In Orange is the New Black, she plays a pregnant inmate named Maria but in real life, Jessica Pimentel is an actress, a Buddhist, and a musician who sings for two metal bands. Yes, you read right, metal. We caught up with Jessica (who goes by “The Crusher”) to talk about the show, her music, and why as a Latina actress she ends up playing hookers all the time.
Season two was released a few month ago. What was it like shooting it?
Pimentel: After we are done shooting, I can’t wait for it to come out, as a fan of the show. You know that we are very segregated when we shoot. Because of the script, the Latinas for the most part they shoot together and everybody has their little groups that they shoot together, so I don’t always get to work with everyone. So, besides what my character goes through, I don’t know about the other characters.
There are storylines that I, myself as a fan, that I’m very into after reading the script but I never get to see on set, because we are not shooting the same days. When I would get the initial script or something I would sit down and my jaw would be dropping reading it and I’d be yelling back at the computer, “No! That can’t be!”
There was one episode, I got so mad because one of my favorite characters goes through something really bad. I got so mad that I slammed the computer shut. I was like, “No!” And I had to take a walk. I got all tight and that’s just from reading it. So imagine when it comes together with these magnificent actresses that we have and actors that we have, with the camera angles, with the editing. Before a season comes out, I can’t wait to watch it!
I think just the entire team — like editing, costume, director, DP — everything just works together so well to really make this like a seamless, kind of epic show. I can’t believe I’m in this show. I can’t believe it sometimes. It’s so good.
It’s wonderful that you found a project that you’re such a big fan of — and that you get to be in it!
Pimentel: I’m completely a fan of everyone and everything about this show. There’s not one thing I can complain about. I mean, it’s like a perfect situation in every aspect, so it’s really been amazing to work on it.
Are there things that you share in common with your character, Maria?
Pimentel: She is very family oriented. So, for whatever reason that she’s in jail, that we don’t know, her child is going to come for first. Even if she may have done something wrong to get in there, at the end of the day she is a really good-hearted, sweet person, and that baby was her hope, that family is her hope.
So, for me that’s a big thing too. Family is really important, whether you get to see them everyday or not. I don’t get to see my own family every day and that hurts me, so I can only imagine being locked up and you only get to see them every once in a while under very strict rules.
So that’s hard to deal with. But I think she does the best she can, which I do too. I think we both have that in common. We do the best we can of the circumstances we’re given, to try to do what we can for our family, whether it’s financially or even just emotional support. If there’s anything that we could do to throw good energy to our family we will.
What are the differences between you and your character?
Pimentel: I haven’t found any yet. That’s pretty much the truth. I haven’t found any yet because I don’t see myself acting much differently than Maria has, in a situation like that, an extreme situation.
To be pregnant is already difficult enough, to be in jail is difficult enough, to put those things together, I think Maria has done all the right things. Thus far, I’m not seeing her do anything that I disapprove of. As an actor you’re not supposed to judge a character. You’re supposed to love to tell their story.
“As an actor you’re not supposed to judge a character. You’re supposed to love to tell their story.”
TV shows and movies very often perpetuate stereotypes about Latinas. What was your first reaction when you heard about Orange is the New Black, that you’d be playing a Latina in jail?
Pimentel: Of course I had my reservations. Here I am, a conservatory trained actress and half of my resume is hookers. Old hookers, young hooker, hooker against your will, hooker with the heart of gold, hooker retiring, hooker starting out; I have them all. But, you know what? These are all opportunities for us to show that we have the skill set even though maybe they [the roles] seem stereotypical. If we play those stereotypical characters in a non-stereotypical way that slowly but surely maybe things will begin to change.
But they [the creators of Orange is the New Black] didn’t take the easy way with stereotypes. I really don’t believe that. I stand firm that the words that we’re given, and the directions that we’re given, and the choices that all my fellow castmates and actors have made — I don’t think anybody did a Speedy Gonzalez kind of caricature of these women. I think they are all very real.
How did you decide to become an actress?
