'OITNB' Star Opens Up About Tackling "Dangerous" Immigration Storyline

Laura Gomez, who plays Blanca Flores on the Netflix prison dramedy, says her character’s arc is so eerily timely that it "felt almost dangerous" to tackle on the show.
Courtesy of Netflix
Laura Gomez as Blanca in 'Orange is the New Black'

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

Orange Is the New Black capped off its sixth season with a seemingly ripped-from-the-headlines gut-punch to one of its main characters.

The finale of the Netflix prison dramedy delivered a major show twist by releasing its leading inmate, Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling), from the Litchfield prison she has called home since the series began. In the final moments of the episode, titled “Be Free,” a group of inmates who were granted early release are suddenly split into two lines. Piper’s group exits the prison grounds, but the other half — which includes Blanca Flores (played by Laura Gomez) — are greeted by ICE agents and a bus ready to transfer them to the for-profit prison’s newest venture: an immigration detention center.

The devastating scene, which was filmed in February and plotted long before that, sees an overwhelmed Blanca realizing that her release from Litchfield’s maximum security prison does not mean she is free. As the emotions run across her face, her clueless partner is seen waiting to eagerly greet her on the other side, flowers in hand.

“The fact that we are dealing with a situation so intense in our current political climate — it felt almost dangerous, to me. So I decided I was going to embrace that and use it for this character," Laura Gomez tells The Hollywood Reporter when comparing her character's fate with today's immigration crisis. For Gomez, who left the Dominican Republic and came to the United States in 2001, the storyline is personal. "I don’t think you can talk to anyone who is an immigrant right now, especially anyone who is a Latin American immigrant, who doesn’t feel sick in their stomach.”

OITNB has already been renewed for a seventh season and the politically charged cliff-hanger, according to executive producer Tara Herrmann, now opens the door for the Jenji Kohan-created series to further explore immigration-related storylines. Below, Gomez reflects on the evolution of Blanca from “caricature” to core player and sheds light on what’s in store for her OITNB future: “It seems very obvious that we have walked into another territory with that last moment. I have a sense that we might keep walking in that direction.” 

Blanca Flores is also a Dominican woman — beyond that, what parallels do you have with your character?

I’ve been talking a lot lately about the evolution of Blanca. I created my own parallels in the beginning. Originally, she was a caricature. I joke with the writers because she didn't have a name when I auditioned; she got one when we started shooting. I had to create my own traits that I thought would work. I brought out some of my temperament, but it’s not necessarily that she has so many traits that are similar to me, it's more that her traits relate to a world that I understand and that I know, definitely one that I saw around me when I was living in the South Bronx. When I moved from the Dominican Republic to New York back in 2001, I lived in several places and even though the South Bronx is not necessarily the most Dominican area of New York City, the people who were there seemed to me to be working-class hard workers with maybe a bad interpretation. But certainly, that was not the impression that I had living in that area. It was very human to me: hard workers who were very real, but who also had a harsh life. I brought that to my audition and to the first few episodes, and then, of course, Blanca evolved from there.

How was Blanca pitched when you auditioned?

“Crazy Dominican woman with cell phone — who talks to the devil.” (Laughs.) I said, “Oh, I can totally do that.” Also, “Diablo” [the character played by Miguel Izaguirre] wasn’t described as a person at first. I thought Blanca was just a bit nuts and that maybe she goes in and out of reality. On the first day of shooting, I remember our director, Michael Trim, telling me, “She might not be as crazy as you think.” Then we discover Diablo is actually her partner and of course he evolves into a whole new character as well. I always joke with my Spanish girls on set that I have the most stable relationship of all of us on the show.

Blanca embodies OITNB's realistic no-makeup look more so than any other character. Why do you think she rejects the concept of vanity and how freeing is that to play?

I always had this idea and then after we see the backstory of Blanca in season four [episode nine], it totally makes sense to me. I saw a person that was making an effort in a healthy way to be a part of society. And even then, she was already oppressed. She had this authority figure that puts her down and who wouldn’t even say her name right. In a way, the woman Blanca worked for was a white supremacy figure. That’s how I always thought of the old lady, who would use and abuse Blanca in an emotional way. So I think there is an element where Blanca thinks, "There’s nothing there for me, so I might as well just give in and give up." I always approached it from a place of hopelessness.

Blanca is now part of the core group of inmates featured in the sixth season. She makes a few topical one-liners that help to place this season in 2018 — like her "D-plorables" comment or asking about Trump's proposed border wall. Have you had input in Blanca's story as the series has gone on? 

No, I’m doing more of that now. Now it seems very relevant, where we end it in season six. I am definitely in talks with the writers, they’re asking questions about different things. But up until that point, it was really our writers and me approaching them from the sense of, “Oh, I understand exactly why Blanca would say this and where it was coming from.” Especially in Litchfield, it makes sense that they would be somewhat informed about what was going on in the outside world. And in Diablo's case, surely there must be some information with relatives or friends going through some of these abuses, so it makes sense that Blanca would come up with the things she says in season six.

At what point did you find out that Blanca was going to have a larger arc this season, ending with the finale? And how did that impact your performance as the season went?

