Dascha Polanco: Trading Scrubs For 'Orange' Jumpsuits Actor Dascha Polanco chats juggling work and nursing school while auditioning for Orange Is the New Black. Then, she tests her nose in a game about essential oils.
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JONATHAN COULTON: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.



Thank you, Jonathan. Our first special guest stars as Daya Diaz on "Orange Is The New Black." Please welcome Dascha Polanco.




POLANCO: Thank you.

EISENBERG: You're welcome. OK. So you were born in the Dominican Republic.

POLANCO: Yes - immigrant.



POLANCO: And I voted for the second time around.

EISENBERG: Yeah. And then you moved to Brooklyn.



POLANCO: I'm from Brooklyn. Like, Brooklyn - what it used to be, when Red Hook was Red Hook.

EISENBERG: Yeah. Yeah. So this was in the early '80s. You moved to Brooklyn.


EISENBERG: So your parents, of course, were focused on you getting a good education. So you get a B.A. in psychology from Hunter College.



POLANCO: First, I got Kingsborough. I got my two-year degree. Thank you.


POLANCO: That's a big accomplishment.


POLANCO: And then I went to Hunter, and then my B.A.

EISENBERG: And then you're working in the medical field.

POLANCO: While I was in college.

EISENBERG: While you were in college...


EISENBERG: ...Studying to be a nurse.

POLANCO: I was never a college student without working.


POLANCO: I had to work and educate myself...


POLANCO: ...Which was very exhausting.

EISENBERG: Exhausting.

POLANCO: And I was working the overnight. And then I would rush to Hunter - 8 o'clock in the morning, organic chem.


EISENBERG: The easiest class to take at that time.

POLANCO: Easiest. But I did get an A minus though.



POLANCO: Which - I was miserable because I was taking classes there. And Hunter, you know, they specialize also in performing arts.


POLANCO: And I wanted to do it so badly.

EISENBERG: And you'd just see all the performing arts people there.

POLANCO: Oh, my God. I couldn't stand them. I was, like, I'm so jealous.

EISENBERG: So what pushed you over the edge as an adult with responsibilities and bills to pay and, like, you're on this other path to go no, I'm actually going to try to pursue my dream?

POLANCO: It was complaining every day and being miserable.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) Yeah.

POLANCO: And it was always, like, telling myself, am I going to reach a certain time in my life where I'm going to look back and regret it or am I going to look back and say I risked it? And at least I risked it. But at this point, risking it was the best thing that I ever did, right?



EISENBERG: I mean, the first gig that you get is - it's an indie film called "Gimme Shelter."


EISENBERG: But, I mean, it was - kind of had some heavy hitters in it. Vanessa Hudgens was in it. Rosario Dawson was in it.

POLANCO: James Earl Jones.

EISENBERG: James Earl Jones.

POLANCO: Which was - I'm most excited about. I was like oh, my God - "Coming To America."

EISENBERG: Yeah. Yeah.

POLANCO: Because I was obsessed. I know everybody watches, like, "Star Wars." But for me, it was, like, "Coming To America."

EISENBERG: So then a year later, you were about to walk away from acting.

POLANCO: Yeah, like a year and a half later because at the time, I needed consistency.

EISENBERG: Right. And you're not just taking care of yourself.

POLANCO: No, I have...

EISENBERG: You have family.

POLANCO: I have family. You know, I'm a parent of two. And I also lived with my siblings and my nieces and my partner at the time, my fiance. So there was a lot going on.


POLANCO: And I had to either choose, am I going to continue doing this or am I going to be secure and keep, you know, the two jobs that I had at the time? I was taught and I believe that when you set your mind to do something, you have to be the top. You have to be the best at whatever it is, whether it's, like, custodian. Then you're going to be the manager of custodians.

EISENBERG: That's right.

POLANCO: You have to be like set your standards and your bar - your bars high.

EISENBERG: And take pride in what you do.

POLANCO: Yes. So I was doing that on the weekends and trying to figure out how I was going to fit in the clinicals and to, you know, complete the program, which is really tough to get into. Nursing programs are like a lottery. Like, it's 200 kids. And that's when I decided to say, I can't do this. I just have to give up. And I get the call for...

EISENBERG: For "Orange Is The New Black."

