Dascha Polanco may not have many roles to her name just yet, but when you look at the ones she's taken, it's impossible not to spot a pattern. Whether it's the tough, pregnant Daya on Orange on the New Black , the bipolar young mom Carmel in Gimme Shelter, or the angry, abused Macy in this month's The Cobbler , one word can't help but come to mind: resilient. Yet don't assume that the star chose those parts for the character trait — according to Polanco, it was actually the other way around.
"I think that I send that energy off," she says, laughing. "I think people cast me because I might be as resilient as the character."
It's easy to see why. Polanco is best known to audiences now as the guarded, romance-loving inmate Daya on OITNB, but she didn't just waltz into the role. For years, she put her acting dreams aside to work as a hospital administrator in the Bronx, all while attending nursing school, raising three children, and taking the occasional audition. Add those responsibilities to the criticism Polanco has said she faced for her Latina heritage and curvy figure, and it's a testament to the actress' strength that she's now pursuing her dreams full-time; OITNB 's highly-anticipated third season is set to premiere in June, and The Cobbler, a dramedy directed by Thomas McCarthy, was released to theaters Mar. 13.
"Right now, where I am in my career, I’m pretty much auditioning for everything. I don’t have yet the privilege of picking and choosing," says Polanco. "But I can tell you that when I read the [Cobbler] script, I couldn’t put it down."
The Cobbler, about a shoemaker (Adam Sandler) who, thanks to a magical sewing machine, is literally able to step into others' shoes and see life from their perspective, is a far cry from the realism-based drama Polanco knows well from OITNB. Yet for the actress, playing Macy, a woman who's long suffered at the hand of her cruel boyfriend (Method Man), registered for her more strongly than perhaps any character she's taken on thus far.
Says Polanco, "When it comes to a role like this, that I can relate to on such a delicate subject, it kind of just comes out of me. The portrayal comes very easy... I think everybody can relate to the relationship, and her story."
Although Macy is a supporting character in The Cobbler, her time on-screen is memorable; she fights with her boyfriend, stands up for safety, and attempts to begin a life free from violence and fear. It's a lot to pack into a few minutes' time, and Polanco admits that the portrayal was "challenging."
"There's a lot of layers," she says. "Sometimes you have to reference back to your own personal experiences, and opening up the vault of memory sometimes is not good on the soul."
Still, Polanco was thrilled to take on a role with so much depth, especially considering how few parts Latino actors in Hollywood tend to be offered, particularly in film.
"There's eight percent of people in Hollywood [that are Latino]," she says. "When I come across a movie that’s not even considering that it needs to get more diversity — that’s what's obviously making TV shows more successful."
Even on television, however, diversity is hard to find. Polanco is fully aware that her OITNB role is an anomaly, and she hopes to use her career to give Latino actors like herself more chances to get hired.
"I'm part of the change," she says, simply. "That's the change that has to happen, when you become part of the change and you’re actually doing something about it... one of my goals is to provide opportunity for more diversity, more minorities... when you look at America, I’m not looking at what I’m seeing on TV. That’s not the America that I see."
Yet although Polanco says she'd definitely consider creating more roles for herself and other actors of color, she'd prefer if they came her way.
"I could create a role for myself, yes, why not?" she says. "I can definitely do that. It’s empowering. But I think it’s rewarding when it comes your way... there’s a validation if somebody in Hollywood says, I want you to be the star, I want you to be my muse."
Luckily for Polanco, that already seems to be happening. In February, it was announced that the actress would co-star alongside Jennifer Lawrence in Joy, an upcoming drama from five-time Oscar nominee David O. Russell. Playing Jackie, the best friend of Lawrence's character, it's her most high-profile project to date.
"When I get the call, there was nothing more that I could do but just sit there and cry out of pure joy," recalls Polanco. "I was so excited because it’s a big step, and something that I did not think that I would be a part of. It’s very rewarding."
Production's only just started, but the actress says she's "enjoying every moment" of the film's making thus far.
"I’m hoping to absorb as much possible and just really, really give my 200 percent to it," she says.
Undoubtedly, Polanco's role in an awards contender like Joy will open more doors for the actress when it comes to taking on bigger parts in bigger films.
"I’m ready for it," she says. ""By doing that, by getting more work, by showing how good I am regardless of how I look, how curvy I may be, what accent I have — I can be the star of a movie one day. I don’t have to be a supporting part.... it’d be validating for me. It'd just prove that I’m doing what I’m supposed to do."
Images: Image Entertainment; Netflix; Getty Images