Interview: Dascha Polanco



Orange Is The New Black has been hugely successful since it was first released on Netflix in April 2013. Based on a true story, the American comedy-drama follows Piper Chapman, a soap-making university graduate who is sent to Litchfield Penitentiary ten years after she carries drug money for her ex-girlfriend, who runs an international drug cartel.

Also incarcerated at Litchfield is Daya Diaz, played by Dascha Polanco. Daya is a young woman whose mother, with whom Daya has strained relations, is also doing time at the prison. Daya is slapped by her mother upon arrival at the prison and is excluded from Litchfield’s Latin American clique.. Daya’s flashbacks, which Dascha says were her favourite scenes to shoot, reveal the reason behind the character’s tension with her mother (spoiler alert!): after her mother is imprisoned, Daya beomes involved with her drug-dealing boyfriend.

The show has been praised for its strong characterisation, with other Litchfield inmates including Claudette, a woman imprisoned for slave trafficking, Sophia, a transgender woman, ‘Crazy Eyes’, an insane woman who thinks Piper is her wife, and ‘Porn Stash’, a corrupt C.O. The characters’ lives before prison are shown through flashbacks, and Dascha says of these flashbacks: “I think that the most interesting is Sophia’s back story and the most compelling is Miss Claudette’s.”

Orange Is The New Black was Dascha Polanco’s big break, and she has become a fan favourite on the show. Her role on the show has led to interest from other projects, like Gimme Shelter, a drama film set for release in December.

The Brooklyn-born actress was working for a medical centre and studying nursing when she landed a part on the OITNB, which is one of the first shows to be shown exclusively on on-demand streaming website Netflix. When asked how her experience as an actress differs from that of an actress on a show airing on television, Dascha said: “It seems that your work is recognized very suddenly. Many viewers consume the whole season in a shorter period causing them to become very familiar with the actors.”

The show has received great reviews and, along with House of Cards, is one of the first online-exclusive series to receive this much critical attention. Dascha says that this is because “Jenji Kohan and the team of writers have done such a great job with using “stereotypes” yet totally exceeding expectations. You will not be able to predict what’s in store for the characters. They make comedy out of truth and the sense of humor goes so well with what we do in daily life.”

When asked which television show, cancelled or still on air, she would star in if she had the choice, Dascha said either Being Human, because “the writing is amazing”, Will and Grace so that she could work with Megan Mullally, Heroes “for the superpowers”, or Sex and the City, for fashion and dating. However, Dascha says that Orange Is The New Black is different from other shows set in prison, like Prison Break and Oz, becuase “OITNB has many layers from the characters to the prison politics. This is based on a memoir on Piper Kerman and her experience in prison. There is more focus on the emotional experience in jail. It shows how to deal with the consequence of being incarcerated, creating these jail families in order to belong and support one another.”

Dascha told the New York Daily News that she took the part because she was intrigued by the idea of starring in a show on Netflix, and she was also a fan of the show’s creator, Jenji Kohan, who also created Emmy Award-winning comedy-drama Weeds.

Kohan worked with Piper Kerman, the real life Piper Chapman, on the show. Kerman laundered money for her ex-girlfriend’s drug cartel, and as a result served 13 months of a 15 month sentence at FCI Danbury, a Conneticut prison. Kerman wrote a book entitled Orange Is The New Black based on her experience, and the Netflix series was in turn based on the book. Dascha says of Kerman’s involvement in the show: “I am not too sure of all details but she may have been a major point of reference – most likely used as a consultant. I did see her a couple of time on set, however, I am not involved in production and the decisions they make.”

Since Orange Is The New Black went online, prison reform is back on the political agenda and The American Prospect has described it as “no longer politically toxic”. Dascha says of the show’s impact on the debate: “I think that the approach in which was used to bring to light this issue was genius entertainment. It catches the attention of many and once the buzz starts spreading people are willing to voice and listen.”

Dascha’s character receives some criticism from the other inmates from not knowing how to speak Spanish. I asked Dascha how important she feels it is for Latin Americans living in the United States to speak Spanish, and she said: “It has been something instilled in me by my parents, I believe it’s essential to learn a second language. Now as a Latina culturally your language is part of it. It distinguishes your origin from another and I am fluent in Spanish in real life.”

Orange Is The New Black has been commended for its depictions of racial issues, with one critic saying that: “it is a text with a degree of cultural relevance in our current pop culture moment that undoubtedly connects” with the issue of race. Dascha comments: “the show covers and will probably continue to expand when it comes to covering all depictions of racial issues. Unlike other shoes the diversity includes all – bottom line. There is no signaling out.”

The first season of Orange Is The New Black is currently available on Netflix. Dascha is returning for the second season of the show in 2014.