Dascha Polanco is becoming quite the blossoming starlet in Hollywood. The Dominican-born actress has earned a tremendous following and rave reviews for her portrayal of tough-but-vulnerable inmate Daya on Netflix’s acclaimed series “Orange Is the New Black,” and she’s now starring in the Adam Sandler comedy The Cobbler, opening in theaters on March 13.
Having dabbled in acting as a child, Polanco eventually decided to pursue a degree in psychology at Hunters College; from there she began working as a healthcare administrator. She was working at a medical facility in the Bronx when she finally decided to return to what she’d loved so much and began taking acting classes again.
“It’s hard when you like what you do but don’t love it,” Polanco says, reflecting on her former career. But she loved connecting with people, but she felt that there was something else out there for her to go after. “[I had] the right support at the time and [had this] feeling like ‘if I don’t do it now, then I will never know if I could’ve made it.’”
She would go on to land small roles in shows like NYC 22 and Unforgettable, before being cast as Daya. She says that she understands so much about the street-but-sweet characters she has played thus far. The character of Daya, a young and pregnant inmate serving time alongside her mother, has given her a lot to draw on.
“I think that the way that I connect to these … characters is that, as a Latina woman growing up in New York City, I was exposed to a lot of challenges and [faced so many] insecurities,” says Polanco. She is drawn to characters whose dire circumstances foster some kind of personal evolution. “I think that we need growth to have a balance — to overcome.”
There has been much conversation and criticism regarding Hollywood’s lack of diversity, but Polanco is part of one of television’s most diverse casts on “Orange” … She admits that when she was on the outside looking in, Hollywood didn’t seem to have a lot of stories and characters she could relate to.
“I am pretty new into Hollywood and I think that growing up, there were a lot of limited options for me to connect with,” she explains. “But now that I’m more exposed to it and a part of it, I want to contribute, to raise the 8 percent [of Latino stars] that are in Hollywood. Hopefully, there’s reason to be an optimistic about what’s on the horizon.”
In The Cobbler, Polanco plays Macy, the estranged girlfriend of a career criminal (played by rapper/actor Method Man) who has become involved in a magical misadventure involving a cobbler (Adam Sandler) who can become anyone he wants just by slipping on their shoes. Sharing the screen with the Wu-Tang Clan rhymer was a bit of a dream come true for the girl who grew up watching rap videos in the 1990s.
“Growing up, I was a fan of him and I followed his music and I had a crush on him!” Polanco says with a laugh. “So it’s funny how times change. The last thing I would’ve expected is to work with Method Man in a movie. That was kind of surreal for me.
“Method Man is amazing and so talented. He’s funny and super tall! I was amazed at how tall he was. He was very respectful and a great co-star. We were able to work so well. I really gained another level of respect because he’s not only a musician, but he’s a creative individual. I’m also a fan of Adam Sandler. When the script was given to me, it was the last thing I expected. When I read the script, I was like ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ I was pretty excited to be a part of such a great project. What’s next?”
What’s next for Dascha Polanco is the upcoming third season of “Orange Is the New Black” (“Expect more layers from Daya,” she says, without giving too much away) but she’s not overly preoccupied with what happens going forward. She’s extremely focused on enjoying the present — and being grateful for her past.
“I’ve always looked up to my parents,” explains the actress. “My parents came here to provide me with a better opportunity and I feel like I haven’t let them down. They were immigrants to the United States, and we came here to take advantage of these opportunities. I saw how hard they worked and it was reason for me to work smarter and work harder.
“I’ve learned a lot of things. I’m still learning — it’s a process. I still like enjoy the moment. That’s very important. These opportunities and roles that I come across, I want to take the time and treasure the moments where I’m working. You have to really allow that to settle in. So I try to take in the present and focus on the future later on. Prepare for it, but not focus on it over the present.”