After toiling for years in obscurity, Miami's Dascha Polanco hits it big with Orange is the New Black.
Right before Miami’s own Dascha Polanco was cast as Dayanara (“Daya”) Diaz on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, the actress had all but renounced her dream of “making it.” “I was in low spirits because I wasn’t working and [I was] having difficulties booking anything,” Polanco says. “I’d gone back to school to get my third degree in nursing. I was working overnight to support myself, and I hadn’t acted in over six months.”
So, when faced with yet another audition, her expectations were minimal. “I wasn’t even dressed appropriately,” she says with a laugh. “[But] I wasn’t feeling worried or nervous because there were so many other things in my life that I was preoccupied with.”
But the Orange team saw within Polanco the inimitable mix of fierce determination and sweet charm that has made Daya one of the show’s most beloved characters. “My manager called to let me know I booked the role. Once it hit me, I broke down and started crying,” she recalls. “It was a moment of relief and reassurance that I was doing the right thing for me.”
Polanco’s path to fame has been far from easy. Born in the Dominican Republic, she moved with her family to Brooklyn as a young child. “My parents worked in factory positions mostly, and manual labor: the sectors that were available to immigrants at that time,” she says. And although pricey private lessons were out of her family’s reach, Polanco found solace in an after-school arts program. “I fell in love with dancing and the performing arts. The creativity that fine arts allowed me to express was a comfort zone for me.”
Her family moved to Miami while Polanco was in junior high, where she continued to hone her acting at American Senior High School. “That was a very important period of my life, with that drastic move to Miami, from an urban neighborhood to the suburbs. It was culturally very different, even the weather,” she says of her “growing-up year.” “Miami had my heart. It let me grow and taught me so much. I would love to live in Miami again, have my kids grow up here. It’s a great city, so close to the Dominican Republic. There’s freedom, culture, art... there’s so much.” Will she move back? “Hopefully in the near future,” she says.
Today, this Miamian-by-way-of-New York is juggling not only a star turn on Orange but a plum role in the latest David O. Russell film, Joy, which also features Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro. “It’s hard work, but it just brings out the best in me,” she says of the production. “To share a set with Robert De Niro, that’s a dream come true.”
Polanco’s success is the result of decades of perseverance, and she is not one to forget how valiantly she’s fought to attain it. “Even though I dedicated myself and took the risks, I still ask myself, ‘Why do I deserve this?’” she says. “[But] I’m a grown woman. I’m a Latina, I come from the unknown. I’ve worked to get here, and there’s nothing that I can’t do now.”
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