It's one thing to be in a television show known for pioneering diversity, but it's another thing to fight for that reality when you're out of costume. Jackie Cruz, Orange Is The New Black favorite Flaca, is a fighter. Over the phone she tells me, forcefully, passionately, "It doesn’t matter what you do in life, you just have to stand up for what you believe."
From championing prison reform to participating in the Women's March to bringing intersectional representations to Hollywood by starting her own production company, Cruz is a doer. There's an electricity in Cruz. She's charged not only by sincere anger and concern at the unravelling of America these past 30 days and the ongoing marginalization of fringe voices, but by the edifying, nourishing nature of female solidarity. Speaking from the heart, she talks about everything from using the power of her new platform, to the beauty in female friendship. "It’s a man’s world," she says. "Why aren’t we joining together to change that?"
I know you can’t say anything specifically, but what can we expect generally from Flaca in season 5 of OITNB?
I can’t really talk much about it but I can tell you something that Danielle Brooks said, which is that the whole season is based on three days. I can’t tell you much except I’m in it, bring tissues, it’s dramedy but it’s a different take on things. It’s more vulnerable.
How has your own life experience informed what you bring to your character?
I’ve grown so much in the past few years. I went in thinking, “I’m going to be a prisoner, I’m going to be bad.” I didn’t know much about her. But since then I’ve learned not to judge the people in prison--they’re not all bad. They’re humans just like us. They can make one mistake and it gets them into trouble. I’ve become more active to fight for prison reform, I’ve started marching- with everything that’s going on in my country right now. So I definitely feel like I’ve grown as a person, and grown as Flaca. I’m very lucky to be a part of a show that’s not just groundbreaking in the TV world, but in terms of what’s happening right now. People need to see that. Maybe people in New York where I live, live in a little bubble, but in the middle, they have to see more representation - like what we have on our show - on television.
I saw on your Instagram that you were at the Women’s March on Washington. What was the experience of being there like?
I can’t even describe--it was so incredible to see everyone there. Everyone was supporting each other. Every time I talk about it I tear up a little bit because it was so magical and powerful, and it felt so good to be there and stand up for what you believe in. I wasn’t just marching for prison reform. I was marching for being a woman. Being able to choose what I want to do with my body. I was marching for human rights, I was marching for the environment. There were so many things. There was this little girl called Sophie Cruz that spoke and I had all the tears. This little girl from Mexico who gave a letter to the Pope. She came up there and spoke in English perfectly, and in Spanish perfectly, saying that love can win all. It was very inspiring. It was all so powerful. People were laughing and crying. It really felt like we could make a difference, like we can do this, together, you know?
So where do we go from here as women at all intersections?
Right after the march I said, “Today we march, tomorrow we organize.” We have to build resistance against Trump’s agenda by organizing communities in Washington and holding our members of Congress accountable. We have to call in. It doesn’t matter what you do in life, you just have to stand up for what you believe. The people, they’re the ones with the power. We have to remain vigilant because so many of our human rights and civil rights are under attack. We have to resist right now. If you want to help out you can check out Indivisible Guide dotcom.
I watched this movie, About Elly. The story about an Iranian family had me on the edge of my chair. It was so incredible. It was humanizing other people, just like Orange Is The New Black, you can see we’re not just bad people, we have feelings and we’re people with faith and we love and we care...The reason I went to see it--Taraneh Alidoosti, the actress in the film--her new film got nominated for an Oscar and they’re not allowing her back in the country because of this ban, Trump’s ban.
It’s amazing that you’re doing so much active work. There are a lot of people in your position who say a lot, but don’t necessarily act.
I just feel like I’ve lived a lot in my short life. There was a reason why I had to make it happen and inspire people with my own story. I’ve had crazy things--I was in a really bad car accident, it was awful--but then after the election I just saw that I can do more with my voice. Our president used to be a celebrity, so why is his voice more important than mine? We have a power of having people listen to us. It doesn’t matter if it’s 100 people or 1,000 people, you have the power and you need to use your voice. Maybe I have more followers than some other people, maybe someone has more than me, but the most important thing is that you use your platform for the right things.
What have been the biggest hurdles for you personally then, coming up against white America, straight America, religious America, and Hollywood as well?
I can tell you right now: it’s the opportunity. We don’t have enough opportunities. Yes I’m on a show that’s very popular and I have a job and I’m so grateful and I love my job. But I also want to discover other characters, and there are other things I want to do and I don’t have enough opportunities for that. I’m not just Latina, I’m mixed with a lot of things, but when someone puts you in a box, they can’t picture you as anything else. They don’t want to give you the chance. That’s really my struggle right now in Hollywood.
But I’m not going to sit down and wait for someone to give me a job or discover me. Right now I just opened my own production company called Unspoken Productions, and I plan to make movies that people don’t really see. Diverse movies with stories that are real, stories that are true, stories that you don’t see as much because people are afraid to talk about them. I’m working on a short right now about a woman in the military and she is raped, and just the way they treat her. Instead of being a victim she becomes a villain. She has a certain amount of time to let them know about the rape, otherwise it doesn’t count - that’s a story that people don’t really see at the movies, because people don’t really want to talk about that. I want to give opportunities to people like me.
Flaca and Maritza are obviously fan favorites. What do you think it is about these characters that people have identified with?
I believe it’s our true friendship that you can see on screen. Orange Is The New Black, the best thing it gave me, was my friendship with Diane Guerrero. I’m so grateful for her. She’s also political, and she’s the reason why I was like “Wow! Her voice is making a difference!” she shared her story, and I wanted to chime in, I wanted to help out. She was the reason I started speaking up about what I believe in. Our friendship is real, and that shines on screen. We FaceTime all the time, if we have issues, a bad audition - sometimes the same audition.
A lot of the time, women in the media are pitted against each other and there’s this notion that women have to be competitive. But you all seem like really good friends and really supportive of each other. How can we change the perception that women have to be in competition?
I don’t know why that’s a problem. It’s so ridiculous. It’s a man’s world, why aren’t we joining together to change that? We’re more powerful together. Like I mentioned at the Women’s March, it was so beautiful to see women supporting each other. That’s what we do on the show, because you really care about the other person. I believe in God and I believe what is for you is meant for you and no one else. You have your own way and your own path, why are you going to get on someone else’s path to get what you want? If you want something, you’ll get it on your own time.
Something I also learned - it wasn’t something I just knew, I learned - of course all women get jealous, but that’s just because we’re human. Yesterday I had the chance for a role but my friend got the role and she said, “Jackie you are a star, don’t ever forget that.” That made me feel so amazing, because I really wanted it, but also she deserved it. That role is for her. I will support her in that role, and I will go watch her in that play. It feels so good to support one another. That’s the reason why I want to create this production company. I want to direct, produce, star. I want to see them shine. I want to help them out, and they’ll help me out - I think we can get so far if we stick together.
Back to one thing you said earlier about advocating for reform in the prison system--can you tell us more about what you’ve seen and what you’ve done?
I work a lot with the Women’s Prison Association. They do everything. Every year - I’ve done it three years in a row - I sing for them, because I do music as well. This organization helps women when they get out of prison, helps them get a job, find out what’s happened since they’ve been gone, get their families back and get their families back. It’s something so beautiful and I’ve been so honored to help them the last four years. The first year I didn’t sing because I was shy!
It sounds like you’re really busy! Is there anything else you’re working on right now?
I just want to encourage people to write the Congress, call the Congress. Try to change what’s happening right now. It was beautiful to see the Women’s Marches around the world. We made history that day, and we can continue to make history.