Sara Hess on “Orange is the New Black” and writing Thirteen’s sex scenes on “House”

 
 

AE: Do you feel a sense of responsibility at all when writing queer characters, or to create them if they aren’t there to begin with (on any show, not just Orange)?

SH: I guess it would depend on the show.  In general I don’t feel a huge responsibility to create queer characters.  I feel like we’re now at the point in Hollywood where that pretty much happens on its own.  Writers out here are pretty overwhelmingly socially liberal and I think interested in representing gay people as equals—or at the very least, it’s now the “cool” thing to do.

Actually sometimes I feel like it can go too far the other way.  Like last year on Downton Abbey when the whole family found out Thomas was gay, and they were all basically awesome about it.  Not that I wanted to see anything horrible happen to him as a result of bigotry, but you definitely saw the hand of the writer taking the opportunity to make a point to the audience (and one I truly appreciate, given where England was in its process toward marriage equality) but from a purely narrative standpoint I was like “Really?”

That said, I do feel a responsibility to make sure that, in a sense, being gay is the least interesting thing about gay characters.  The days are over (hopefully) when it was a big reveal like “WHAAAT?”  Now we can just move on, and concentrate on making them real and making their relationships as nuanced and rounded as every other relationship on television.

Sara with Olivia WildeRelativity Media And The Weinstein Company's 2011 Golden Globe Awards After Party Presented By Marie Claire - Inside

AE: You wrote a very pivotal episode of House: “Lucky Thirteen.” Fox cut down the beginning scene from what it originally teased for air. What did you think of that and are there any tidbits you can share with us regarding the writing of that scene?

SH: Well, part of the cut was just time, plain and simple.  You always end up shooting more than you can use and then cutting to make it fit. As for the rest of it: any FOX objections to that teaser weren’t about the gay content, but the general explicitness of the scene (which is fair: it was a network show in primetime) and in particular a moment when Thirteen dropped to her knees in front of Spencer.  They were actually pretty cool about the rest of it.  We were bummed (“we” meaning my co-writer Liz Friedman, director Greg Yaitanes, and me) when we found out later that they had an existing rule against portraying—or indicating—oral sex (straight or gay), because if we’d known that we could have just choreographed the sequence a different way.

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The scene itself was originally Liz’s idea and it was basically just for the fun of it.  We’d introduced Thirteen as bisexual, but the show was called House, and it was almost impossible to show any character who wasn’t actually House having an outside relationship.  And almost everyone else in the cast was a dude.  So she ended up dating Foreman for a while and when that was over we both really wanted to hook her up with a girl, if only briefly, just to show that side of her was real.  And we knew that Olivia was definitely game, so Liz wrote this really hot make-out.

It’s funny because later there was this backlash of people saying “of course the show only uses girl-on-girl as a kind of gimmick to get guys to watch” and in actuality it was gay women entertaining themselves.  One thing I’m still sad about was that we wrote a later scene in which they actually bond in a real way, to show that their relationship wasn’t just sex/acting out, and that scene got cut (again, for time), which was/is just the reality of procedural television—anything that doesn’t directly advance the plot gets put on the chopping block in post.  So you lose a lot of character nuance.  The next year Liz had the script pages for that cut scene framed and gave them to me for my birthday.

AE: What was your favorite Orange scene to write? A line you are most proud of?

SH: Oh, that’s just not fair.  The whole show is so much fun.  I guess I would have to say Taystee getting her hair done in the salon and talking with her friends about being the black best friend in a white girl movie?  I also personally love the Fischer/Caputo dynamic. Nick Sandow and Lauren Lapkus make me howl.  And the fight between Cal and Neri in the trailer in Episode 12 just killed me. The actors are so brilliant.  I was pretty proud of the “fat Bon Iver” stuff.  Oh, and Taystee and Poussey in the library after Taystee comes back. Their chemistry/skill is beyond.

AE: Because it was based on a book, Season 1 was loosely based on some preexisting characters and story lines. What can you tell us about Season 2?

SH: Nothing. Seriously. The lid is on. Netflix would have me killed. (Hi, Netflix!)

AE: How would you fare in the prison? Do you think you’d be hanging out with Nichols, Claudette or Crazy Eyes?

SH: I think I’d do OK. I’d probably make friends with Black Cindy right away for protection. But mostly I’d be reading a thousand books alone in my bunk and staying the hell out of everyone’s way. And not pooping. I’m pretty sure I could do Piper’s whole sentence without pooping. Not to brag, but that’s a talent I have.

Follow Sara on her personal Twitter (@sarahess) and also on the Orange Writers account (@orangewriters).

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