Dascha Polanco had two acting credits before joining Orange Is the New Black, and one of them was “Fan #2” on the short-lived series NYC 22. So is it safe to say that Jenji Kohan’s Netflix darling is her big break? Yes. Yes, it is. We spoke to the very grateful Brooklyn native, who plays Litchfield’s shy, manga-drawing inmate Daya, about auditioning in scrubs — straight from an overnight shift at a hospital; what she thinks of her character’s cruel mother; and her affair with the show’s only male heartthrob, John Bennett.
I read that you were in scrubs for your audition, which at first I thought was to get into character because scrubs are kind of like prison clothes. But you were actually working at a hospital?
Yeah, I was working as a manager in a hospital. So I did an overnight kind of thing and kept the scrubs on and went straight to the audition. It was kind of nerve-wracking, because they usually tell you not to go in character. If you have a pirate audition, don’t go in pirate gear, don’t go in wearing an eye patch; you know, don’t audition in a costume. So I was like, Oh, man, I’m wearing scrubs. Shit. But my whole thing was, I have to get there on time. I have to nail this audition.
What scene did you read?
The one where I say, “I don’t fuck dudes for Big Macs.” That’s the one where we’re out in the courtyard and my mom’s telling me “you don’t love, you just fuck,” or something like that. And I’m like, “I don’t fuck dudes for Big Macs.” I was like, Okay, that’s a great relationship with my mother …
Yeah, speaking of that relationship, I have trouble sympathizing with the mother. Where do you stand?
Her mother has issues, you know? I personally, from the outside, it’s like, “Jesus Christ, who do you turn to when your mom is so unsupportive?” What do you do? There’s not many people who you can trust. And then obviously you’re going to find the wrong attention in the wrong individual when the person that brought you into the world is such a bitch. You know what I mean? You have to sympathize with [the mom] in the sense that it’s a vicious circle — her childhood … obviously she didn’t have a silver spoon in her mouth. It’s just a circle that keeps on going and going.
You do find love in John Bennett. He’s become the show’s heartthrob, you realize?
He’s hot, with his one leg. So hot. [Laughs.] You know that he’s a trainer in real life, right?
Yes, but I didn’t at first. Who knew?
Yes! Right? Imagine me, I’m going on set, and I have this hot Crossfit trainer taking off his shirt. I’m like, Great. Damn, don’t look at my belly.
Pablo Schreiber said Matt McGorry [who plays Bennett] sends him workout videos. Does Matt do that to you?
No. But he’s a jokester. He’s making fun of himself in a sense and enjoying it. “Hey, look at me, look at my body.”
Yes, it seems like he’s having the time of his life. The whole cast is starting to blow up — are you guys starting to notice fans?
Listen, I was just telling [my publicist], I’m walking on the train — I take the train, I’m still nobody! — I’m just taking my train, going to the city. And as I’m doing that, I could feel the stares. I’m on one side of the platform and on the other side of the platform people are like, “Oh my God, you’re on that show. Great job!” It just feels good, not that they’re recognizing me, but that they’re enjoying my work. I had a 70-year-old lady, I’m assuming she was 70, she was up there — not that I have anything against age or anything — but she was an older lady, she was walking her dog, I was on 79th Street. And she was like, “Hey, I know you. You’re that young lady from the show.” I was like, “What?” Grandmothers could be watching too — awkward!
Do you still get starstruck yourself ? Like when Jodie Foster directed the third episode?
I was like [whispers], “Oh my God, I watch her in movies. Hannibal Lecter!” That kind of thing. Of course, I play it off, though. I’m like [in a posh British accent], Hello, how are you? I’m Dascha. It’s nice working with you. I know your work.” Meanwhile, I’m in the dressing room like [yells], Oh my God! I have to regroup and go back outside.
Who are your acting idols?
I like Meryl Streep. Johnny Depp — Lord Jesus. [In a Southern Baptist accent.] Lord Jesus, there’s a fire! Oh, Al Pacino.
How did your character quirks come about, like the fact that you chew gum?
Everything was in the script.
So you can’t actually draw in real life?
No, I do. I draw.
Are those your manga drawings in the show, then?
No, they’re not. I practiced manga just in case they wanted me to draw. But to have continuity, they would draw it and have copies of it. But I do draw, I’ve always drawn.
Do you draw on set to stay in character?
You know what’s funny? While we were on set, since my character is always drawing, I’d draw things like, “This is Pornstache Penis.” You know, I would draw little characters in fun. I doodle all the time, even if I’m on the train.
I’m sorry, did you say you’d draw Pornstache’s penis? Or a character called Pornstache Penis?
You know, I’d draw a penis with a mustache on it and go, “This is your penis.” Just making fun of things.
I like that! I think people like to imagine the cast bonding. What can you say about the second season? [SPOILER] Will you be pregnant in prison?
I don’t know! I have to wait for the script, too. I want to know if she’s really pregnant or just sick with the flu?
Oh, it could be that. Because she hasn’t taken a pregnancy test.
Oh no. I just felt really sad. Really sad. I think I want her to have a baby with Bennett.
I know. That’s a good thing! That means I’m doing a good job.