With Orange Is the New Black confirmed for its seventh season on Netflix, Dascha Polanco, who plays Dayanara Diaz on the show, is just now starting to refer to herself as an actress.

“Never thought that I could say that,” she told to The Call’s Erica Williams Simon. “For me to even say that now, it feels so good. I’m an actress. I’m a working actress.”

Though acting called to her from an early age, the Dominican Republic-born daughter of immigrants instead prioritized a career path within the medical field. “We’re not taught culturally to reach for your dreams,” she said, explaining the cautionary advice her extended family often gave her: “Just be a lawyer, be a doctor. You’re not going to make money being a singer. You’re not going to make money being an actress.”

“But I can understand why,” she said. “We’re taught to be secure and educate [ourselves] and get [our] degree and have that safety net.” She chose the safety net, graduated with two degrees, began working in the medical field as a laparoscopic technician, then set her sights on becoming a nurse. This was also, if you can believe it, around this same time that she began to take steps toward pursuing her dream of acting.

But the rest was not immediately “just history,” as they say. It’s never really that simple, is it? Dascha’s path from then to where she is today, a full-time working actor and bonafide star on Orange Is the New Black, is inspiring to say the least. It’s exactly the kind of thing The Call is all about.

Throughout this episode, in addition to sharing her winding career trajectory (you’ll hold your breath when she takes you through the stressful parts of balancing auditions with her non-stop work schedule), Dascha Polanco talks to Erica about her roots and how they’ve shaped her; raising her children with high self-esteem; learning to believe in herself; learning put herself first and what all of that means.

It’s hard to not walk away from this interview rooting for Dascha and believing more in yourself, too.

On Her Experience Working on Orange Is the New Black

I can truly say that having come from nothing and being able to be here today — to be able to reflect back on having a dream and knowing what you’re supposed to do, but not knowing how to get there, and then finally getting the opportunity to be able to do something you love — it’s something that really fulfills you in such a way, it just grounds you. It makes you feel in tune with with your soul, with your presence here.

In these past six years, I’ve grown so much. So much has happened in such little time … I never expected so much to happen, and I have to like, stay up with it. There are times that I have to like check myself, or have to look back and say, “I was just at the food stamp office.” Or like, where am I going to bum my ride? You know what I mean?

It’s not like I made millions off Orange, you know what I mean, just being honest. It’s not lucrative … I’m starting. And I disclose that because people have a misconception. So many people say, “Well, I hope you’re saving your money.” “Well, I hope you’re able to buy something when you leave here.” And I take it in and I appreciate it, but then again, I say, “You know, I come from the struggle and having to worry about the bills that I’ve accumulated.” So I’m taking care of what I have, what I had to put aside so that I could live and take care of my family. Even though it’s a beautiful thing and yes, it’s great to to do this, at the same time, there’s things that you carry along that you have to remind yourself of every day.

On Not Seeing Herself When She Was Younger — and How OITNB Is Helping to Change That

Knowing that I was like a chunky, curvy little girl with a uniform … I was not seeing myself on TV. I did not see anyone that looked like me. Maybe Iris Chacon, but then she was only in the Spanish market, so it didn’t really make as much [of an] impact as much Selena did.

When Selena came out and she had like this body, I was like, Oh my God. I have a butt. I could probably do it, too. Everybody else seemed so skinny, and I was just not a skinny girl. So, for me, that was hope. That was like, oh, well maybe I do have a chance.

I took some drama classes, and there was some teachers that were really mean and, [who] would make me feel as if I wasn’t as talented as the white girl in class. I would be like, well, I have such a unique name, I need to change my name to Stephanie or like, Cindy. Just to try to fit in. And maybe if I looked that way, maybe I could get the equal opportunity of becoming an actress.

With shows like Orange, what we’re seeing on social media platforms, on TV, I think that little girls, even when they come up to me, they’re like, “Oh my God I love you. I wanna be like you. You inspire me,” I think that that’s what was missing.

