A CANDID CONVERSATION WITH DASCHA POLANCO

It’s no secret that the entertainment business is one of the most influential industries in the country.  Some of the greatest impacts it has is on young girls.  The content being produced inadvertently sets standards for how females should look and behave. Orange is the New Black‘s Dascha Polanco is speaking out against those unrealistic expectations.  In this interview, Dascha gets candid about the whitewashed, size 0 acting world and how she is ready to change it.

MC: When did you catch the acting bug?

DP: When I was little. I always wanted to act. I think there are things that certain people are born with where that’s your calling.

Did anyone or anything in particular inspire you to pursue a career acting?

It was just having a [another] career for so long and not being happy. I find that when you see yourself getting older and time is passing by, you go, “You know what? This is something I’m going to be happy about.” So I decided to take an acting class on the weekends because I had a 9-to-5. That’s pretty much what did it. That’s what started everything.

You ended up studying at Break Into Hollywood (BIH) Studios. What training did they provide you with to help set you up for success?

I come from the theater world. Throughout my schooling and my educational years I did theater and on stage performance. I never really pursued anything in front of the camera. I just thought that it’d be more attainable to be a theater actress as opposed to a film actress. That’s what my base training was. Then I was like, “You know what? Let me try BIH Studios—they specialize in TV and film.” I wanted to take that approach to it. I felt there was a lack of diversity [in the industry]. But I also did it just for fun. I never thought this would actually grow to this magnitude. At BIH they throw you right in front of the classroom—in front of the camera. That’s pretty much what you do every Saturday and Sunday: you rehearse monologues, you rehearse scenes. They also teach you about the business. How does the business work? How do you get management? I think that’s essential.

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Dascha Polanco filming OITNB with Matt McGorry in season 3

You didn’t audition for a while because you thought that the way you looked made you uncastable. Now that you’ve been in the business for a while, how much of getting booked do you think is about looks and how much is talent?

I think that there are a lot of people out there who are not talented, but are there because of politics, favors, or [nepotism]. Also, I don’t look like anyone out there. I’m pretty sure even though I thought that all my life it was a hindrance, I think it’s a benefit now. I’m embracing every part of [myself] and using it as a uniqueness, as a difference. If I had thought that way a long time ago, I would have been better off, I guess. But timing is everything. A show like Orange has allowed women of multiple ethnicities and looks to be able to have the opportunity to work in this field.

When I talked to Emma Myles, we were discussing how women are expected go into auditions fitting society’s idea of perfection—looking like they just came out of a magazine. That says something about the roles that are being written for women.

Definitely. When we speak about entertainment now, not only do we have regular TV, we also have the Internet. We have Internet stars, social media stars, reality stars who are considered at the same caliber as actors. It’s frustrating because they are who society thinks is beautiful. They’re setting the standard for that. It’s sad that somebody has to recreate themselves, physically change themselves into what society says is beautiful and acceptable. I’m not saying in any way that that’s not something people can’t like or is wrong. When is beauty truly going to be in the eye of the beholder? When is everyone going to be accepted? Why does there have to be such a standard?

Hopefully things are starting to change. We have some women like Lena Dunham and Amy Schumer who are seen as breaking barriers in the industry.

But that’s what’s funny. How long have Latinos, browns, and blacks been saying, “I’m equally beautiful;” how long have they been voicing this?  It takes a white woman to come along and say, “I want to this and I want to do that.” With all respect to white women, it shouldn’t have to come from a white woman to be making or breaking barriers. Now it’s acceptable, now that the Kardashians [are in fashion], now it’s okay, while you have somebody who’s growing up who was born with hips and everyone’s like, “Ugh that’s not beauty. What are those thighs and that ass?”

In my opinion, the Kardashians are famous because they’ve capitalized on cultural appropriation.

Oh yeah, definitely. I agree. To each his own. Hey, they’ve built their empire, they do whatever. Power to them. Again, it goes to show you, it’s those who are considered minorities who’ve lived it all their lives. I’ve lived this all my life: not getting a role or not feeling secure enough to go try something because the way I look. I’m not how society thinks I should look.  When is it that the sizes and the segregation are going to stop? When can women be women who come in all different shapes and sizes and still be beautiful? When can they be considered equally as sexy and get [power] equal or more than a man’s?

WARNING: OITNB season 4 spoilers ahead! 

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Elizabeth Rodriguez and Dascha Polanco in OITNB

Let’s talk about Orange is the New Black. Daya seemed really lost after her mom, Aleida, was released from Litchfield.

I think that Daya’s lost pretty much as a whole. I think that she’s in a vicious cycle, which is very common in a lot of communities. She’s a product of her environment. Unfortunately for Daya, she has committed to a bad choice and is living it. It’s really easy to judge her and say, “Why is she doing this? Oh my God this girl.” Then I realized, this is what makes Dayanara. I think that we all have experiences that make us individuals and determine what we do—why our personalities are a certain way. Lucky for Daya, she at least had her mom [in prison with her] at the beginning. You see her evolution into a mom: the daughter becomes the mother. But for the most part I think that she’s a very strong woman and she is learning as everybody else is.

 The last moment of season four was insane. How did you feel filming that?

It’s funny because I was going through a lot of stuff with an incident that occurred last year. It was perfect timing that I had this great moment of anger and frustration and being able to release it. It worked perfectly for the scene. I was excited about the opportunity that I could finally do something that showed off a different color, a different facet of Daya. People had been really worried about her and what was going to happen. People were really involved with it. I think when people are so connected to the incident, it gives me as an actor the validation that I need to do my job.

We stopped where you’re pointing the gun at the guard. I won’t ask you what happens, but did you guys film the aftermath that day, too?

No, we stopped there. I’m with you like, “What’s going to happen?!” Everyone was wondering what was happening. Jenji has a way of keeping us on our toes as actors, as fans, as writers—everyone. She’s the only one who has access to that information.

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Dascha as Daya in the cliff hanging end to season 4

Are you at a point now where you can pick and choose what other jobs you work on?

No not yet.  I’m still auditioning. I auditioned for X-Men. I auditioned for Thor—very huge movies. I did not get them. I’m interested to see who got the movies. It’s always fun when I audition and see somebody who’s size 0, white, and looks nothing like me get cast. But to even get to audition for such great movies I’m very excited about. Eventually, I’ll get to create the roles I want.        

I read that you’re writing your own material and are interested in directing. What kinds of work are you interested in making?

Authentic stories that Latinas can relate to. I want to target to millennials.

What’s your advice for aspiring actors?

I was walking through the TSA the other day and someone said, “Can you please make me famous? Get me out of here.” I was like, “It’s not about being famous.” You have to really love what you do. If acting’s what you love to do, get the training that you need. You’re body’s an instrument. Your mind’s an instrument. Developing characters requires training. It’s important to stay true to yourself. If you’re going to be an actress to achieve fame, then you shouldn’t. It should be something you love. It should be something you’ll wake up at 2am to do, go 18 hours without sleep, and still feel like you’re on vacation. It’s hard. It’s competitive. It takes a lot of persistence, perseverance, and dedication. You have to keep on going and be true to yourself.  ♦

Watch Dascha on OITNB streaming on Netflix!

Photo Credit: Jessica Miglio/Netflix, JoJo Whilden/Netflix
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