Orange Is the New Black actor Yael Stone’s “accidental” career is building momentum.By Michaela McGuire.
The ’kooky’ life of Orange Is the New Black’s Yael Stone
In Adelaide, Yael Stone cried a lot. It was nothing to do with the city – it’s that she was starring in a musical. “I have weird associations with music,” she explains. “I cry quite a lot when I try to sing.” Before her run as the titular deaf, dumb and blind kid in the Adelaide Festival’s Tommy – the world premiere of a new version of The Who’s 1969 concept album – she fretted she would be a “complete embarrassment”, but took solace in the onstage presence of her sister, award-winning musician Elana Stone. “My secret thought is that if I can’t do it, Elana will be able to step in.” She needn’t have worried, having received lavish reviews: “superb”, “electric”, “full of sadness and fragility”.
The Sydney-born actor also spent a couple of months in Melbourne, shooting a six-part mini-series based on Arthur C. Clarke’s sci-fi novel Childhood’s End, during which time we met for breakfast at a Brunswick cafe close to where she lived during production. She has since returned to her adopted home of New York and in the next few months will begin shooting the freshly announced season four of the hit Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, in which she plays an Italian-American prison inmate. She readily admits that her life, at the moment, “is a little kooky”.
The tightly written drama, based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, revolves around a woman who has been sentenced to 15 months in a federal prison for transporting a suitcase of drugs to her former girlfriend. Stone portrays Lorna Morello, one of its most beloved characters, and the Netflix-led phenomenon of releasing complete series at once, rather than screening an episode a week, means viewers have likely spent a lot of concentrated time in her company. And with the on-demand internet streaming service Netflix now launched locally, Australians won’t have to use a geo-blocker to pretend they’re in the US in order to go on a season’s bender.
“With this binge-watching culture, people bring that show into their bedroom, often even under the covers,” Stone says. “They’re literally in bed with it, and often live with it for an entire weekend. Some people would say that’s degrading culture as we know it, and I can certainly see an argument for that.
“But I can also see that people are looking for recognition in everything that they watch and in experiences that they have, and are looking to test their own moral compass without having to do it themselves.”
Yael Stone is the youngest of three siblings by four years – “a mistake,” she says with a grin – born into a wildly creative family. Apart from Elana, widely regarded as having one of the best singing voices in the country, there’s Jake, the eldest, a member of ARIA-award nominated, Triple J darling electronic “punk-hop” band Bluejuice until the band split last year. Growing up in Sydney’s inner-western suburbs, music was an intrinsic part of the Stone children’s young lives. “My earliest memory is of us all dancing to Johnny O’Keefe in the living room, which we’d do every single night,” Stone says. Father Harry, an architect, and mother Judy, a palliative care nurse, are creative, too, she says, but not professionally. All three children completed Yamaha piano courses while attending Balmain Public School in the same generation of classmates as actor Rose Byrne and musicians Josh Pyke and Alex Lloyd.
Stone attended the selective Newtown High School of the Performing Arts where, at age 12, she was cast in her first film role alongside Rachel Griffiths in the romantic comedy Me Myself I. She describes the progression of her acting career as a series of “happy accidents”, though she admits that on paper it makes perfect sense – she was accepted into the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) straight out of high school. Still, she insists she pursued acting only very reluctantly.
“For a long time I didn’t really value this job or what it is,” she says. “I really liked the doing of it, but in terms of having a career it has been hard for me to value it, just because I have a lot of amazing friends that are social workers, or who work with refugees, things that I value a little more highly.”
Just two years after graduating from NIDA, Stone won both the best newcomer and best supporting actress awards at the 2008 Sydney Theatre Awards for her onstage roles in The Kid and Frankenstein. She portrayed Mary Shelley’s creation not as a monster but as a diminutive, innocent young girl. Playwright Lally Katz, who adapted the production, has since collaborated with Stone on several productions. “She’s so emotionally present,” says Katz. “She has a gift for being able to channel and connect with whatever emotion is in the piece, that it’s almost like she’s giving it to you intravenously. Yael connects with an audience’s imagination because she possesses such a huge imagination herself.”
Fast forward a few years to 2011 and Stone, then 25, travelled to New York to perform in a Belvoir St Theatre adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s Diary of a Madman, after its Sydney run, alongside Oscar-winning, Tony-winning, Emmy-winning actor Geoffrey Rush. The two-hander featured Rush as a vaudevillian Russian with Bozo-red hair and green eye shadow. Stone played three roles: a Finnish maid, the object of Rush’s deranged love, and a lunatic in an asylum. It was the latter role that required her to cut off her waist-length hair and shave her head. Rush, who she counts as a good friend, paid for a wig to be made out of her hair, which she could use when she returned to filming of the Australian TV series Spirited. The severed locks were sent to a world-famous wigmaker in London who, for reasons unknown, refused to collect them. Her hair was returned, but the package got caught up in Queensland’s 2010-2011 floods. “I had to look exactly the same for Spirited, so another wig was quickly whipped up,” says Stone. “Months later a box of hair arrived. Creepy.”
