The scene at Town Hall was set with Vivid’s characteristic neon hues of light. Once the strobes were dimmed, a live singing and dance rendition of “You’ve Got Time” by Regina Spektor, also known as the opening song of Orange is The New Black, kicked the show off.
There’s something meta-fictional to be said about starting a Q&A session this way, with the creator of the aforementioned award-winning dramedy, Jenji Kohan. But if her zany electric blue hair and cat eye glasses didn’t already give it away, there’s far more to what meets the eye here as she spars with Australian comedian Josh Thomas who played the role of the host that night. Taken from what we learnt during her first ever talk in Sydney, here are five things you didn’t know about award winning producer and creator of the latest sensation, Orange is the New Black, Jenji Kohan.
Showbiz is in her blood
Jenji’s father was also in the entertainment industry working as a producer cum writer. This doesn’t mean her family was supportive of her career from the get-go though. She maintains that her father kept a clean cut separation of work and family so that she was never really exposed to it as a child. Growing up, Jenji was told to follow a professional career as either a doctor or a lawyer or “to marry one”.
“Mum wanted me to sit on a bench outside Caltech so I could meet an engineer” said Jenji.
She’s an advocate for diversity on television
A concurrent theme on the day was also the issue of being a woman in the entertainment industry. This Jenji addresses is largely to do with the under-representation of woman both in front of the screen and behind the scenes.
“Everyone likes to say we’re a melting pot of cultures but in reality, we’re really just a mosaic with people staying within their own culture groups”
Her passion to create a diverse set of characters stems from a want to steer away from the female archetype.
“Television is often very repetitive, that’s just not something I want to do. I often feel very challenged to do thing that people say I can’t do. So I decided to write this show with so many different and unique characters.”
She has a love/hate relationship with television awards
“With awards, there’s always a strong sense of not wanting to be involved but [once you get nominated] a bit of you does get excited”
Jenji also stressed about the unique positioning of Orange is the New Black which also makes it difficult for nominations precisely because it’s hard to put in a box
“They don’t know where to put us because we’re kind of a dark drama but there’s also lots of humour. [I’m okay with this], I don’t want us to be in a category”
Awards aside, it’s clear that night that what matters most to Jenji is her team and her cast.
“I rewrite every script for stories I don’t like and then my writers campaign by trying to talk me back into it. I have a great team, they’re not yes men, I hire people to fight with me”
“There have been shows where we’ve had to hire someone to essentially be a diva wrangler and keep everyone in line. We don’t need that with Orange is The New Black. We have a lovely talented cast that does compete but in a healthy way”
Success followed trials and tribulations
While her career has been nothing short of illustrious, Jenji reminded us all that there have been downturns as well that most people wouldn’t be aware of.
“Not every show is met with success. To give you some perspective, Weeds was probably my 15th or 17th pilot episode”
She has a chuckle thinking about some of slightly more left of field pitch ideas. This included a show set in the 80’s focusing on the empowerment and exploitation of womens wrestling, a series about a divorce attorney who’s still in love with his ex-wife, a “witches meets Inglorious Basterds of salem” story idea and a superhero show for Busta Rhymes.
She can’t act
Jenji’s favourite character on the show is whoever she’s writing at the time. But when asked which character of Orange is the New Black she would play, Jenji answered flatly with ‘none’. It’s a surprising fact but she’s adamant that she has no acting ability. In her early days of being part of a team of writers, it wouldn’t take long for her to be relegated to reading out stage directions
“I tank everyone’s character when I read their parts aloud. It’s sad but true, I hear the narrative in my head clearly but I can’t reproduce it.”
The new season of Orange is the New Black is streaming now on Netflix.