'OITNB' Star on Maria's "Stomach-Turning" Revenge on Piper: "I Hope People Were Horrified"

Jessica Pimentel talks to THR about the shocking swastika scene with Piper, how she and Taylor Schilling stayed in character and why Maria is a "mastermind."
Courtesy of Netflix

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

When Jessica Pimentel auditioned for the role of Maria Ruiz, the only description she had was: "Maria, very pregnant."

"My agent said: Remember that prison show that’s on the computer?" Pimentel recalls to The Hollywood Reporter. "It’s about the last two things you want to hear: Prison show and on the computer."

Pimentel landed her first big role on the Netflix series and got the opportunity to tell an emotional three-season arc with Maria, who had her baby and was forced to give it up while she finishes out her sentence. But it wasn't until season four, released June 17, when Maria truly lost everything and became a key character on the prison dramedy's most shocking and racially charged season yet.

"She’s a mastermind," Pimentel says about Maria, ruler of the Dominican inmates, who leads the Litchfield race wars between the Latinas and the white prisoners. "If you don’t care if you live or die, you’re the most dangerous person out there."

The true darkness comes in the seventh episode (titled: “It Sounded Nicer in My Head”) when Maria enacts her revenge on Taylor Schilling's Piper Chapman. After Piper accidentally finds herself the face of the prison's white-power group, she rats Maria out for her "gang" involvement and the new mother gets years tacked onto her sentence. In retaliation, Maria decides to give Piper her own gang label: A swastika burned into her arm.

Pimentel, who is a practitioner of Buddhism for 20 years, talks to THR about the "jaw-dropping" and "stomach-turning" Nazi branding scene that brought her to real tears (and used real flames) and why the show needed to take things that far.

Piper calls herself "gangsta with an A," but Maria is the real deal this season. We also learn about her relationship with Dominican pride through her flashback. When you first found out where things were going with her, were you excited, nervous, or both? 

Maria is a gangster with an -er. She’s hardcore, old school and very fair, and isn't as much about power as she is the big picture. That's much more gangster — gangsta is saying, “I’m so tough” and gangster is protecting the whole family, your people, or your numbers. After seeing Maria's backstory, the things that made me see her differently were the way she hates everyone else and this national pride, and how she initially separates herself. It came gradually, but with every episode it was a leap from the one before.

The main tension is between Maria and Piper. Did you enjoy pushing Piper around in the prison schoolyard, and how did you and Taylor approach the season? 

It was really awesome because I didn’t get to work with Piper so much, Taylor and I only had one one-on-one scene during the blackout in season three when we think we’re getting transferred. This season, anytime we spoke it was an in-your-face situation, so we kept that up as much as possible. For the most part, we did stay in character to keep it tense and keep that energy up. We really didn’t discuss it much. You want to stay focused and give the actor your best performance so they can give it back to you, especially with the elements of filming outside or doing something that requires fire, for example.  

You used real fire in the branding scene?

We did use an open flame. We did not actually brand her, of course, the thing we put on her skin is not actually hot. But we did need the fire in the shot. The stove in the kitchen works and it is lit. The flames were real.

Let's talk about that scene. Orange has always tackled race head on, but this was shocking to see Piper actually branded with such a horrific symbol. What was your reaction when you read the script and found out you were going to go there?

I said to [creator] Jenji [Kohan]: “How ironic that the Buddhist will be branding a swastika?" I thought it was perfect. In my eyes and in Buddhism, it’s a symbol of teaching and and basically, being a good person and turning the wheel of Dharma. But unfortunately, through misconception and dirty minds, it has become something else. That was one of the many scenes when we read it that was jaw-dropping and stomach-turning. This entire season was filled with scenes like that, but reading that scene, I was of course nervous.

What was it like to actually film the scene? What did it require?

We have the elements of fighting in close space with fire and multiple people. A lot of things can go wrong if you’re one inch away from where you’re supposed to be. From a technical point of view, I was so excited we were going to get to do something like that. We went in with a stunt choreographer before we shot it and went over the moments for hours, and fire safety as well, so we felt very confident going in and I feel that Taylor took that scene everywhere it needed to be. She took me places where I wasn’t planning on going. When we first shot it, they shot me first and we had a stunt double standing in for Taylor and she was great, but it’s not Taylor. The emotion isn't there the way that Taylor, the actress portraying that part, is going to bring it. When she came in for her shot, she made me cry and she got me to this place where I couldn’t control my anger. I felt the need to have to do it again to justify the level of skill that she brought to that scene. I’m really glad that I did mine over and I hope that we did that scene justice. I hope people were horrified when they saw it.

