NEW YORK—From corrupt, brutal overseers to the fraught world of inmate hierarchy to unlikely friendships and romances, "Orange is the New Black" told deeply rich and complex stories about life for women behind bars that resonated far beyond prison walls.
While it was originally centered around the privileged white character of Piper Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling), the supporting characters—some quirky, some volatile, some comic, some tragic—became the show's breakout stars.
The award-winning Netflix series also became a showcase for actresses of color, thanks to nuanced story lines with depth that have often proved elusive.
As the hit dramedy winds down with the seventh and final season on July 26, those actresses take a look back at the profound impact the series had on their lives.
Uzo Aduba (Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren)
A not-so-funny thing happened to Uzoamaka Nwanneka Aduba on her way to audition for a different part on the show: She was late.
She thought maybe the faux pas was the universe trying to tell her that acting wasn't her destiny. Aduba, 38, had been trying professionally for about 10 years, with small victories, but she quit after her tardiness, thinking maybe a law career was the way to go as her parents, of Nigerian descent, preferred.
That's when the life-changing phone call came. There was bad news: She didn't get the part of track star-inmate Janae Watson. But there was also good: She was offered Crazy Eyes instead, though only for a couple of guest appearances. She wore the bantu knots that became the signature style of the character to the audition.
Aduba's role was extended and she won two Emmys, two Screen Actors Guild Awards and a Golden Globe.
Laverne Cox (Sophia Burset)
The LGBTQ activist didn't quit her day job at the drag spot Lucky Cheng's in Manhattan until after the first season of Orange wrapped. But it wasn't long until she made history as the first trans person on the cover of Time magazine.
"I just cried," she said.
The magazine's story accompanying the cover on the transgender tipping point had her describing her childhood in Mobile, Ala., growing up bullied and harassed for presenting as feminine. She came out as trans years later while working in New York City, where she took up acting.
Thanks to OINTB, where her character rode out cycles of acceptance, hatred and violence, Cox has used her star platform to educate the world and push for just treatment of LGBTQ people everywhere.
"Seven years ago I turned 40 and I had not had the big breakthrough in my acting career that I had wanted. I was in tons of debt. I thought it was time for me to do something else," she told the AP. "I was like, 'I should go back to graduate school' and I bought some GRE study materials from a friend of mine."
Then she auditioned for Orange, "and here we are."
Danielle Brooks (Tasha "Taystee" Jefferson)
As the brash Taystee, Brooks showed the way not just for other actors of color, but for women of size.
"Cornbread fed, baby, cornbread fed," she laughed.
The Augusta, Ga.-born Brooks was well on her way doing theater when "Orange" happened after she graduated with a bachelor's from the Juilliard School.
Brooks is also a singer, earning a Tony nomination for Sofia (Oprah's film part) in the 2015 Broadway production of "The Color Purple." She dropped a music video in February for Black History Month featuring herself all glammed up and wet in a bathtub singing "Black Woman," which includes the lyrics: "The world tells me there is space for me, if I cinch it up and I sew it in, the world tells me it'll all be mine, with some lashes on and some lighter eyes."
The song, Brooks told the AP, was "my way of healing myself" while encouraging others to accept who they are.
The 29-year-old Brooks was working as a waitress in New York City ("I was a horrible waitress") when her agent got her an audition for "Orange," though initially only two episodes were promised.
"I almost said no to it because I didn't get to read the script and when I saw the scene that I was going to be in I had to be topless. I was like, oh no. I'm from South Carolina. I grew up in a very religious household. I was nervous also about playing a stereotype, of the black woman who the world might consider sassy and loud and angry. To put that on TV, I was not sure about it."
She's obviously glad she did.
Wiley (Poussey Washington)
Wiley was a bartender for two and a half years after she, too, graduated Julliard when she auditioned for Orange. There were no promises that lesbian character Poussey would be a recurring role. After she got the job, she stayed at Fred's Restaurant in Manhattan for the first couple of seasons.
"I didn't want to be stupid about it and quit my job and then end up nowhere," she told the AP.
Like her character, Wiley is gay. Raised in Washington, D.C., Wiley's sexuality was embraced by her liberal pastor parents, which she considers key to her success. She's now an advocate for LGBTQ, immigration and prison reform causes.
Wiley, 32, was not publicly out in those early seasons of Orange. She credits Poussey with giving her the strength and confidence to come into her own, both as an actor and a gay black woman.
Wiley won three Screen Actors Guild Awards for Poussey. She went on to receive an Emmy nomination in 2017 for her portrayal of Moira in the Hulu series "The Handmaid's Tale" and won an Emmy for that part the following year.
Dascha Polanco (Dayanara "Daya" Diaz)
She had dreamed of becoming an actor as a child but thought her weight might hold her back, so she put herself through Hunter College instead, going to school as a teen mother raising a young daughter.
The Dominican Republic-born Polanco went on to earn a bachelor's in psychology and worked in a hospital as she studied to be a nurse (and eventually had a second child, a son). But over time, she decided to pursue acting.
After minor roles in two TV series, she was cast in OITNB in 2012.
"I had three jobs at the time and I was also finishing my nursing clinicals," she told the AP of life before "Orange."
"We are the reality." she added. "We can all relate to that, not feeling enough. I was very fearful of going out to auditions and being told, well you have to lose weight, well your hair is curly," she said. "You come across this discrimination and this prejudice and you don't realize how much they affect you. It's learning how to embrace those scars and how we use it as foundation and not as identity."