Jackie Cruz of ‘Orange is the New Black’ on Songwriting and Surviving a Crash

The second season of Orange is the New Black is here. If you haven’t seen it yet, I won’t spoil it for you but, get on it! As was hinted in last season’s finale, this time around the Latina characters have a much larger role since they took over the kitchen duties. Gloria is the head cook and — together with Flaca, Maritza, Daya, Aleida, Maria, and Blanca — is responsible for cooking all the food for their fellow inmates. Arroz con gandules for everyone!

Jackie Cruz who plays Flaca, The Smiths-loving, heavy eyeliner-wearing Latina with a feisty attitude and a tear drop tattoo, couldn’t be more different than her character. She wears her heart on her sleeve and pours her emotions into lyrics for her folky, pop songs. We got the chance to catch up with the Dominican-American actress/singer before the release of the newest episodes to talk about her songwriting process, surviving a car crash and homelessness in her teen years, and why she thinks Hollywood is ready for Latina actresses to play more diverse roles.

What can you share about your character in Season 2?

There are new characters definitely and some stories open up. It’s going to be very emotional. Every episode is going to be crazy and it’s very funny. I had a blast reading it and filming it. I’m excited to watch it. That’s all I can say.

Any similarities between yourself and the character you play, Flaca?

I do have some similarities; she speaks her mind. I usually have a filter, I don’t believe she does. She is just so much fun to play. I think we are similar because she likes to stand out and be different. Her eyeliner, I love to put on makeup too. I could definitely say she’s like my alter ego. I actually based her on a friend of mine. I used to joke around with my friend and say, “I’m going to play you on TV one day.” Then it really happened.

So, you feel like you embody your friend in this role?

Oh, definitely yeah! And she knows too. There was a time when she was a little crazy and that time is over now, she’s matured. But, she laughs about it. She’s really happy I’m impersonating her.

That’s funny. What’s your friend’s name, the one that you model Flaca after?

I can’t tell.

She doesn’t want other people to know?

Oh no, she doesn’t. Me and her, we know and that’s enough.

Have you sat down and watched the show together?

Oh yeah! We have and she just laughs. You know, I’ve always imitated her. We used to work together and I would imitate her. She would just laugh and laugh and laugh. It’s just funny how I’ve being imitating her for like two years before I get the role of Flaca. So, it’s like I’ve been imitating Flaca for two years.

In the past, there has been controversy about TV shows and movies perpetuating stereotypes about Latinas. What was your first reaction when heard about this project, that you would be playing a Latina in jail?

This was my first audition in New York. I had been auditioning in Los Angeles but music brought me to New York City. I love playing all different types of roles so I went in there and I did what I could with the description I was given. It just said: Flaca is a feisty Latina. That’s basically all I was told. My first scene was fighting with one of the other inmates. I just played it the way I thought it should have been played. I just feel so honored and thankful to be a part of the show, that doesn’t just have Latina actresses in it but basically is a woman-centered show. It was created by a woman and it’s mostly women in the cast.

“I just feel blessed and it’s amazing to be a part of it.”

I just feel blessed and it’s amazing to be a part of it. I never judged it. In jail, that’s reality. We have all types of colors in prison and I play one of the Latina ones. I don’t think she is typecast. She is just one type of Latina, which is amazing because there are seven types of Latinas on Orange is the New Black. Finally, Hollywood is seeing that we’re all different sizes and colors. We’re all different and we don’t all just speak Spanish. I’m just so happy that Hollywood is watching us right now and will hopefully give other types of Latinas a chance. Latinas who look different than you would expect.

What about the other actresses on the show, do you hang out in real life?

I see some of them more than others. I hang out mostly with Diane Guerrero who plays my best friend on the show. Actually, we had coffee and lunch today. I hang out with a lot of them. We’re like a big family. Everyone is just so nice. Sometimes, it’s hard to be on a set and people don’t always get along. The first time I worked on a set, no one was really nice to me. But, Orange is so different. Everyone is really nice to each other, cast and crew.

