"I worried Maria would be a caricature of a Latin woman," Jessica Pimentel on her 'Orange is the New Black' character
In the lead up to this delightfully messy character's return in the sixth OITNB season arriving this July, the actress shared some early insights, teasing season 6, Maria's future.
Mere existence can get grueling and grinding at the Litchfield Penitentiary and who knows this better than the ladies of 'Orange is the New Black', Netflix's prestige prison-series that will soon be back with more drama and upheaval.
The last season was nothing short of strenuous, especially after the inmates decided to raise hell (read a riot), forcing an emergency team to take control of the situation. Moving forward, there are serious consequences in store, especially for a certain Maria Ruiz - who served as more than just a catalyst to the eventful course of season 5. Ever since fans were introduced to this gritty, fearless yet vulnerable character, brought to life by actress Jessica Pimentel, there has been a sense of consistency with her portrayal.
She adapts according to the circumstances, molds herself as per the crisis and doesn't hold back at all - a quality highlighted better by her transition through the seasons and the heartbreaks.
In Pimentel's own words, Maria can be best described as the "product of her nature".
In days leading up to this delightfully messy character's return, in the sixth OITNB season arriving this July, we couldn't help but wonder what surprises the show would pack for its loyalists this time around. Thankfully, Pimentel is here to share some early insights, remaining as vague as possible, teasing season 6, Maria's future, and some of her personal journey - both an as actress and the frontwoman of a heavy metal band, Alekhine's Gun.
Read her full interview with Meaww below.
By the end of the last season of Orange Is The New Black, Maria Ruiz had established herself as a fearless character who is ready to go to any length. What does it mean for you to play a character so strong yet vulnerable?
Jessica Pimentel: It is truly an honor to play Maria because she is so multifaceted. Her vulnerability comes from her strength. Or, maybe her strength comes from her vulnerability because she has an intense loyalty and love towards her family, especially for her daughter. So when you have one motivating factor that keeps you going you have a reason to live, but when that factor is taken away from her, you see Maria kind of go off the rails some of which I think is a very natural thing to happen when someone is separated from their family and especially their child. Somehow though, Maria has the resilience to never give up hope that one day she will see her daughter again. I think that all mothers to some degree have this hope which is given to them by their children. They find a strength to move obstacles, which if they were alone, they would simply avoid and turn their back on.
Her maternal instincts are 10/10 but the same can't be said for her moral compass...
JP: If her moral compass [pointed] 100% true North, she wouldn't be in jail in the first place. Maria is a product of her nature, and her nurturing which was growing up surrounded by gang violence, which may have been more than she was able to overcome even though she tried. We all make sacrifices and do things that some people may not agree with. We have to remember to be compassionate towards others by putting ourselves in their shoes and by knowing that it's not necessarily the action but the motivation behind the action - that is what really counts. For example, we may say stealing is wrong. It says so in the Bible. It says so in every religion. It says so in the law of most countries, but if your family is starving and if you have a child that is sick or hurt you might consider stealing in order to help your child. You cannot judge the action of others until you truly put yourself in a position of complete desperation. And you will be very surprised at the things that you're capable of doing when you have nothing left and you're at the end of your rope.
Where is Maria headed for after that emotional reunion with her daughter? Is she done with Litchfield for good?
JP: Well, considering that season 6 is about to come out we can say (tongue in cheek) that yes she is done with Litchfield but that doesn't mean that she is done. After seeing her child, which she fought so hard for, Maria now faces a whole different kind of suffering and extreme consequences. It's like opening up the scab of a wound. She has gone and ripped [that thing] open making the suffering even more intense and the scar even deeper. She struggles desperately to try to understand and correct her wrong actions and find some inner peace.
Part of the job - starring as an inmate - we assume, involves filming intense and even unsettling scenes? How do you deal with it? Are there any repercussions?
