Dascha Polanco appeared on the show Desus and Mero on Showtime in 2019, where she revealed a technique of using various emojis to memorize lines. She further explains to me during our interview that she’s a “visual learner” and the emoji usage is still wildly effective but varies depending on the action of the line. For example, Polanco says she will use a middle finger if she’s mad or a hand and a peach signifying something sexual. She also revealed that she translates her English lines into Spanish to learn them faster because she grew up bilingual. When I ask about other unique acting tactics, she describes a rejection of the overcomplicated. “The act of acting as an artist is really just doing,” she says. “There’s people that go into the deep layers, but we ourselves don’t live our lives like that. If you’re making a sandwich, you’re not thinking about, ‘How am I making this sandwich?’ I really think about the action part of it and then it evokes emotions.” While understanding the scope of a character’s backstory is important, Polanco’s perspective on acting — and life, I later discover — lies in her ability to remain locked into her present reality as she organically experiences it.
Polanco catapulted into an acting career in 2013 after having worked, as she says, “in the health field for eight years” by landing her breakout role of Daya in the Netflix show Orange Is the New Black. Even on that show, Polanco used her present emotional truth to take on the mindset of being incarcerated. “I think the humanity in me and being an empath makes me be able to relate to certain emotional undertones,” she explains. “I’ve never been incarcerated, so for me it was more the idea of not having the freedom and having to respect authority.”
Polanco existed in the world that the set provided. This triggered her to draw from experiences working in a medical field that didn’t give her the freedom of expression she got while acting. “I’m good at whatever I put my mind to, I’m just not that type of person,” she says about her former health work. The restraint she had to muster, due to that field’s bureaucracy and lack of artistic expression, helped her connect to the role she had to embody. The emotional truth that the set connected her to translated to the believability of her character.
Polanco’s initial instinct to live in the moment has been repeatedly re-instilled as her career has progressed. As she has crossed paths with some of her idols, like Robert De Niro (The Irishman, Joy), Al Pacino (The Irishman), and Sylvester Stallone (The Samaritan), she has repeatedly witnessed them following the same practices that she used naturally. “I love Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. One thing I noticed about them on set is they don’t waste too much energy talking,” she says. “I noticed that when Robert De Niro is ready to go, he just goes. Working with Sylvester Stallone I learned that he’s so present. Being present is just the art of actually doing. Not thinking about what you’re doing.”
De Niro has long been an advocate of working on instinct after you’ve done your research and preparation. Polanco confirmed for herself that her present intuition could guide her craft as it had De Niro and Stallone.
Polanco and Stallone act alongside one another in the upcoming action thriller The Samaritan. This film will mark Polanco’s action film debut and another huge career milestone. Working in this unfamiliar space yet realizing she shared common approaches with Stallone allowed Polanco to appreciate her present existence even more. “Being in the presence of legends that I look up to, I was like, ‘I want to enjoy this,’” she says. “All the other stuff that I tend to get wrapped up in I had to put aside.” The potential distraction a production like this could create had the opposite effect on Polanco. Rather than take her away from the work, it made her want to dive in even more to the creative process so she could deliver her best performance. “I just wanna consume everything. Being thrown into a set for the first time, I’m so aware of everything that’s going on. I wanna know where the gaffer is, I wanna know why the mark is there, I wanna know why we’re taking the shot this way. You know, like with LeBron [James], everything he does is basketball. That goes with loving what you do. Having a passion for it and taking that risk. When you live fearlessly, your life changes. How you work, how you deliver, how you perform, it takes a totally different mode.” Diving headfirst into new territory with love and passion being the driving force is where Polanco lives in her peak present awareness.
Conquering fear and being present collided in full force during Polanco’s experience filming the recently released movie musical version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights. Polanco plays Washington Heights Dominican hairstylist Cuca. She hadn’t ever appeared in a musical or musical movie professionally before, so getting over self-doubt took guts. “It took a lot for me to even audition. It took a lot for me to go sing live with a pianist,” she says. “To book something like that meant that I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. With a lot of my participation in projects, I might not be the lead, but I’ve had the opportunity to be present in certain roles where I am collecting the inspiration to create what’s missing. We all can take things for the amount of what it is and not understand in the long run what it’s creating.”
To be cast in a role in a film where she can unabashedly represent herself and her native culture, being a Dominican from New York, definitely became a bit of a cathartic moment for Polanco. “I’m a Dominican immigrant coming into these roles and I’m breaking through,” she proclaims. “We are seeing the change; we are seeing the shift now of what we’ve been missing for so long. I’m there to represent my community and say I’m here and I know what I gotta do and I’ll continue to hold my flag high for the Latinx and Black community. I’m here and I know and I’m present.”
This version of being present, however, comes with being aware of the critique being laid at the behest of the filmmakers of In the Heights. The New York Times, as well as other major publications, criticized the film for not casting dark-skinned Latinos in lead roles. Polanco in our conversation was open to these opinions and seemed to bring them up unprompted. “Things are starting, but we gotta keep on working behind the scenes,” she says. “We gotta keep on diversifying the writers. You think about me growing up and not seeing anybody [who looks like me] on TV, but there was no diversity behind it either. There’s so many more stories that we can highlight. We also have to understand that it’s a hundred years of cinematic [exclusion] and we gotta catch up. There’s a lot of shit to do to move it. It’s good that we’re having conversations and we’re opening up Pandora’s box. It’s not just a can of worms. It’s things we’ve swept under the rug. Let’s have conversations and work. For me, it’s great being part of that musical as a woman who’s had issues with accepting and loving myself and not belonging and knowing where I’m from and embracing my roots. In the Heights is just the beginning. The opportunity is not just that I’m Dominican, it’s that through me people see themselves and are inspired.”