Imagine you just got out of jail after a long sentence. What would be your first meal?

It would probably be like nachos and chocolate milk and maybe McDonald’s. I would probably want fast food. I grew up in the Dominican Republic and the first thing I wanted when I came to America was milk and McDonald’s. When I lived in the DR, we only drank powdered milk so I just wanted to drink regular milk.

“When I was seven years old I saw The Bodyguard, that’s when I decided I wanted to be an actress.”

Did you always want to be an actress?

Yes. Growing up I would watch TV or scenes from movies and would mimic what I saw. As a little girl, all the movies I would watch, like Pretty Woman, I would act it out for my family. There was this one moment when I was seven years old, I saw The Bodyguard — it was in the DR so it was in Spanish, but she sang in English (laughs) — that’s when I decided I wanted to be an actress.

Ever since then, my mom, she put me in singing, dancing, and acting lessons. She thought there was something there so, at 15, we moved to Hollywood and I went to a performing arts high school in Los Angeles called the Hamilton Music Academy. I have to tell you it was the best decision my mom could have made. I finished all my studies when I was like 16 and was ready to graduate but I stayed there for an extra year just to do art courses like singing and music and dancing and theater classes. So, I got to take all those classes for free. Then, I signed up with an agency when I was 18 and I started auditioning for commercials and started booking jobs here and there. Then, I wanted to focus on music so I moved to Miami, and then to New York, and here I am.

Did you ever see being Latina as an impediment to being an actress?

Since I wasn’t raised here, I didn’t think it was impossible [for Latinas to be actresses]. I knew that I could get there and that every dream is possible. It took me ten years to get where I am. Some kids come to Hollywood thinking, “Oh, it’s so easy” and, “I want to be a Hollywood star” but no, it actually takes time. You have to learn your craft. It’s not easy, you have to have tough skin and put up with rejection. But I really think that if you dedicate yourself and persevere you can be anything you want to be. And it doesn’t matter what color you are or what culture you have. I think, actually, it’s even better for me to be Spanish because I’m bilingual so I have a double chance. That’s the way I see it.

What actresses did you look up to growing up?

I recently met Rita Moreno at a party for People en Español. I was honored. I cannot tell you what a privilege it was to sit next to her. She has won every type of award: Oscar, Grammy, Tony, Emmy. She’s won everything and that just made me think it’s possible. That is a person that I really looked up to, because I love West Side Story. I even cried when I met her. She was having a conversation and I didn’t want to interrupt but I knew she knew Orange. I had to do it. So, I introduced myself. She had me sit down to talk to her and it was so lovely. I was so happy. She just proves that it’s possible.

“It’s not easy, you have to have tough skin and put up with rejection.”

And, she continues to work! I think she’s in her eighties now.

Yeah, and she looks ridiculously gorgeous, like wow! I want to look liker her when I’m her age.

Which came first music or acting?

In high school, I was doing both at the same time but after high school I worked in a girl group that was on’s label. I wasn’t signed or anything I was just working with his label. In the studio, I worked with him and his producers. It was a girl group called Krush Velvet and we just really recorded songs and we were up to get signed but it never really happened. Still, it was really such a nice experience to have, and to meet all these great people in the industry but I didn’t want to do the whole girl group thing. I realized that I am good enough to be on my own.

So, I went to Miami to work with a producer who worked with Selena. But that didn’t end up working out like I planned so I moved to New York and I got my video up on 7, which was like TRL. I was featured as an independent artist and and it was like a dream come true. It was in Times Square and on TV and after that I was like I want to do this 100 percent. So, I continued recording music, but then I missed acting. I started auditioning again and Orange is the New Black was my first audition in New York. And, yeah, here I am.

Wow. That is incredible.

“When I sing a song I want somebody to feel what I’m feeling, if it’s happy, sad, whatever mood that I have.”

