Video: Alessandra Hickson
It’s no easy task to make life in a women’s prison seem relatable to mainstream audiences, but Dominican actress Dascha Polanco says her breakout role in original Netflix series “Orange is the New Black” fulfills her goal of creating groundbreaking entertainment.
“You have to be the first to say, ‘I don’t want to fit the model.’ I want to go outside the model,” says Polanco about her role as inmate Dayanara “Daya” Diaz on the hit web dramedy that revolves around women’s life in prison. “I want to do what isn’t expected.”
Polanco was working as a medical technician and manager in a hospital in the Bronx, New York when she was notified of an audition for “Orange.” The Brooklyn native, who only had two credits to her name when she accepted the role, says the show has now opened up a world of opportunity she never thought she’d have.
“I always doubted auditioning because of my weight,” says Polanco, a mother of two. “I’ve always acted and pursued theater – it was something I had always wanted to do when I was young. But I felt I would be rejected because of my physical appearance.”
It wasn’t until Polanco met her fiancé – “I met him at the Dominican Day Parade!” she says – that she gathered the courage to take acting classes and pursue acting seriously. Within months she won her role on “Orange” – a show Rolling Stone says is “better written, more complete” than the first original Netflix series “House of Cards.”
“This has given me the opportunity to show that I have curves and I have talent too,” says Polanco of the show by “Weeds” creator Jenji Kohan. “It’s been a battle, you know, because I’ve never been skinny. But I’ve embraced it. Now I have the opportunity to show everyone that this is sexy. I can dress in the same attire as someone else and carry myself in a sexy manner, a beautiful manner and a prideful manner. What matters is how I play the role – not my size.”
Polanco’s supporting character has a tense relationship with her imprisoned mother which has affected every facet of her life, including her own romance with prison guard John Bennett (played by Matt McGorry). Daya isn’t without flaws, but Polanco says that her multi-faceted character is what has helped make the ensemble drama such a hit with both Latino and mainstream audiences.
“I never went into this thinking that this would blow up the way it has,” confides Polanco, who said her own relationship with her deceased mother was “wonderful.” “But I am so grateful. Latinos come up to me every day, telling me how proud they are that I’m on the show. I’m so happy we’re supporting each other and there are people out there enjoying my work.”
And fans will see much more of Polanco in Season 2 of “Orange.” The show – based on the memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman – was renewed before it became available on Netflix on July 11. And Polanco says that she, just like the fans, can’t wait to see what happens next – a pregnancy, perhaps?
“I don’t even know yet, I’m serious!” insists Polanco. But whatever juicy storyline awaits fans, there’s no doubt that Polanco – who is working on the movie “Gimme Shelter” with Vanessa Hudgens – will continue to make a name for herself as a self-described “thick girl” and serious actress.
“I want to continue to break the mold – I want to represent Latinos and our contribution to art,” says Polanco, who says she’d love to win an Emmy or Academy Award one day. “And for me personally, I want to give back, mentor others and get involved with charities.”
“I know I have to give back and share the opportunities I’ve been given.”
Watch Polanco sharing how she overcame her battle with negative body image and reveal how she really feels about her new-found celebrity.