Dascha Polanco Tapped Into Her Own Life for That Big Orange Is the New Black Scene

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Spoilers ahead for Orange Is the New Black season five.

Orange Is the New Black viewers still don’t know what Dayanara Diaz did to land behind bars with her mother, but by the end of the fifth season, we know she’s going to be locked up a lot longer than her original 44-month sentence. Played by Dascha Polanco, who was a newcomer to television when she landed the role, Daya’s decision to shoot a guard in the opening scene of the season has ramifications for the entire Litchfield population and drives the riot that takes place over the three days after Poussey’s death.

Polanco delivered her most nuanced performance of the series this season, as Daya struggles with the ramifications of her actions, turns herself in, and decides to give away her daughter. Polanco talked to Vulture about the challenges she faced this season, Daya’s evolution, and her future on the show.

This season is so intense because it takes place over those few days after Poussey’s death. I was wondering what the working environment was like this season. Did it feel as intense as it comes across on the show?
Yeah, it was definitely different because it takes a while to figure out that this has happened in this period of time when you’re shooting for six months. And so there were moments where we were like, Wait a minute, why am I in this outfit for the whole season? But actually you’re in the outfit for four hours. There was always a discussion, like, Wait, wait, I’m confused. Like, are we still in day one? Are we still early morning, late night? It was easy for hair and makeup and wardrobe. But it took a while to kinda gather my thoughts and my emotions. And it was exhausting as well to keep that level of intensity, though I wasn’t on there for the whole season. I wrapped up when Daya’s taken away. We were like, Oh my God, I’m super tired. I’m like eating Cheetos every hour, you know what I mean? Eating Cheetos all the time. And the fumes from painting that wall! It was like fumes, fumes, fumes; I was like ugh.

How long were you painting?
The whole damn season, girl. The whole damn season. I had to get Bennett’s parts right, ya know what I mean?

Did you actually paint him?
They draw it and I was painting — like filling in, coloring in. I can’t take credit for it. However, I can draw. I’m skilled, ya know what I mean? Girl, you don’t get the guards in prison if you’re not talented, honey.

You mentioned the wardrobe issue. You guys are always in your prison clothes. But this was different because you were in the same dirty outfit the whole time.
Yeah! I mean, I kinda like the fact that I was in a tank top. I took advantage of tanning. It was like, Oh, okay. It was pretty cool because you live the true moment of this in what these women are going through. This is what Dayanara is experiencing. It’s a sense of liberation. It’s not about the clothes. It’s about taking control, and just taking your exhaustion and your limitation to the next level, where you’re like, That’s it, I will not take it anymore. I will become. I will unify. I will become a power.

The season opens on your face, pointing the gun. Daya’s so nervous, she’s not sure what to do. Were you surprised by what she does?
Very unexpected. I thought, knowing Dayanara, Dayanara is not gonna shoot him. Somebody’s going to come and take the gun away, or she’s just gonna not do it. But to know that she actually did it, I was proud of her. I was like, Damn it, I’m proud, and if this is your end, this is your end. You’re gonna leave the show with a bang, and you’re gonna leave the show literally banging out.

But at the moment in my life when I filmed that last year, it was a moment where I was going through something really hard for me to deal with, and it allowed me to really use those emotions in this scene in the sense of, like, I’m done. I’ve had it. And to be able to live that experience with Dayanara was so true, and just perfect timing. I always want to do justice to the characters I play, and Dayanara obviously is the role that most people know me for. And I always want to be as genuine and as organic and truthful with her story. So when I came back, and I’m surrounded in the circle with a gun and I decide to shoot — to take this moment in my own hands, and to take it all and risk it all — it was a moment I could actually connect with her and say, We’re experiencing this both.

And I know that you feel the betrayal of Bennett and the sacrifice that you had to take with Pornstache, as a woman, and just being pushed and guided in the wrong direction throughout your whole life. It was liberating. It was like, Yo, this is my moment. This is my moment as Dascha, but this is my moment as Dayanara to prove, You know what, I’m a woman, I’ll sacrifice everything for my child. I am also here, and as hard as it might sound, I’m losing it all, but I’m gaining it all at the same time.

We’ve watched Daya grow up in prison, and she’s changed a lot. Why did you not expect her to go through with it?
Knowing her and knowing that every decision she has made has been influenced, or has been deviated by what somebody else tells her. That’s something I have in common with Dayanara. And it’s so exciting that every time I get the opportunity to play her in different situations, I learned how we have similarities and characteristics as a woman. We make a decision and we know intuitively, This is what’s best for me, but then we consult with others, and we start asking people, What do you think I should do? And then we allow them to guide us, thinking they know what’s best for us, and then we’re in a situation where we’re like, I shoulda never told anyone. I should’ve just made my own fuckin’ decision. And I think that’s why Daya at that moment isn’t going to allow someone to tell her, Don’t do it. And then at the same time, I realized you just never know someone, especially when they’re under pressure and they have evolved, and they are in a different stage in their life. You just never know what their reaction is, and that was so great to digest as an actor. To know how unexpected that was, it gave me freedom. It was a moment to thank [creator Jenji Kohan] and all the writers for allowing me to have this moment, because I felt free.

When she’s painting, she says, “I’ve got a lot of emotions, but guilt ain’t one of them.” She’s at peace with what’s going on.
That was one thing that was really important. I wanted her to keep on doing her art. And we see where they pushed her away from it. There has to be a point where she keeps on doing this because that’s her outlet. That’s her true expression. You don’t really see her as violent. But she’s like, I will be the one to risk it all for everyone here because I’ve already risked everything for myself.

Her relationship to her mom is so critical to who she is. I’ve read stories about you, and it seems you had a very close relationship with your own mom. What has it been like for you to play this very different type of relationship between mother and daughter? Even in the flashback that they showed this season, it’s so hard to watch how Aleida responds to her and treats her, and all Daya has ever wanted was that love she doesn’t get from her.
Well you can’t judge, although we do it innately at times. For me, it’s understanding that every mother/daughter, every parenting situation is different, and there are different dynamics to it. We have to be honest, and we have to not be so ignorant to know that there’s no “normal” relationship. There’s love in everything. And although it might not be healthy, there’s love every which way. And they have a love. They do love each other. Dayanara and her mom love each other dearly, but there is a difference in personality, a different characteristic, and I’ve had to understand that and learn that — because at the end of the day, Dascha is Dascha, and what I’m bringing to her are emotions, not my experiences. And that’s how I play as an actress. I bring emotions to the characters, but I don’t attach my experiences to her because the setting is totally different. There are times where I’m like, Oh my God, I’m so lucky to have had the mother that I had and that I love and that I look up to. I’m just so grateful even more now, you know? Sometimes we’re dealt cards and we have to know how to play them. And sometimes it’s about knowing how to play blackjack, and sometimes it’s about knowing how to play spit or solitaire. But the cards you’re dealt, different games in life, you have to learn how to look beyond that, and eventually it’s your experience looking out.

And then Daya does the ultimate loving thing for her baby in that phone call. That was such an emotional scene.
Ooof, it was so hard for me to do that scene, girl. Was it good? Was it good? Tell me if it’s award-worthy, tell me! Honestly, honestly, truly.

I was crying. And I know from talking to other actors that phone-call scenes can sometimes be super hard to do because you’re not actually on the phone with someone. Why was it so hard for you?
Do you know why it was hard for me? Because I was a young mom. I’m still young, honey, let’s not get it confused.

For sure you are.
You know, I’m not your typical mother! I could’ve easily given up and given my daughter to her grandmother, or just made the decision to think about myself. And I felt that although we all go through those emotions when we’re young mothers, or teen moms, there is something we feel like we have to be loyal to, and I consider myself very loyal. And she has to sacrifice that because of the circumstances. When I played that scene, I thought about how my mom never gave up on me, ever. She was so attached to me. And I was so young that I had that instilled — you’re loyal to your child. You will be loyal to your child. You can’t allow anyone to break that loyalty.

So for me to have to think of mothers that actually have to do that for the well-being of their kids, it just broke me. It was a moment of like, Holy fucking shit. This shit really happens where you have to just release what you created within you. You know what I mean? That shit was like, Ohhh my God. Even now, even though I have a teen daughter, and I’m like, I wanna get rid of her, but you know, I really don’t wanna get rid of her. But I do! Ya know what I mean? But, not really.

So it was hard. I’m gonna tell you that it was super cold. There were scenes where I was like boogering, like my boogers were coming out my tears. I was like, Yo, I need a moment. Like wait a minute, I’m fuckin’ freezing. It was like Dumb and Dumber, when they’re riding on the bike and the boogers are frozen on their face. I was like, Oh my God. But I can’t because of the fuckin’ makeup I have on, which is very minimal. Actually, I did not wear makeup for those scenes.

So how was the scene filmed? Did someone read the lines on the other side for you?
Somebody did read it on the other side. I think there were moments where we were like, I don’t need for them to read it, and it was more like a monologue, but somebody read the scene. And what’s challenging that a lot of people don’t understand is that it’s somebody just reading. I had to reach out into a deep-rooted emotional moment in my life and give my 100, without anyone giving me anything back. So I was having a conversation pretty much with myself. And, ya know, I have to give myself credit, and I’m glad that you reminded me of that because I don’t give myself enough credit for the work that I do. I don’t watch myself. I’m a perfectionist and I’m always hard on myself. But you know what? And you can write that: I’m gonna give myself a lot of credit for being able to do the work that I did this season, and being able to do great by Daya. And I appreciate the fact that you actually respect that, and that you actually acknowledge that.

I could give more, but I’m really proud of that moment.

It was beautiful. But hang on. Are you saying that Daya is not on the show anymore?
I don’t know. We don’t know what’s gonna happen.

I really hope we see her again.
Well, I hope you make that known! [Laughs.]

Dascha Polanco Used Her Own Life for That Big OITNB Scene