Yael Stone is an hour early for our interview. I find her in a plum-coloured club chair, sipping herbal tea, in the corner of a boutique Sydney hotel suite. Celebrities are never early but Stone doesn't consider herself in that class.
"I'm very uncomfortable with being a known entity," she says. "I think, 'Oh dear, what do people expect of me?' I'd rather just be invisible in the corner most of the time."
Stone is known around the world as Lorna Morello, the doe-eyed, red-lipped Italian-American transport driver in Orange Is the New Black, the cult Netflix women's prison drama. But she is a theatre actor at heart – and a Sydneysider still, despite having called New York home for the past three years. She's happy to play the fame game, but doesn't take it too seriously.
"It is a funny tension there," she says. " 'Cause, you know, the business of acting is so tied up with doing interviews, talking to journalists … And actors who get their faces attached to products – well, that's a slippery slope. In my mind, I separate those two jobs. There's the creative work I do, and that's where I find my joy. Then there's the other half of it."
Stone does her best to fly under the radar. She is small – 1.52 metres – and today she's dressed all in black: black jeans, black T-shirt and jaunty black cowboy hat. Oddly enough, she wears orange socks. In New York, where Orange is filmed, it's not unusual for her to be recognised on the street.
"Coming home, it's kind of a nice anonymity," she says. "People are less familiar with the show. I certainly don't get the same level of 'Hey you' stuff on the street."
Stone auditioned for Orange on the day after her marriage to fellow Australian actor Dan Spielman, in New York in 2012. She wore the only lipstick she owned at the time – a daring crimson she'd bought for her wedding – and when she opened her mouth in the audition room, there was no Australian accent; instead, she spoke perfect "gangster". New Republic magazine described her distinctive mobster drawl as the most amazing accent on television – one part Brooklyn, one part Boston.
The accent and the lipstick – and the vintage '50s roller curls, which her character Morello sets in prison using empty toilet rolls – have made Stone something of a feminist icon. Of that, Stone is proud. She says the series – which launched in 2013, is now four seasons in and has been renewed for at least seven – has single-handedly revolutionised television portrayals of women. It's also put the issue of prisoners' rights on the agenda.
Orange – as Stone calls it – is based on the 2010 memoir of a convicted money-launderer, Piper Kerman, who spent time in a US minimum-security prison. Its ensemble cast features a few chocolate-box beauties, as well as gay women, transgender women, black women and fat women. Stone's compatriot Ruby Rose starred in seasons three and four. Laverne Cox – a black, openly transgender actor – was nominated for an Emmy for her role as Sophia Burset. The show itself has picked up a slew of awards, including numerous Golden Globe nominations, and several Emmy wins.
Stone says Orange is her ideal job. "The things that we do on Orange, you couldn't do [on TV] before, you couldn't talk about before," she says. "Orange has the light-and-fluffy fun approach to it, but there's a lot of really serious issues in there and they're all based in reality. It's a little bit of sugar that helps the medicine go down. What a wonderful way to start a conversation about a major problem that we have in society."
Stone walks the talk when it comes to prisoners' rights. A trained yoga teacher, she gives free yoga classes to recently released female inmates in New York. When I ask who the prisoners come to see – Yael Stone or Lorna Morello – Stone seems mortified.
"Oh no," she says, quickly. "I look different, I sound different, and so after five minutes most people get over it. And you know, for a lot of those people there's lots of bigger issues. The point for me is that for a brief moment in time, I have a platform to do and say things. Instead of getting dressed up and standing on a red carpet, I'd rather be doing something practical."
Stone grew up in Sydney's inner-west, the youngest of three children. Her brother Jake was the lead singer of Sydney indie rock band Bluejuice, and her sister is Elana Stone, a respected singer-songwriter who studied at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. All three siblings went to Newtown High School of the Performing Arts, and Yael remembers piano lessons and Saturday-morning speech and drama classes. Her architect father is Jewish and her mother, a nurse, converted to the faith.
Stone tells me her father was born in Czechoslovakia, the son of Holocaust survivors who fled to Australia when he was three. She speaks of her grandparents as larger-than-life characters, and traces her own artistic flair to them.
"They didn't really get a chance to explore a lot of the things they could have done," she says. "But they had huge personalities and were very passionate. Our parents set up a home environment where we were free to explore what interested us. Strangely enough, we kind of all found our way into a creative world."
By the time Stone enrolled at NIDA to study drama, she already had a number of serious acting credits. As a 14-year-old, she starred opposite Rachel Griffiths in the 1999 film Me Myself I. A role in the TV mini-series The Farm followed, opposite Greta Scacchi and Colin Friels. Only two years after graduating from NIDA in 2006, she won both best newcomer and best supporting actress awards at the Sydney Theatre Awards for roles in Griffin Theatre's The Kid and Sydney Theatre Company's Frankenstein.
In 2010, she won her break-out role: playing opposite Oscar-winning actor Geoffrey Rush in Belvoir Street's Diary of a Madman. The show toured, and took Stone to New York. For a time, she moved between Australia and the US, before establishing a base there.
She regularly returns to Australia for her first love, theatre. In February, she led Belvoir Street's The Blind Giant Is Dancing, directed by Eamon Flack. It was the first time she and husband Dan Spielman had played opposite each other since they met in 2011 (working on a play together at Melbourne's Malthouse Theatre).
"It was just truly magnificent to work together," says Stone. "It's amazing to be able to really enjoy the richness of what a working relationship can be. What I look for in my working relationship, whether it's with Dan or anyone else, is trust and an encouragement to take risks. Nine times out of 10, I'll make a silly suggestion. But every 10th time there's something good and useful there, and
I want to feel I can make those offers."
In her teens and even into her 20s, Stone was used to being the youngest on set. She talks about "fumbling her way in" and being "intoxicated" working with older, more experienced actors who took her seriously.
"Being taken seriously was addictive," she says. "Working with Kate Woods [who directed The Farm] crystallised it for me. She directed me like an adult and really asked a lot of me and I found it pretty spellbinding. From that moment I thought, 'There's something powerful here.' It wasn't just about having fun."
Director Neil Armfield first spotted Stone in a NIDA production in 2006 – and she's been a regular at Belvoir ever since. "She was so raw and unguarded in those early performances and she remains unguarded … she holds nothing back," says Eamon Flack, Belvoir's current artistic director. "What she has developed is an authority in her work. She has the ability to really identify the heart of the story and go straight to it. In the rehearsal room, she offers so much more than being an actor. She understands theatre on an intellectual level, she understands politics and why we make theatre."
Stone's latest credit is the SBS mini-series Deep Water. Stone plays opposite the brilliant Noah Taylor, as police detectives investigating the discovery of a body in a beachfront Bondi apartment. The four-part thriller is based on the numerous gay-hate crimes that happened in Sydney during the 1980s and 1990s. It's timely; a NSW Police taskforce announced in May it was reviewing 88 homicide cases, believed to be linked by a gay-hate motive. Deep Water also stars Spielman; Stone says the couple has made a commitment to work here because of the importance of telling Australian stories.
"Creatively, Australia is a really special place," she says. "The point of acting for me is the people you meet along the way and what you learn from them. A job doesn't have to be sparkly and projected all over the world for me to enjoy it." •
Deep Water premieres on SBS on Wednesday at 8.30pm.
THREE FACTS: YAEL STONE
- Has 152,000 Twitter followers.
- Sang From Little Things Big Things Grow alongside Indigenous leader Jack Manning Bancroft in New York in September, as Bancroft took his Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (AIME) organisation international.
- Attended Balmain Public School with actor Rose Byrne.