Dascha Polanco has been on a roller-coaster ride since her breakthrough on NetFlix’s hit series “Orange Is the New Black.” The New York-based actress earned raves and a devoted fan base from her portrayal of Dayanara “Daya” Diaz, an inmate who’s coping with the emotional turmoil of both being incarcerated with her mother and becoming pregnant in prison by one of the corrections officers. Polanco’s success on the show has transitioned to the big screen, and after starring alongside Adam Sandler in The Cobbler earlier this year, she’s now opposite Jennifer Lawrence in David O. Russell’s highly anticipated Christmas drama Joy. Polanco spoke to rolling out about the movie, adjusting to fame and dealing with expectations surrounding body image and ethnicity.
“Coming on-set [for Joy], I was very intimidated at first,” she admits. “But David O. Russell has a way of making everything so family-oriented. After a couple of sessions, I felt right at home.
“The whole story is about family,” she adds. “So it’s interesting to see how [that developed] offscreen and onscreen. There was that kind of a relationship. [Her character] Jackie’s very loyal. She’s a supporter and willing to have her friend’s back 100 percent of the way. I think that Dayanara has the same essence to her, regardless of how her mom is—she’s loyal to her mom.”
Motherhood is a big deal for Polanco, herself a working mom. She worked as a nurse in the Bronx while she put acting on hold for several years, but realized that she was never going to be happy until she pursued her dream. Now with her career taking off so quickly, she’s had to help her children adjust to the fact that she can be gone for work quite often. “We don’t realize how, when we’re empty within, how we affect the external,” she explains. “I make it my business to be very honest with them and say things that run through a parent’s and a kid’s mind. I told them that even when I’m working and not at home, I’m here spiritually. Mommy has to do what’s good for herself because if she’s not well, you’re not well.”
The actress has had to deal with her first bit of bad press following an arrest for assault involving an altercation at her New York City apartment, and she acknowledges that the scrutiny is something that she’s coming to understand, but she won’t let it define her. Because overall, things are just going too well for her to be negative.
“It feels like a whirlwind. It’s a growing process,” she says. “I want to savor every moment and I get caught up in what’s next and sometimes you have to savor the moment that you’re in. It’s time to embrace the blessings and own it. It’s time to use this as a vehicle to embrace my fellow Latinos when they’re coming up.”
As committed as she is to her community and culture, Polanco’s interactions with fellow Latino stars hasn’t always gone as she’d hoped. But her disappointment has only reinvigorated her desire to be a positive influence.
“I’ve learned from my peers. There have been moments in Hollywood where I’ve met my peers and I find that — their responsibility should be to acknowledge and embrace and give credit to someone who’s coming up from nothing, but we’re not all the same. So my job is to — when I have an opportunity and have established my career in such a way that I can open the door — accept and glorify my fellow Latinos.”
She’s also beginning to her embrace sex symbol status. Polanco has become a bit of a pinup girl on Instagram and Twitter, and she says fashion and fragrance are a part of who she has always been. She often uses the hashtag #ISmellGood and flaunts her curvaceous frame while highlighting her unique style.
“Scents, culturally, have been a part of my life,” explains the Dominican-born actress. “So when I feel down, and I spray myself or I light a candle, it’s all therapeutic for me. So when I hashtag ‘I smell good,’ it’s because I’m secure in myself. You could not agree with how I look. Maybe [you think] I’m too curvaceous or some people say I’m fat or whatever. People have opinions. For many, I could be ‘fat’ or for many, I could be voluptuous, and for many I could be a nice chicken thigh or filet mignon! But you can’t take away that I smell good!
“I’m not a size zero but I look good as a size eight. You come to America and you see the standard in media and that’s when you start to question ‘Am I the same as everyone else?’ And from a professional standpoint, there are a lot of brands that don’t want to dress me because I’m not sample size. But I have a decision to make, as well — I don’t have to be dressed in your clothing. It’s not me waiting for you to dress me now — I choose who I want to be dressed by. Little by little, the barriers will be broken. There are a lot of women out there who are advocates for ‘Yeah I eat before I get on the red carpet’ and ‘Yeah, I embrace my curves.’ ”
And she’s not interested in being anyone’s stereotypical Latina sexpot. Regardless of whatever outfit she’s choosing to wear on any given day, Dascha Polanco is fiercely individualistic and she’s adamant about showcasing who she is — not living up to anyone else’s standard.
“As Latinas, it’s expected for [you to use] a lot of sparkle and cleavage and show your boobs all the time and talk like [imitates stereotypical giggle] ‘hee-hee-hee’ and just the big hair — that’s what’s expected,” she says. “I kind of like a little masculinity to what I wear, I like to cover up. For me, I feel sexy if I’m wearing a whole pantsuit and I don’t show anything and my face is done with my hair and I can work it more. Sometimes I like to show my back. Sometimes I don’t like to show anything. Sometimes I like to really show things and not wear anything underneath and go commando all the way! I’m OK with that.”