POLANCO: ..."Orange Is The New Black." By the way, I didn't know what it was. I was, like, whatever, I'll just audition and it is what it is.


POLANCO: Who cares?

EISENBERG: So what was your audition day like?

POLANCO: It was a day that I had to work overnight...

EISENBERG: (Laughter) So perfect already.

POLANCO: ...With my luck. And I totally mixed up the time. And I was in my sweats. And my hair was like - you know, when you work overnight, I think that you just look like a zombie throughout the day. I wasn't in my best appearance. I was not going to put on makeup. I was just going to go get it over with. It was at that point where I was like, I really don't care.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) Right.

POLANCO: I need to focus on like this nursing thing. And keep on doing what I got to do. At least I got one role of something. I thought it was at 1:30. And actually, the audition was at 12:45 - girl.


POLANCO: Luckily, there was no cops because I got in that Volkswagen (unintelligible).

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

POLANCO: And I got to the city. And I went inside the room. I read for Jen. And I left. And I was like, whatever. I just - it is what it is.


POLANCO: I went home. I continued my life. And I get the call, oh, you got a call back. And I'm like what? Yes, you got a call back. You have to go Saturday. And I'm like, who auditions on a Saturday? I have clinicals on Saturday.

EISENBERG: So what did you tell them?

POLANCO: I was honest with her. And I did something that you're not supposed to do if you audition. And I told them, can you please push the audition, like, an hour? She was like, oh, no problem. It's Saturday. We have a lot of people. I was like, yo.


POLANCO: So I had to finish the dummy - the patient that was a dummy.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) Yeah.

POLANCO: You know, because we're doing clinicals. So you actually have to take care of the dummies as if they're patients...


POLANCO: ...And take their vitals. And I was like, I can't win...

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

POLANCO: ...Even with make-believe people. (Laughter) So I had to do that and then go to the audition. And then I auditioned.

EISENBERG: Wow. And then it works out.

POLANCO: Then on Monday, I get the call from my manager saying, oh, my God. You booked it. I can never forget the words. You booked it. Your life is going to change - oh, my God. And I'm like, what?


POLANCO: I just went outside and I started crying. I'm like, what the hell is going on? But at the same time, I was like, I'm not leaving my job. This is not - come on. It can't be.

EISENBERG: You didn't trust it.



POLANCO: I stayed working even when I was in "Orange."


EISENBERG: For how long?

POLANCO: Till after the show came out, and then they fired me.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) Well...


POLANCO: But it was the best thing ever because I wouldn't have let it go. And I wouldn't have embraced being an actress.


POLANCO: Looking back, I can say, yeah, I'm an actress.

EISENBERG: The real deal.

POLANCO: Yeah, you could - I actually have credits...

EISENBERG: Yes, you have.

POLANCO: ...Which is good.

EISENBERG: That's amazing.

POLANCO: It's a good thing.

EISENBERG: No, it's amazing.


EISENBERG: And not only that, "Orange Is The New Black" is in its seventh season.

POLANCO: Yeah - and last.

EISENBERG: Last and - seventh and...


EISENBERG: ...Last season. And actually, you do some advocacy work with incarcerated women who...

POLANCO: Yeah. Yeah.

EISENBERG: ...Are trying to get back on their feet. And a lot of them are mothers.


EISENBERG: Is that, in part, inspired by your character Daya who had - in the show, your character has a baby.

POLANCO: I mean, it makes sense.


POLANCO: Right? - because of that. But I think that it's just because I'm a woman, and I also have family members that are incarcerated. And I think that it's not only women, I think also men. And me having the opportunity to portray these - a story and belong to such a show that's so important, I think, in the times of when it came out and what it has done. This show has so much affect with people, with artists, with real-life discussions - political discussions.

EISENBERG: With women.

POLANCO: Yeah. Yeah.

EISENBERG: I mean - yeah.

POLANCO: Even the opportunity that it lent to many of us - without "Orange," it's - I wouldn't have had a chance. I mean, I don't think that I'm more deserving than others. But for some reason, I was given that opportunity. And so, like, why not give back?

EISENBERG: Absolutely.

POLANCO: You know?


POLANCO: And, like, spread that energy so it keeps on repeating itself.


POLANCO: Don't make me go deep...

