“Surprise!” Jessica Pimentel laughed at the beginning of our conversation. I had just told her we had a lot to talk about and she was ready to explain it all. We were referring, of course, to the newest season of Orange is the New Black in which Jessica takes no prisoners, so to speak. Her character, Maria, is now commonly known as “Ruthless Ruiz,” and for good reason, too. Jessica’s performance is ferocious: jaw dropping in every way. OITNB has always been a vehicle for Jessica to show her range as an actor. Just when we think we’ve seen it all, in true Jenji Kohan style, Jessica is tapping into something completely new, taking the audience on a ride they never want to get off of. In this interview, Jessica explains her journey to playing one of television’s most riveting roles.
When did you catch the acting bug?
I’ve been onstage pretty much my whole life. I started off as a classical musician—classical violinist. I used to perform every Sunday at church for the congregation; my grandmother would have me learn a new hymn or passage of the bible for the congregation. So I’ve always been onstage.
I started taking formal acting lessons when I was in junior high. I went to a specialized junior high here in New York City. I wanted to do music, but I was doing music so much outside of school and I thought it would be cool to do something else. I started taking acting classes at Mark Twain Junior High. My first acting teacher had my best friends and me learn “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble” from “the Scottish Play” [Macbeth].
Then I was back into music for high school. I went to the High School of Performing Arts— [from the film] Fame—in New York City. I went in as a Music major but sometime in the first year I was having problems with my hands: nerve damage, tendentious, arthritis, stuff like that. I knew I had to pull back from playing. The options were either get into another major or leave the school. I loved the school very much, so they allowed me to audition for the drama department in the second year. From there, I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts [AADA].
What training did the AADA provide you with to help set you up for a successful career?
I felt very ready to be out in the world from my training in high school. I thought it was very, very thorough—more thorough than a lot of colleges. We went through Stanislavski technique, Method, Meisner, all of that. So at a young age we had those tools already. We had master classes, be it music, or dance, or acting. We were in Lincoln Center. We were around Juilliard all the time…Technique wise, all of that was there.
AADA, the conservatory, went more in depth. Studying on an adult level changes your perception of technique, of course. We were doing things that we thought we’d never need to use given to use anyway. We also had business classes and were encouraged to audition at a certain point after the second year. We had had showcases in both high school and college with agents, managers, and all that. We learned how to walk into a room full of strangers to take a class and be totally vulnerable.
You’ve said that you were at a crossroads before Orange is the new Black came along. What was your career like before getting the show? What was your experience trying to get work?
I feel like I got enough work to give me hope to keep working, but not enough that I could quit my day job. Whether the day job was at night or in an office, [I wasn’t booking] enough for me to quit. I couldn’t live off of what I was doing, but I worked enough that I felt like I could keep going and I should keep going. New York’s cost of living is high and then you’re living with roommates, or if you live by yourself that’s a whole other pressure: sleepless nights waking up wondering how I was going to pay the rent. I was getting to a point where I was done worrying about how was going to pay the rent. Just like Rent! [Jessica laughs]…I don’t do this for money. I do it because I love it. I’m an artist. If I had enough money in the bank from the day job to cover me, which I did, then I wouldn’t worry about doing it because I love it aspect. But, the way the business works, you can’t always do it even though you love it. You’re going to be too tall. You’re going to be too short. You’re going to be too light. You’re going to be too dark. You’re going to be too heavy. You’re going to be too skinny. You’re going to be too Hispanic. You’re not going to be Hispanic enough. I don’t even know what those things mean, but whatever. You’re not old enough, you’re not young enough. You can’t control these things. You can’t control your height.
For me, what was happen was I was being rejected from things I wanted to do and the rejections were coming from things I couldn’t control. For the most part, I was fine with it. But when it’s one after the other for [jobs] that you do want, it starts to hurt. I started taking it personally. I was taking it personally that I wasn’t good enough, that no one wanted me, that I was unhireable. It must be me, it must be me. If I’m not booking, it must be me.
Every breakdown that came in, I took as an insult almost. If I got a breakdown that said, “This girl, 25, not very pretty, kind of fat.” I was like, “Oh, okay. So you’re saying that I’m ugly and fat. Thank you. And you called me in? Great.” I wasn’t taking breakdowns as instructions for the characters. I was taking them as insults of Jessica.
The way the business works…you’re going to be too tall. You’re going to be too short. You’re going to be too light. You’re going too be dark. You’re going to be too heavy. You’re going to be too skinny. You’re going to be too Hispanic. You’re not going to be Hispanic enough…You’re not old enough, you’re not young enough. You can’t control these things.
Who did you think your character, Maria Ruiz, was when you first auditioned for Orange is the New Black? How has your perception of her morphed through the seasons?
