How 'OITNB' Got Personal for Natasha Lyonne and Dascha Polanco in Season 6

The two actresses dive into the realities of Nicky and Daya's addiction stories and reveal what they tapped into for certain storylines in the Netflix prison dramedy.
Courtesy of Netflix
Dascha Polanco (left) and Natasha Lyonne on 'Orange Is the New Black'

[This story contains spoilers from the entire sixth season of Netflix's Orange Is the New Black.]

Natasha Lyonne has some Orange Is the New Black fan fiction to share about season six.

After what proved to be a major growing-up season for her character Nicky Nichols, the recovering addict — along with viewers — heartbreakingly watched another one of Litchfield's own go down a familiarly hopeless path. Dayanara Diaz (played by Dascha Polanco), who is now facing a life in prison for a murder that only viewers know she didn't commit, becomes hooked on heroin.

"I imagine a world where Nicky and Daya could really be friends and Nicky could help Daya out and that could be a whole separate story," Lyonne tells The Hollywood Reporter of a fantasy OITNB sequence. "Where Nicky could be like, 'Dude, you don’t have to do this.' It’s this idea of wanting to reach out to her and be like, 'I promise you there’s another way. Fight through this.'"

The reality that Daya faces at the end of season six is indeed grim. After giving up her daughter and turning herself in for the murder of a guard during the riot she incited, Daya turns to drugs to ease the pain she's in from being physically abused. She commits to girlfriend Daddy (Vicci Martinez), who is her supplier, and the fractured relationship she has long had with her mother, Aleida Diaz (Elizabeth Rodriguez) snaps. Aleida, who is the one smuggling the drugs into Litchfield in order to make a living, gives up hope when she sees Daya has become addicted.

"Vice in general is such a human thing; that we sort of find ways to drop out. The great lie of all this vice is how much more painful it is the morning after — it only works while it’s working," says Lyonne, who is open about her own history with addiction. "But it also makes so much sense given how broken the world is and, particularly, for these characters."

OITNB has long tracked Nicky's journey with addiction and sobriety, highlighting the prevalence of substance use among criminal justice populations. The sixth season of the Jenji Kohan-created drama, however, further exposed the opioid epidemic in prison systems by showing how easily inmates in maximum security can become addicted and then have no recourse for treatment or rehabilitation.

"It’s a very logical response, in a way, to an unmanageable life," says Lyonne of someone like Daya turning to drugs in prison. "When there’s events constantly happening that are outside of your control — whether that’s Trump’s America or a maximum security facility, or I don’t know what — it’s an oddly logical response to want to take yourself out or numb yourself to that experience. Because constantly trying to process the unprocessable is sort of what vices were created for. I have a lot of empathy for Daya and what she’s going through. I understand why that would be the logical next step for her, given how hopeless she feels her situation is."

Nicky came into Litchfield as an addict whose family had given up on her. Once she was imprisoned, she found a family in Red (Kate Mulgrew), a mother figure, and her maybe-soulmate Lorna Morello (Yael Stone), in addition to Alex Vause (Laura Prepon) and Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling). But the sixth season saw Nicky reluctantly reconnecting with her father for legal help amid the riot fallout, digging deeper into her childhood traumas as the dynamics between her prison family shifted once the inmates were sent to Max.

"In the beginning of the series, Nicky was so taken care of by Red and the circumstances were steady. It’s interesting to see what happens to people as the stakes rise," says Lyonne, relating Nicky's journey to the show's larger themes of loyalty, injustice, paranoia and finding one's tribe. "That’s really where Nicky has changed. The relationship with her father was a huge thing to get to play this season, to see how loaded that whole history is for her. I never lose sight of the fact that this character was a hope-to-die junkie. Meaning, even when she’s at her best, she is someone who got to that place of wanting to drop out — in the most ultimate sense — long before she got to prison and who is still carrying that weight. It was wild to get to finally investigate some of that this deep into the series. I don’t know that it would have been as satisfying to do it in season one. Now I really knew who she was and I could go all the way with it." 

Daya's journey when it comes to finding a support system in prison was very different. Though she was imprisoned with her own mother, Aleida, Daya, who didn't speak Spanish, struggled to identify with the prison's Latinx women and experienced Litchfield more as a loner. After complicated relationships with two prison guards, Daya gives birth to a daughter who is immediately taken away from her, highlighting the plight for incarcerated mothers. Even though the show does not outright say it, Polanco believes Daya was experiencing postpartum depression when she picked up the gun that kicked off the riot and sealed her fate. 

"We saw this young, naïve girl grow into a woman and her taking that gun was the first time she actually took matters into her own hands. She took control and said, 'I’m going to do whatever I have to do that makes me feel empowered,'" Polanco tells THR. "Daya has been in situations where there is abuse of power from the guards, and from her mom, where she had no choice but to follow the circle that she’s a part of — that’s why she’s in prison. When she turned herself in, I immediately thought about the baby and how she had no way out. I always say that Daya losing that baby was the death of her already. She felt, 'I’m already dead and there’s nothing I can lose more.'"

To Polanco, who is a mother of two (her daughter plays young Daya on the show), experiencing the loss of a child is what she believes mainly set Daya on her self-destructive path in season six.

"I always say that she could be experiencing postpartum. I would have loved for the writers to have touched on that topic," says the actress. "At that point, she gave up the only thing she owned, which was her child. To be handcuffed, to give birth and to not be able to hold your baby, to just give your baby up and say, ‘That’s it?’ It’s giving your baby away like an animal. Then we see that she develops an addiction. I think she is thinking, 'I’m just going to fuck everything up. It is what it is.' She was finding some sort of escape and that was her escape."

