Prison Didn’t Pay for the ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Cast

Prison Didn’t Pay for the ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Cast

Ronald Reagan believed that there should always be plenty of money to be made through the penal system. Netflix, however, disagrees.

More than almost any series in the modern era, Orange Is the New Black wasn’t just a show — it was a paradigm shift. Along with House of Cards, the Jenji Kohan-created dramedy about a sheltered white woman interned in a minimum-security prison proved that streaming giants had the resources and the creative power to make a hit show. Orange Is the New Black helped to legitimize Netflix as a power player in content creation, not just content distribution, cascading into the current conditions where every studio and its mother has a streaming service and every streaming service wants to make their own stuff.

However, the screenwriters (and now actors) who painstakingly create the high-value products upon which the streaming industry is built experienced catastrophic consequences from this seismic shift, as many of them lost their ability to profit off of their work’s success, or even make a living by making hit shows. As the actors of SAG-AFTRA prepare to join the writers on the picket lines, the cast of Orange Is the New Black can channel the hipsters who first flocked to their show 10 years ago and tell their colleagues that they made no money off of streaming before it was cool.

In an exposé published yesterday, The New Yorker spoke to many members of the Orange Is the New Black cast including Kimiko Glenn, who played the naive newcomer Brook Soso in 44 episodes between 2014 and 2019. Glenn went viral for the above video in which she unveils a residuals check in the amount of a whopping $27.30. “So many of my friends who have nearly a million followers, who are doing billion-dollar franchises, don’t know how to make rent,” Glenn told The New Yorker.

Emma Myles, who played the ex-Amish methhead Leanne Taylor in 54 episodes, said that, whenever she reunites with a former castmate, “The first thing we say to each other is, like, ‘Yeah, it’s really fucked up — all my residuals are gone!’” Myles continued, “It’s always the first thing to come out of our mouths, because it’s so crazy and unjust. And everyone thinks we’re kajillionaires.” 

Myles, who began her time on Orange Is the New Black working for the SAG minimum rate, now enjoys a yearly residuals check in the ballpark of $20. She recalled her excitement at joining the pioneering project over a decade ago, saying, “I would explain to people, ‘Yeah, it’s for Netflix,’ and they were, like, ‘Oh, with the envelopes? That’s cute.’”

Because Netflix and other streamers are secretive about viewership numbers, the prospect of pay based on views doesn’t exist for those who were on Netflix’s first great original series. Instead, the cast’s piece of the pie is a small percentage of the licensing fee Netflix pays the series’ production company, Lionsgate Television. While the issue of after-the-fact compensation is at the core of the SAG strike, many of the actors interviewed made it clear that, even while Orange Is the New Black was still in production, they still weren’t earning enough to make ends meet.

Matt McGorry, who played heartthrob corrections officer John Bennett, commented on Glenn’s Instagram post, “Exaccctttlllyyy. I kept my day job the entire time I was on the show because it paid better than the mega-hit TV show we were on.” Beth Dover, who played prison industrialist Linda Ferguson, told The New Yorker, “It actually cost me money to be in Season Three and Four since I was cast local hire and had to fly myself out, etc. But I was so excited for the opportunity to be on a show I loved so I took the hit. It’s maddening.”

Making actors pay to be in a streamer’s flagship series is almost as crazy as a country making prisoners pay rent for their cells — which, thanks to The Gipper, we do.

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