With Motherhood, Laura Prepon Directs A New Episode
If you’re a longtime fan of Orange Is the New Black, you can expect to see Alex Vause, the dangerously sexy convicted drug smuggler played by Laura Prepon, doing a few things. You can expect to see her entangled in a sweaty prison cell makeout with fiancée Piper (Taylor Schilling), or placing the arm of her trademark black spectacles against the corners of her lips (there are numerous GIFs capturing this specific act, each image so erotic as to nearly constitute a violation of Tumblr’s pornography ban). Or you can see her in fight mode, stalking around with a scowl and a threatening message for her enemies, who alternately refer to her as “Sasquatch,” “Elvira,” and “Superc*nt.”
What you do not expect to see Alex Vause doing is cooking an egg.
On YouTube, Prepon, the actor behind Vause, patiently explains how to fill a saucepan of eggs with water, and demonstrates what constitutes a good boil. She then methodically peels the eggs and proudly cuts one in half, revealing a circle of yellow inside a white oval. “In my house we have something that has basically become a hashtag,” she says in the clip, titled The #PerfectYellow Hard Boiled Egg. ”When we hard boil the egg and slice it open and we see the color of the yolk, we’re like" — Alex Vause voice — "‘perfect yellow.’” The video has more than 50,000 views, and when I ask Prepon why she thinks this simple topic generated such a strong response, she laughs. “A lot of people love that video,” she says. “You have no idea about how many people have reached out about that.”
We’re on the top floor of an impeccably furnished luxury duplex in Williamsburg, where Prepon has just finished Romper’s cover photoshoot. Unlike her OITNB counterpart, Prepon does not appear to have a sarcastic bone in her body: she’s polite (albeit somewhat guarded) and unfailingly earnest, prone to speaking glowingly about motherhood, her up-and-coming career as a lifestyle influencer, and the joys of bone broth. She’s also clearly exhausted: she’s been up since 4:30 in the morning shooting an episode for the last season of Orange Is The New Black, and she’s eager to get home to her husband, actor Ben Foster, and her daughter, who is almost a year and a half old. “My cells ache to hold my daughter right now,” she says without a trace of self-consciousness. “I can't wait to get out of here.”
It is an interesting time to be here with Prepon, who appears to be on the verge of a transition of sorts. After spending more than 20 years on TV, she has been shooting her final season as Vause on the critically acclaimed Netflix show, which is based on the memoir of author Piper Kerman. OITNB has been lauded for its brutally frank depiction of the criminal justice system, and Prepon has a significant following among LGBTQ fans, who are drawn to her character’s mordant sense of humor, prison pinup style, and smoldering chemistry with Schilling, earning the pair the ardor of femslash writers all across the Tumblrverse.
The show launched the careers of stars like Laverne Cox and revitalized those of TV stalwarts like Kate Mulgrew, and it has been similarly transformative for Prepon, perhaps as much personally as professionally. “So much has happened since I've been on the show,” she says. “I've become a mother, which completely changed my life. I've become a wife, which has completely changed my life.” She works long hours on set and cherishes her time with her toddler in the mornings, “when she's running around in her little jammies and I'm just having coffee and we're just spending time together.”
Prepon returned to shoot OITNB six weeks after giving birth, documenting her return to set with a makeup-free selfie on Instagram. “It's kind of an interesting thing that we wear [going right back to work postpartum] like this badge of honor, because it's not like that in other cultures,” she says. Rather than ruminate on that, she tries to set an example of working motherhood for her daughter, who first visited Prepon on set when she was three months old. “I know that my daughter would be proud if she knew what I was doing,” Prepon says. Now, as OITNB draws to a close, the actor sums up her feelings about the end of the series that defined the second act of her career as something akin to “a period of postpartum depression.”
When I got married and had my daughter, it was the complete opposite of settling down.
But she’s also looking forward to the next phase of her career: as a director and wellness-focused social media guru.