I knew for sure that I would have a larger arc since the end of season five. I knew that entire core group that was there at the end [in the bunker in the fifth-season finale] was going to be a part of the Max world in season six. But I had no idea in what direction and I certainly had no idea what was waiting for me in that finale until I read it. I remember getting goosebumps because it felt so relevant; that through Blanca, we’re going to get to see this crisis. It felt very important to me as a person, as well, that this character gets to inform an audience about this whole situation. I’m not exactly sure what’s going to happen, but I think we have a hint that we’re going to see a little bit of that in season seven.

There were early hints in the season that things might end badly for Blanca, and the writers said Jenji Kohan planned to tackle immigration detention centers all along. How did you react when you found out?

I found out when I read that episode. I wasn’t sure that our writers would have the guts to go into that direction, especially because it’s happening as we’re talking. Sometimes, you’re reflecting something that has already happened or maybe that another government has changed. But the fact that we are dealing with the situation and it’s just so heavy at the moment — and it’s so intense in our current political climate — it felt almost dangerous, to me. So I decided I was going to embrace that and use it for this character.

When did you film the finale and how did you prepare for that final scene?

This was in February, it was cold and everything. I remember talking about the episode with our writer, Brian Chamberlayne, and our director, Nick Sandow [who plays Joe Caputo]. It was very rich for me to have Nick direct that episode so I had an understanding from actor to actor about what I was trying to portray. I wanted to know about Blanca, “How much do I understand what is going on?” For Blanca, I think there is the sense that something dangerous is about to happen. That this is not normal: I’m about to enter into a whole different universe. We discussed a lot about how emotional it should be. How much emotion would Blanca show and how much fear? As an actor, I felt like this is one of the few times where Blanca is really, really scared.

In that moment, where it all clicks and Blanca sees the ICE agents waiting for her, what did you tap into?

The news! The way I really feel when I read the news. That's why this feels so important. I don’t think you can talk to anyone who is an immigrant right now, especially anyone who is a Latin American immigrant, who doesn’t feel sick in their stomach. I have it all around me. I talk about it all day, every day. We talk about it in my circles and I’ve been very active about it on my social media. So, it wasn’t too difficult to tap into it. It was actually the opposite. It was: What do I do with these emotions? Do I show them all or do I filter them? We ended up landing in the middle because there is also a little bit of denial to some degree, I think, with Blanca. Where she is thinking, "This is not happening." I figure that for someone going through it, it must be very surreal.

Are you happy the show jumped its outside timeline to 2018 and now Blanca's story can play out in real time?

Yes, but it doesn’t matter. it would be powerful either way, because the truth is that this has been happening for quite a while. It’s the U.S. policies. Now, we just happen to have a president that is putting it all under the microscope, because that man is what he is. This is not just now — it affects us all and it’s not a partisan thing. It’s something that has been present in the politics of the U.S. So, the fact that we were a little bit behind reality in the show's timeline didn't affect me. Even if on the show's time things weren't happening yet, you know as a viewer what’s happening in the real world. But for me, it all feels important because you’re opening a door.

From Blanca's flashbacks, viewers can assume that she went away for some sort of elder abuse. Do you know what her sentence is and how much of time she has served? 

No. We do find out that with the threat of her time being extended, that Blanca was probably not too far away from the end of her sentence. But the truth is, I was never informed. The audience, and myself as the actor, just has to guess about what I did to that old lady (laughs). I don’t think I killed her, obviously, because then I would have been in Max from the get-go. We don’t have much idea of what the sentence was or at what point we are at, but it wasn’t too long from the end, was how I felt.

When Diablo spoke to Blanca about his fears about documentation and friends being deported, Blanca never seemed too concerned. Do we know her immigration history?

We are talking about it now. I think in terms of comparing her to Diablo, Blanca is a little bit in denial. If you don’t accept things as they are, then it’s like they don’t exist, according to our bizarre psychology of human beings. The moment you accept them, they are real. So think for Blanca, there is a little bit of that element where not wanting to deal with that reality is a way of her avoiding it.

Blanca has protested, rebelled and stood up for others in prison. How do you imagine her handling a detention center?

That’s something I’ve been thinking about. Now is the first time where I feel like she really has a sense of reality and how dangerous this feels. For whatever reason, everything else was managable. But your immigrant status makes you vulnerable in this country and I think we see at this last moment that she feels very vulnerable. Like we have found her Achilles heel, I have to say. But I have a feeling that even if she is maybe more vulnerable now, she is still a fighter. I think Blanca is a fighter to the end just by nature.

Executive producer Tara Herrmann and finale writer Brian Chamberlayne spoke about the potential the show now has to tackle the immigration crisis. Do you think season seven will follow Blanca?

I have a sense that we will. Orange never ceases to surprise me, so I don’t know. But it seems very obvious that we have walked into another territory with that last moment. I have a sense that we might keep walking in that direction.

There were a handful of missing characters this season. Do you think there could be familiar faces if Blanca gets to the detention center?

