EXCLUSIVE: Jackie Cruz on OITNB Season 5, Advocating for the Latinx Community & More

The wait is finally over! Orange is the New Black makes it highly-anticipated return today with an explosive new season.

Jackie Cruz is back as our beloved Flaca, handling the aftermath of season four's most unexpected death the only way she knows how — living in her own little bubble, along with bestie Maritza (played by Diane Guerrero). We recently caught up with the 30-year-old Dominican-American to discuss season five, Flaca's evolution, her struggles in Hollywood as a Dominicana and more.

Read it all in our exclusive interview below:

We hear season five takes place over the course of only three days, what else can you tell use in terms of what fans can expect?

Justice. We're fighting for justice. Unity. Satisfaction. Everyone is doing their own thing. The riot is happening because of what happened in Season 4. Everyone is handling it a different way. It's really interesting how the whole season is only three days. I didn't know Jenji [Kohan] was going to do that, but she's a genius. She works miracles. It’s kind of been interesting and amazing how she started it all up. You're going to keep wanting more after this season.

What can you tell us about your character Flaca this season?

I can't really say much. I don't want to spoil it for you, either. The way everyone handles the riot is different. Flaca is unique and she does her own thing with her best friend [Maritza]. I just can't really say much. They handled it really differently in their own little world. It's going to be really funny and interesting to watch.

How you describe Flaca's evolution from season one to now?

How would I describe her evolution? Well, that’s a great question. She started with two lines. I didn’t know why she was in prison, how she got there, what the tear drop was, if she was a gangster — I didn’t know anything. So throughout the years I started to know more and more about Flaca and how complex she is, and how interesting and kind she is. The whole like tear drop thing is all a disguise. She's not really hardcore at all. She puts on this mask to protect herself from the people around her. She didn’t want to seem weak but she became this other, hardcore person that she truly isn't. I just feel like we've learned so much about her in the last few years, especially season 3 where we get to meet her family. But I feel like I want to know more about her, and we have a few more seasons — hopefully she's in them and we get to find out more about her.

What have you learned after doing OITNB for the last 4-5 years?

So much! I've learned so much in my acting skills. I've learned so much from the prison and from the people in prison. Especially what's happening in prison — I've learned that it's corrupt and that it’s a business. Sometimes people are in there, in a private prison, so they can make more money. I've learned that, even with Flaca's backstory and how the girls are making panties for $1 an hour, that's true. There are businesses that have people in prison doing these things. It’s almost like slavery in a way, because they pay you a quarter or 50 cents. I learned a lot of things. Also, not to judge people that are in prison because we never know how they got in there. Maybe they were with somebody, maybe they got caught up in the wrong crowd. I used to be judgmental of people in prison, including my own family, who some have been in and out of prison. I don’t judge. I am openhearted and open-minded. They're humans just like us, who made a mistake and obviously got caught and had to pay.

OITNB certainly features a diverse cast, but this hasn’t always been the case on screen and we certainly still have work to do. When is the first time you would say you saw yourself depicted on screen?

That’s really funny because Netflix is doing  #TheFirstTimeISawMe. My answer to that was that I never saw anyone that represented who I was. I'm Dominican-American. Dominicans come from all types of places. They’re European, Spanish, African. I feel like I shouldn’t have been put in a box because I'm all kinds of things. Hollywood is used to one particular Latin face and they're not used to my face. It was really hard to get representation 10 years ago. When I was 15, I tried really hard to get representation and I didn't until I was 18. It took me three years to get an agent because they didn’t know where to place me. Hollywood is not overcoming the problem right now, but slowly but surely, with shows like Orange is the New Black, we're starting to see more brown faces and audiences are finding themselves on TV. In OITNB, there are eight different types of Latinas; we’re all different colors and sizes. Someone is going to connect somehow, and that is something really important that Hollywood needs to get because even though I'm in this sick show, all of us are struggling to get another role in a movie or something. We all audition for the same role or maybe there is one Latin role. It's very difficult for all of us right now. We're opening our own things. I'm opening my own production company called Unspoken Productions.

We know you penned an essay for Refinery29, where you not only described the struggle of being a Latina actress, but Dominican specifically because Hollywood has steered toward the idea that Latinas are only Mexican-American. How do you feel this has changed? What are some struggles that you’re still facing today? 

We're all auditioning for that one Latin role. I literally just got a text from my agent saying, “This movie that is about Latin women and it is about a Mexican person, but the lead actress is not Mexican, she's Puerto Rican but the other characters should be Mexican.” And I was told that I'm not authentic Mexican, and I said, "No, but Flaca is Mexican and that's how the people know me.” They’re like, “They're adamant on having a Mexican person.” Basically, I'm not Mexican enough. I just got that again two days ago. I'm still having the same problem. The same problem that I'm not "Latin" enough.

It really, really breaks my heart. It breaks my heart that I don't even have the opportunity to audition because they don’t think I'm Mexican enough. Let me show you what I can do and then make the decision. When I auditioned for OITNB, they did not know where I was from. I was just a random person, who auditioned for Flaca in NY, while I was still waitressing. They thought I was Mexican, so they made Flaca Mexican. They had an imagination. It's so weird. Hollywood doesn't have an imagination. We're supposed to be acting right? I just don’t understand.

Completely agree. Hollywood is so caught up with this idea of whether actors and actresses fit the stereotype that they're not giving people the opportunity to showcase their talent.

Yeah! It's like let me at least try or show you what I can do before you close the door on me because I'm not Mexican, or not authentic. I feel like Hollywood always takes maybe one Latin girl every five years. They don’t want to risk money for any new faces — new Latin faces especially. It’s very frustrating and that's why its given me the courage and ambition to create my own work that I'm doing right now. That's what we're all doing. Even the Oscars last year, they were complaining about one ethnicity and this year it was like black and white, but what about brown? Why can’t it be inclusive and give opportunities to all of us? People want to see themselves on TV.  Why can't we show them who they are? It's really, really frustrating to me. That’s why I said I want the "white girl" role because I believe a lot of girls in lead roles are for white women, and I'm not saying it's easy for them. But I definitely think if I have the same talent as someone else and she was white and I’m Latin, I feel like they'd choose her for the role. It’s just the way Hollywood is right now. They don’t understand that Latin people are a strong muscle. This is just an example, but Diane [Guerrero] and I did a little skit with Itati Cantoral, and it has 30 million views. I mean that’s ridiculous. That's insane. It shows that Latin people are seeing themselves and they're excited to see themselves on TV. The numbers speak for themselves.

That's incredible. We’re faithful that you're going to do big things because you're such an advocate for our community, and that goes into my next question. You've become a huge voice for Latinxs, what’s your message to them and what's your next goal when it comes to advocating for our community?

I want inclusivity. I want to break barriers. I want to make roles not only for myself, but also for others like me. Orange gave a chance to someone like me, who didn't really have anything on her resume. So I just want to give chances to people who are creative and talented. That's what I care about the most, talent. I don’t care what you look like. I definitely want to continue advocating for what I believe in as well — immigration reform, prison reform, even environmental awareness, with what's happening with our world. My voice, I didn’t know how important it was until I started using it and I'm not going to stop now because I’m getting a good reaction. Maybe some people don't like my opinion, but I'm still going to say it.