Interview: Jessica Pimentel on Winning a SAG Award and How ‘Orange is the New Black’ Could Have Been Her Last Audition Ever

Jessica Pimentel Interview

Jessica Pimentel has the greatest story ever about auditioning for Maria in ‘Orange is the New Black’

Before she got the role of Maria in Netflix’s hit show, Orange is the New Black, Jessica Pimentel told her manager that she wanted to stop auditioning. At least for a while.

She had been auditioning and getting callbacks for shows, including Orange, but not booking anything. “It’s that feeling of no matter how good you are or no matter how much effort you put in, how much work you do… There’s no formula. 1+1 is 2 but that’s not how it works,” she told me.

Obviously, she went on that last audition and the rest, as they say, is history! She’s already got season 3 in the can and she’ll soon be appearing on CBS’ Person of Interest (airing on February 24th).

Jessica is a graduate of the La Guardia High School for the Performing Arts (the school that was the inspiration for the film and TV show, Fame) and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and she told me that she still uses the “arsenal of tools” she got from both places.

I have to say, talking to her was inspirational, especially after hearing the story about booking Orange. In the interview, we also talk about going to the SAG Awards (and winning for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series!), working on Orange is the New Black, how she got her SAG card and more!

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How were the SAG Awards?

Jessica Pimentel: It’s been such a whirlwind the past week in general. Forgive me, my voice is a little hoarse. I’ve not gotten off the phone literally since before even leaving for the SAG awards with people just so excited and all the well-wishing and all that. So we missed the whole thing. It was just completely surreal because there were so many of us… because we don’t all see each other all the time. So it was like our own party it felt like. It was just so beautiful to see all the ladies there – and the boys too – all glammed up.

Just waiting around and seeing all the people that you love and admire and respect and have been watching for years and being in that room for the first time, it’s just beautiful. And then being with our cast makes it even more special. I think our cast is so special. To share that special day with all these special people was just mind blowing.

I didn’t realize until the announcer said it that you guys have over 40 cast members?

Jessica Pimentel: 40 cast and then we have guest stars and special guest stars. So there’s really much more than that.

It’s a testament to the actors and the writers, that I know all of the characters. When I watch some TV shows, I love Game of Thrones but sometimes I’ll turn to my wife and I’m like…

Jessica Pimentel: Who’s that guy?

Yes! You guys, your show, I know exactly who every character is. So, I don’t know if there’s a question in that.

Jessica Pimentel: It’s really a testament when you see someone like F. Murray Abraham and they go, “Oh, Maria.” And you’re like, “You’ve gotta be kidding me right now.”

People that have grown up watching or people you’ve always admired, they know your character, they know the character’s name, they know the story. And you’d think that with all these people stories would get shuffled around, but even if you’re in one episode or maybe you just appear for a couple or maybe you’re in every one… every moment that someone’s on that screen is valuable to the entire framework of the bigger picture. And it just works seamlessly somehow. I don’t know how they keep track of… we can’t even keep track of us. We can’t even keep track of us sometimes. I don’t even know how they do it.

It’s so cool to watch these characters developing, still developing. Every time you think you have somebody figured out, a new reveal will happen or a new interaction between two characters that have never crossed each other before will happen. It’s so cool.

Are you guys in the middle of filming season 3 right now?

Jessica Pimentel: We’ve actually wrapped on season 3 and I think we’re doing post-production things now. I’ve done my post-production going in, filling in words, ADR vocal stuff.

We finished that I think the last week of November maybe, I wanna say? I don’t have an exact date of when we wrapped but I think it was about November. So we’ve kind of all been doing our own thing now.

With a cast that big, even during filming you must only work 2 or 3 days a week. Right?

Jessica Pimentel: It really depends on the storyline. Sometimes you’ll work one day a month. My character, I’ll speak for myself. Some people work every day. Some people do work 5 days a week because they’re almost in every scene, every episode.

When it’s that many people it’s hard to coordinate everyone’s schedule. So there’s gonna be weeks that you are working and then there’s gonna be weeks when you come in, you do 2 scenes, which is still work. It takes a long time when you have that many people. Then you’ll have a week to kind of relax and recover and think about the next script that’s being sent. So it works out really great.

Jessica Pimentel as Maria in Orange is the New Black

When you have that time off, obviously you can audition, but can you go work on other jobs?

Jessica Pimentel: Yeah, I have been. I just filmed the second episode of Person of Interest, I’m a new character that’s come in, Floyd. A very, very mean, very tough gangster. As opposite of Maria as you could possibly get. She’s no joke.

So from that, you can do commercials, you can do a play if you’re having a long hiatus like we are now. And absolutely guest starring in other stuff is encouraged and loved and everyone gets a kick out of it.

We have time to be able to do that, which is the other beautiful thing about this show, is because there’s so many of us, we can do other work and still continue to sharpen our tools, so to speak.

I want to ask a bit about your background, you went to a performing arts school, right?

Jessica Pimentel: Yes, I did. La Guardia High School for the Performing Arts.

How was that? Where I lived we had one and I could’ve gone but I didn’t and so you’re gonna tell me I’m gonna regret it.

Jessica Pimentel: Aw, you’re gonna regret it. It’s like nothing that I ever experienced before. I grew up being a musician first, classical violinist. I started in performing arts junior high as well. I went to a performing arts high school, then I went to the conservatory, the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. So I’ve been very lucky that I’ve always had this very strong core of the arts in my life.