Did you break at any point to check on each other?

We didn’t. We gave each other space, of course, between takes, but it wasn’t about, “Taylor, are you OK?” Taylor would be OK, and if she wasn’t, there would be people to take care of her, and if I wasn’t there would be other people to take care of me. But she needed to keep that moment going. Those tears are real, the sweat is real and unfortunately, occasionally, the blood is real. We all have our moments!

How do you describe what Maria's thinking in that moment?

If you were Maria, you’d probably want to beat the living crap out of Piper, but Maria never gets her hands dirty and is holding back. She’s letting other people do the dirty work and you see that she keeps a lid on that anger. Earlier, in the yard scene when I come stomping up to her, you'd think I’d just deck her right there because I’m coming with that force. But she stops herself from completely blowing a fuse.

What were your emotions like while filming the scene?

I did get caught off guard because of the way we set it up. It was a closed set late at night with only a skeleton crew and the people in the scene. So it already felt like the actual scene: That something is not right and we’re somewhere we’re not supposed to be. To see Taylor really go there, 100 percent, it’s unnerving because the person Jessica cares about the person Taylor and you don’t want to see people you love cry. It was so real because it is real, we have to find those real places that happened to us to get those emotions.

Leading up to the branding, there were many signs that things were going to explode. From the shocking “white lives matter" chant to a flash of the Confederate flag tattoo to the music (“Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” the Nazi anthem from Cabaret) in episode five. Did you have any hesitations about tackling racism and anti-Semitism so head on?

Nope, that’s our job. If you’re afraid of talking about those things, then this is the last show you want to be on. It’s our responsibility on a show like this and I wasn’t nervous because I was working with actors. One of our skinheads is a Latina, another is a very good friend, one is a very strong activist for black rights. We are not our characters. This actually means a lot to us and the fact that we’re getting this global platform of millions and millions of people is something so special. You couldn’t ask for a better case scenario of how you can further compassion and equanimity. Those are the things when we’re reading them we're saying, “It’s so wrong,” but it’s great. How great is it that song? One of the girls has a Confederate flag on the back of her neck.

Piper goes too far — watching it, you might even say she got herself into this. Not only does she accidentally become the head of a white power group, but she tattles on Maria and gets years added to her sentence. Is that the moment when Maria has nothing to lose and just snaps?

Absolutely. From the first moment you meet Maria in season one, she’s extremely pregnant and her number one focus is that child. She kept her head down, did her work and didn’t get too involved. Then you see her go through this dark season when she is lost in season three. She comes to terms with the fact that the baby doesn’t need her, but that it's her who needs the baby. That’s what was keeping her grounded and giving her hope. You take that away and now you have someone who is going to try to make the best of her time. In the beginning of this season, you see people pushing her into drugs and weapons and she just says, “No, we’re not going to do that. If they want the TV, give them the TV. If they want to search you, let them, they’re not going to find anything.” It’s her level of harmlessness in this place and passing the time. But when Piper makes that time an unbearable amount of time, now you see the environment in which she was raised come out in her and she stops fighting who she is, or who she was supposed to be and fought against being, probably, her whole life. When Piper rats her out for something that is, in the giant scheme of things, not that big of a deal, and you have Piscatella completely take away her dignity and humanity and tell her to go cry because it’s so sad, that’s the moment she breaks. She still has that little bit of sadness but when subsides, it’s wrath. A slow-burning wrath.

Piscatella adds three to five years on top of her original sentence, which was six years?

Season two she says she has six years. So if your baby is almost one, and maybe Maria was hoping she’d get out early for good behavior, now your kid is going to be in junior high by the time you get out.

Maria truly evolves this season and there are several difficult scenes that she finds herself in. Which one was the hardest?

