BY CHRIS AZZOPARDI | “I want you to smell me,” is not your typical conversation starter, sure, but “Orange Is the New Black” star Dascha Polanco does smell nice, like fresh flowers. Seated in a New York City hotel suite to talk about her new film, _Joy_, the 32-year-old actress invites me to cozy up next to her, because then, she jokes, I can experience the fact that “not only is she beautiful but she also smells delicious.”
It’s weird seeing you out of an orange jumpsuit.
Is it?! I love the fact that I got to play with decades: the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s. But it’s two totally different worlds, TV and film.
What’s that transition been like for you?
Professionally, it’s always welcome (laughs). It’s a new challenge. It’s a new area of acting and being able to be play with characters and stories more creatively. I think with (director) David O. Russell and this project, it was intimidating.
Because it’s David O. Russell?
David O. Russell. Jennifer Lawrence. Bradley Cooper. Robert De Niro. Diane Ladd. Virginia Madsen. Isabella Rossellini. You just want to make sure you have your A-game on, and for a Latina being in this industry for the last three years, it takes you by surprise.
How does being Latina change things?
Well, there are not many Latin actors in Hollywood. There’s still a lower percentage of them breaking into Hollywood, but we’re seeing more diversity, especially with David O. Russell’s film. You’re seeing diversity there, to that caliber, and for me, that’s a big responsibility.
There’s been a lot of talk about diversity in Hollywood lately, and not just when it comes to race, but when it comes to women. And this movie is very –Female driven.
It is. It’s all about female empowerment. It has a feminist message. How does that personally strike a chord with you?
I can relate so much to the story and to the elements of the movie: having obstacles in your life, being a woman and having to be a parent, having to be a daughter, taking care of not only your personal self but also your family. It shows how much women throughout the years have been the backbone and have, at times, struggled to even take a risk or try to live their dream or move forward because of other commitments or because of the stigma that we are supposed to be at home.
From the perspective of someone who is Latina in Hollywood: What is the current state of finding roles in Hollywood for a minority?
I thought to myself for the last two years: I’ve gone on auditions – so many auditions – in comparison to when I first started. Maybe it’s because of _Orange_, maybe it’s because of my representation, but there’s a need, a desire now. You see more offers, you see more shows that want to include diversity because of the success of shows like _Orange Is the New Black_. Anybody could’ve been cast as Jackie in _Joy_, and that’s the beauty of it. The role that I play, anyone could have, but he didn’t make it exclusive (and say), “I’m gonna make Jackie a white actress.” No. She’s ambiguous. She can be black. She can be Spanish. The fact that this is a Golden Globe-nominated movie – ah, it takes me by surprise that I’m part of this project, not because I don’t have the potential, not because I don’t believe in myself – but because of what, historically, I’ve seen growing up. And now that I’m part of it, there’s hope and there’s an opportunity that was rendered that I’m not taking for granted.
You credit “Orange Is the New Black” for diversifying TV. What does it mean to you to be a part of that movement?
We have to look at a movie like _Joy_ for a minute, and I’m going to talk about how it includes LGBT. It’s funny: I’m very supportive of the LGBT because I have family, I have friends, and they’re a big part of my life – and even so, I respect a human regardless of what their sexual orientation is, or who they feel they are. It has nothing to do with LGBT, or that I have a friend who is. It’s human to accept another human. Not everybody thinks that way. But you see a character like Joy who’s trying to just be… . She’s trying to belong, she’s trying to accomplish her dreams; she can be a mother, she can be a wife or a divorcee and not have the backlash, because there’s so much backlash in the movie. There are so many obstacles. “You’re a woman and you can’t do that.” And I’m pretty sure the LGBT community can relate to that. So whether she was a lesbian or not, it has nothing to do with that – it’s about her feeling like she’s part of something and building her empire.
Because anybody can see themselves in Joy. Exactly.
When it comes to “Orange Is the New Black,” how do you feel about being a part of a show that embraces inclusivity?
I’m proud! So proud. It’s done a lot for the gay community around the world. It shows how much the industry might be oblivious to what’s needed, but the fans and the viewership have just been so boisterous and open to all these different sexual orientations – to transgender. There’s so much more acceptance, and that’s the beauty of it. We, (show creator) Jenji (Kohan), the actors, the story – we took all we had and the essence and being underdogs and being self-made and coming from nowhere and that passion and brought a project that everyone can relate to. That’s what’s succeeding now – when you have a project that everybody can relate to. We have _Joy_ now. Anybody can watch the movie and I guarantee they’ll walk out of the theater and want to take over the world.
Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com and on Twitter (@chrisazzopardi).