Dascha Polanco’s Big (Prison) Break

Photos by Karilyn Sanders Photography
Photos by Karilyn Sanders Photography. Hair by Kiwi Remy, Key to Beauty Salon Inc. Makeup by Theodore Turner using Anastasia Beverly Hills Cosmetics. Styled by Sharif Jackson. On Dascha Polanco: Eve by Eve’s dress; Roberto Coin Jewelry; L’Oreal Paris Feria in Power Violet hair color.

Dascha Polanco’s time in prison has been extended—and she couldn’t be happier.

Polanco, 32, is doing time on-screen at the fictional Litchfield Correctional Facility as inmate Dayanara “Daya” Diaz on Netflix’s hit original dark comedy series “Orange is the New Black” (OITNB). While the show’s most recent episodes saw Daya’s circumstances run the gamut from pregnant prisoner naively in love with her prison guard baby-daddy to clear-eyed new mother grappling with the complications of making choices for her baby while still behind bars, there’s no confusion about Polanco’s positive feelings when it comes serving more time on OITNB.

“We have been given the green light that we can start working on season four [of OITNB],” the Dominican Republic-born actress and mother says with an excited smile during our interview, just days before the third season’s early June release. “What I enjoy the most is that I can just wear pajamas all day and I get the cutie on the block [Correctional Officer Bennett, played by Matt McGorry, who is the father of Daya’s baby]…it’s fun to be part of a story that I’m sure that many women who have been incarcerated can relate to.”

And by no means are inmates the only ones who can relate. Many aspects of Daya’s story—along with the stories of the rest of OITNB’s standout ensemble cast—are situations that viewers of all ages, ethnicities, sexualities, body types, and circumstances can recognize. Daya may be behind bars on drug charges, but she is also a sensitive woman struggling with her strained relationship with her mother (who’s also serving time at Litchfield), the daunting challenges of pregnancy and preparing for motherhood, and a desire to express herself creatively. Her fellow inmates all have their own personal issues to wrestle with as well, and it’s this commitment to complex, diverse, and relatable characters that has made the show—which is based on author and justice advocate Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, and created by Jenji Kohan of “Weeds” fame—such a ground-breaking success.

“I am part of history…you need to make influential change to be part of history, so it’s an honor and it’s a privilege,” Polanco says. “To use Jenji and to use Piper Kerman’s story, and to give many of [the cast] the opportunity to show our true talent, besides our physical appearances, is something that I will be forever grateful for.”

As her profile as an actress grows larger with the show’s well-earned success, Polanco continues to enjoy being an essential piece of OITNB’s diverse and outstanding cast of characters, which includes rising stars like Taylor Schilling (Piper Chapman), Laverne Cox (Sophia Burset), Ruby Rose (Stella Carlin), and Uzo Aduba (Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren), alongside veteran screen stars like Natasha Lyonne (Nicky Nichols), Taryn Manning (Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett), and Laura Prepon (Alex Vause).

“It’s like a big family… We all feed each other, we all shop [together], we like to go out after we shoot and have something to eat and just celebrate life. We enjoy each other’s work and we’re very supportive of one another—especially when we have tough scenes,” Polanco dishes about the OITNB team, who have garnered multiple SAG and Emmy wins for the show. “I’ve had the opportunity to work on other sets and I must say that this set is really unique. We all want a great end product and it’s a lot of our first [big acting jobs], so we’re seeing each other evolve… It’s been the evolution of many beautiful careers.”

Since her own pivotal moment of professional evolution in being cast on OITNB, Polanco has landed a string of respectable film roles in projects like “Gimme Shelter” in 2013 (which starred Vanessa Hudgens), “The Cobbler” (a 2014 Adam Sandler vehicle), and, currently in production, “The Perfect Match” (featuring celebs like Cassie and Donald Faison). And then there’s her biggest break to date: A co-starring role with Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert De Niro in David O. Russell’s “Joy” (about the inventor and Home Shopping Network sensation Joy Mangano), which is slated to hit theaters this December. It’s career milestones like “Joy” that, Polanco says, reassure her that she made the right decision to continue with acting.

“David O. Russell has been not only a director, but a friend that came into my life…he pushes me to be just not mediocre and that’s really valid,” she says of filming “Joy.” “Working with Robert De Niro and Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper…all these exceptional, talented actors, just to be part of it, at the time it was like: ‘Am I really here?’ It just proved to me…that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. It’s just right.”

For Polanco—who spent much of her childhood moving to different Brooklyn neighborhoods and her high school years in Miami, returning to the city to study psychology at Hunter College—the current confidence she feels in her career path is something that didn’t necessarily come easily. Though she had acted throughout high school and college and had even taken professional lessons through BIH Studios in NYC (which ended up connecting her to a manager), Polanco struggled to land a substantial recurring role.