I have been thinking about that, for sure! I have been wondering what surprises season seven is going to bring, but I have no idea — I have not been informed about that at all. I am guessing we’re going to see some faces somehow. We always joke that if we go free, that means we’re out of a job. But even that has proved to not be true. So I’m having this fantasy that we may see some of these characters and their journeys in other prisons, even if it’s just a hint.

Diane Guerrero, who plays Maritza Ramos, is very active about immigration issues. Her character didn't appear in season six. Have you spoken to her about sitting this season out?

We haven't because the truth is that in her real life, she has been very busy. She was in another show for a while, so there are realities that have to do with the business, also. I’m not sure which influenced which, but those things can end up changing the storyline of a character. I think one of the reasons season six got a little smaller was so that it could be more centered, and then maybe there will be surprises in season seven. Because the thing is, that’s Dianne in real life. But with Maritza, it’s not necessarily the case. I wonder if we’re going to see a little bit of her. Obviously, she was taken to another prison. But the truth is that I have no idea! It’s so fun to speculate — it’s kind of both a torture and fun at the same time.

Danielle Brooks has spoken a lot about how she hoped that Poussey Washington’s (Samira Wiley) death would impact viewers who don’t have a personal connection to the Black Lives Matter movement. Do you hope that Blanca's story does the same for immigrants and how do you feel about carrying that weight?

I do hope that. I was talking about it with Jenji and the writers the other day and this is one of the things that I love about our show. We live in a society that is so uninformed, overall. I see this in conversations around me and with social media. Sometimes, people have a little bubble that they live in, even with people who are immigrants. People don’t really know what’s going on or they don’t understand. I’ve been told," I don’t like this person but I don’t know why." Or, "I don’t like this policy, but I don’t understand what’s happening." As sad as it sounds, it’s through fiction that people inform themselves. Orange is so relevant, because it’s one of the only shows to be talking about this topic, certainly from the prison aspect and on this level. It's in a language that is approachable to such a wide audience. Even if some groups might not identify with a specific character, they’re hearing someone else’s story through a humanized background. So, yes. I hope that it either directly or indirectly impacts new people — whether you’re an immigrant or you’re not, you see a side of this story that you may not know or you have been ignoring. For some people, this will be their way in to finding out about what’s going on, and I’m very proud to be a part of a show that is bringing such important topics to the table.

There was a study last year about how often TV narratives about immigrants miss the mark and since then, there has been a wave of immigration-related projects announced. Are you seeing more authentic portrayals on TV?

There is a lot of work to be done. Representation matters. We have made progress, and Orange is an example of that, but Orange is also an example of how important that is. You have women creating content and there’s women of color in front of and behind the camera. You have a balance between men and women in positions of power, which is why you haven’t heard any #MeToo stories from the set of Orange Is the New Black. It’s about a balance of power, it’s as simple as that.That’s what we’re aiming for in society and what’s missing from the current television and film industry is representation — not just in front of the camera, which is still missing a lot, but behind. You need women in decision-maker positions, and you need people of color. It’s going to inform your decisions in a more truthful way. A white man in a suit doesn't know that demographic or understand the nature of a group of people, like how different a Dominican can be from an Argentinean or someone from Honduras. It’s a different culture, there’s a different way of talking and everything. There’s a lot of work to be done in general for people of minorities, including women, black people, Latinos, Asians — you name it. I write and direct but I’m always making sure I work with people of color. I work with women who are in positions that are usually designed for men. And I always advocate for people to do the same. 

What do you hope OITNB tackles next season with Blanca’s storyline?

I hope that we continue with the exploration of Blanca’s status and that of Diablo’s, who happens to be Honduran — both the actor and the character. That’s not something that’s really discussed. But I hope that we do get to see a little bit of that because it’s very present in the current political climate and it would be great to see it in this show.

Blanca's potential deportation plays out in stark contrast to Piper getting out on early release. Do you think Piper’s release steers the show toward its endgame and if season seven is the end — or close to it — are you prepared?

As much as it hurts for an actor to lose a job, I am such a film junkie. And I’m an advocate for shows ending on a high note. I don’t know what the situation is and you never know with Orange. I wonder if this is a hint of an ending or that we’re close to an ending, or that we’re walking toward closing it. It seems that we’re definitely on a path. That we're walking toward the light, even if the light is darkness! (Laughs). As of now, hopefully the times are changing!

Have you seen a change in Hollywood in the last year — in terms of your work both in front of and behind the camera?

I am seeing change. This show definitely changed the direction of my career. I am a writer as well, so I’m mostly working on some personal projects. I’m working on a play that’s in very good shape right now with a theater company that’s giving agency to female voices, another thing that’s very relevant. I’m using all these elements of being an immigrant by having a play that is in both English and Spanish, and playing with those elements. So that’s very much in my universe right now as I shoot season seven. I’m under contract so there’s not too much that I can do on hiatus. I’m very connected to my country, the Dominican Republic. I did a film there and there’s some conversation about another project to be done after I finish the season. It’s very important to me to have a balance of a career in the United States and in Latin America, and I’m working toward that.

What do you hope to see from Blanca's storyline in season seven? Sound off in the comments, below, and bookmark THR.com/OITNB for more Orange Is the New Black season six coverage.