After a stay at NIDA, roles in Australian TV shows like Spirited and All Saints, and starring opposite Geoffrey Rush in Belvoir’s hugely successful Diary Of A Madman — which ended up having a run in New York — 28-year-old Sydney actress Yael Stone moved to the United States in late 2011. It didn’t take long for her to find work; her role in the brilliant new Netflix Original series, Orange Is The New Black — 13 episodes of which arrived in one chunk on July 11 — finds the ambitious young actress, who also happens to be my younger sister, happily balancing a career in American TV with her own immigrant story.
Created by Jenji Kohen from Weeds, and based on the autobiography of Piper Kerman, Orange Is The New Black is the almost-true story of Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling): an upper middle class white woman incarcerated in federal prison for transporting drug money. The TV show is hugely ambitious, sharp, funny and intelligent, with a mostly female cast dealing in issues of race, class and sexuality — and it’s receiving rave revies from all corners: The New Yorker, Slate, The Guardian and The New York Times.
Yael plays Lorna Morello, a naive but tough Brooklyn-via-Boston Italian American inmate with a fixation on West Side Story.
The role is a complete transformation of voice and persona for Yael, and it’s a very impressive American TV debut, pointing to real success in the States for my little sister. I’d like to say it came as a surprise, but it didn’t really. She’s annoying like that.
Jake Stone: Tell me the story of heading over to New York.
Yael Stone: I came to New York in 2011 with the Geoffrey Rush show [Diary Of A Madman], and came straight back home. I didn’t really think about it. A friend of mine said I was stupid not to have taken any meetings at all, and that I should go back to America.
I went back because he told me to. I bought an iPhone, I bought a Mac computer, and I got right on top of the technological wave [laughs]. I met people and found representation. I probably lied through my teeth about wanting to live in New York. Before I knew it, I was living in New York. I had a Visa, and I had to do something with it.
How’d you get your representation?
Yael: Lots of meetings. I smiled a lot and tried to take the attention away from the fact that I didn’t have any hair.
Were agencies open to the fact that you’re from Australia? Did they treat you differently?
Yael: There’s a level of understanding now. I wouldn’t call it fascination, but there’s an acceptance that there’s a thing called ‘The Australian Technique’; people have an excitement about Australian actors. There’s also a bit of bitterness that there’s so many Australian actors working [over there]…
But there’s a level of understanding. You don’t have to prove that you can do an American accent. It’s accepted that Australians can do accents. They didn’t find me an Antipodean curiosity, no.
Do you think it helped?
Yael: I think what helped is that I’d done a play over here. The people that ended up representing me had either seen it, or knew people who’d seen the show.
What was the audition process like?
Yael: It can be pretty awful, coming over here and no-one knowing you at all. Sometimes they don’t even turn the cameras on. Sometimes you walk into the room and you immediately know from their faces that you are wrong for the role. But that’s alright. It’s a good place to get a thick skin.
There’s never any question as to whether I am the pretty girl. I’m not, and it’s actually quite liberating. I am the funny weird little midget girl, and that works great for me. Knowing that is not having to pretend to be something that you’re not.
How did the audition for Orange Is The New Black come about?
Yael: Dan Spielman [Offspring, The Secret Life Of Us] and I got married the day before. I was working until 2am in a restaurant the night before — [then] we got married, and we had a party that night. The next day I went in a little bit hungover.
I auditioned for a different role, a tougher role. It was the one that Natasha Lyonne ended up playing. They didn’t want me for that, but they brought me back for Lorna. I came back two days later, and it was amazing.
Jennifer Euston casts this show, and she is the woman who casts Girls… She was just awesome. I was pretty serious about it all.
I don’t really act Australian when I come in; I don’t generally say anything. If I do, I say it in an American accent. We went through [the audition script] once or twice, and then I found out about two days later. It wasn’t going to be a role for six months, it was going to be a role for one episode — but they kept getting me back, which was amazing.
How does that work? Do they write it on the fly?
Yael: Well, no and yes. They go into the writer’s room at the start of the season and plan the season. Each writer is allocated a specific episode, which they then flesh out, and write dialogue for. Jenji Kohen, the creator of the series, obviously has a big hand in what happens.
What did you have to do to prepare for the character and the accent?
Yael: The accent is a cocktail of Brooklyn and Boston. The idea is that she grew up in Boston, but her mum is this tough Brooklyn woman who was out of place there, after marrying this traditional Italian Bostonian man.
I went to Boston for a research trip, and hung out there. I recorded people that I met, and had a session with a dialect guy. I play the session every time I travel to work. For the first four months I stayed in character, or at least accent, all day on set.
Is keeping that accent up hard?
Yael: Sometimes I think I get it right, and sometimes I’m really not happy with it and want to do a little better… I just hope I get away with it!
In terms of stuff outside the accent, Lorna’s favourite film is West Side Story, and that comes up a little bit. I decided that she would have a fantasy about being Natalie Wood. So she has Natalie Wood hair, red lipstick.
Ultimately she, like all the women in the prison, is trying to create a family around her. She’s trying to make things good. She sort of lives in a fantasy land, which comes out a bit more later in season one. She lies to herself quite a bit, so that she can be okay in prison.
[Playing this role] was about investigating what was the truth and what was lies to her, and what is necessary for her to be happy and have this family in prison.
Did you ever go to prison, and see what that was like?
Yael: When I was in Boston I was hanging out with a bunch of judges and lawyers, and one of them was going to see a client. I asked if I could go along on the visit, and they said it was inappropriate.
I think I could do it now that the show is out and it’s seen as a legit thing. We shoot all the exterior stuff at this abandoned children’s psychiatric hospital, which is super creepy. And just over the hill there’s a Federal prison.
On my very first day, we shot with the real prisoners on one side of the fence and us on the other. We were wearing exactly the same stuff, and we just happened to be making a television show. It was pretty crazy.
How did the prisoners deal with it?
Yael: It was funny. It was just like what everyone says when they are near a movie set: they are just like, “Can we be in the movie? Put us in the movie!”
It was incredible though, watching the demographic walk past. There really is every colour in prison, every age. There were old nannas who’d been in there for a long time. It was scary to realise that the show is so accurate.
Do people recognise you in the street now?
Yael: Yeah, that’s starting to happen. It’s weird going from a city where you feel so invisible — and sometimes that’s the best thing in the world — to having people notice you, when you’re some little Australian girl. That’s pretty strange.
The other day I was coming home on the train, and there was this group of ten teenagers talking really loudly about like, was I “the girl” that they thought I was. But not really talking to me — and I was sitting on the seats with them.
And then this 16-year-old thug shoves out his iPhone with a picture of me on it, and said “Is this you?” And I just nodded, and he didn’t say anything else. He just went back and sat down again. It was weirdly threatening. He wanted to recognise me, but he didn’t want to say hello or anything.
And your life isn’t really that different to theirs, if you’re still catching public transport.
Yael: Yeah, my life’s not different at all.
You should also talk a bit about the interesting political stuff explored in the show, as well as personal stuff. The mandatory drug sentencing laws in the US have changed the population of prison, and that becomes really interesting in the context of the cast of this show.
Also, it’s a pretty female heavy cast and crew.
I’ll mention all that. I think mum said she was going to come over with dad soon?
Yael: Yeah! I’ve been working so much — it will be really good to see them.
Season One of Orange In The New Black is brilliant, and streaming on Netflix now. “But Netflix is only available in America,” we hear you whinge. Pssssssst. Click here.