Yael Stone’s Lorna Morello is one of the most memorable characters on the hit Netflix series “Orange is the New Black.” Lorna is a prisoner and temporary lesbian planning a wedding to her fiance back home, and perhaps the most notable part of Stone's performance is her accent: there is something noirish and gangster-film about it, its exact origin not quite clear. Stone is Australian; on the phone, it is startling to hear the genteel lilt of her actual voice. But she spent hours wandering Boston with a tape recorder to perfect Lorna’s cocktail of east coast sounds.
Stone herself is a recent transplant to the States. She arrived in New York in 2011 to perform in a play and never planned to stay. Lorna was originally in only one episode in “Orange Is the New Black,” but the writers wanted to keep her around. Her character’s split cultural personality is representative of what makes the show so good: the oddball miscellany of the women it portrays, the way it doesn’t seem to belong to any one group. While shows like “Girls” and “Veep” have been heralded for blazing new trails in the representation of women onscreen, “OINB” is unprecedented as a demographic cross-section, a bold mix of female types. And perhaps no other TV show addresses the uncomfortable and often hilarious facts of its diversity with quite the same bluntness.
Laura Bennett: First of all, what's the story behind your accent?
Yael Stone: It was something I decided on for the audition. The first level was getting a handle on the phonetics, working on which vowels are emphasized. Oh god, as soon as I’m talking about it, it suddenly happens in my mouwth. Lorna grew up in Boston, and she still has a few of those vowels hangin awn. I did a lot of research in Boston. I met with lawyers and judges, and they privately shared stories about some of their clients: female criminals, involved with drugs, low-level theft. So I got recordings—and one particular woman I got a recording of, I just fell in love with her. She was about my age, very passionate and excited, feminine but also really powerful.
LB: How good were you at speaking American before you came to New York?
YS: One thing that is not to be underestimated is American culture’s influence on the rest of the world. We watch a helluva lot of American television in Australia. We watch a helluva lot of American films. So these were not new sounds for me. In Australia, kids play in American accents.
LB: What was your familiarity level with prison life before “Orange is the New Black”?
YS: Ha! Not much. I guess there was a big imaginative leap. I did discover that it’s pretty hard to get into a prison.
LB: You tried to get into prison?
YS: I tried once and it was clear to me that it wasn’t happening. Of course it has bigger implications for the people inside. Try saying “I’m workin on a show about prison, can I come in and visit?” I’m nobody, I have no name. I couldn’t be like, there really is a show, I promise! It’s pretty hard to go in and say, hey, I really want to talk to your prisoners.
LB: I’ve read that this show is actually a pretty accurate representation of life in a women’s prison.
YS: That’s the nicest thing someone could say about it. We film our exterior scenes at an abandoned children’s psychiatric hospital in upstate New York. And we filmed next to a prison on our very first day. We had the prison guards there, kind of supervising the filming. On one side of the fence there was us, and on the other side it was the real deal. It was amazing to see the range of people and to see how accurately our casting represented it. All ages, all sizes, all shapes, all colors. Much older ladies, people who could be your mother or grandma. They were under pretty close watch. But calling out all the things people call our near film sets. “Can we be in your movie?”
LB: Any talk of recent news stories about mandatory drug sentencing on set?
YS: In the last week or so the discussions going on about mandatory sentencing have been really interesting in terms of the show. I know Piper Kerman, who wrote the memoir “Orange” is based on, has been talking a lot in public about these potential changes. This morning I sent out a group email about it. I think it’s really interesting to be reading Eric Holder, his ideas about how you create a strong community, and watching "Orange." I love that the show has come out and these conversations are happening.
LB: Why do you think people have responded so well to this show?
YS: Yesterday a woman ran up to me when I was walking home from the set, so I guess I looked a little bit like Lorna. And she said, I’m so sorry to bother you but I have to tell you I gave up television, didn’t think it spoke to me at all, until this show. I love hearing that. We don’t have enough women on television.
LB: And it's so rare to see all these characters onscreen together who look and sound so different from each other.
YS: Prison makes an interesting context for so many different characters to come together. You get to see what lines get drawn between people. There are huge racial issues that the show doesn’t shy away from. Sometimes in a really ugly way.
LB: But somehow in ways that are light and funny too.
YS: Exactly. It allows you to feel that you don’t have to pretend that this is not a real thing. These are people who are actually experiencing what it is to be captive, and that is terrifying. Although there is a lot of sex in prison, which does seem to be exciting and terrifying as well.
LB: It is a little bit terrifying.
Within the show itself, characters have conversations about being a caged animal, and what that does to your mind, how it changes the way you relate to the outside world. And much like prison, the TV set environment really draws everyone together in a kind of lockdown way.
LB: So a TV show set is like prison?
YS: Hah! You know what I mean. That kind of stir-crazy thing, where you’re on a long drive, and there’s nothing else to do. So you’re telling stories together. In that way, it kind of is.