After spending her teen years modeling in Europe, Prepon booked her first major role, gamine girl-next-door Donna Pinciotti on That ’70s Show, when she was just 18; the show became a huge hit, aired for eight seasons, and won her a devoted fan base. (Many a millennial preteen has tried to pull off Donna’s paisley bell bottoms and knitted cropped sweaters, to no avail.) She is not quite a household name to the degree that some of her former co-stars are (the parenting decisions of Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher quickly ripple across the internet), but you don’t get the sense that she particularly wants to be: she and Foster (also a former teen actor) “are extremely private,” she tells me.
“I'm trying to balance doing this interview with the fact that we're very private people,” she says. “I'm kind of trying to straddle both worlds here.”
Access is the cost of survival in an industry that counts Lindsay Lohan’s Beach Club as a second act, and Prepon, like all celebrities, has had to decide what to share with fans. Her approach has served her well: while many of Prepon’s former teen star peers have been relegated to ’90s bar trivia answers, she has achieved basically the impossible, starring in not just one but two long-running TV sitcoms, and creating two characters with diehard followings (she has 5 million followers on Instagram).
Even so, it’s clear that Prepon has possibly moved beyond seeking out a good role; she says that marriage and motherhood have made her sense of her ambitions and priorities more acute. “When I got married and had my daughter, it was the complete opposite of settling down … . It was like upheaval in the most incredible way, because you take on these superpowers as a woman that [you] never knew you had before, and a hypervigilance.”
One of these priorities is directing; Prepon has helmed three episodes of Orange Is the New Black. In her OITNB directorial debut, Season 5’s “The Reverse Midas Touch,” she shot arguably one of the most brutal moments of the series, in which a sadistic prison guard tortures prison mother Red (Kate Mulgrew). She credits her ability to direct such physically or emotionally grueling moments to her experience as an actor. “A lot of times, directors have a hard time talking to actors,” she says. “I’m fortunate that I have that benefit of boots on the ground, because I’ve been doing this for so long. Because sometimes you’re asking your actors to be put in very vulnerable situations.”
In the fall of 2018, Prepon also launched her YouTube channel, where she explores simple, search-friendly topics, from how to make egg salad to how to pack a diaper bag to “What I Eat In A Day.” In her first few videos, she’s warm and approachable, greeting viewers with a casual “Hey, everyone,” and wearing a simple peasant top and jeans. (There’s a fatigue jacket in the “Tips for Traveling With a Baby” video that’s vaguely Alex, but it’s balanced out by a floral scoop-neck tee in “Homemade Almond Milk.”)
As she explains, filling the fridge with pre-prepared meals and snacks (mostly, eggs and egg-adjacent food stuffs; Prepon is half Russian-Jewish, and grew up eating a lot of deli food) helps give her peace of mind while she’s on set, and she will often stock her fridge in the wee hours of the morning to ensure that her daughter will have food for the day. “I always have a dozen hard boils in my fridge, it's just an easy, quick grab.”
For me, the only way that I could handle and get some control over my autoimmunity was to just do all the research [so] that I could heal myself.
The channel, which is “geared toward helping women and mothers,” is Prepon’s way of answering, at least in part, the eternal question facing working moms: how to juggle your job with the demands of raising a small, hungry human.
“Cooking and being able to have healthy food prepped and ready to go in the kitchen — that relaxes me, knowing my family is taken care of,” she says, noting that her mother taught her how to cook at a young age.
Still, it’s tough to pin down Prepon’s brand within the lifestyle space, even for Prepon: “I’m so not good at that. That feels self-congratulatory and weird to me,” she says when asked to sum up her brand. Her YouTube videos are produced by Laura Vogel, who can sometimes be heard off-camera, and who owns Winged Pup Productions, an online marketing company that has represented Eddie Izzard and John Leguizamo, according to IMDb. Prepon says the videos are shot in a friend’s kitchen, a space populated by the exact white gas range you will remember from your first rental. A four-slice stainless steel toaster is omnipresent in the videos, parked below white cabinetry that you sense sunlight cannot reach. Suffice to say, if Gwyneth is all about being aspirational and deliberately unattainable, then Prepon is more about being radically practical, offering simple, healthful stews and stretches where the former markets rose quartz dildos and psychic vampire repellent mist.
Unlike other wellness gurus, Prepon cops to being “kind of analog” when it comes to tech: “I just learned what a Boomerang was,” she ruefully admits. Part of her aversion to social media stems from her desire to enjoy time with her family without feeling the need to document it for posterity. “I want to be able to be in the moment and be present because time goes by so quickly now and you see it with your children just growing up,” she says. “[It’s] a constant balance of being present and just being here and not being like, oh wait, let me document this so I can put [it] on social media. Because it takes you out of it, you know what I mean?”
Prepon’s lack of Insta savvy aside, she has a longstanding interest in the health and wellness space. In 2016, she joined the ranks of fellow teen stars-turned-cookbook-authors Alicia Silverstone and Sarah Michelle Gellar when she partnered with integrative nutritionist Elizabeth Troy on The Stash Plan: Your 21-Day Guide to Shed Weight, Feel Great, and Take Charge of Your Health. The Stash Plan was about “teaching you how your organs work,” Prepon says, and was inspired in part by her own struggles with bloating, weight gain, and fatigue when she was in her 20s and shooting That ’70s Show. Her weight fluctuations prompted her to try a number of dangerous weight loss methods, including injecting herself with hormonal shots. “I’ve done so many diets,” she says. “And they don’t work.”
Prepon went to multiple doctors, who diagnosed her with everything from Hashimoto’s disease (an autoimmune disorder that results in thyroid inflammation) to so-called leaky gut syndrome to mono. Prepon does think she suffers from some autoimmune issue of some sort — autoimmune issues encompass those in which the body attacks its own cells — and like many women who struggle with invisible illnesses, says her quest to find answers led her to lose faith in the traditional health care system. “I grew up in a family of Western medicine and I know that there is a very important place out there for Western medicine, 100 percent,” she says. “[But] when it comes to autoimmunity and nutrition, Western medicine doesn't really [address that]. I felt failed.”
Ultimately, Prepon took the same course as many women who report still dealing with symptoms after years of doctors’ appointments. “For me, the only way that I could handle and get some control over my autoimmunity was to just do all the research [so] that I could heal myself.”
When she met with integrative nutritionist and self-described healer Troy, she immediately felt that Troy’s approach to wellness, which combined nutritional science and traditional Chinese medicine (such as meridian theory, or the belief that qi, or energy, originates in the gallbladder and liver and flows through various channels in the body), resonated with her. The two decided to work together to create the Stash Plan, a “targeted eating and stretching plan that is as convenient as it is life-changing,” per the introduction of the book. The 21-day plan was based on the oft-cited statistic that doing anything for 21 days is enough to cement it as a habit: “the crux of the book is basically about daily changes [people] can make in their life to live a healthier lifestyle.”
I talk about collagen, I talk about cartilage, I talk about these things that kind of scare people.
The Stash Plan became a New York Times bestseller, inspiring her to launch her YouTube channel. “The balance between science and giving the science in a fun-havable way for people was really important to me,” she says of the approach she took in her bestseller. “And that also translates over into my YouTube channel and my social media.”
Some of the advice put forth in The Stash Plan is basic nutritional wisdom backed by peer-reviewed scientific research: for instance, the book advocates for planning your meals ahead and cooking them twice weekly, which is obviously cost effective and has also been shown to lead to people adopting healthier diets. Some of the recommendations in The Stash Plan are less proven.
Take, for instance, Prepon’s claim during our interview that “sweating [in] infrared saunas and just sweating in general is really good” at reducing inflammation and bloating because it allows your lymphatic system to flush itself out. According to chemistry professor Joe Schwarcz, PhD, director of the McGill University Office for Science and Society and professional debunker of received science myths, there is no evidence to back up this claim. “Sweating is just a mechanism the body has for controlling temperature,” he says. “It is true there are tiny amounts of all kinds of substances, but in minute amounts. The body’s main way of getting rid of foreign materials is the liver and the kidneys — not through sweat.” He refers to the idea of detoxification in itself as a “pseudoscientific concept.” Prepon disagrees, explaining in a written response, “Yes, the liver and kidneys are major ways of detoxing the body… but those toxins need a way out. Either from skin (sweat), lungs (breathing), or your bowels and urinary tract.” (It’s worth noting that sweating out harmful toxins is a tenet of Scientology, of which Prepon is a member.)