“I was working in the health field for quite some time [managing two hospitals, managing an instrument room at a hospital in the Bronx, and going to nursing school at LIU] and I remember that the [OITNB] audition was one that came along after I was thinking: ‘I’m just going to give it up,’” she says, recalling running late to audition for Daya and arriving still in her hospital scrubs. “And that’s when I got the second callback.”

Of course, now it seems like it was all meant to be—we dare you to ask any die-hard OITNB fan if they could possibly imagine anyone else in the role of Daya—but the obstacles that Polanco tackled while she pursued acting have been no small matter. Her busy work life allowed her to support her two children (a now 13-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son), but often made it difficult to pursue her passion. Now, in addition to being a single mom to her kids, she’s also the guardian of an adopted 15-year-old daughter and two nieces ages 6 and 8 (who both live with her and her sister). The challenges of balancing work and pursing acting with motherhood—and young motherhood at that, as Polanco had her first child when she was just 18—were very real, but ultimately, she’s proud of the way she handled the big choices in her life.

“I don’t regret the decisions I’ve made in the past, but I feel like, if I could turn back the hands of time, I would [have children] later. It’s not that it’s not doable, it’s just harder work—you’re making it harder for yourself,” she recalls. “I find that, to each their own, and I’m not the first and I’m not the last. I’m sure there are teen moms out there [for whom], at times, it’s difficult and it’s hard, but children grow up really quickly—you have to suck it up and just look at the positive things in life… [My kids] keep me focused and they give me a reason to not fail.”

Polanco’s close relationship with her own mother, who passed away when Polanco was still finding her way as a young parent, is one that deeply influenced how she approaches parenthood. Understandably, Polanco continues to look to her mother as an inspiration and model of strength, loyalty, and work ethic.

“I had a really close relationship with my mom and I lost her in my early 20s. There was a moment when she was still raising me and raising my daughter and teaching me how to raise my daughter…she gave her all to her kids and she instilled in us so many cultural beliefs,” Polanco says, adding that during hard times, learning to ask for help was an eye-opening lesson. “I did go through states of depression because you just get exhausted and you just feel overwhelmed so it was very important to seek help when I wasn’t mentally healthy… Balance is everything, but you also need guidance and sometimes you need help to put less stress on yourself.”

These days, Polanco seems to have hit her stride in both her personal and professional lives and has found a realistic rhythm with parenting that suits her well as her acting career continues to blossom. “To all those mothers out there, I think that it’s very important to not lose your identity or your self,” she explains. “We do love our children, we care for our children, but children will go and you will remain. So it’s important to do what you love—provide for your child but don’t lose yourself. Don’t be scared to seek help… It’s okay to want solo time and it’s all about balance. So give yourself enough credit!”

Of course balance can be illusive, given the challenges that can be part-and-parcel of urban parenting. For Polanco, achieving balance with two teenagers and three youngsters under one roof in an Upper Manhattan apartment means making an effort to keep a lid on clutter and disorganization at home. “It’s all about organizing yourself and getting rid of things you don’t need. You have to really practice minimalism, I guess. Especially with kids—I’ve had to learn to realize that when you have kids, your house will always have stuff and disorganization,” she explains with a laugh. “You have to get that chore chart on that fridge.”

She also shares that her kids are all carving out their own passions and serve as good companions to one another. “The 13-year-old and the 15-year-old are trying to be grown. You know how that is with those ages—teenagers! They’re so worried about their image and their social activities and, you know, makeup and boys. But they’re good at school too,” Polanco explains in a tone that implies that there’s not much in the way of typical teenage girl behavior that makes it past her watchful eye. “Then, my 8-year-old niece, she’s a little genius… She’s vocal, very independent—she’s more independent than the older ones—she’s funny. And the 6-year-olds are like two best friends. They love to play.”

Given Polanco’s caring and involved attitude as a mother, one might wonder how she uses parenthood as fodder and inspiration for acting—especially now that her OITNB character is a mom—and she does, but only up to a point. “[Daya] has no idea what it’s like to be a mother, so I kind of use some elements of when I was first pregnant and the nervousness, like: ‘What am I going to do? Is this guy going to be supportive?’” she says, though she also emphasizes that, because she and Daya are so different, she likes to keep a healthy separation between her herself and her character. “I try not to focus too much on referring to my own experiences because it could be a bit too personal—and then it becomes you playing yourself rather than really giving the opportunity for this character to grow.”

If critics’ and viewers’ responses to OITNB’s third season are any indication, it’s fair to say that Daya’s growth throughout her prison stay is progressing right on track. And as for Polanco, she herself has quite a bit of positive growth to look forward to with the release of “Joy” and filming the next installment of OITNB in the year to come (not to mention some other exciting projects that her lips are currently sealed about). However, as her star continues to rise, Polanco is definitely not forgetting to keep a grounded perspective on fame. “I always tell people: ‘I still can’t believe the success of the show,’” she says. “So I’m just trying to embrace it and enjoy every moment of it.”

Mia Weber is the senior editor of New York Family.