Karina Ortiz of ‘Orange is the New Black’ On Dreaming of Being an Actress While Growing up in the DR

From inmates we meet for only an episode to family members who appear briefly in the show’s flashbacks, Orange is the New Black is a show that makes even its smallest characters feel lived in. Jennifer Euston, the show’s casting director, didn’t win an Emmy for nothing; her strong work on the Netflix hit shines. This was definitely the case when we briefly met Margarita, played by Karina Ortiz.

In sketching the outside world of the bickering mother-daughter duo of Daya (Dascha Polanco) and Aleida Diaz (Elizabeth Rodriguez), the show offered us a glimpse of the newest woman to be tied to Cesar (Berto Colon). With a baby in hand and a world-weary look on her face, Margarita was surely no different from the women Cesar had romanced before and who he’d all but driven out of his mind. It’s a small character that nevertheless echoes the issue that Jenji Kohan’s show has become known for: the way women can find their lives constricted by the choices available to them.

Born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Ortiz moved to New York City at a young age. Having always wanted to pursue an acting career, she enrolled at the City College of New York (part of the CUNY system), where she graduated in 2009 with a Theater degree. Ortiz, who has also had guest starring roles in Blue Bloods and Royal Pains, talks to us about her career and her admiration for Latino artists like Gina Rodriguez and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

When did you first realize you wanted to be an actress?

“When I was little, I already knew it. Even in the Dominican Republic I would get all my cousins involved to do little performances.”

When I was little, I already knew it. I was so into music, or I was watching a movie, and I got so attached to all of that stuff so I would put on little shows and stuff like that. Even in the Dominican Republic I would get all my cousins involved to do little performances. And it was something I told my mom when I was young in New York, but she was so busy trying to put food on the table, and working three jobs, she just didn’t have [time] to put me in training. I knew I wanted to do it but I wasn’t able to until college came around. Then I was able to take control of my life and my career.

How do you approach these small roles to ensure they still feel real and engaging?

You can definitely take a small character on just what they’re saying or what’s going on in the scene and you kind of come up with some sort of storyline for the character, and if it’s a small role in the show like Orange is the New Black, there is so much you can do with that, even a small role. Maybe it’s something behind their eyes – you catch a glimpse of their character and where they come from. But you’re not really gonna know their backstory. And there are so many small characters in the show that you want to know more about them. Because they’re writing these characters that are really interesting, and you want to know more, and it’s just really – you just do work. Doesn’t matter how small the role.

Is there anyone whose career path you look up to? Who inspires you?

“There’s a lot of opportunity to create your own work. I feel like our voices are being heard.”

In terms of the newer actresses working now, I would have to say Gina Rodriguez [from Jane the Virgin] is one of them. Not only is she a wonderful actress, but she also speaks up about what she believes. And we see her. We see her in her speeches. If something’s going on, she speaks about it on social media. Very admirable. And very similar to how I am. That’s someone that a lot of girls can look up to; they’re seeing these different actresses now getting these lead roles and it’s just really inspiring.

What is the biggest challenge still facing Latina actresses today?

I have seen the difference from just six years ago to now in terms of the roles that are being offered. It’s definitely not where it should be. Everybody should be represented equally. So it’s definitely a work in progress, and I think it’s slowly getting there. In terms of challenges, I remember when I started, I felt like there were technically no roles in terms of my type. That was something that made me feel down from time to time, but I was gonna keep going anyway and now I’m glad I did, because all these things are happening, and people are creating their own work, and there are so many opportunities and possibilities in terms of YouTube, web series, and all that. Like [the fact that] Broad City that can get picked up. There’s a lot of opportunity to create your own work, but at the same time, I feel like our voices are being heard. That’s what’s really exciting. All of us just need to keep on working on our craft and putting ourselves out there; it’s only gonna be better for us.

I saw a clip of you singing “Breathe” from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights; is Broadway something you aspire to pursue in the future?

“There are opportunities out there but you really need people like Lin-Manuel to write these shows.”

Well, I graduated with a theater degree so after college I pursued theater and I was in an Off-Broadway show called Platanos y Collard Greens for four years – and they’re still on, they’ve been on for a really long time. And during that I was pursuing Broadway. I love to sing, but I feel like there was a time, a transition in my life, when I was like, “You know what? Let me go for TV. Let me go for film. Let me push myself.” And Broadway is definitely something that I would love to do. So if an opportunity presents itself, absolutely! But when I was pursuing it, I felt like there [were] limited roles as well for Latinas. And it’s not to say there weren’t opportunities. You know, we had Mandy Gonzalez playing Elphaba in Wicked. And another Dominican actress, Mariand Torres, was also in Wicked and she was going on tour.

So there are opportunities out there but you really need people like Lin-Manuel to write these shows. Now he has Hamilton and it’s such a wonderful show and the cast is diverse and I feel like everybody’s loving it. It’s showing that it doesn’t matter what race you are. We can all relate to being human and we can all take different roles. I mean Hamilton wasn’t Puerto Rican, but he can be played by a Puerto Rican now! It’s about opening these doors and just pushing, keep moving, keep trying. Doing everything you can do to be seen. Be heard.