Performing arts high school, the Fame school, the TV show is not that far off. On the one hand, the kids on the school just basically roamed around, I don’t know how they got away with that [laughs]. Your day is divided, basically the first half of your day would be your art and the second half would be academics. And you were encouraged throughout the day to go to your different artistic classes, but during lunch you would get a rehearsal room and you would stay after and rehearse and you’d pop up to the dance floor and take a dance class and pop down to the music floor and take a singing class. It was really beautiful. I got to do that my entire pre-teen, teen, and then 20s, till 21. I feel so blessed that I got to do that because it is really intensive.

And through your time at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, when you get an audition or when you have a scene you have to do that day, do you still do all the things that you learned throughout your time there? Kind of like shorthand where you can go back and kind of do it?

Jessica Pimentel: Yeah. I was given this arsenal of tools. And you have so many different ways of approaching a character, so to speak, and I was taught every possible way to approach it. There’s an outside level that can inform the inside or you can go on an emotional level. You can do it very analytically; you can go through a script and pick out everything that someone says about you. That gives you cool insights to that person. You can figure out what their relationships are based on based on what you say about other people.

Definitely I feel just incredibly lucky that I got so much training to be able to just… it’s so fun. It’s really so fun. It is this gigantic puzzle that you get to solve. And you put it together the way you’re able to. You know how some people do the middle first? Kind of like that.

What was your first professional job where you got your SAG card?

Jessica Pimentel: That’s a great question. I’ve been trying to figure this out this weekend because I wasn’t sure which exactly it was, which show it was. I started right in high school doing professional stuff. My first job was in high school for All My Children.

[Jessica texted me to let me know that she got her SAG card in 2002 by booking a role on NBC’s Third Watch]

Oh, nice.

Jessica Pimentel: Yeah, I was playing a Pine Valley kid. It was extra work and I knew that it felt right and just being on a set was the coolest thing ever.

So it could’ve been that or it could’ve been something like Law and Order, which I did a few of them. I’m not sure, I should find out.

What’s the worst audition you’ve been on? Where you came home and were just like, “Ugh.”

Jessica Pimentel: You’re gonna laugh. It was Orange is the New Black.

Really?

Jessica Pimentel: Not because it was bad, but at that point… I was done with acting at that point. I was done and I’d called my manager and I’d gone in for several roles at that point on the show and I was done. And I felt like I was never going to make it and I approached the audition with my all and everything, but I did say to her that I didn’t want any more auditions until at least January. This was the last week of September, first week of October. I’d already been a couple of times and I didn’t get it, didn’t get it. I was like, “You know what? I’m so tired of this. I’m tired.”

And I had been auditioning for another show and I was getting called back and called back and called back and I thought I was gonna get on this show. I was set. And then they just stopped calling me back and it kind of broke my heart, I think?

So it’s that feeling of no matter how good you are or no matter how much effort you put in, how much work you do… There’s no formula. 1+1 is 2 but that’s not how it works with this. So I did so much in that audition process and all along the way Orange kept popping up, popping up, popping up. I was like, “They’re just playing with me.” It felt mean-spirited almost.

And I told my manager that I didn’t want any more auditions till January and she said, “Well, I have one more for you tomorrow,” and I said, “Ok, great. What? This will be the last one.” She said, “Yeah, it’s that Orange show. They wanna see you again.” I said, “For the same part?” She said, “No, for another part.” I was like oh great. At that point I was like they’re just trying me for another part, I guess. I don’t know. And she says, “Well, her name is Maria,” I go, “Wow. Shocker. Can I play another Latin Maria.” And she goes, “and she’s pregnant.” And half of the roles that I’ve done have been pregnant. I’ve worn a big belly more times than I can count. I said, “A pregnant girl named Maria. A Dominican pregnant girl named Maria. What else?” She said, “Oh, she’s in jail.” I was like, “Great.” I should write that on the list on everything that you’re trying to avoid, you know, the stereotype.

But then I got those couple of pages and the dialogue was so sharp. And then I was like, “Jess. Don’t get your hopes up. You know how this works.” And I left there and I said forget it. She said the audition was at 1 and I asked her if I could move it up to 12 because I wanted to make a sale somewhere. At that point I felt so defeated that I was just gonna go in, do my best, and just leave. And I was started to really like that character too, working on the material and I’m like, “Jess, let it go. Let it go. You know how this is, don’t even think about it. Once you walk in, you do your thing as best you can, walk out, and forget it.”

And I just walked in, I was like that was a good audition. That was a good part. Let it go. They probably won’t call you. At least you made it to the sale on time. Now you’re gonna have a break. I was giving myself the whole anti-pep talk. And then I don’t know if it was the next day or the day after I got the call that I got the part and I started work later that week.

Wow.

Jessica Pimentel: Yeah.

That’s an awesome story.

Jessica Pimentel: Yeah, I still cry when I say it because I really told my mom that I was gonna go work for Microsoft at that point. Yeah. I was like, “Mom, I’m gonna be a Microsoft tech.” It’s great money, it’s a great job, I’m good at talking to people, love figuring out problems. It’s gonna be great. And she said, “You can’t do that. You’d be so miserable.” I said I’m miserable now and she said, “You were not put on this earth to fix computers.”

That’s a lovely story. So cool.

Jessica Pimentel: Yeah. She said, “God didn’t put you on this earth to fix computers, Jessica.”

And now look at you. Walking away with a SAG award.

Jessica Pimentel: Yeah. I haven’t stopped crying since Sunday so I’m afraid to go outside because every time I kind of calm down, I feel good, I’ll start talking about it again and it’s very hard not to get emotional about it all the time. Because it really is a long… it was such a long… it is, still, such a long process and it takes all this time to get these roles.

They say that overnight success is 10 years in the making and it’s almost exactly 10 years since I started. It’s like yeah. Almost to the day.

That is amazing. That is one of the coolest stories.

Jessica Pimentel: Thanks. Yeah, it is really awesome.

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