JP: Making these unsettling scenes are crucial to telling these stories; so I see it as a responsibility to open the eyes of others to emotions, circumstances, issues, and people that we tend to neglect, nullify and avoid in our society. Given the current state of affairs in the world, it is very easy to draw inspiration from painful material happening every day to get to a place emotionally to [make that happen]. Sometimes I use personal experiences, or simply use the Buddhist practice called "exchanging oneself with others" to try to get myself to a place where I can truly live freely in the moment. I also know that it's not real even though I am bringing my real instrument of body, speech, mind, and emotion to the filming; I also know how to let it go when we are done. The only time I suffer repercussions is if I do not fully commit and still hold on to some of the feelings or if I draw on something that is too personally close to me and digs up some memories that have not been fully resolved within myself. I tend not to use those as they are hard to shake off at the end of the day. Also, after a very heavy scene I tend to turn on the happiest, most joyous music I can think of and take the character Maria off as I take off my costume and spend some quality time with friends and family laughing and rejoicing in the good things of life, hoping my efforts have made a difference in someone's life.
Your character has also battled depression, how does it all work out? Do you take special care of these aspects?
JP: If anyone has a reason to feel depressed, it's Maria. She has sacrificed her whole life for others, literally. She did everything she could to avoid the very thing that she has become. It's quite possible that Maria may have lived her entire life with depression as many of us do. Even though from season 1 through season 5 Maria has done several (seemingly) bad things, it is in her flashback that you see that she is really a smart and loving girl. She wants to become a dental hygienist because she wants to make people smile. So whether she is chronically depressed because she was born that way or she's depressed because of her circumstances, that is always an underlying note in the character of Maria.
There is a deep sense of longing and sorrow that's built into her. From leaving and disowning her family and culture as a teenager (and there is no mention of what has happened to her mother) to starting a new family with her boyfriend and her baby (who is also taken away), Maria never truly had a genuinely happy moment in her life. Everything is tinged with desperation. I think there are many people out there who unfortunately have to live in this kind of misery. Even though they may take some joy in the small moments (like when Maria gets to see her child), those small moments are like holding a candle in a pitch black night. That candle gives no significant warmth or illumination and at any moment it may be blown out.
The show touches base on several pertinent issues - from black lives matter to LGBTQ to mental health - what's the takeaway from your part so far?
JP: It's really amazing how 'Orange is the New Black' has been able to touch on so many relevant subjects within our 6-year run. I think it's wonderful to be able to drive home the subject in a way that isn't bashing [fans] over the head with the subject. It's done in a really personal, honest, heartfelt and poignant way so that the viewer can really see how these subjects unfold and, in a way, experience the negative impact and consequences through our characters. I know, I had never thought about what happens to pregnant women and their babies in prison until I came across Maria. I think that many of us worry about the things that directly impact our immediate lives or what we think may impair our futures. We stay in our personal wheelhouse of what we need to know to survive. But here you see things in a way not told with bias or in the throes of extreme grief or terror. You're seeing these things unravel before you, beginning to end. I personally know people whose hearts have softened and minds have changed about many of the social issues we present.
When you joined the cast of OITNB, did you foresee the recognition coming your way, for playing Maria?
JP: Absolutely not. Netflix was not nearly as popular as when we first began. In fact, when auditioning for the show we referred to it as "that computer show" since all we knew was that [the show] was going to be streaming and not [be aired] on a network. I knew it would be something special because of Jenji Kohan [creator], but we didn't know anything more about it. In fact, at first, we didn't even get the full script. I just got the scenes that I was in that episode, so we had no idea what was going on in the rest of the show.
And fans' reactions were and still are overwhelming at times. We have reached so many people around the globe and to see and hear their heartfelt reactions to our work is a humbling joy.
It won't be a stretch to say that you are leading a dual life - as an actress and lead vocalist of Alekhine's Gun. How do you juggle between filming and recording?
JP: I don't think that my life is dual. My music is just another form of self-expression. It is far more personal than acting in the sense that we create our own material and have full control over our creation and performance. As Maria's role has gotten larger it has been more challenging to juggle between the two, but everyone in my band is in another band, myself included, (I'm currently doing backing vocals for Brujeria) and we do our best to work around each other's bands, work, school and family schedules.
Speaking of fronting a heavy metal band, what is it like to be performing as part of a genre predominantly crowded by male artists? Any specific challenges?