It felt as if Polanco had allowed herself to be so engrossed in moving with the conversation and the times that she was already processing this current reality before I even needed to be the interviewer who brought it up. When I mention this, she confidently responds, “I’ve gotten to a point where I realize that it’s a really sensitive time, but it’s a time to really educate. We have to educate ourselves most importantly. I educated myself and I continue to educate myself everyday ‘cause all the time things change.”
Polanco’s ideas were then followed up by solution-based thinking. She believes in approaching the issue at its present root where she also has personal experience. “It starts in our schools. Are we having these conversations in school?” she asks. “‘Cause I didn’t have access to all that coming from the ‘hood. Kids in school don’t know that they have the opportunity to be a great writer, to be a showrunner. I didn’t know what a showrunner was. There’s a lot of things that we don’t have access to and that’s where it needs to start. Then it will trickle into what we see on TV. Even when I grew up on welfare, I had to go get it. Nobody’s gonna give you anything. What we have to do is find a way to create the opportunities and create the space.”
This hustle mentality is something that Polanco keeps at the core of her authentic self. Bringing her truth to whatever situation she finds herself in professionally has garnered her continued success. That said, Polanco has also learned the necessity of scoping out where you are in the present and reacting accordingly. “I think you have to know how to read the room,” she says. “I think there’s a time and place for everything. “You can’t handle the truth, that’s some real ass shit. People can’t handle the truth and it’s OK not to care. You should care for what you care for, you should know the time and place to do certain things, and you should know that not everybody is ready to hear or like your truth. During quarantine, I had a moment where I realized some people have a purpose in life and that purpose is to be toxic. Your purpose is toxicity, that’s fine. I have to learn that I can’t change that. That is who you’re gonna be and that’s OK. You gotta live and let live.”
There is an inherent finesse in self-love that Polanco has embraced. She has even gone as far as creating hashtag campaigns in #selflovery and #ismellgood that further this process in pushing away bad energy in exchange for proclamations of positive self-esteem. Like with her solutions for inclusion within the film industry, she also wants to continue forward #selflovery and direct the philosophy toward children. “We should’ve had those conversations about loving yourself and caring about yourself in school. You shouldn’t go to P.E. just to work out to be ‘healthy,’ you should go to take care of yourself because it feels good. It’s taught on a more superficial level. There’s future projects starting with little kids. I’m obsessed with kids. If it was up to me I’d have 15 babies. I would be ‘the lady in the shoe.’ You know the lady in the shoe who had mad kids? That would be me. I wanna adopt like 15 kids. I don’t care. When I carry babies I always say words like, ‘You’re a strong girl, what are you gonna be when you grow up, you’re gonna be a princess, but you’re gonna run right, you’re gonna be a boss.’ Those words kids need to hear.”
Then with #ismellgood, Polanco uses the hashtag as a repeatable and tactical reaction to any negative energy spewed toward her. She’s a self-proclaimed organic chemistry of fragrance and hygiene nerd, which she encourages in others and uses her confidence in this area as a comeback. “Whenever somebody comes at me I’m like, ‘I don’t care ‘cause I smell good,’” she says. “When I sweat I smell good. What’s good? Accept it, that’s just me.”
The simple equation for elevation, according to Polanco, is opportunity plus preparation equal increased self-worth. This has not just rung true personally, but to its peak level career-wise as of late as Polanco landed her first lead role in the upcoming film iGilbert, accomplished actor Adrian Martinez’s directorial debut. Her present existence has now matched with the relentlessness of her effort and intention. “When a script comes and you trust me with your words, that makes me feel limitless,” she says. “That makes me feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I’m gonna respect it and I’m gonna make sure that your vision is what it is. I come straight raw. What that film did for me is it kept feeding my battery.”
To remain healthfully existing in the present is not easy, especially in a business that is continually moving. Any human needs opportunities like Polanco received with iGilbert to provide acknowledgment worthy of snapping you out of the continual cycle. Wins that allow you to congratulate yourself and make you feel like you’ve overcome a barrier. Yet still at times that won’t be quite enough. You need a crew of friends who give you your flowers and remind you of all you’ve done and where you are. “I’ve been building my network with a lot of meaningful human beings that are able to snap me out of it and be like, “You’re too busy looking forward, embrace now and understand what and who you are as a person,” Polanco says about her necessary support group. “Yo, like sometimes what I’m doing I’m not enjoying. Sometimes I need people to tell me, ‘Yo, enjoy it!’ Then I can tell myself, ‘You gotta keep on being true to yourself, keep on loving what you do, and keep pulling people along as much as you can. But be present and really enjoy it.’”
Polanco pulls all the inspiration she needs from idols and close friends alike to re-remind her of her mantra to remain ready for and committed to the present. This she knows will be the best preparation for whatever the future holds. “I’m ready now for what’s to come,” she says. “I thought I wasn’t, but I’m ready. Ask me last year or the year before, I was like, ‘I don’t know.’ Right now I’m ready for music, ready for the big roles, I’m ready for everything.”