The day after Diary of a Madman finished its run in New York, Stone flew back to Sydney, moved house in one day, then immediately flew to Poland with Elana to celebrate her sister’s birthday. “It was so crazy being in Poland,” says Stone. “I had a shaved head, and people thought I was so fucking weird. We went to Auschwitz, it was horrifying, and all of these experiences were packed right up next to each other.”
Stone was raised Jewish. Harry Stone moved to Australia from then Czechoslovakia when he was three years old. “His mother was Romanian,” she says, “and they survived the Holocaust. The only person who died in one of the camps was my great-grandfather. So that’s very much an inheritance of ours, and I feel very connected to their survival, and their incredible strength.” She recalls completing the required study for her bat mitzvah, just as her siblings had done for their bat and bar mitzvahs, but refusing at the last minute to go through with it. “It was my great moment of shame,” she says. “As a self-righteous 12-year-old girl I said to my father, ‘This doesn’t feel right, I can’t feel God in me’, so I refused because I was a precocious little shit.”
Cracking New York
With help from her friend, actor Ashley Zukerman, Stone put together a show reel, lined up some meetings, and went back to New York to find an agent. “I just sort of did what he told me to,” she says. “I felt like I was totally bluffing, and I was. I was lying through my teeth.”
Those early days of casting sessions carried a significant bluff. At her Orange Is the New Black audition she didn’t speak a word until it was time to read her lines, so as not to reveal her Australian accent. “It’s not a special trick,” she says, “but sometimes the jump is too big to do in front of other people. For a character who is so far away from myself – and I was taking a pretty big risk, it could have gone really badly – I thought it best not to expose just how different I am to this character.”
Lorna Morello is one of the first inmates the Orange audience encounters, sitting behind the wheel of the prison van, flicking through a bridal magazine and reassuring the freshly arrived lead character that she’s going to be okay. Morello seems completely innocuous, as though she would never do anything more dangerous than wearing the contraband red lipstick she has carefully applied. “That was one clue I had from the pilot,” Stone says. “It mentioned she was wearing make-up.” The timing of Stone’s audition was another of those happy accidents: she was married to Australian actor Dan Spielman the day before. “I was working for tips at the time, so it was lucky that I’d just gotten married, otherwise I wouldn’t have had any lipstick.”
Stone devised Morello’s distinctive accent herself: equal parts Brooklyn, Boston and West Side Story. She sounds a little like a Boston mobster played by a cartoon mouse. “The voice was definitely there in its bare-bones way in the audition. It was in the writing. Not that it was that specific, but it was clear that she has an… urban edge.” She laughs. Stone attributes the roving quality of Morello’s accent to the transient life she imagined for her character. “I don’t think Lorna put her roots down anywhere. Physically maybe, but emotionally certainly not. At least for the first half of her life she’s been deeply, deeply lost. She kind of covers it with a lot of bluster, but she’s really quite lost.”
Stone was so nervous about the accent that she found it was easier for her to stay in character between takes for the whole first season of the show. Two seasons later, she’s facing the opposite problem. “Sometimes I worry that I’m doing it wrong because I’m a bit too relaxed,” she says. After working solely on Orange for three seasons, Stone found that she was unable to even learn her lines for a small part in the web series High Maintenance. “I felt like I didn’t even know how to speak. It was like my first day at school.”
As well as featuring a cast that represents an accurate portrayal of the ethnic make-up of American prisons, Orange has been lauded for its gritty, often hilarious sex scenes. Although happily engaged to a man on the outside, Morello dabbles in a lesbian affair with a fellow inmate named Nicky, played by Natasha Lyonne. The first time the audience encounters the pair they’re having oral sex in the shower. The scene was filmed on Stone’s third day of shooting, and it was 3am by the time the cameras were ready to roll. “We’d been playing around in nipple covers and crotch covers for three hours, so it didn’t feel confronting. I’m not averse to doing scenes that have a certain amount of reality in them – the moments of success in sex, and the moments of failure in sex – and I definitely do get to do that with Natasha, and I think it’s really fun.”
Stone has been signed on to the show for the next five years. She and her husband live in Queens, where she says they lead a rich cultural life. “It could be a grand illusion, but it feels rich.” A self-described homebody, she is nonetheless surrounded by friends who are “talented and weird and American!” She laughs. “And not actors, which is quite nice. I found it really freeing for me personally to get away from that little box around me and realise that I can reinvent myself a bit.”
Stone is an accredited yoga instructor and hopes to soon begin work with the Liberation Prison Yoga program. First, she’ll have to earn further accreditation to learn more about trauma. “We could argue that people who are in prison are victims of trauma, and probably being introduced to new trauma every day,” she says.
Recently turned 30, Stone says she’d like to work towards repaying some of the kindness that older actors have shown her. “It’s a treacherous moment when you leave your 20s. Are you too close to that age to be supportive of younger people? How do you cultivate a genuinely nurturing attitude towards people who might take your job?” Another laugh. “It’s a good challenge. I goofed off for a long time during my 20s, but I’ve come to find the dignity in my work. At some point, I realised I love this and I actually want to do it forever, if I can. That’s the really risky moment.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 2, 2015 as "Rolling Stone". Subscribe here.