Polanco also sees Daya at her most vulnerable point in season six. When she is being physically kicked in the stomach by the male guards, "It reminded me of a really violent situation and how someone who is in that situation feels so powerless and weak, like garbage," says the actress.

Polanco tapped into her own memories when playing out Daya's season six story. Motivated by #MeToo and the current climate, she opens up about a personal experience.

"There are so many faces of sexual abuse. Finally we’re in a moment now where we need to speak about it," she says. "I had a situation where I was in a club and I don’t know what happened — all I remember is walking back to my room and someone had sex with me. It was not consensual. But I thought, 'Maybe I shouldn’t have drank or gone with this person.'" Now, she realizes, "That's sexual abuse."

Polanco continues: "That was one of the things I used when I was working on Daya. Even though she had a relationship with Bennett [played by Matt McGorry], she also had to put herself in a situation where she had to have sexual intercourse and didn't want to [with Porstache, played by Pablo Schrieber], and that makes you feel like you are not worth anything. But as time progresses and as women speak out and are comfortable talking, it will only allow us to gain more power. You are not less than, because a situation happened to you. You are a survivor of that situation. I survived that situation and I know how to deal with that situation, and I would love to talk about that to help other women. We survived it. That’s important." 

Now, both Polanco and Lyonne are readying to head into production on the already renewed seventh season of OITNB, and the journeys facing both of their characters seem to be continuing on a divergent path.

"This show has educated me regarding everything that I was oblivious to in the incarcerated system. That’s something that I’m always thankful for," says Polanco of OITNB giving her a platform to speak out on social issues and prison reform. "I believe in Daya. I want to say that I believe that she has a chance and I am so hopeful for her, but I don’t believe in the system. I don’t believe that the system is going to help her. Regardless of how much belief I have in her, I know that she is set up to fail."

Reflecting on the irony of Aleida giving up on Daya after what little faith Daya ever had in her own mother, Polanco also questions the authenticity of the daddy relationship. She views it as another abuse of power in Daya's life and expects the pairing to be explored further in season seven. Still, she says, "I don’t see how Daya is getting out of this. There’s no hope for me anymore. It’s only learning how to live with it, and that to me is heartbreaking. Because, how many Daya’s are out there, who are incarcerated or not, that are in a situation of violence or vulnerability, who are abusing substances and don’t know who to turn to? Or where to get help or have the support they need? They can have so much more if they would have that equal opportunity."

The OITNB path looks brighter for Nicky, however, and Lyonne is "genuinely excited" to tap into more of Nicky's story as she continues to commit to her sobriety.

"The back-and-forth and the struggle of the addiction is always something I’m going to identify with," says Lyonne, "but, oddly, the older I get, the harder and harder it gets for me to draw on the memory of those personal years of my own. I’m very excited to now see these other facets of Nicky. There’s so much to this character that we haven’t gotten to see, because she spends so much time either dropped out or fighting it. It was really interesting to do a season where she was actually showing up — for the daily nightmares and triumphs."

Off-camera, one area where the worlds do collide for both Polanco and Lyonne is that neither actress is prepared to say goodbye to the show. The sixth season released Piper from Litchfield, potentially setting up an endgame for the series or some of its characters, and OITNB has only officially been renewed for one more season. "If it’s the last season, I’m going to have an emotional breakdown, because you’ve built this family and friendships and you love this story," says Polanco. "My Dayanara, I’ll hang her up but always keep her within me, knowing that anybody can be her."

Lyonne recently wrapped production on her next Netflix series, the comedy Russian Doll, in which she stars and produced with Amy Poehler and Leslye Headland. Lyonne describes Russian Doll, which is eyeing a debut in early 2019, as "an existential adventure show" for women that she can't believe she got to make, thanks to the support of Netflix and her OITNB family.

"Orange Is the New Black changed my life and not just my career, which is really indebted to it, but I’m so tight with these people that it’s perplexing. I feel so safe," she says of her OITNB cast. "Making my own show this year was amazing, exciting and mind-blowing. But there’s something very comforting about doing something that you know so well. I’m so proud that we’re all so tight, passionate and in touch with each other. I feel like I have my people for life and I’ve never had that before, having never done a TV show and as somebody who doesn’t really have family. Long-term, intimate relationships are something I find meaningful and almost novel, because I only have it with my friends. It goes a long way in just the idea that Orange is such a nice working environment. I’m genuinely so excited to go back to work this year — I can’t wait."

Turning to where Piper's release can propel the show, Lyonne had another interesting comparison to share.

"I never read those Harry Potter books, but I sometimes think that Piper's memoir is almost like the first book in those series," she says. "Piper’s story is about her getting out, in many ways. Piper Kerman is an incredible human being who is so worthy of having her story told. Taylor [Schilling] and I had dinner with her recently to talk about prison reform. She’s an unbelievable woman. So the idea that Taylor is hopefully going to get to play some of that — of course, I haven’t read anything in the new season yet — but the work she did out of prison is a huge part of Piper Kerman’s journey. I’m really excited for Taylor and the audience, and for me personally, to learn more about that journey of how the story connects back together and how it all came to be, in a way. Sort of like the last book in the Harry Potter series — which is another thing I haven’t read, by the way."

What do you hope to see from Daya and Nicky in season seven? Sound off in the comments below and bookmark THR.com/OITNB for more coverage of Orange Is the New Black, which is now streaming season six on Netflix.

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