Well, my perception changes because I get more information every episode about Maria. When I started, all I had was, “Maria. Very Pregnant.” That’s all I had. I made a choice early on that Maria would have an accent. Her accent would be like my mother’s accent. My mother was not born in this country but came here at an early age. It’s not an “I just got here accent” from the motherland, it’s this mishmash of where you’re from, where you’re growing up, and the people around you. Her accent changes on an hourly basis. I thought that’d be a good choice for Maria. I don’t know why, but I just thought it was and I ran with it. I asked the writers, I asked Jenji, I asked the producers if it was okay if I did a little bit of an accent. They were like, “Yeah, do whatever you want.” We didn’t know anything [about her], we didn’t know where she was from. [The writers asked], “Where are you from?” and I was like, “My parents are from Dominican Republic.” They said,“Okay, great, so Maria’s Dominican.”
That gave me more information about what her accent was going to be like, her mannerisms, especially when she’s speaking Spanish…I knew exactly what you knew as you were watching the show. We had the same information. So with every episode that came out, I was able to expand Maria because they gave me more to work with.
Spoilers ahead! Beware if you haven’t finished this season of OITNB!
Did your role this season take more of a toll on you after you were done shooting? Maria was involved in and instigated many charged moments.
I think the hardest part of shooting this season was having so many new characters: the topic of overcrowding. It was actually like that on set. It was super crowded [Jessica laughs]. That made everything more difficult. We had to get more angles and coverage on everyone. We had to go back and record ADR voice-overs because too many people would be talking at once. The technical side I feel like was much more difficult, for sure. It made the days long and tedious. It’s definitely worth it when you’re telling a story this important. You have to get everyone. There was no complaining or whining about it. We had to get everyone in the shots.
Doing these scenes that were super charged for me was great. For the first three years of the show, Maria was in this depression. For the first three years, I backed myself in a corner or my dressing room. I didn’t interact very much; I tried not to break character. I tried to stay very calm and very dark—sadness dark. That’s what Maria needed.
I’m not good at jumping in and out of character. I like to stay where I am. I’m not 100% method that I have to be the character completely all the time. But if the scene is calling or a certain mood and the surroundings are not akin to that, I’ll separate myself just so I can be truthful and honest to the story.
Do you think Maria’s actions this season came from a place of strength or helplessness?
I think Maria’s arc has been beautiful. When you first meet Maria, she’s very pregnant. Her number one concern is her unborn child. Then you see her come back from the delivery room and she’s devastated…At the top of season three baby daddy decides that bringing baby to the jail is not healthy—it’s not a good thing. “I don’t want her to think this is normal,” he says to Maria. As much as I hate this I have to give him some points…Towards the end of season three she realizes the baby’s going to be fine. She keeps her head down, does her time, lets the time go by. She’s powerless, she’s absolutely powerless. She has no rights, she can’t fight for visitation, no one else is visiting her, she’s completely alone. She’s okay with being alone at the end of season there.
But then you have all these new people [in season four] coming in that add a different dynamic. She knows you have to pass the time, and I feel like maybe she’s passing it in a fun way. Have some fun, pass the time, make a little money. Get those panties in and out—harmless…But this “no big deal” has this big impact on her life. She now has five more years added to her sentence or the possibility of that. When you go from seeing your child at six to possibly seeing your child at thirteen, it’s devastating. All of her humanity is taken, her dignity is taken, for something meaningless—for scraps of cloth. Then, like it or not, her nature and nurture both come out: where she grew up, her family, her family ties, having machetes at her birthday party. She didn’t quite have a normal childhood either.
When we’re backed up against a wall, unfortunately unless you’re some enlightened being, what comes out are your animalistic qualities—how you were raised. At the end of the day, the way you are raised and what’s in your bloodline will come out. If you’re raised to be a cutthroat—and that’s what Maria was raised around—that’s what you’re going to get. That cutthroat comes out all of a sudden. She didn’t want to be that…But at the end of the day she grew up around this. She knew how gangs worked. She knows how that gangster family mentality works. That’s probably feels safest and most comfortable. She has nothing, so when the opportunity arises for her to develop that family, that connection again, she’s the one who knows how to run it better than anybody else.
In your Hollywood Reporter interview you said Taylor Schilling completely changed your performance during the branding scene. What made her a great scene partner in that horrific moment?
She did not hold back, period. She did not hold back at all. She was there fully for the scene and committed to what we were doing. It was real. When we first did the cameras on my angle we had a stunt double [in for Taylor]. She was great; she was awesome. But she’s not Taylor. She’s not Taylor who’s been Piper for four years living in the circumstance. You can’t just replace one person with the other and expect the same results.
