out of the girl. Now I’m starting to know that all that stuff actually creates an effect, so right now I’m keeping the black for a little while.

Was the feeling on “That 70’s Show” different once you neared the end and people started leaving in the last season or two?

Topher [Grace] and Ashton [Kutcher] weren’t there that much the last season. So, of course, it’s going to be different, but we all understood. We were like family. They were the first ones to say, “You know what? We want to kind of graduate to other things.” I get it. I totally understand. When the show was ending, it was bittersweet. The last week, on the finale, Topher and Ashton were there and we were all just bawling. It was the end of an era.

It’s part of life.

Yeah, it’s life. We all were in high school and then we graduated and went off to college. That’s essentially what happened. We all are still so close and it’s great. 

Did having a show for that long, with so much success, make it more difficult for you to handle the cancellation of “Are You There, Chelsea?”

No, not at all. In our business, you have to roll with the punches. I truly believe that everything happens for a reason. “Are You There, Chelsea?” was just a rad experience that was so fun. And then it got cancelled and I was like, “That sucks because I loved the show.” But then I got “Orange…”

So I really do think everything happens for a reason because if I was on “Chelsea,” I wouldn’t be able to play Alex Vause on “Orange,” and playing Alex is so different than anything I’ve ever played. It’s so satisfying and amazing. I love playing her. Which is why, when I didn’t get to do all of season two, I was bummed. I missed her. 

So it all kind of works out the way it’s supposed to. That may seem like a naïve notion, but everything that I’ve done has happened that way. It all has a way of working out.

How do you define beauty? What do you find most beautiful in the world?

What I personally find most beautiful is traveling to other countries and seeing things that really do blow your mind. Machu Picchu is closing in two years, for good, and I want to go there and see the sun come up at the Sun Gate. That, to me, is beauty .. being in a remote part of the world and experiencing something like that. It’s amazing to me. 

I was in the country, in Ireland, near this town called Kilkenny and I was in this woman’s house. It was tiny and she turned it into this pub on the weekends. All the locals would come. I was in there with kids and their parents and their grandparents, and everyone was sitting around playing instruments. If someone felt like it, they would get up and dance. It was this big creative thing with this local community and I was a part of that. To me, that’s beautiful.

When it comes to an actual person – this is going to sound cheesy – but being true to yourself and having integrity (like the highest integrity you can have) is beautiful to me. When someone compromises his or her integrity, I can’t be a part of that.

You grew up in New Jersey, but you’ve done a lot of theater in New York. What is it that you love about NYC?

You can’t even describe New York. It’s just an incredible place that has this kinetic, pulsating energy like no other city I’ve ever been in. Anything you want is there. It’s amazing. There are times when I have to get out of New York because I need more space. Sometimes that energy and all the people can get kind of overwhelming, but you really can’t beat it. It’s just amazing. The people are so great.

When I went back home for “Orange…” I remember the first day I got picked up and I got in the car and the guy looked at me and said [she breaks into her thick New York accent], “Hey, Laura! How you doin?” I was like, “Oh my God, I’m home.” It warmed my heart. Just the openness of people and how up front they are … I just love it.

What are you most proud of in your career?

What a crazy question! I mean, it’s a good question, but that’s a big question. Honestly, I’m proud of a lot of things, but let’s say recently I’m most proud of being able to portray a character like Alex Vause who is so different and awesome. Fans come up to me and they’re able to say, “Thank you so much for portraying this character. It makes it more acceptable for the lifestyle that I live.” 

People are trying to find who they are and seeing you portray a character that they could grab onto and relate to is amazing. People have said things like it changed their lives. That is really important to me. 

I think, in general, what I’m most proud of is being able to do what I love and portray these characters that create effects on people in their lives … give them something to relate to and hold onto. It’s really cool.

“Nobody Calls Me Laura”

I have multiple nicknames, actually. I have Pre. I have L-Boogie. My nickname on “Neighbros just became L-Boogie and then it became Boogie, so I have a group of friends who call me Boogie. 

My sister calls me Snaps because I’m always on the move and getting things done. She’s called me that every since I was a kid, and even now she still calls me Snaps. And my sisters also call me Egg. When I was a little kid, I would curl up in a little ball, in the fetal position, and sleep in that position like an egg, so they called me Egg. [Laughs] 

All of my best friends here in LA, we all call each other Silly Bitch.

So I have many nicknames. Nobody calls me Laura. If somebody calls me by my actual name, I’m like, “Oh my God, I’m in trouble. What happened?” 

Laura was shot on location at the Sofitel Beverly Hills.

Stylist: Derek Warburton

Photographer: Anna Gunselman

Makeup: Coleen Campbell-Olwell for Exclusive Artists using Marc Jacobs

Hair: Jonathan Colombini for using Oribe Products

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