Spoilers ahead for season four of Orange Is the New Black.
It's not often a show waits four seasons to explore one of its central characters, but Orange Is the New Black, a series spoiled with colorful people with even more colorful pasts, is unlike any other show. This season, we finally learn the backstory of Maritza Ramos (Diane Guerrero), who's spent her time in prison mourning her wasted youth and entertaining herself with her best friend, Flaca (Jackie Cruz). Before Litchfield, it's revealed that Ramos ran a small-time scam at a nightclub tricking rich men into paying for her purposely broken bottles of water-filled vodka, until one of those men recruited her for a con involving grand theft auto that went south. In season four, Ramos takes over Doggett's van duties, putting her at the mercy of a sadistic new guard who perverts a harmless game of "Would You Rather?" into one of OITNB's most traumatic scenes. Vulture recently talked to Guerrero about pretending to swallow a live mouse, Maritza's overdue flashback, and this season's race war.
How much did you know about Maritza’s backstory prior to this season?
Not much. I was just learning as the show progressed and hoped that it would make sense for the character. I knew that she was more than what she seemed. In my mind, she’s so far been portrayed as being very silly and not having much input. But I think I knew I was working up to something, that I would eventually show another side of her that was more interesting. So I just kept that in mind as I was playing her: I’m just biding my time until I can finally show her in a smart way. She’s a "more than the eye can see" kind of a character.
When we see her at the club telling a sob story to con these men, she is technically telling the truth about having a daughter to support. She’s just a very savvy liar.
She uses her resources to her advantage. Knowing that she’s an attractive girl who can sweet talk people, she uses that. And she was working to provide for her daughter.
Her charm is used against her in a twisted way in prison. What was it like filming the mouse scene with Humphrey?
I was really nervous because I had never done anything like this and neither had Maritza. I was trying to figure out how she would react in a situation like that, and what it basically came down to was: How would any human possibly react to something like that? You have a gun to your head, and you’re afraid. It really makes you think how some people exercise their power in such a negative way. I tried to think of being in a position where I had to save my own life, and I would do anything — like eating a mouse. So you’re imagining this and, meanwhile, there are two or three cameras on top of you and the director is right next to you trying to make it look as real as possible.
Was that a real baby mouse in the cup?
It was. But the mice were not harmed! They were only put in there for a tiny second and then brought back to their mother. And I didn’t really eat it, of course. That would be so wrong [laughs]. I wish we had a disclaimer.
I’m gagging just imagining it.
It definitely was a gross situation, but I’m glad we did it. It shows some of the torturous things that people go through in prison, which I think is why people were so shocked and it was so interesting to everybody.
It says a lot about Maritza’s personality that she’d choose the live mouse over dead flies. She imagines it’d be like a jelly bean, but most people would probably agree with Flaca and pick the flies.
Well, here’s the thing: Humphrey was going off the conversation that Flaca and Maritza had in the cafeteria. But she was just joking and probably not even knowing what a baby mouse really looks like. So I think Humphrey shows her the flies and the baby mouse, but ultimately he makes her eat what she originally said she would. There wasn’t really a choice. Plus he had a real gun to her head and he was going off, You said you’d eat a baby mouse, now eat it or... The other question is what if she would’ve eaten the flies? He would’ve shot her or made her eat the mouse anyway. It’s obviously open to interpretation because we don’t see any more of that scene.
Do you think Maritza truly had no idea Coates raped Doggett? That all of Doggett’s hints just flew over Maritza's head?
I don’t think she got it. Every time Doggett kept coming up to her, Maritza just thought she was crazy. Doggett’s sudden interest in her was strange to Maritza because no one really cares about her except for Flaca or any other girl in their crew. You know, people were left with that cliffhanger last season and thought Maritza, poor thing, was going to be sexually assaulted by this guard the entire next season. Then we find out that’s not what happened. I like that twist because you really see that some people would handle different situations and scenarios differently, or maybe this guard isn’t everything you see from this one moment with this other inmate.
What do you think about the show humanizing these villainous guards like Coates?
That’s what so wonderful about the show. We all have these enormous flaws, but we also have a human side. We’re showing that. Every life has a story, so I think a person like Coates, even though he has this weird idea of how to treat a woman, he’s still attentive and has good qualities. He’s gentle in other ways. That’s just the human experience. Some people have issues in their past that might make them tweak out at certain moments, but it’s possible to snap back and be a real human being.
This season tackled race on a much deeper level. It’s not as simple as blacks vs. whites vs. Latinas. It shows the levels of internal racism and colorism among a specific culture, particularly between Dominicans and Puerto Ricans. As a Colombian woman yourself, did this season accurately reflect that tension?
Oh, yeah. Our parents, their parents, we’ve all been programmed to think that one race or culture is superior to another. I’ve experienced colorism in that way, where if you’re lighter then you’ll potentially be accepted into society better than if you were darker-skinned. Of course, it’s a ridiculous way to think, but it’s true. And sometimes people look at Latinos and just group them into one, but there’s an internal struggle with racism as well that affects them greatly, as you see in season four. I’ve had the same experiences and the same conversations where I’ve tried to knock some sense into people. Some people will say, Oh, I’m a Latino so, therefore, I’m not racist. But that’s not true; you’re still exercising some of the same prejudices that are dividing us at the moment.
It ends on this intense cliffhanger, which Maritza actually sets into motion when she knocks the gun out of Humphrey's hand. What’s going through her mind when she does that?
Maritza at this point just wants to be of service, she wants to help. She doesn’t want to go down like this punk, who took all this crap from the guards. She saw an opportunity and seized the moment. I don’t think she knew what was gonna happen. All she knew was she didn’t want Humphrey or anybody else to hurt us anymore. She saw there was an opportunity for an uprising, and these people are not good, so she just did it. She’s also pissed as hell that this dude made her eat a mouse! She’s not gonna take it. It’s a fun little twist.
Will Maritza ever tell someone what Humphrey did to her? The man now has a gun to his head, no better time than now.
I think now that we’ve seen her take action, she’s gonna go back to the sidelines as she did before. I don’t think we’ll see her be violent. She’s already experienced too much; I think that’ll inform her. At least that’s what I’d like to see. I want her to be strong, not pushed around, and be an active member of where she is.
This interview has been edited and condensed.