The scene that really was a Maria scene that got me emotional and, unexpectedly, hit me hard was the scene in the office with Piscatella. Brad [William Henke] and I had never spoken and that’s a large man who is intimidating looking. Now we are in this little office with the whole crew and no air conditioning, it was like 100 degrees, and he’s letting me have it! I can’t lash out or scream, and that was so frustrating for Maria and also for me, because I would want to react but I can’t. That bottled up frustration really got to me and when he tells me to cry, I never wanted to punch somebody in the face so much in my whole life! There was a scene we didn’t use where Maria, or maybe Jessica, ends up throwing the chair. It wasn’t appropriate for what we’re trying to do, but I couldn’t take it anymore. Maria’s whole life and plan gets completely crushed in that scene, so that for me was the pivotal turning point for Maria.

The race wars were the focus of the first half of the season and then the Poussey episode just changes everything. Does Poussey’s death speak to Maria?

First, it was us against them, and us against them was racial. The guards are slowly but surely taking away our humanity and dignity. I get that scene with Piscatella and now us against them is all of us, no matter who you are, against them, the uniforms. Now it doesn’t matter because we’re all prisoners, we’re all numbers, and race becomes much less of a factor than suffering the intolerable acts of these men and women any longer. Everything shifts.

The finale raises the stakes and Poussey's death shows it’s not just about doing your time – it’s about surviving it. Where does the show go from here?

I don’t know what’s going to happen, we never know. But if we were to continue on this trajectory, I would say that Maria is capable of great things. She has nothing to lose and everything to gain at this point, and if you have nothing to lose, you really don’t care if you live or die. At the end of the season, I’m cheering on Daya with a gun and telling her to go for it. I’m going for it first, but she picks it up and as smart as Maria is, she’ll gladly let someone else do her dirty work. Maria’s not saying, “Don’t do that. Leave him alone and let’s go back to the bunk.” She is up there cheering. I watched that scene in slow-motion a few times to see what everyone was doing and Maria is not trying to talk Daya out of it at that moment, and that’s where we left it and that’s all I know.

Were you shocked when you found out Daya would be the one pointing the gun?

I wasn’t until I saw it. When I read it, it registered and clicked that it would be that moment with Daya. She’s the next sweetest and another innocent, so to speak, just like Poussey was. But it didn't really click until I saw it: I thought that was one of the most heartbreaking moments of the season. To see that girl be ready to throw it all away for nothing — not even something that was done to her or that would make her feel better and that she would gain something out of. It was really a misdirected anger of her life and the moment you see it, you think, “Now I understand how people end up coming back or staying in prison much longer than they need to.” You see that sometimes they just give up and give in and lose all hope. That whatever hope they have, they’re willing to throw it all away for nothing. 

How important is it to you, personally, to be a part of a show that sheds light on these types of conversations?

Because of what we do and how we do it, we’re able to touch people in a very personal way. They’re at home with their guards down, with no one around. They can sit there openly and receive these stories and get to know these people and relate to them, to people they maybe never could before. I use the example of the storyline of Sophia and her wife. My mom grew up in a conservative household and this was not something she was exposed to or around. She saw Sophia’s story of how she was a man transitioning and how the wife helped her and she just turned to me and said: "Wow, that woman really loves him! I’m sorry, she really loves her." To see my mom make that discovery in such an honest and open way, it meant everything. You change someone’s life right then and there with that story, and all these stories are amazing.

It sounds like your life could have gone a few different ways. Do you credit Orange for changing it?

Absolutely. I was literally on a crossroad, I was on the corner! I had been at a point in my career where I started to take the rejection personally and I told my manager I wasn't sure I wanted to act anymore. I was at a crossroad at life and I thought maybe it was time to change my direction, and Orange gave me that hope to push forward. And we didn’t know what it was going to be, it was like falling into a trust exercise. You just have to do your work as best as you can and lo and behold, here we are.

Is there anything you hope to see next season? We still don't know why Maria is in prison — another flashback?

That can wait. I’m in no rush. I would like to be there as long as possible! I try not to think about the future of these characters and just try to take the stories as they’re presented to us. Jenji is someone with a lot of vision. In my audition, we used a scene that didn’t come out again until the second or third season, so this is someone that has plans. Just as you’re surprised watching it, we’re surprised reading it and that’s great for me.

Orange Is the New Black is streaming now on Netflix. For more interviews with the cast, check out all of THR's OITNB coverage here.