When the prison drama “Orange is the New Black” debuted on Netflix in July 2013, the concept of a Netflix Original Series was still a very new one, as was the idea of watching an entire season of television in one sitting.
Also far from being a reality at the time? The idea that a move against mass incarceration could gain mainstream purchase as a political issue.
The seventh and final season of “Orange Is The New Black” (OITNB) debuted on the streaming service. Not only has the show become a household name, but it's raised questions that have begun to have significant real-world policy implications.
Alysia Reiner, who played Natalie "Fig" Figueroa across all seven seasons of the show, visited Philadelphia last week, and she sat down to talk to Philadelphia Weekly about her work on the show. Later that night, she attended a local fan screening of “OITNB” episodes that was held, naturally, at Eastern State Penitentiary.
The actress, who made her first appearance on the show’s second episode in its first season, didn't know what to expect, format-wise, when she was cast on one of the first original Netflix shows prior to its debut six years ago.
"Everybody always has a choice in how they ingest this content," Reiner said, using choice food analogies. “Some people cannot have a gallon of ice cream in their house, and some people can have a gallon of ice cream in their house for a year. And I think Netflix and specifically ‘Orange is the New Black,’ we have some fans who need to watch all 13 episodes in one sitting, and some who love to parcel it out and only watch ten minutes at a time."
Another major aspect of the series’ legacy is that its run took place at a time when attitudes have begun to change in a serious way about prisons, crime and mass incarceration. This has led to the election of prosecutors like Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner and even to bipartisan federal legislation like the First Step Act, which was signed into law by President Trump last year.
“It's my hope that [OITNB] played a part in that change,” Reiner said. “I think that whenever you have 105 million viewers as Netflix has shared with us, it's a way of educating people about what's going on in a way that you can't otherwise, and in a way that I think the news has failed to do of late, because there's been so much misinformation."
Reiner co-starred in and co-produced the Philly-shot 2016 financial thriller “Equity,” which was one time among many that she played a lawyer. She has also appeared in episodes of everything from “The Sopranos” to “30 Rock” to multiple “Law & Order” series. She's also been in movies such as “Sideways,” “Kissing Jessica Stein” and, most recently, “Egg.”
“My biggest piece of gratitude is to be part of art that is about change and is about aspects of our systems in this country that are deeply unjust, and to be able to shine a light on that and hopefully incite change,” she said.
The actress has had long runs in shows like “How to Get Away With Murder,” “Better Things” and “The Deuce,” but the longest run of her career was playing "Fig," the Litchfield Penitentiary authority figure who began her run on the series as a villain but gradually became a more multifaceted character.
"I loved the way they've written this character," Reiner said of Fig. "We keep on seeing different layers of her."
While the actress was reluctant to share any spoilers about the final season, she did say that, "I promise you that you will continue to see things about Fig that you never imagined."
A Florida native, Reiner splits her time between New York and Los Angeles, although she actively seeks out roles that are in or near her home in New York. “OITNB” filmed the early years of its run in a town called Orangeburg, ironically, although it moved to studios around New York City its last two seasons.
Reiner has also been active in the Time's Up movement, founded to combat sexual harassment following the scandals involving Harvey Weinstein and other Hollywood figures.
"I think it's amazing," she said of the work Time's Up has done in its first two years. "It's very hard to change systems. There's a lot of systems in place on a social, economic and political level that make equality for women challenging, so to break down those systems and create new systems will take a lot of time and effort.
"It's important for us to remember that it isn't just about a bunch of actresses,” she added. “Every career there is, there's inequality."
As part of “The Deuce” cast, Reiner is proud to be playing a part in the show that is the first to bring aboard an "intimacy coordinator," which is a staff member whose job it is to ensure the safety and comfort of actors participating in sex scenes. HBO Programming President Casey Bloys said in an interview this week that he hopes such staff members "will come to be seen like a stunt coordinator."
"Intimacy coordinators are now going to become something that we as [actors union] SAG-AFTRA really push for and try to get on as many sets as possible, ideally all sets where people are doing anything more than holding hands," Reiner said.
The actress also recently appeared in a humorous video in which she and other actresses "audition" for a fictitious movie version of the Mueller Report. Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller had been testifying before Congress on the day of our interview, and Reiner was watching and even tweeting along that morning.
"I think it's a very complicated situation, but there were things that he said that I tweeted that lead me to believe — and some of our representatives agree — I think the truth is we have both a president and an administration that have broken the law, and whether we think that will affect this coming election or not, it's my belief that the system of our current government is that when that happens, that's what impeachment is for," she said.