'Orange Is the New Black' Star on "Darker" and "Scarier" New World Ahead in Season 6

Selenis Leyva, who plays Gloria Mendoza, talks to THR about shining a light on the plight of incarcerated mothers and how the season-five finale could signal the end of Litchfield.
Jojo Whilden/Netflix
Selenis Leyva in 'Orange Is the New Black'

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the entire fifth season of Orange Is the New Black.]

Gloria Mendoza, played by Selenis Leyva, is one of Litchfield's most-vulnerable inmates after season five of Orange Is the New Black.

The finale saw 10 fan-favorites, including Gloria, linking hands in hopes of fighting the armed riot police about to storm their bunker with only dignity and defiance. The fifth season of the Jenji Kohan-created prison dramedy (now streaming on Netflix) ended with an explosion, leaving the fate of the women who are lined up together — crossing racial tribes for the first time — as one collective question mark. Their statement, happening while the rest of the inmates are being bused to unknown prisons, could signal the end of Litchfield.

"There was nothing left concrete after season five," Leyva tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Nothing will ever, ever be the same. Not Litchfield, not any of these women. If you do make it out alive, it’s going to be a whole new world."

In addition to the cliff-hanger on her own life, the fate of Gloria's son, Benny, also remains up in the air. With her son facing surgery after a near-death accident, Gloria attempted to cross riot lines and free the guards who had been taken hostage in order to see him in the hospital. A last-minute betrayal, however, saw one of her own, Maria (Jessica Pimentel), steal the deal so she could see her own child in Gloria's place.

Below in a chat with THR, the actress breaks down Gloria's decisions and role of shining a light on incarcerated mothers, reveals the secrecy surrounding the plot details of season six — Orange has been renewed through a seventh season — and looks ahead to a frightening future before returning to set in July and being handed the first episode's script.

To start at the beginning, how did Poussey’s (Samira Wiley) death impact Gloria when we first see her this season?

Gloria is a mother hen, a protector and a caregiver. She takes care of her girls and is a very loyal person. So when she sees the death of Poussey and how it shakes everyone, Gloria as a mother is moved. We never saw a lot of interaction between Gloria and Poussey, but we saw enough to know that Gloria had a soft spot for her. There is a moment when Poussey comes into the kitchen to ask about stirring bowls for the Mother’s Day event and Gloria looks at her and you can she really takes Poussey in and is thinking, “This is a good one. This is a good kid.” When she sees her death, I know it shakes her to her core because she feels for this loss of young life.

In the very first scene Gloria actually says, "This is going to end badly." Looking back, how frustrating is it that no one listened to her about the riot?

If you’re paying attention, she really is the voice of reason continuously throughout the show. This is a great deal of frustration for me because here I am trying to save everyone. Gloria is trying to save Daya (Dascha Polanco), Sophia (Laverne Cox), Aleida (Elizabeth Rodriguez) and CO Humphrey (Michael Torpey). Everything was falling on her and then when she suddenly realizes that her own son needs saving, I felt like, “Please give her a moment where she sends everyone to hell.” Can we please give this woman a moment where she tells Daya, “You’re on your own” and tells Aleida off and walks off into the sunset? I was relieved she had a brief moment of putting her feet up and taking care of herself in the bunker with the retirement ladies. It was nice to see Gloria get to laugh. But it’s short-lived, then she gets a phone call and chaos ensues all over again.

How did creating the urgency of the three-day timeline make this season different to film?

You come on set and you say, “This is still day one and we’re in episode four.” You have to carry the same intensity that you had two weeks ago into the first day of the next episode. It was intense for me to always have to come in at 50 or 70 or 100. To sustain that emotional level consistently was really emotional exhaustion for me, but it challenged me as an actor and I loved that. When you've been doing a show for so long, you have fears of getting too comfortable and there was no room for that. Knowing that it was all taking place in 72 hours made it even less of a possibility for you to bring anything but you’re A-game.

What would you say you were bringing to the riot scene in the premiere — 100? 

That was the first time from hiatus coming back. It was crowded and there was a lot going on, so you had to say to yourself, "Remember why we’re here." We had to come in from that sadness from losing Poussey, and also losing Samira our friend, and there was a lot of emotion. We had to start at 100. We knew what the season was going to call for from that opening moment. There was not a lot of joking around. We’re close and we joke around and we laugh, but there was a sense of urgency in the air to get it right, and to start it right and to make sure we we’re being loyal to what we left behind in season four. 

Before Gloria finds out about her son, she does relax in Frieda's (Dale Soules) bunker and stops caring for other people briefly. Were you excited to shift groups this season? 

