Q&A: Actress Dascha Polanco talks empowerment, 'Orange Is the New Black' season 4
Though Dascha Polanco’s Orange is The New Black character Daya Diaz may veer on the soft-spoken side, the 32-year-old actress isn’t afraid of speaking up once the cameras stop rolling. An outspoken advocate on topics ranging from positive body image to Latino issues, Polanco has taken her newfound fame — after all, the former medical technician only had two acting credits on her resume before she booked OITNB — and has become an in-demand speaker at events across the country. The latest gig on her calendar? A scheduled appearance at PEOPLE en Español’s Festival this weekend in New York City, where the Brooklyn native will join actress/singer Bianca Marroquín and radio host Edgar ‘Shoboy” Sotelo for a lively conversation about breaking barriers and creating awareness around diversity in entertainment. Here, Polanco — who will next be seen in Joy opposite Jennifer Lawrence this winter — talks to EW about how she finally feels comfortable in her own skin, how she’s paying it forward and her hopes for Daya on the next season of OITNB.
The theme of this year’s PEOPLE en Español Festival is “Your Voice, Your Power, Your Festival.” Has it always been easy for you to harness the power of your voice?
It’s never been easy. Expression is something that as a woman and especially as a Latina, I feel has been limited, especially because of cultural reasons. It can be seen as an emotional or non-urgent matter, you know? Now that I have support from the fans, the viewers and my colleagues, I’ve gained more confidence, and that’s given me power. I have people backing me up.
Can you share some details about what you’re planning to speak about during your panel on Oct. 18?
I want to talk about the emotional and physical toll of relationships, and how to disconnect from them. I definitely want to speak about the difficulties of that and how it affects your insecurities and your confidence. I want to talk about the extremes that people will go to hurt you. [Ed note: Polanco recently split from her fiancé.]
You have a teen daughter. What kind of conversations do you have with her about self-confidence?
Well with my daughter, I emphasized how important is for her to concentrate on schoolwork and socially, I encourage her not to fall into the superficiality of social media. I tell her how beautiful she is, and how unique she is. I tell her to embrace her differences, to embrace the fact that she has curly hair and that she’s Dominican. It’s also very big in my home to emphasize the importance of responsibilities, because that structure gives a lot of independence and self-confidence.
While we’re on the topic of kids, I have to ask: Will we see Daya and her child reunited next season?
I have no idea. When you’re in jail, you have no control over your situation. It just gets more and more difficult for her.
Bennett broke up with Daya last season. Do you want to see them get back together?
I would love to see that, but you have to be realistic. He walked out of her life and her main priority right now is figuring out how she can take care of her child.
When did you find out that Bennett and Daya weren’t going to work out? What was your reaction like?
I found out when I got the script for the episode. We’re [the cast] is kind of like the audience, since we find out what happens from episode to episode and we can’t wait to see what happens next. When I found out about the breakup, I was sad but proud. He had to do what he had to do, and I think Dayanara tried to live a fairy tale. But she’s in jail, and there’s a disconnect there.
Were you rooting for them to make it work for the long haul?
I actually thought they would. My inner princess was always like, “That’s my prince.” Like, “We’ll live our life in here until it’s time for me to get out.”
In the show we see lots of divide among the groups based on race and ethnicity. How hard it is to pretend to have this prejudice, especially when the entire cast seems so close in real life?
Well, I think we’re all professionals and we’re very clear about when we’re on set or off- set. We admire each other’s work and want to encourage each other to do our best job every time, so people can relate to it. We try to be loyal. But I use music to help me prepare. If I have a scene that’s intense, I’ll put on some dark music, maybe some hip hop or Drake. Or if a scene is romantic, I’ll put on R&B or Spanish bachata.
What do you want to see from Daya in season 3?
I want to see her break out of her shell. She needs to react more to situations. If the things that happen to her happened to me, I would be extremely upset, I’d be rebellious. So I’d like to see another side of her. I want to see her take the bull by the horns, grow up and stop worrying about her mother so much.
Your character isn’t the only one with artistic talent — I know you draw, too. Did you draw any of the pieces we saw last season?
They still do the drawings for me on the show, but I do draw. Maybe you’ll see some of my drawings next season.
Are there any characters whose backstory you want to see more of?
I want to see more of the Latino characters. But there’s so many prisoners! I like when they give time to everyone. I’m looking forward to the new, oncoming and current prisoners.
For more on the PEOPLE en Español Festival, click here.
Jenji Kohan’s absorbing ensemble dramedy, based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, takes viewers inside the walls of Litchfield, a minimum security women’s prison where nothing’s as simple as it seems—especially the inmates.