I did the scene with the stunt double and it was good. She did everything that needed to be done. Then Taylor came in and she was freaking out. She freaked the fuck out [Jessica laughs]. It was like she was actually [about to get branded]. She made it real in her mind and it showed every drop. When she came in, it elevated the level of urgency. The level of urgency when from 10 to 20 [Jessica laughs]. The level of urgency was there even with the stunt double, but when Taylor came in she blew the roof off the urgency. Who wants to be burned? Seriously, who wants to be kidnaped, hurt, punched, strangled, gagged, and burned? That is not fun.
She was great and we didn’t break. It was like a boxing match. When we cut, I went to my corner and she went to her corner. We stayed in that little kitchen area but I didn’t talk to her and she didn’t talk to me. There was no need to talk. There was no reason to talk until it was over.
You asked to redo your coverage after she came in, right?
Yeah I asked to redo it. I didn’t feel like I did Maria’s side justice because the way Taylor affected me so much. She affected me in a way I didn’t expect, which I felt was pure to what would’ve actually happened. My version of Maria was very cold and calculating—almost psychopathic. When Taylor came in, then I felt things. I feel like Maria would feel things because I don’t think she’s a psychopath. She might be. I don’t know. I’m waiting [Jessica laughs]. Maybe she strangles bunnies or something, I don’t know. As of now though, I don’t feel like she is. She should feel something. It’s normal to have an adrenalin rush in violence. It’s normal to get choked up. Even if you’re the aggressor, you might get choked up in the fight. I’m sure you’ve done it in your life where you’re yelling at someone and get choked up. That’s exactly what happened with Maria. She lost her control a little bit, which I thought was more valuable to the scene. Honestly, I don’t know which take they used. I don’t know if they used the first take, I don’t know if they used the second take. But for me, I at least needed to let it out.
I can’t imagine acting with a stand-in or stunt double during such intense, character driven moments.
We had to use a lot of stunt doubles this year because it was so violent. You kind of just act as if that person is the person. For the most part, our stunt doubles are not just walking pillows. They’ve been around and are well versed in how to give the emotion at least physically. Half of acting is the physical. There are things where we really need a stunt double: falling down stairs, for example. We don’t want Laura Gomez [who plays Blanca] falling down a flight of stairs. It actually releases you a little bit as an actor when you have a stunt double who you know can do the job. It’s okay for you to push them down a flight of stairs, so to speak. Whereas if you’re working with your actor, you don’t want to hurt them so you’re going to hold back. There are pluses and minuses.
What’s it like being on a show that’s willing to discuss many of the country’s greatest injustices?
I couldn’t ask for anything more in life. The point of being an actor they say is to hold a mirror up to humanity. You’re trying to reflect society. For me, my art is a spiritual practice for compassion and healing. I do this because stories touch people, because they make people look at the world differently. If someone is having a bad day, they can turn on the television and laugh for a minute. Even if they’re just laughing for 30 seconds, you’ve brought joy to the world. In this show that is so consciously working to discuss the wrongs of the world is the greatest blessing I can think of. This is the dream project where it all comes together.
What’s your advice for aspiring actors?
Don’t do it! No, I’m kidding, I’m kidding [Jessica laughs]. There’s a lot of advice. Don’t ever compromise yourself. Don’t do anything that you are not okay with, especially young women who are asked to do nudity often. Whatever your level is of comfort, it’s okay. You don’t have to adjust because something’s being offered to you. Don’t forget who you are. Don’t demean yourself. Don’t degrade yourself. If you’re cool with walking around naked—I know people who don’t care at all—that’s great. If you’re not okay with it, then it’s okay to not be okay with it. If you’re in something that’s especially violent and it’s not for you, don’t do it. Trust your gut on everything. You never want to look back and think, “I wish I never did that project or that photo shoot or went to that person’s house.” You should never look back and regret anything you did. Be true to yourself. Respect yourself. Demand respect.
Also, have a life outside of acting. There are people whose self worth is about how many jobs they get. It’s going to be few and far between at some points. At other points, you can’t hang up the phone fast enough, you can’t say no fast enough. It goes up and down. Make sure you have a good spiritual life, family life, or close friends who are not in the business. Make sure you have activities to do—other things outside of the business. Life is worth living. This is one aspect of it. This is an exceptionally difficult career path to choose. If you just want to act, you can write your own material and act all day long wherever you want. If you want to make it your career, it’s going to be a little bit more difficult: full of disappointments, full of ups and downs. Be okay with up and down. Up and down is not bad or good—they’re just ups and downs. ♦
See Jessica as Maria Ruiz in Orange is the New Black streaming on Netflix!