“I talk about collagen, I talk about cartilage, I talk about these things that kind of scare people. But I try to do it in a way that's easily accessible, because if it's not easy to kind of grasp, people aren't going to do it,” says Prepon, who devotes a portion of space in her book and on her YouTube channel to the benefits of drinking bone broth, which she says she carries around with her in a thermos for sipping during the day. “As a mother with inflammation, broth is a big [help],” she tells me. In one of her YouTube videos, she sprinkles collagen onto steel-cut oats.
Prepon, of course, is not the only high-profile, health-interested person to champion bone broth. It’s been bubbling up in the wellness community for years, with Paleo dieters endorsing the trend and bone broth shops popping up in New York City. Nutritionists are dubious: there is limited scientific evidence that bone broth assists with skin repair or inflammation, while on a practical level, any collagen you ingest is broken down into amino acids during digestion (as well as denatured during cooking). Cassandra Forsythe, PhD, RD, a nutritionist and registered dietitian based in Connecticut explains that, “It's unlikely people could drink enough bone broth to get the amount of amino acids that are necessary for collagen production.”
The Stash Plan is marketed as a “guide to shed weight, feel great, and take charge of your health,” but Prepon says she doesn’t view it as a weight-loss manual. “It’s about daily changes [people] can make in their life to live a healthier lifestyle,” she says. “It's not about going on a juice cleanse or do[ing] the cabbage soup diet or whatever.” Her diet consists mostly of widely available organic and non-GMO grains, seeds, root vegetables, and vinegars, as well as grass-fed and hormone-free cuts of meat — uncomplicated, healthy whole foods. But she’s also been open about the fact that a lot of her interest in wellness and nutrition began with the imperative to lose weight, often in unhealthy ways. She was 15 the first time a modeling agency asked her to lose 25 pounds, and she complied. “I mean, I did it. There are pictures of me when I’m that [weight],” she says.
Prepon says that the cultural conversation around body image has evolved since she entered the entertainment industry. “I think that it’s gotten better because you look at the success of a show like Orange Is The New Black where we celebrate so many different types of women… for sure, that shows that things are changing,” she says. But she’s ambivalent about whether she would want her own daughter to enter the industry the way she did. “I would support her in anything she wants to do, of course, and I would try to help her in any way that I can, just like my mom helped me when I was living over there [in Europe] by myself,” she says. But at the end of the day, if her daughter said she wanted to go into modeling, “I actually don’t know what I would say,” she admits.
Becoming a mother has only cemented Prepon’s desire to get the principles of The Stash Plan out to a wider audience. In addition to launching her YouTube channel, she’s now working on her second book (she won’t say what it’s about, but does reveal that the last book she read was about insulin and metabolism — “just a casual read,” she jokes). Since becoming a mother, her desire to get healthy has “taken on a whole new level,” she says. “It's not just like, oh, OK, cool, I want to fit back into my jeans again… I want to really be healthy, besides just toning muscles.”
In the immediate future, on her YouTube channel and in her next book, she is keen to share what she's learned with other moms going through it — wisdom that might come in handy if she had another baby, she says. "I feel like the next time around we know what we're kind of in for."
Motherhood has also affected the types of projects she’s interested in, both as an actor and as a director. “Years ago I would be attracted to very dark, dramatic things,” she says, jokingly adopting a Christian-Bale-as-Batman voice that brings her trademark husky tone down even further. “And now, there's stories that I read where I think about, ‘What does this communicate?’ Because what we do creatively is, we put communication out. When we make movies or write books or tell stories or take a picture, it's like, ‘What am I communicating to whoever's going to receive this?’”
This is something she has thought about.
With each “hey everyone!” Prepon’s message to working moms everywhere is sunny, basic, and staunchly anti-Vause: that in the midst of the madness, there is a perfect yellow center.
Photography: Tawni Bannister
Stylist: Ashley Pruitt for The Only Agency
Hair: Dayna Goldstein for Kerastase @VisionNationArtists
Makeup: Victor using Estée Lauder at BA-Reps.com
Manicure: Elizabeth Garcia using Morgan Taylor