JP: Music has been a part of my entire life. It is where I feel most free. The heavy metal music spoke to my heart specifically because of its power, freedom, and intensity. It spoke to my young frustrations, anger, sadness, and dissatisfaction. Being a bit of a tom-boy I did not easily fit into what society said I was supposed to be. Growing up in a primarily matriarchal family, also gave me a very strong sense of self-worth. Although all the women in my family are excellent mothers, wives, and homemakers, they were also extremely self-reliant, well educated, independent and hard-working women. Of course, there are challenges being in a predominantly male environment but ask yourself, aren't most workforces like that now?
So what we must continue to do is to follow that instinct... in whatever speaks to your heart and go with it full-force so that the mindsets of the young men and women and kids out there begins to change. You must do it without fear of criticism or fear of failure. We are all on this planet to learn from each other and experience has no gender. Spirit is not male or female so we must fight and let go of what we have been told about what we should be and strive to rise to our fullest potential.
[On a sidenote, Pimentel tells us, "I find that people who criticized the most and love to point out what they consider weaknesses are those who suffer from those very things themselves."]
Are there any new EPs on the line?
JP: Alekhine's Gun has been compiling new material, we hope to record by the end of the year.
Your journey makes us wonder, did music lead to acting or vice versa?
JP: I started playing the Violin at a very young age. But as a teenager, I began experiencing problems with my hands and wrists and I knew that a concert violinist career was not in my future. At the time I was enrolled in LaGuardia high school (aka Fame) as a music Major and I was able to audition for and be accepted into the drama program there while still being able to take classes in music theory. As Violin was pretty painful for me to play, I started exploring other options musically, playing in punk, hardcore and metal bands which included guitars, bass, and percussion which were much easier on my hands and wrists. And I was also able to explore vocals and lyric writing, which I could use along with acting and poetry and in expressing myself. It is a great release, an amazing outlet for someone who thinks outside of the box.
What was your reaction when you first got the call to play a Latina, in jail, and pregnant in OITNB. How has the progression been since that casting call till now?
JP: I had no idea what this character was going to be, like other than a pregnant Latina in jail. That's all I knew about her. I was worried that it would be a continuation of the pattern of roles that I have been getting time and time again such as hooker, prostitute, call girl, drug dealer's girlfriend, drug dealer's wife, and I was worried that it would be a two-dimensional throwaway character that would be a complete caricature and stereotype of what a Latin woman is. But knowing that Jenji [Kohan] was involved and how much she loves her female characters, I had a feeling that that was not going to be the case. As you can see many years later, all of these characters are well-rounded, well written, and extremely deep.
As a recognized actor and singer, you must be habituated to being approached by fans, are they more of your music's fan or of the show's?
JP: I really love when fans come up and show appreciation for anything that moves them. It takes courage to do that. Many of the music fans are also fans of the show. But not all of them know about it. But that's not the case, the other way around. So a lot of people who love [Orange is the New Black] are truly shocked when they find out that I am a metalhead. It's been on more than one occasion where I have promoted a show on social media and people come out expecting to see and meet Maria (or the actress that plays Maria in red carpet glamour). They stand right up front and scream 'Maria, Maria, Maria' until the music begins and I come out screaming like a monster, face covered in "corpse paint" or a loud distorted instrument and then... there's a blank stare that crosses their faces as they see that "Maria" is not in the building.
Sometimes we win them over, sometimes they cry and leave horrified. I love it either way. We get so caught up on "image"... it's wonderful when you get to shatter someone's perception of who they think you are.
There's a lot going on for you, with your band and the show, does it get hectic, messy or adds on to your focus? What's the balancing act?
JP: I am a Tibetan Buddhist. Meditation is part of my daily life. Staying focused as well as being in the moment helps with anxiety and stress, which I cause mostly by worrying about things that don't even exist. I try to keep a calendar and a to-do list, but I also remember that sometimes life will sidetrack your plans.. and that's ok because sometimes when we get sidetracked, we are led somewhere we need to be, which we didn't even know. I try to remain as disciplined as possible but allow and respect the comings and goings of inspiration and never force things that don't feel right. And mostly remember there is no finish line. Do everything, do anything, do nothing if that's what inspires you.