What I love most of all this season was that I got to work with women I’ve been on the show with for so long but haven’t been able to share any screen time with. I love Dale Soules. Her Frieda is so beautifully layered and she’s such a gracious actress. They all are. I loved it because it brought out another level of Gloria that we hadn’t seen before. I was relieved that people got to see a little bit of the Gloria that they maybe forgot existed from season one, the funny and sassy one that could laugh and make you laugh. I also got to do a lot of work by myself, which is also really interesting, with all my phone calls. When you have to do that on a show like this, it’s pretty grounding to have a moment of silence and work with yourself. The cell phone was my scene partner in many cases this season.

Gloria helps to shine a light on incarcerated mothers and how that role between mother and daughter figures changes in prison. How do you describe Gloria's and Daya’s relationship?

When we first meet Gloria in season one, Aleida and her are buddies. They’ve been in prison together for some time and the way I approached it is that I heard about all of Aleida’s kids through the years and when I finally get to meet Daya and she’s in prison, Gloria really sees who she is. Gloria automatically feels bad for her: “I have to take care of her because my friend Aleida is a nut job — I love her but she’s insane.” Gloria’s relationship with Daya started off as having pity for someone for not having the best mom, and then it moved to feeling that Gloria genuinely does love Daya as her own child. We haven’t met Gloria’s other children yet. She says she has four kids and we know she has daughters. I don’t know what’s in the future, but I wouldn’t be surprised if somehow Daya is a reminder of someone in her family. A hint from me in my process and the way I approach it with Daya is, “This is my daughter. The one I can’t take care of on the outside, I’m taking care of on the inside.”

Gloria is proud of Daya’s decision to take responsibility for shooting Humphrey, but that also prompts Daya’s exit from the show this season. As an actor, were you torn with that choice?

I got very emotional in that scene where we’re saying goodbye to each other. I was really feeing this pain because I don’t know what’s coming. That’s also the beauty of what we do on this show: We don’t know what’s coming. You keep it so fresh because you have no idea what the next script is going to say. So when I read that, I thought, “Yes, this is such a good moment for Daya, to have a moment of responsibility and of owning up to something.” For the character it was really important and Gloria is really proud of Daya for taking a stand. She’s also scared about what the future may bring, in general for all of them, but in that moment when she says bye to Daya, she doesn’t know and we don’t know.

Do you think Daya could survive being in max?

We probably haven’t seen all Daya is capable of. She’s a survivor like all of these women are, and once you get into a position like they’re all in, it’s about survival and you adapt. I don’t think any of them thought, “Can I ever survive prison?” But it happens and then maybe the person who you think won’t survive is the one who makes it in the end. It’s going to be interesting to see who survives max and who doesn’t. I have no idea, I’m curious, too — and so nervous.

Then Gloria gets the phone call. What was it like to shift over into survival mode and how did you sympathize to Gloria’s plight as a mother?

As a mom, I’ve always sympathized with her and I love that Jenji has added that element of motherhood being so important in prison, because it is. Whenever I speak to anyone who was formerly incarcerated and who was separated from their children, the pain in their stories and the pain of not knowing — the pain of knowing they are missing such important moments in their lives. In this case, there’s an emergency. Will Benny survive? And for her not to be there. When I read the moment that she gets that first phone call, my heart dropped to the floor. I thought, “You cannot break Gloria like this. This will destroy this woman.” I said, “If Benny dies, Gloria will never, ever be the same. It will break her.” I knew that would be a breaking point because motherhood is extremely important to Gloria, just like it is to me. I have one child and she is everything. I know the importance of wanting to protect and when I read that, I’m still terrified because we don’t know. The season ends where you aren’t sure if he will be ok. The surgery went OK, but what does this entail? There’s a scene when she’s locked up and talking and you know that we don’t know if he’s going to be OK after this procedure. That’s also pretty scary.

Do you think she made the right decision to try to free the guards, even though it didn’t work out for her in the end?

Absolutely. When you’re a mother, you go into full mama-bear mode and you don’t care or put yourself first at all. You don’t think about yourself when you’re a mother. You think about your kids fist and you get so caught up in their lives. In this case, Gloria wasn’t thinking about what’s going to happen to her. She’s thinking, “I made a promise to my kid and I need to get to him. If he doesn’t wake up, I need to be there. And if he does wake up, I need to be there.” This season I would get home exhausted not only physically but also emotionally, because it’s hard to shake that feeling of helplessness and not knowing especially when you’re a mother. I know that I wouldn’t be able to function if anything happened to my child, so I know Gloria wouldn’t either. I play Gloria, but I was scared for Gloria. I knew this would absolutely destroy her.

Assuming she does make it out of this season alive, will she seek revenge on Maria for stealing her chance to see Benny?