Yeah. But I don’t want people to think that was my first audition ever. It was my first in New York. I spent a lot of time auditioning in Los Angeles. In L.A., there isn’t much leg room because they expect all Latinas to look Mexicana. In New York, they give you a little more leg room. I feel like I work better in New York. But now that Orange happened maybe I can work in L.A. too. Now that people are seeing that all Latinas are different. Hopefully, there are more shows like that so we can show that we can do it.

What sort of music do you listen to?

I like Billie Holiday, Elvis Costello. I like Tracy Chapman, those are the people that I listen to and I also try to bring a little bit of each of them into my own music. I also love Fiona Apple. She is very artistic and even the way she plays the piano, you just feel it. When I sing a song I want somebody to feel what I’m feeling, if it’s happy, sad, whatever mood that I have, I want it to come out in my music.

What is your writing process like?

I definitely write about my past experiences, happy moments in my life, sad moments in my life, heartbreaks. I’m vulnerable because I’m singing about my experiences and it’s scary to put yourself out there but, that’s the way I do it. I write with my guitar and I take it to the studio and whatever producer I working with, we create a melody and from there that’s how it happens.

Do you ever find it hard to sit down and write?

Yes. I have all these emotions, all these feelings and I’m scared to let it out. Sometimes, I don’t want to go there yet. So, yes I can find it hard to write. It’s funny that you say that because Pink has this quote, she says, “When I’m happy I’m useless.” She writes all her songs about past experiences and her emotions and that also happens with me. I have to deal with whatever I’m writing about. If I’m writing about my father or about my boyfriend or losing someone, it can be hard to go back to that moment. Sometimes I don’t want to go there but there are things that I want to write about. But sometimes it feels good writing it, letting it out.

Your music is so personal, is there a song that you wrote that is difficult to perform?

Yeah, I have a song called, “That’s How I Kiss.” In that song I am saying, this is who I am and maybe you don’t like it but I never said I was perfect. I opened up in that song. That’s the one that’s hard to sing.

“I’m vulnerable because I’m singing about my experiences and it’s scary to put yourself out there.”

Is there a song that is one of your favorites?

Oh yeah! There’s a song that I’m working on right now that’s very personal. It’s called “Sweet Sixteen.” It’s a ballad; it’s not out yet. I’ve being working on it for years. It talks about a time that happened to me during high school. That one, I know, is going to be really hard to sing.

Do you want to share what inspired that song?

Yeah. I don’t want to be super dramatic but I had a car accident and I don’t really like talking about it. But before my accident happened, you know how teenagers think they know everything? Well, I moved out of my apartment where I was living with my mom. Then, I couldn’t afford where I was living and my mom was like, “If you’re a grown up, then be a grown up.” So, I didn’t have a place to live and I was homeless at 16. I was going from couch to couch and I slept in my car for like a week. It was a really traumatic experience and that’s why it’s going to be so hard to sing it. And then my accident happened, so that’s why it’s taken me so long to write it; it’s so personal.

Jackie Cruz. Photo by: Javier Romero.
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I read about your car accident and how it took a long time to recover from your injuries. Do you feel this song is helping you to release that trauma?

Yeah, I would say that. I want it to be a song that gives other kids hope. I went through the the worst time when I was a teenager and I didn’t give up. You just have to think that everything happens for a reason. Maybe that was meant to happen to me so I could become an inspiration to someone else. You just can’t question what God has in his plans for you. I want it to be a motivational song. I don’t want it to be depressing. I want it to motivate kids not to give up, even if they have hard times at home. I just want it to touch everyone, to feel what I felt, and not to give up because I didn’t give up even though I really could have. It was the most difficult time of life. I haven’t finish writing it but I hope it will be motivational.

I’m sure it will be. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.

I want to add one more thing before I get in trouble. I want to thank five beautiful woman in my life. I have to name them all because they get mad if I don’t mention one of them. My mother who gave birth to me, my aunt Millie, my aunt Diana, my aunt Madeline, and my aunt Lucy. Those are my moms. I love all of them. They’ve made me a strong woman and they help me be able to go onto set and get along with everybody. I’m used to all different attitudes so, I can handle it. (laughs)