Fordham’s Taylor Schilling is the New Black


Taylor Schilling stars as Helen of Troy in Fordham’s main stage production of Euripede’s “The Trojan Woman.” (Photos Courtesy of Gerry Goodstein/Fordham Theater Program)
Taylor Schilling stars as Helen of Troy in Fordham’s main stage production of Euripede’s “The Trojan Woman.” (Photos Courtesy of Gerry Goodstein/Fordham Theater Program)

Before Taylor Schilling was chasing after fabled chickens in prison, fighting off the romantic advances of an inmate nicknamed “Crazy Eyes” and struggling with life in all-women’s correctional facility, she was walking to Lowenstein from her dorm room.

Taylor Schilling, Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) ’06, isn’t a criminal; she’s just an actress, currently starring on Netflix’s hit original series “Orange is the New Black.” Schilling plays the lead, Piper Chapman, who is imprisoned for laundering drug money for her ex-girlfriend. The show, based on real life events, was adapted and written by “Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan, and follows the life of Piper behind bars.

Schilling, a 29-year-old Boston native, is also best known for her work in the film adaptation of Nicolas Spark’s “The Lucky One” opposite Zac Efron, as well as her turn as the tough military nurse-turned-medical practitioner on NBC’s short-lived medical drama “Mercy.” Other credits to her name include a film adaptation of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged: Part 1,” where Schilling replaced Angelina Jolie as the tough railroad executive Dagny Taggart.

Most of her training came from her time at FCLC, where Larry Sacharow, the late theater department chair, took her under his wing. Schilling took the same classes that theater majors today are required to take, like Theater Crafts, Visual Design, and three semesters of theater history. After graduation, Schilling attended New York University, but dropped out after two years in the graduate acting program.

“In her daily life, you wouldn’t have necessarily taken a look at her and thought much about her,” Elizabeth Margid, professor of directing, said. “She was frankly a little, kind of like, casual, a little schlumpy in her dress.”

During auditions for Euripides’s “The Trojan Women,” many weren’t sure if Schilling was right for the part of Helen of Troy. “She’s a very beautiful woman but she wasn’t necessarily playing that up in her life at the time,” Rachel Dickstein, former Fordham professor and director of the mainstage production, said. “Helen of Troy was the epitome of beauty and was very consciously using her beauty as a tool. Some people wondered if that was a good part for her because that seemed to be so different from her personality.”

Schilling put these reservations to rest in the first rehearsal, when her stage presence was undeniable.  “She gave an incredible performance as Helen of Troy,” said cast mate Tommie Heleringer, FCLC ’06. “I remember during the first read through of that play and just being totally in awe of this girl. I have never seen something like that. “

Her ambivalence toward her appearance ended up being an asset to her performance. “The role required that we shave her head, and the irony is that she was so ‘I don’t care what I look like’ that she was like sure, whatever its fine,” said Dickstein. Her bravery and nonchalance caught the attention of her cast. “That was really cool. She was really suffering for her art,” Heleringer said.

Schilling received rave notices for her performance, both from the faculty and her peers. On stage, “she was completely transformed,” Margid said, whose first encounter with Schilling was in the Greek tragedy. “I remember seeing this show and turning to the person sitting next to me and going, ‘Who is that?’ I didn’t even recognize her,” Margid said. “That made a huge impression on me on really what an amazing actor she was.”

Schilling went on to play the lead in three mainstage shows, including Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls” and Christina De Lancie’s “Tsunami.”

“To get the lead role in three shows is not that common here [at Fordham], so that tells you something,” said Margid.

In “Tsunami,” Schilling played a young physicist who through a “huge crazy emotional journey” said Margid, who directed the production. The part was this “huge, tour-de-force kind of a role” which required both intellectual and comedic chops. When Margid signed on to direct the show, she immediately thought of Schilling. “I knew when I decided to do the play, I knew there was only one or two people who I thought could really manage it,” she said.

Though Schilling was really nervous during her audition and had to be called back three times before Margid was certain that she could handle the role, Schilling ended up being “really amazing in the part,” Margid said.

Schilling’s acting chops were so impressive that when she was in “Top Girls,” the director, Erica Schmidt, introduced her to an agent who signed her while she was in her junior year.  “It was pretty clear that Taylor was a star early on,” Margid said. In her senior year, Schilling was already being sent out on auditions.

“You didn’t feel like you were seeing a student perform,” Margid said.  “You felt like you were seeing a professional perform. We’ve had a number of students over the years for whom that has been true—she is one of them.”

Schilling also “didn’t seem like your average college student,” Margid reminiscences. “I always had the sense that she was sort of an old soul…and having a kind of passion and intensity that was beyond that of her years.

Schilling wasn’t one for big dance parties or dressing up, “unless she had to,” said Heleringer, who ended up becoming of one Schilling’s best friend after “Trojan Women.”  “She kept calling me on my phone,” Heleringer recalls. “I didn’t have a lot of friends. I was amazed that this girl kept calling me. We just started hanging out. I fell madly in love with her and that’s the way it’s been ever since.”

Taylor Schilling was known as the “reigning queen” of the theater department, according to Heleringer, but she didn’t act like one. Outside the classroom and off stage, Schilling was “funny, goofy, lovely,” Heleringer said. When she wasn’t in rehearsals or putting in hours in the costume shop like other theater majors, she would be hanging out in the dorms with her friends.

Heleringer, who remains one of Schilling’s closest friends, is “over the moon” about her current success on Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black.” “She’s the greatest artist I know,” Heleringer said. “I couldn’t be more proud of her.”

Margid was not surprised at Schilling’s success.  “We tell students here that if there’s anything else you could love or do, go do it because acting is so hard, “ Margid said, “but she was one of those people who you knew this is what she had to do.”