We don’t know what’s coming for season six but I have to tell you, I would like to see Gloria get a little tough. We saw her really suffer this season and kind of lose it, almost to the point of becoming weak. I remember reading the scene where she gets taken down by the girls at the fence, and my first thought was, “No one is going to take Gloria down.” Gloria is a tough cookie. But once I started getting into the work and once the emotion was there, sometimes you get so weak out of sadness that it deflates you and you lose all ability to fight back. That’s where she’s at, at that point. I saw the surrendering. She doesn’t have any energy left to fight. But I want to see her get tough again. Maria betrays her and does so so she could see her kid. I have a feeling, and I would like it to be, that Gloria doesn’t like that very much in the end. We can’t forget that these women are tough and there’s something about loyalty that’s huge. I’m hoping they’ll give her a little mean streak.

How do you interpret the final moment and cliff-hanger — will she make it out of this?

Who survives this? We have no idea at that very end with the huge explosion who makes it out. We were in a really vulnerable place, the ones that are alive are walking and getting on buses. We just don’t know, so that is scary for all of us. What actor wants to get blown up? But it is great storytelling and I love that once again that we’re leaving the audience, and ourselves frankly, going, “We have no idea what is coming.” We have no idea if we’re all going to be in separate prisons. We have no idea if we survive it. Because the beauty of this show is that when you expect something or you think you get it, Jenji will take you down another road really fast. We haven’t started production yet and I’m scared. Gloria has a phone call, her last call in this season, and she says, “If anything happens to me….” When I read that, my stomach dropped. I thought, “Brace yourself, girlfriend.” These women are standing there very vulnerable and there is an army coming toward them.

Show details are always under wraps, but is the secrecy around next season heightened? Last season Samira had to keep this big secret, now there are 10 of you, at least. How does that change things?

One actor keeping a secret is interesting, but when it’s 10 or more — not only the people in the bunker but also the people who get on buses, you don’t know where they are going — so it is terrifying. We hope that we continue to be able to keep things under wraps. The show has become really strict, more so than ever, with releasing scripts. I’m so paranoid about it that I don’t even keep my script. After I read it, I walk into production and I hand it to them and say, “Here, I’m handing it off. It’s no longer my responsibility.” I am terrified of it getting out. I have no scripts in my home. I give it back to production because I will not be the one to be accused of spoiling anything. We love what we do so much and we’re so committed to our stories and these people we’ve grown to love and become so attached to, that I know none of us will spoil anything. It’s going to be an interesting season six keeping things secretive.

If you look at the history of real prison riots and how the inmates get punished — and the fact that Jenji Kohan mirrors real life — does that worry you more?

It does worry me. If you do make it out alive, I still think it’s going to be a whole new world. I was thinking about season one and how sometimes there would be a little dance party in the cafeteria and the good old days of sex in the closet. Those days are over. Where we left off, I’m seeing a much darker, darker Orange Is the New Black. I’m seeing it becoming a lot scarier. I know that Jenji always finds humor in things, so we’re never going to lose that, but I think it’s not going to be as safe for these women and their surroundings. We’ve become very used to Litchfield. Will there be a Litchfield? It’s looking like those are the good old days. I think that’s how we’re going to look back on the years at Litchfield. When there were only two bad COs or one or two bad seeds. I think the world is going to change drastically for those that survive, and that’s scary.

How do you interpret Piscatella’s (Brad William Henke) death in the end?

That’s likely one of those moments where the fans cheered. What an amazing journey Jenji takes us on and how he loses his life not in the hands of who you think he is going to lose it with. There is a moment where you wonder if these women are going to kill him, and they don’t. It’s done by his own people. I do find it to be poetic justice. I love Brad, but I don’t like power too much. 

This season highlights the fight for prisoners' rights and prison reform. Are you hopeful that these storylines can impact the real prison system in America?

I hope so. I do feel that the show has had impact in conversation in prison reform. This is something that has been going on for years, but I don’t think it’s been a full-on discussion that the media and general public has paid attention, a lot of attention to. I think Orange has really opened the eyes to show people that you can’t forget about those serving time. They’re mothers, friends, daughters and men who are fathers. There are stories behind these people and when you don’t have a clear connection with someone who is incarcerated, you don’t tend to think about it. Before the show, I wasn’t necessarily thinking about prison reform or prison rights, because I don’t have anyone near me that is connected that way. So it’s made me so aware and I know it’s done the same thing to the media and to our fans. I love that we’ve been able to provoke conversation and I know that this season is so strong that it will continue to do that. 

This season has a lot to do politically with what is happening, it’s the rise. What happens when people feel that the powers that be are not being fair, or are using their power for division? Do we unite as people and forget our differences? I love that we’re still touching on things that are relevant and give a voice and a face to people who are usually not heard. It’s a reminder about how stories about different people from different walks of life continue to matter, even in today’s political climate were people are made to feel less than or are tried to be silenced. What we’re doing is continuing to empower and give voice to a lot of people who are usually forgotten. Jenji has to have some kind of crystal ball because she always seems to hit it right on the nose when it comes to what is happening at the moment the show is released every season.

What do you think will happen to Gloria in season six? Tell THR in the comments below and keep up with Live Feed for full Orange Is the New Black season coverage.

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