Pimentel: I started out as a classical violinist at a very young age and I played music before school, in school, and after school and all day on weekends. That was my life. I went to a performing arts junior high school where they had a music program, but I was already getting a lot of music in my life, so I wanted to do something fun, so I enrolled in the acting program there. It was a lot of fun for me because it was a break from the music that I was studying very intensely. It [music] wasn’t a hobby for me. It was my career path.
So I ended up going to a high school of performing arts as a violin major. I was a soloist playing all around New York. Then, I started getting a pain in my hands and my wrists. And it turns out that I was playing so much I was experiencing nerve damage, tissue damage, tendonitis from playing so much. And it got to the point where I could barely feel my hands and stuff. And the doctors were like, “You need to stop or you’re not going to have enough strength to turn a doorknob.”
That is pretty devastating when you spent your entire childhood working towards something and then one day somebody tells you you can’t. Luckily, I was in the performing arts high school and they allowed me to audition for the drama program so that I could just stay at school and not have to completely leave. And I could still take music classes, like theory classes, which didn’t involve me playing. Being accepted in that drama program I got to do the full theater program, which was an amazing blessing. It was my way of expressing my emotions and all the frustrations that I was having because of the music.
“Here I am, a conservatory trained actress and half of my resume is hookers.”
You know they say “when one door closes a window opens”? I knew that obstacle had come in my life for a reason, so I can either sit there and complain and be defeated or I can turn this into something else, something bigger and greater. And I feel like that window opening opened my world up. To being able to touch and reach millions of people in a way that maybe I wouldn’t have if my path continued with classical music.
So that’s how I became an actress. I just continued with that and ended up going to the conservatory and majoring in theater arts and here we are!
What other projects are you working on besides Orange is the New Black?
Pimentel: I’m not sure when this is coming out but I shot a pilot for Tracy Morgan for FX. I hope that comes out soon. And I got the chance to make this quick little cameo in this great film The Grief of Others, based on the bestselling book. I’m also still very much a musician. I play, I guess unexpectedly, in a heavy metal band based in New York City called Alekhine’s Gun.
What about metal attracted you to that genre?
Pimentel: Being a classical musician I was very music oriented. So something like a pop song wasn’t necessarily going to affect me the same way. People don’t realize that a lot of heavier music is very well orchestrated, very well written. But I came into contact with this music right at that pivotal time when kids go crazy, like around 12 years old?
That age when you are just about to hit puberty.
Pimentel: Yeah, and everything is “now or never”, hormones raging, and life and death, everything is life and death. Here I was working really hard on this music thing. And the music that I was playing was very intense. I was playing Bach and Mozart — and it’s really heavy head music, very intense stuff.
“That sound of a distorted guitar, it really spoke to me.”
But one day I heard a Danish/Swedish heavy metal band called King Diamond. And it was like listening to classical music the way it was written, but like at a volume unbeknownst to my ears before, with these opera stories, but they’re frightening and they’re scary and they’re so cool. It was like the next level of cool and the next level of aggression and power that you couldn’t get with an acoustic violin. That sound of a distorted guitar, it really spoke to me.
And then from that heavy metal scene getting into more kind of less technical music, like hard core punk, but it was more aggressive, more about personal frustrations or dissatisfaction with the world, which is also those teenaged years where nothing is right and when your eyes start to open to the injustice in the world and listening to music about that as opposed to “would you be my boyfriend” kind of music. It really spoke to me. It still speaks to me. I’m still involved in the hardcore scene. I’m still involved in the heavy metal scene.
It got me through some very difficult times and that’s what we try to do with our music. It’s to try to spread messages of awareness and understanding and that it’s okay to have aggression in you, but learn how to channel that aggression into something positive.
I know that you sing in the band. Do you also write the music or lyrics?
Pimentel: Yes, I do. I’m co-composer and sometimes I record guitar parts in that. I co-write with my — I call him my brother — Jeff Martinez. We sit down, we write together, we bang our heads together and try to figure things out. He’ll come with some ideas and I’ll try to add to them, or I’ll come with something and he’ll add to it, and then we add all the other components in.
