Dascha Polanco, now in her third season of Orange Is the New Black, proves that fierce individuality still has its place in Hollywood.
Dascha Polanco doesn’t just like truffles—she’s obsessed with them. It’s the kind of obsession that arises from recently dis- covering the expensive and savory delicacy. If truffles were human, she’d be spending this Saturday with them at Neiman Marcus, choosing bed linens together. Instead, she’s at a swanky restaurant in Boston, where she’s shooting David O. Russell’s next Oscar-bait film, Joy. The Dominican American actress, dressed in black, picks at her friend’s club sandwich while she awaits (what else?) the extra truffles she requested for her truffle popcorn, sipping on a White Russian with a pinch of nutmeg. “It adds life to the drink,” she says.
Holding court at the elegant waterfront eatery, this posh Polanco is a far cry from the woman who had a desk job as a medical technician just three years ago. But her undeniable talent mixed with some (maybe lots of) beginner’s luck earned her the plum breakout role that waiters-hoping-to-turn-actors only dream of: her starring role as prison inmate Dayanara “Daya” Diaz on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black. With that success has come a new life of opportunities and glamour (though she freely admits she still likes to eat at Wendy’s). Yet just as her onscreen character is struggling to find herself, Polanco, too, can feel besieged by self-doubt.
“That rawness is what keeps me hungry,” the 32-year-old actress says. “I don’t take anything for granted when I’m given the chance to work with people I’ve admired. I never feel entitled. I don’t think that this is really happening yet. I don’t think that I deserve it.”
For Polanco, the journey is just beginning. Born in the Dominican Republic and raised mostly in the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., Polanco was the oldest of three children of a mechanic father and a mother who aspired to become a teacher.
GO BEHIND THE SCENES AT DASCHA'S JUNE/JULY 2015 COVER SHOOT:
“I remember my mom would take me and my sister and brother with her to Kingsborough Community College,” says Polanco. “She would leave us outside the classroom, and we would wait for her there. Sometimes I would read things for her and help her write [papers]. I was in sixth grade and helping her with homework.”
Polanco herself was an honor roll student with a passion for mathematics and Aesop’s Fables, and with a vivid imagination. She would lock herself in her bedroom and perform dance routines for an audience of Barbie dolls and Cabbage Patch Kids. “I was so into my own world that I would take a ribbon and cotton balls and sew it all up and make little pillows for my Barbies,” Polanco remem- bers. “I was just a creative little girl.”
After more than a decade in Brooklyn, the Polancos moved to Miami for a few years, then headed back to New York, at which point the family started to fall apart. Her parents split, and they sold their house; Polanco even found herself in a homeless shelter for a time with her mom and siblings. Young Dascha worked at a Gap store to help out. And though that meant going to bed at midnight on days when school started at 7 a.m., Polanco took it on and found she liked the independence that a regular salary allowed.
That freedom took a hit, however, when Polanco became a single mother at 18. [Editor’s note: She eventually had another child with a different man; aiming to shield the children from the public spotlight, she has withheld both their names from the press.] Born two months prematurely, her daughter weighed only two pounds and had to be incubated for two months before mother and baby could be united. “She’s a blessing, a mir- acle baby,” Polanco says, “but for a first experience, it was difficult.” She doesn’t recommend having kids at such a young age. “Nothing’s wrong with it; it just makes it a lit- tle bit more challenging,” she says. “The only person that was by my side was my mother.”
CONTINUE READING ON PAGE 2 >>