When you watch Taylor Schilling stun in the fourth season of 'Orange Is the New Black,' hitting Netflix on June 17, “awkward giraffe with glasses” is the last thing that comes to mind. Yet that’s how the self-proclaimed introvert describes her middle school image. Growing to love her body and embracing her “different kid” status prompted the actress to commit to roles in which she plays the underdog, from 'OITNB'’s rebellious inmate Piper Chapman to a military wife embarking on an experimental space mission in 'The Titan,' out next year. That same drive motivated her to support the Time for Change Foundation, which helps struggling kids turn their goals into reality. Inside the June issue of 'InStyle,' now available on newsstands and for digital download, Emily Greener of the nonprofit organization I Am That Girl chats with Schilling about how being a loner paid off in the long term.
How would you describe yourself as a teen?
I was shy, I didn’t have very many friends, and I felt totally unattractive to boys. I got made fun of for my height—I was 5 foot 7 at age 12. That young girl eating lunch alone in the choir room has stuck with me. I have empathy for anybody who is perceived as “other.”
Can you remember a young heartbreak?
The first time I really liked someone, I got no acknowledgement in return. One night, I thought we finally had a connection, but then he never talked to me again. It was crushing.
Do you think that’s a necessary experience to endure?
If I have a child, I would never want him or her to go through that pain, but the reality is that it helps you understand life better. Every time I’ve left a relationship, I’ve found new boldness.
Being in the spotlight, do you struggle with insecurity?
I’m often paralyzed by how I think other people perceive me.
How do you cope?
Therapy has helped, as has meditation. I practice Transcendental Meditation and insight meditation, which is simply being quiet and mindful. If I ground myself and pay attention to what’s happening inside my body, I’ve got a fighting chance to start the day not consumed by other people’s ideas of who I am. I also have an extraordinary group of girlfriends, and I invest a lot of energy in my female friendships.
OITNB has a mostly female cast—do you find strength in that sisterhood?
There’s a sense of safety on our set that I’ve never experienced before because we don’t feel pressure to take on stereotypical gender roles. I didn’t realize how straitjacketed I’d felt on other sets until I came to this one.
What’s your greatest strength?
I have optimism that can translate into fearlessness, which sometimes gets me in trouble, but I love that about myself. It’s like having an invisible bucking bronco inside that keeps on going.
What would you say to a high school girl who is having lunch by herself in the choir room?
You’re the person I’ll want to be having lunch with when you move to New York in a few years. There’s a whole world of people who have had that experience. It’s an underground secret society of music-room lunch eaters. Be brave. It will change.
With local chapters around the country (and a vibrant online community), I Am That Girl is an empowering group that improves the way girls treat themselves—and one another. Sponsor a girl in your community by signing up at iamthatgirl.com.