Netflix’s prison dramedy, Orange Is The New Black, arrives this week for the final lap of a seven-season journey. The women of a fictionalized version of Litchfield Penitentiary (inspired by Piper Kerman’s best-selling memoir) have seen everything and now look toward largely bleak futures. When it comes to Dayanara Diaz, played by Dascha Polanco, the ride has been transformative, and not at all in a positive way. Daya began her incarceration as a naive artist and a dreamer, who placed all her hopes for a future in corrective officer John Bennett (Matt McGorry), who impregnated her before swiftly fleeing the scene. This has led to a much more hardened and dangerous version of the young woman we once witnessed onscreen.
In addition to this OITNB gig, Polanco won’t stop surfacing in other popular Netflix series. She played a standoffish girlfriend in Russian Doll (co-created by fellow Orange star Natasha Lyonne) and a vicious character who spews contempt upon the wrongfully accused and convicted Raymond Santana Jr. (Freddy Miyares) after his prison stint in Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us. That latter role highlights Polanco’s versatility, and she was gracious enough to talk with us about these subjects and her surprise encounter with an ’80s idol.
If we’d talked at the beginning of Orange, the first question that I’d have asked was if you thought Daya could have stayed so, you know, sweet.
I thought she would stay sweet, and I actually thought she would be [said in sing-song voice] The Sweet One, but I always felt like, well, I always wanted her to be evil! [Bursts into laughter] I always wanted her to turn into a rebel. Deep inside, my ego wouldn’t let me let go of that dream because you kind-of have to develop a hard shell after you’ve been through all that like she has.
Well, you kinda got your wish, though?
I did, I did!
Let’s imagine that you didn’t want Daya to break bad. If that was the case, would Season 7 Daya have any guidance to offer Season 1 Daya?
Ohhhhh, god. First of all, I would tell her, “Girl, stay away from Bennett, and do not get pregnant.” I would tell her to focus on her artistry, and I would actually push her toward developing other relationships in prison, like being a little bit away from her mother. I feel like she wanted to work at something that was a dead wall, kind-of a dead end.
Did she ever stand a chance with a mom like Aleida Diaz?
I don’t think so. That’s a situation that’s passed on. Even now, the situation now is this: where’s she going? She has to find hope within the prison, so I find that her mother and her use one another. They tend to look at how they can benefit from one another. That’s what she’s learned. It’s not growing and loving and compassionate, they have a loyalty because they’re mother and daughter, but they look at it like, “I have no respect from you, and vice versa.” It was interesting to see the evolution because at first, it was kind-of entertaining, like, “Oh she’s in jail with her mother, what are the chances?” You know, there a lot of chances of this happening because it’s a cycle that repeats itself within families. They don’t learn from this experience, they don’t learn the resources to succeed from this. It’s the only thing that they know, and they wind up in there once again, and it’s passed on from generation to generation.
I somehow had it in my head that the Season 4 cliffhanger was Daya’s real turning point, but I recently rewatched it and was struck by what she said while holding the gun: “Fucking C.O.s. You’re all pieces of shit.”
Yeah, I think there was a crossing of a boundary. With that naive-ness that she had, she felt like Bennett was that sense of hope in prison. It affected her, as a mother, as a woman, as a young girl, just as a whole, so I feel like she wouldn’t have otherwise pressed through that or fell into that It would have been a different story when it came to that situation.
Yeah. Well, do you think any other character changed more than Daya?
Everybody has had their own process of change on the show. I feel like there were some that they focused more on, and Daya had such a huge arc. If we think about where she started, you could see her physical growth. Yes, she changed physically, but I mean, you can see her grow, her evolution. I remember when I first played her, I was an innocent young woman, you know, in my artistic world, having some hope and living in a fairy tale. Then I had to have a break from that and descend into reality, like, “Girl, this isn’t a game anymore.” We saw that change in her, and we saw how scarred she became. It’s so amazing to me to see how Daya has hardened. You really don’t get to see that in people. You either meet people how they are or were, but you don’t see the evolution, and I was able to experience that with her. Every year, she became more hardened, and she just succumbed to her environment.
In an ensemble cast, there’s no guarantee of screentime for everyone. Did you know that Daya would become such a huge character?
No. I always felt like I had the potential to do more, and there were times that I couldn’t see myself onscreen, and now I can. I see the moments when I wasn’t that confident onscreen because everything was brand new, and how I grew into owning it and knowing that I’m up for the challenge. I mean, I grew a lot as a woman, too, there were a lot of changes going on in my life that happened. There were a lot of blessings, a lot of opportunities, and a lot of growing up that I’ve been doing as a woman. And I’m so happy that there’s a new me, and as cliché as it sounds, I’m entering a new phase in my life where I know where my career should go, where I want it to go. I know my potential, broadening my horizons, building my team. I want to bring along people and open the door, whether it’s collaborating. I’m keeping busy, creating and creating, and I’m still auditioning and hustling, still have goals to accomplish as well.
You keep on turning up in Netflix shows all over the place.
I’m excited about that! [My friend] said the other day, “You’re becoming the Netflix poster child!”
Russian Doll came together over several years before production. Did you have any idea that it would be so well-received?
Nooooo. When Natasha [Lyonne] approached me with that opportunity, I was like, “Girl, you don’t even have to tell me about it [for me to sign on].” She said, “It’s nothing big.” And I didn’t care. I used to watch Natasha on TV, and for me to be able to work with her? I gagged when I saw her [on the Orange cast list]. I was like, “Omigod, omigod, omigod … for me to be your co-star, and now for you to be my director?” That’s supporting one another. There should be no reason when there’s women in power and women in positions that they can make decisions that they can see another woman who respects and has the ability to collaborate, why not? Why not be gracious. I mean, look at Ava [DuVernay], look at what she’s doing. I’ve just been lucky enough to have these people around me, and hopefully, I deserve it.
Speaking of Ava and your When They See Us role, that woman was the polar opposite of Daya. Elena had no empathy for ex-cons.
Oooh, ooh, ooh. That role. You know I had people yelling about that, like, “I can’t stand you, but I love you! I hate you, but I love you!” And I had to play that. What Ava told me, she said, just do what you have to do. She let me be free. What more could I ask for that she let me write the chapters the way that I want? I was able to do that in such an important story. If I keep doing this, I’ll be so content, just to be content to do quality work. No matter how much I thought that because of my size, or because I’m Latin or Spanish or whatever that I wasn’t going to be able to get these rich roles. You know, it’s all BS. I can bring it to the table, I’ve been ready.
Have you been watching any other Netflix shows lately?
Dead To Me, Lunatic. I love Lunatic! I love Chris Lilley!
Are you a binge-watcher, or do you prefer savoring shows?
I have to close with an Instagram question because this has been cracking me up. You have a photo that apparently includes Arnold Schwarzenegger.
And commenters keep mentioning how he looks like he’s in a “wax museum.” Can you enlighten us?
Oh my god, it’s real! He’s real! Let me tell you something. I know that people look up to certain people from movies. I’ve always looked up to kind-of like male figures, and Arnold was one of them. And Sylvester Stallone! My mom was obsessed with Arnold Schwarzenegger and named a dog after him.
It’s okay, I might have watched Commando dozens of times.
I mean, I love him! And on my bucket list, I just want to work out one time with him. That’d be wicked. When I met him that day, I was geeking, and I got super watery because I don’t think he understood that for me, it’s almost like my mother’s connection to be like, “Oh my god, mom, I met him, and I know you love him.” So she was able to see that I actually met him, but I’d love to work out with him. And you can put that in the interview!
The final season of Netflix’s ‘Orange Is The New Black’ streams on July 26.