‘Joy,’ ‘OITNB’ star Dascha Polanco on female empowerment in Hollywood

LOS ANGELES - JUN 27:   at the NALIP 16th Annual L

Dascha Polanco

“I want you to smell me.”

It’s not your typical conversation starter, sure, but Dascha Polanco— a star of both the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black and the new feature film Joy — does smell nice, like fresh flowers. Seated in a New York City hotel suite, the 32-year-old actress invites me to cozy up next to her, because then, she jokes, I can experience the fact that “not only is she beautiful but she also smells delicious.”

Dallas Voice: It’s weird seeing you out of an orange jumpsuit.  Polanco: Is it?! I love the fact that I got to play with decades: the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s. But it’s two totally different worlds, TV and film.

What’s that transition been like for you?  Professionally, it’s always welcome. It’s a new challenge. It’s a new area of acting and being able to be play with characters and stories more creatively. I think with [director] David O. Russell and this project, it was intimidating.

Because it’s David O. Russell?  David O. Russell. Jennifer Lawrence. Bradley Cooper. Robert De Niro. Diane Ladd. Virginia Madsen. Isabella Rossellini. You just want to make sure you have your A-game on, and for a Latina being in this industry for the last three years, it takes you by surprise.

How does being Latina change things?  Well, there are not many Latin actors in Hollywood. There’s still a lower percentage of them breaking into Hollywood, but we’re seeing more diversity, especially with David O. Russell’s film. You’re seeing diversity there, to that caliber, and for me, that’s a big responsibility.

There’s been a lot of talk about diversity in Hollywood lately, and not just when it comes to race, but when it comes to women. And this movie is very…  Female driven.

It is. It’s all about female empowerment. It has a feminist message. How does that personally strike a chord with you  I can relate so much to the story and to the elements of the movie: having obstacles in your life, being a woman and having to be a parent, having to be a daughter, taking care of not only your personal self but also your family. It shows how much women throughout the years have been the backbone and have, at times, struggled to even take a risk or try to live their dream or move forward because of other commitments or because of the stigma that we are supposed to be at home.

From the perspective of someone who is Latina in Hollywood: What is the current state of finding roles in Hollywood for a minority?  I thought to myself for the last two years: I’ve gone on auditions — so many auditions — in comparison to when I first started. Maybe it’s because of Orange, maybe it’s because of my representation, but there’s a need, a desire now. You see more offers, you see more shows that want to include diversity because of the success of shows like Orange Is the New Black. Anybody could’ve been cast as Jackie in Joy, and that’s the beauty of it. The role that I play, anyone could have, but he didn’t make it exclusive [and say], “I’m gonna make Jackie a white actress.” No. She’s ambiguous. She can be black. She can be Spanish. The fact that this is a Golden Globe-nominated movie — ah, it takes me by surprise that I’m part of this project, not because I don’t have the potential, not because I don’t believe in myself — but because of what, historically, I’ve seen growing up. And now that I’m part of it, there’s hope and there’s an opportunity that was rendered that I’m not taking for granted.

—  Arnold Wayne Jones

A Bra of size

Breast cancer survivor Leslie Ezelle teams with artist George Tobolowsky to create a traveling sculpture of hope and female empowerment

THINK PINK | A huge bra sculpture will lead a ‘pinking’ trend where people can donate to Susan G. Komen.

JENNY BLOCK  | Contributing Writer
lifestyle@dallasvoice.com

Turning adversity into opportunity is the hallmark of a fighter. But using a giant bra do it? Well, that requires vision, commitment… and maybe a sense of humor.

“Cancer was not on my to-do list,” says Leslie Ezelle, HGTV Design Star contestant, former Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader and breast cancer survivor. But as anyone who has wrangled with the disease knows, cancer doesn’t care about to-do lists or anything else for that matter.

Ezelle, generally gregarious, withdrew when she got the diagnosis.

“I was a turd when I went through breast cancer, though people were fantastic the entire time,” she says. Ezelle resented it when people gave her pink things as signs of solidarity and support.

“Someone gave me a hat and I threw it like a little baby brat. I was sick of anything pink. I was having what I call my ‘titty-pity party.’ Serving bitter, party of one!”

After six surgeries and a healing process Ezelle says would have gone much more smoothly had she laid down and rested as advised, Ezelle was cured but still withdrawn. Her mom finally snapped her out of her haze, encouraging her to audition for Design Star.

She was eliminated before the finale, but that didn’t dampen her newfound love of life. After being kicked off the show, she started working with Susan G. Komen for the Cure to assuage some of her guilt about her bad patient behavior.

Enter a 14-foot high, 13-foot wide, 1950s-inspired metal bra sculpture, created by Ezelle and artist George Tobolowsky, titled “Ann-e Girl.” Named after the late sister of Ezelle’s partner, who succumbed to breast cancer, the piece, crafted from metal straps, will be hung on a metal branch signifying the “tree of life.” It will be the harbinger of “pinking” whatever location at which the bra appears, and help Ezelle in her goal to raise an additional $29,000 for Komen — in about a month.

“You can’t strap a good woman down is the theme,” Ezelle explains. “The bra will move. Wherever the bra goes, that is when the building goes pink, trailblazing through Dallas and leaving a wake of pink behind it.”

“Pinking” involves painting, lighting or decorating an area or building in pink to raise funds and awareness for the Komen fund. “Dallas is a little late to the party — pinking has been really successful in other cities,” Ezelle says.

The movement will begin with the pinking of the West Village on Pride Saturday at 5 p.m., when the sculpture will be unveiled. The event will include live performances, video presentations and tributes to the battle against breast cancer. One of the videos is of mothers with breast cancer — survivors and those who have lost the battle — and their children.

“For the music, I’ve changed some of the words to a Bob Dylan song that Adele does called ‘Make you Feel my Love,’” says Ezelle. “Now it’s basically the words a mom who died because of breast cancer would have said to her kids. Like my contact at Komen always says, ‘It’s the tearjerkers that really get people involved.’ This will be a tearjerker.”

Attendees will have the chance to register with Team Leslie for the Komen Dallas Race for the Cure on Oct. 15, and also to write something on a bra in honor of someone they love who is fighting or has lost the battle with breast cancer. The bras will be then be hung on the trees by Mi Cocina and the Magnolia moviehouse.

“Family and friends and Komen were there for me even when I didn’t want to play pink. As I’m working on this project, I’m realizing how lucky I am. I checked out emotionally but I didn’t have to totally check out. I didn’t have to die. Now that I’m drinking the pink, I get it. I understand why people are so into it. I see how great [being an activist] can make you feel and how infectious it really is.”

It’s hard to imagine where the idea for a massive, metal bra sculpture came from. But it was logical for Ezelle.

“My mom taught art and did this project with all of these bras made out of different materials,” she says. “When all of this came up, I immediately thought of that project.”

Four additional locations are already confirmed, but Ezelle hopes to add City Hall and Cowboys Stadium. The plan is to have businesses “buy” a strap on the bra for $5,000, which will enable them to have the bra on display at their location and have their company name and an additional inscription engraved on the piece.

Ezelle has already raised more than $30,000 but hopes that number will soar to $50,000 by the end of October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. After that, she will make the sculpture available to other charities that support women’s causes. “It’s a sculpture that can do a lot of good things. We need to put her to work in other ways. Maybe with the bra straps I can do that,” she says.

Because if a bra is supposed to do anything, it’s provide support.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition September 16, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens