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In July 2013, Netflix was still arguably better known as a mail-order DVD rental service than as a streaming service that would disrupt the entertainment business. That month, the company debuted “Orange is the New Black,” one of the very first original series it had ever produced.
Skip to today and “Orange is the New Black” has aired six seasons of critically acclaimed and audience-loved episodes, with more on the way. Netflix has said the series — which follows the lives of inmates, guards and staffers at a minimum-security women’s prison — is its most-watched original show ever.
You may have seen every moment of action at Litchfield Penitentiary in the 78 episodes that have aired so far, but there’s probably plenty you don’t know about this show’s big, talented cast. Here’s a closer look at some of the major players in “Orange is the New Black.”
Character: Piper Chapman
“Orange is the New Black” is a true ensemble show, but Piper is the closest thing to a main character it has. At the beginning of the show, she’s a privileged New Yorker who gets sentenced to 15 months at Litchfield because she got caught smuggling drug money for her ex-girlfriend, Alex Vause. The character is based on Piper Kerman, a real-life woman who had a similar experience and wrote a memoir called “Orange is the New Black” about serving time for felony money-laundering.
Played By: Taylor Schilling
A few years before landing her breakout role in “Orange is the New Black,” Taylor Schilling starred in the NBC series “Mercy,” which only ran for one season. In 2015, she admitted that she hasn’t “ever really watched” the show for which she’s most famous. She’s private about her personal life and said about her romances, “There’s not part of me that can be put under a label.”
Character: Alex Vause
The aforementioned ex-girlfriend of Piper, Alex is one of the most cunning inmates at Litchfield. She was initially arrested for smuggling drugs but was released during the show before being locked up again. Her on-again-off-again romance with Piper within prison is one of the most enduring storylines of “Orange is the New Black.”
Played By: Laura Prepon
One of the few actors in the “Orange is the New Black” cast that viewers likely recognized at the start of the series was Laura Prepon. The actor became a star as a teen with her role as Donna Pinciotti in Fox’s hit series “That ‘70s Show.” She has directed several episodes of “Orange is the New Black” during her time on the series, and she has been married to actor Ben Foster since June 2018, with whom she shares a daughter.
Character: Suzanne ‘Crazy Eyes’ Warren
At the start of the series, Suzanne Warren, aka “Crazy Eyes,” was mostly depicted as a creep who was obsessed with Piper, but as the show has gone on, she’s become one of the most likable characters. Her backstory is truly tragic, being locked up for unwittingly kidnapping a child she thought of as a friend and causing his death. She suffers from serious mental health issues and is prone to instability but she’s extremely loyal to the other inmates.
Played By: Uzo Aduba
No actor in the “Orange is the New Black” cast has been as acclaimed for their work on the show as Uzo Aduba. The Boston-area native has won two Emmy Awards for her work as “Crazy Eyes.” She has also acted on Broadway and even played Glinda the Good Witch in NBC’s 2015 live production of “The Wiz.” Away from the screen, Aduba is a vocal advocate for LGBTQ rights.
Character: Galina ‘Red’ Reznikov
One of the most feared and respected inmates at Litchfield is “Red,” who was arrested for multiple crimes she committed with the Russian mafia. She’s been Piper’s bunkmate and also ran the prison’s kitchen at the beginning of the series. She holds out hope she’ll be released and reunited with her sons, but manages to keep getting in trouble as the series plays out. She’s undoubtedly one of the most complex characters in the show.
Played By: Kate Mulgrew
In a cast of mostly unknown actors, Kate Mulgrew might have been the most high-profile star of “Orange is the New Black” in the first season. In “Star Trek: Voyager,” she played Capt. Kathryn Janeway, the first woman character to lead a Star Trek series.
Offscreen, Mulgrew is a vocal opponent of both capital punishment and abortion, and is a champion of Alzheimer’s disease research. Mulgrew has been married and divorced twice and has three children, including a daughter whom she placed for adoption after giving birth in her late teens.
Character: Tasha ‘Taystee’ Jefferson
Another character whose story has developed many layers during the run of the show is “Taystee.” A former foster kid, she was initially locked up for trafficking heroin for her adoptive mom’s drug ring before getting out on parole and being sent back to prison. She’s one of the smartest and funniest inmates at Litchfield and is arguably the show’s saddest example of a person who’s been institutionalized throughout most of her life.
Played By: Danielle Brooks
Since breaking out in “Orange is the New Black,” Danielle Brooks has gone on to be nominated for a Tony Award for her work in Broadway’s “The Color Purple.” She was raised in South Carolina and is the daughter of a minister and a church deacon. Brooks told The New York Times she made her acting debut at 6 years old when she starred in a church Christmas pageant. That’s a far cry from Litchfield!
Character: Nicky Nichols
One of Litchfield’s most colorful characters, Nichols is proof that coming from a wealthy family doesn’t guarantee an easy life, especially when you’re neglected by your parents. She’s struggled mightily with a heroin addiction during her time in prison. She’s also one of the most sexually active inmates, hooking up with many different characters also stuck at Litchfield.
Played By: Natasha Lyonne
Natasha Lyonne was one of the most recognizable actors in the cast at the start of “Orange is the New Black.” She’d been a popular Hollywood actor, appearing in ‘90s favorites like “Slums Of Beverly Hills,” “But I’m A Cheerleader” and the raunchy “American Pie” series. She’s had legal troubles in real life and has questioned her parents’ decision to put her into show business at such a young age (she starred on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” as a kid!). Since 2014, she’s been dating former “Saturday Night Live” star Fred Armisen.
Character: Tiffany ‘Pennsatucky’ Doggett
A prime example of how the characters often grow over time, “Pennsatucky” is presented as the main antagonist during the show’s first season, but later becomes one of its most sympathetic figures. Given her nickname because of her thick Appalachian accent, “Pennsatucky” is a recovering meth addict and born-again Christian who was locked up for murdering an abortion clinic worker who insulted her during a procedure. She’s originally shown as ignorant and extremely judgmental of others, but becomes likable as the show goes on and the extent of her own victimization due to growing up in poverty becomes apparent.
Played By: Taryn Manning
Despite her character’s nickname, Taryn Manning is actually from Virginia. Before “Orange is the New Black,” you might have seen her in movies including “8 Mile,” “Hustle & Flow” and the 2002 Britney Spears flick “Crossroads.” Off-screen, she’s also worked as a singer, model and fashion designer.
Character: Gloria Mendoza
Similar to Red, Gloria is a respected inmate who eventually runs the kitchen and acts as a mother figure to the younger Latina inmates. Before prison, she ran a store but was locked up for allowing customers to trade food stamps for cash. Gloria is protective of those she cares for and is shown as one of the wisest women at Litchfield.
Played By: Selenis Leyva
Like many New York actors, Selenis Leyva got her first TV credit in an episode of “Law & Order,” which aired in 1999. Eventually, she earned a regular role on the show, from 2004 to 2006, as well as one in CBS’s “Blue Bloods.” Like many of her “Orange is the New Black” castmates, Leyva is a vocal supporter of LGBTQ rights, and has consistently voiced her support for her sister Marizol, who is transgender.
Character: Daya Diaz
A bright and creative inmate, Daya’s storylines on “Orange is the New Black” are a constant roller coaster. She’s tight with the other Hispanic inmates but takes heat for not being able to speak Spanish fluently. Early in the series, she has a sexual relationship with a male guard at Litchfield and becomes pregnant.
Played By: Dascha Polanco
Like some of her other castmates from “Orange is the New Black,” Dascha Polanco is a native of the Dominican Republic. Her role as Daya was her first major part and opened the door to more work, including a role in FX’s “American Crime Story.” Polanco has two kids and in 2017, her daughter Dasany Kristal Gonzalez played young Daya in a flashback on “Orange is the New Black.”
Character: Lorna Morello
It’s pretty hard not to be charmed by Lorna, with her typically positive attitude and heavy accent. Early in the show, Lorna constantly annoys the other inmates with talk about her fiancé, Christopher, but when the truth about that relationship emerges, it makes you see her in a different light. She can usually be seen hanging out with Nichols, with whom she has an on-again/off-again romantic relationship.
Played By: Yael Stone
Based on Lorna’s thick accent, you might guess actor Yael Stone was from New York or Boston — but she’s actually from Australia. In a cast full of no-nonsense women, Stone stands tall as an activist for human rights, especially those of women and the LGBTQ community. Stone and boyfriend Jack Manning Bancroft welcomed a daughter, Pemau, in May 2018.
Character: Poussey Washington
Arguably the most charming and likable character in the entire run of “Orange is the New Black” is Poussey. During a memorable flashback episode, it was revealed she got locked up for possible intent to sell marijuana. One of the defining aspects of her backstory is that she’s a lesbian, whose sexuality caused her problems outside of Litchfield. Bring up Poussey’s name to a fan of the show and they’ll likely break down in tears because of the path her story has taken.
Played By: Samira Wiley
Like many of the stars of “Orange is the New Black,” Samira Wiley was mostly unknown before breaking out due to her work on the show. Wiley studied at New York’s prestigious Juilliard School and has been nominated for an Emmy Award for her work in Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” In 2017, she married Lauren Morelli, a writer who works on “Orange is the New Black.”
Character: Frieda Berlin
The gruff-voiced Frieda becomes friends with Red and some other older inmates inside Litchfield. She does a good job running the prison’s garden when the inmates are allowed to grow their own food. Her flashbacks reveal her childhood to be filled with apocalyptic survivalist skills taught by her paranoid father.
Played By: Dale Soules
You might not know it from her tough performance as Frieda in “Orange is the New Black,” but Dale Soules is a veteran song-and-dance artist on Broadway. She even appeared in a Broadway production of “Hair” way back in 1968! Like several of her castmates on the show, Soules is openly gay.
Character: Sophia Burset
A trans woman who started life as a firefighter named Marcus, Sophia’s backstory of how she ended up in Litchfield is arguably one of the saddest. She was busted for credit card fraud and turned in by her son, who was unaccepting of her gender transition. Sophia offers a lot of sound advice while working as a hairdresser inside the prison.
Played By: Laverne Cox
You name a milestone for a transgender entertainer to conquer and, chances are, Laverne Cox has toppled it. Cox first caught the eye of TV producers as a contestant in VH1’s 2008 reality show “I Want to Work for Diddy,” which led her to host her own VH1 reality show called “Transform Me” in 2010. Since launching to stardom with her role in “Orange is the New Black,” Cox has become the first openly transgender person to be nominated for an Emmy Award, as well as the first to be on the cover of Time magazine. In 2018, she revealed she’s been dating a guy she met on Tinder.
Character: Blanca Flores
One of the most cunning inmates in Litchfield is Blanca, a Dominican woman who carries on a relationship with her boyfriend, Diablo, who lives on the outside. At first, the other inmates think Blanca is insane but it’s all revealed to be an act early in the series. One of her best moments comes when she refuses to shower for almost an entire season in order to keep the guards from frisking her, eventually resulting in her protesting by standing on a cafeteria table for several days. The way her story wrapped at the end of season six was one of the saddest moments of the show’s entire run (so far).
Played By: Laura Gómez
Laura Gómez is not only accomplished as an actor, but as a filmmaker, voiceover artist and activist as well. Gómez won several awards for her 2012 short film, “To Kill a Roach,” which she wrote, directed and starred in. She has also stood up for LGBTQ rights, saying much more work needs to be done to allow people to live openly in her native Latin America.
Character: Joe Caputo
Arguably the most important male character on “Orange is the New Black” is Litchfield staffer Joe Caputo. He’s presented as a bumbling creep in the early episodes but, like other characters, eventually becomes a sympathetic and even admirable figure. Caputo works various high-level jobs at the prison during the series and fights for the rights of the inmates — often to no avail.
Played By: Nick Sandow
New York native Nick Sandow has been acting since the early ‘90s, having bit parts in classic crime shows like “Law & Order” and “NYPD Blue.” His big break didn’t come until he was nearly 50 years old, when he landed the role of Caputo on “Orange is the New Black.” He’s even directed a few episodes of the show along the way. He lives with his longtime girlfriend, artist Tamara Malkin-Stuart, with whom he shares two sons.