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

POLANCO: ...Because I can get real deep.

EISENBERG: All right. Dascha, are you ready for your ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?


EISENBERG: OK. So, Dascha, we did a little Instagram stalking of you. And we know you're fond of the #ISmellGood.

POLANCO: Do I? I do.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) You love perfumes.

POLANCO: I do. I love smelling good. I love how confident I feel when I walk into a room and that speaks before me and leaves...


POLANCO: ...A story behind.

EISENBERG: And people are like - I'm sure you - people are always like, oh, my goodness. Let me smell you. Right?



POLANCO: ...All the time.

EISENBERG: I know. OK. So your game is a breakthrough in olfactory trivia technology.


EISENBERG: It's called Smell This.


EISENBERG: I am going to pass you a vial containing an essential oil.



EISENBERG: Your task is to identify the scent.


EISENBERG: And if you do well enough, listener Vicky Mahoney (ph) from Philadelphia, Pa., will win an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.

POLANCO: Oh, man, OK. I'm going to do this for you.

EISENBERG: But I'm here with you, and we have lots of material to work with.

POLANCO: OK. So I work with Ron Winnegrad. And he's like a perfumist. And he's taught me how to develop my smelling techniques. This is, like, a real thing.

EISENBERG: This is fantastic.


EISENBERG: OK. So how do you do it?

POLANCO: First of all, I have to close my eyes because it's - you have to smell. You can't think about it.

EISENBERG: Good. Yeah.



POLANCO: There's a technique to it. You know what I mean?


POLANCO: You have to go back and forth because sometimes, your olfactory bulb...


POLANCO: Nursing.

EISENBERG: Yeah, yeah. You're on the right show for that.

POLANCO: I mean, everything is connected.

EISENBERG: People love that. Yeah, good, good.

POLANCO: Everything is connected - human anatomy. But let's do this. Come on.

EISENBERG: OK, so here we go. Number one - the plant this oil comes from is a member of the mint family. Ancient Romans used it in baths, and ancient Egyptians used it during the mummification process.

POLANCO: OK. Well, I wasn't crazy about history. But...

EISENBERG: Here you go.

POLANCO: Oh, my God.

EISENBERG: Some people use it as a sleep aid.

POLANCO: Oh, this is lavender.

EISENBERG: Yeah. That's right.


EISENBERG: OK. Here's your next one. This oil comes from a tree that supposedly got its name in the 1700s when British explorer Captain James Cook used its leaves to brew a beverage. However, the oil is toxic and should not be ingested.

POLANCO: It smells so nutmeg-ish but it's not.

EISENBERG: It's in a lot of shampoos.

POLANCO: It's not tea tree.

EISENBERG: Yeah, that's tea tree.

POLANCO: That can't be tea tree.


EISENBERG: That's tea tree.

POLANCO: That does not smell like tea tree. Are you sure these oils are not mixed up?


POLANCO: That is...

EISENBERG: Oh, that's tea tree. Come on now.

POLANCO: No. I have tea tree.


POLANCO: I refuse to believe that's tea tree. What brand is this?

EISENBERG: An inferior brand, clearly.


POLANCO: I'm going to have to go and punish my nose.

EISENBERG: OK. This is going to be fine. The plant species this oil comes from is used to make citronella candles to repel mosquitoes.

POLANCO: Oh, my God. (Unintelligible).

EISENBERG: But some beekeepers also use this oil to attract honeybees.

POLANCO: I don't like this smell.

EISENBERG: No, it's really strong.

POLANCO: It's like lemon grass.

EISENBERG: Yeah, that's it, lemon grass.


EISENBERG: This is your last clue. This oil comes from a plant that grows quickly and is considered an invasive species in parts of the United States - commonly used in Christmas candy.

POLANCO: Peppermint.

EISENBERG: Yeah, you're amazing. Congratulations, Dascha. You and Vicky Mahoney won ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cubes.


EISENBERG: Dascha Polanco stars in "Orange Is The New Black." The seventh and final season premieres on Netflix in summer of 2019.


EISENBERG: Thank you so much. You were amazing.

POLANCO: Thank you.

EISENBERG: Give it up for Dascha Polanco.


EISENBERG: Want our next special guest to play for you? Follow ASK ME ANOTHER on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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