On Life Before Acting and the Moment She Got the Call That Changed Everything

At one time in my life, I worked three jobs and was going to my clinicals doing nursing. … I would watch shows and I would always complain and say I’m not happy. My partner at the time [grew] tired of that and looked online [for acting and auditions training]. I was like, “Alright, I’ll try it. Let’s see where it goes.” I sacrificed my weekends and I took some of my finances and invested it in myself, started going to [the training sessions] and that’s how I met my manager.

[While working at the hospital], I would wait for auditions to come in. I’d take a day off, PTOs, sick days and go audition. I was able to book my first movie, Give Me Shelter. It was a little, small role. I was like, Well, at least they’re gonna see my face. … It was the moment of letting go of my insecurity as a woman, following [my] dream, taking a risk. That one opportunity, that one opportunity that was given to me, allowed me to say, “I can try this again and even if it doesn’t work, I’m okay.”

I was able to book a guest star [role] on another show, Unforgettable. And then, you know, reality [struck] and I was like, This is hard and I can’t be doing this. I have to just stick to my job, finish my nursing and then, maybe later on, continue to do it. And I remember, at that time, this audition for Orange came in so unexpectedly. I had surrendered. I had just said, You know what? Focus on managing this hospital and managing the other one. Make your money. Save it and do what you have to do and just, give that a break ’cause it’s too much. I’m a hustler. I need to be making money. I need to take care of what I have to take care of. You know, I was already living to a certain standard. I was not gonna go and go on public assistance again. I wasn’t doing it again. I’m not going back. Once I move forward, it’s forward that I’m going.

At the time, I was working at Long Island College Hospital in Downtown Brooklyn. I was there from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., and then I had to go to Montefiore [Medical Center] in the Bronx from 3 p.m. to 11 p.m.

[When my manager called me to tell me I got the part], he was screaming on the phone: “You booked it. You don’t understand, your life is gonna change.” And I took a moment. I walked out to that dock and I just started to cry in my lab coat.

I was like, Oh my god. What’s gonna happen now? I have to work. How am I gonna get away, get out of this? I was not in the present moment. If I would have taken just like, five minutes to just sit there and enjoy that moment. … I didn’t. I kind of just sat there and cried. “Now what I’m gonna do?”

Learning to Say That She Is, in Fact, an Actress

We’re so focused on everything else but our moment and ourselves. I look back and I’m, like, Wow, I remember that I couldn’t say that I was an actress. Never thought that I could say that. For me to even say that now, it feels so good. I’m an actress. I’m a working actress.

And to be able to say, how long have you been doing this? “Um, I’ve been doing this for six years.” I not only have a corporate resume, but I have an acting resume that’s quite heavy. It has some credibility to it, you know what I mean?

I’m having an epiphany right now, where I’m like, “Damn. Dascha, you’re a fucking actress, yo. You’re an actress.” I live this. I need to live it more and I’m starting to live it more and own it and say that I deserve it. And that I earned this, that I deserve this. And I’m no more special than any other person out there. I think everybody has a great thing that they can dedicate themselves to. And I was given the opportunity and the blessings to be able to walk in this journey and to trip and to fall and to stand up and keep on going. And to be proud of that. I’m part of this success. I’m part of it.

On Advice She’d Give to Her Younger Self

I would tell my 18-year-old self that I don’t have to carry the weight of taking care of others. That’s not my responsibility. I only have to take care of myself, and as selfish as it might sound, thrive, girl. It’s about you right now.

Even though I love my daughter to death, girl, you better not have unprotected sex, girl. Come on, protect yourself. You don’t need to have a baby right now. I wouldn’t change it, but I’m just saying; I would give myself that advice because it ain’t easy. It isn’t easy, but it’s a beautiful thing to be able to grow with your daughter.

What I would tell people out there, to the people of the world: Be aware. … Be aware of what you’re feeling and what you’re going through. Speak about it. Don’t feel any less than or more than … and be here. Be present.

Photographed by Edith Young at Tribeca Journal Studio; Styled by Amelia Diamond; Market assistance by Elizabeth Tamkin. Hair by Felicia BurrowsMakeup by Keita Moore

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