“My tastes are all over the place. If something speaks to me, it speaks to me. I am really open to all kinds of music.”
The lyrics I come up with myself though. And those are based on some things I studied. I studied Buddhist philosophy and logic and then the Tibetan tradition, so I get a lot of my inspiration from those works.
Who are your musical influences?
Pimentel: I love music. Period. Earlier today I was listening to Wovenhand and Sixteen Horsepower, which is a folk band and one’s a country band, both David Eugene Edwards projects. That’s a huge influence on my life. He’s a very spiritual person and the music is very dark and soulful.
One of my first favorite bands is Metallica. They are amazing, they’re so influential. I love traditional music like Cesária Évora from Cape Verde. Her voice is from another world almost. I think it’s just so beautiful. And I listen to a lot of Bhangra, which gets me pumping, gets me in a good mood.
I listen to Rick Ross. You know, all that stuff. I mean, in a day I’ll go from Cesária Évora to Rick Ross to Justin Timberlake to then Darkthrone, which is Swedish black metal, or like the darkest, heavy metal Dark Castle from Florida. It’s a band that I like a lot. My tastes are all over the place. If something speaks to me, it speaks to me. I am really open to all kinds of music.
How did the band that you currently play in come together?
Pimentel: I’m currently in two bands actually. They both came together the same way, through the same person, Jeff. We were working together at this club. He was looking to put together a new project with someone who was in his other band Deselect. And he said, “I heard you sing. You’re good.” I kind of just laughed at him and I wrote some links down.
I said, “This is my old band Everybody Gets Hurt. This is my old band that I played in.” I was like, “You tell me if I’m good.” And he liked the way I sang and I liked their music. I guess that was in 2010. He showed me the music, I said, “I love it. What now?”
That was about 4 years ago. Slowly but surely we’ve just been playing and writing, and playing and writing.
Your band’s name, Alekhine’s Gun, where did that come from?
Pimentel: Alekhine’s Gun is a move that was discovered by a grand master of chess, Alexander Alekhine. He figured out that if you flank a queen with two rooks in a single file on a chessboard, it’s like an endgame move where you basically you have control of all the squares on the board.
When we started the band we were just three — it was me and two guys — so it seemed like a fitting title, a fitting name for us: the queen and the two rooks taking over the board, so to speak. You can’t lose. You’ll be under the gun, as they say.
It sounds like you’re really in touch with different parts of yourself. You play in a metal band, you’re acting in this big production Orange is the New Black, and you also have your Buddhist beliefs. At what point did you decide to practice Buddhism?
Pimentel: I’ve always grown up in a spiritual environment. I was raised Christian, Protestant. Religious ceremony, prayers, faith was always very much a part of my life. I still embrace Christianity and all of my family members that practice it. I believe they are examples of what I would call “good Christians”.
I can’t say that there was a specific trigger. I think it was just a slow evolution that lead me there to practicing Buddhism, but it was kind of seamless. I feel that that is exactly where I belong, but I don’t deny or denounce any other religions or religious practices. It’s just what works best for me, and helps me be better to the people around me.
“If you really just work within yourself, without judging anyone else, the world around you transforms.”
That’s a very positive take on religion.
Pimentel: I mean, the truth is the truth. To be without ego, without selfishness, with compassion, and with love, and with the hope that all beings have the things that they need, that all beings be free of suffering, that all beings reach some sort of paradise, perfection — that’s pretty much what every religion wants, right?
If you really just work within yourself, without judging anyone else, the world around you transforms. All you can do is change yourself and by changing yourself it’s like a bucket overflowing. When you fill yourself with that love, with that sincerity, it spills over and it wets the ground around you. You become like a ripple in a pond. That’s what we all hope to achieve with whatever religion we choose — be it one that seems light or one that seems dark. That’s all we want to do, is affect the world around us to get to a perfect place.
The only way to do that is to go within yourself. Once you start changing those components of yourself, then you see your behavior changes. When your behavior changes it affects the way you interact with people. When you interact with people differently it changes the way they interact with you, and so on and so forth.