Exclusive Interview: Rosal Colón on Acting, ‘Orange is the New Black,’ and the Importance of Inclusive Storytelling
If there’s one thing we’ve all learned from Orange is the New Black, it’s that life at Litchfield can be unpredictable. And in Rosal Colón’s case, life imitates art.
Tasked with playing Spanish Harlem’s resident tough girl Carmen “Ouija” Aziza, Colón needs to be ready for just about anything. From going toe-to-toe with Piper Chapman in season four to holding prison guards hostage in season five, Colón’s character has given her lots of juicy stuff to work with. And as an actor, she absolutely relishes in the opportunity to meet the challenges of her character head-on.
But there’s more to Colón than her willingness to go above and beyond to fully embody a character. She’s also passionate about using her art to create conversations around diversity and inclusion, and she seeks to push herself beyond the realm of acting to tell stories that often go unheard.
I recently spoke with Colón about Orange, her creative passions, and why it’s important to encourage others to tell their own personal stories:
TARA MARTINEZ: Ouija was a new edition to the series last season and audiences saw her as kind of a villain. This season we got to know her a little better and saw a softer, funnier side to her. What’s it like to explore the different facets of this character?
Rosal Colón: I loved it because I feel like one of things that the show does, particularly when you audition for a character, I would say that all of the women basically got, like, a one-liner that would use adjectives such as “tough” or “sweet and sexy.” And then all of these characters possess those qualities, but then obviously what the show does over time is that it shows what you first think about the characters initially and over the course of the episodes, you realize that every single character is very morally complicated. Nobody is just black and white, so I felt really lucky to have this second season to explore the different sides to her or maybe the reasons why she is as tough as she is, or her vulnerability because I think anybody that’s that super duper tough has got a deep, deep vulnerability that they are willing to pay any price to protect. So, I had a lot of fun exploring that.
TM: Given Ouija’s seemingly ruthless nature, I imagine her personality and her motivations are pretty far removed from your own. How difficult is it for you to step into this character?
RC: It’s definitely hard. It’s hard for me and I would say anybody that is friends with me and knows me—I’m kind of like bubbly and effervescent and I think I am more sweet-natured than she is, so it is hard to kind of shed that desire to be liked and step into someone who genuinely does not care. She doesn’t give a shit if you like her or not. She’s unapologetic that way and what she does care about is being respected. And she will preempt any disrespect that she sees coming her way. And that’s not necessarily within my immediate sort of personality, so that is kind of challenging but the writing supports that. Sometimes it’s just added relief. Like, just say the words and let the words kind of take you there.
TM: Is there anything in your own life—people that you know or experiences that you’ve had—that you draw from to embody this character?
RC: Yeah! I mean, I grew up in New York City. I went to school in Spanish Harlem. I went to school in New York City my entire life and I’ve had many characters in my life to draw from. I particularly went to school with girls who were really tough and at that time, I couldn’t quite understand the toughness. But now looking back, I realize that they grew up in some really difficult households. A lot of the times, it was some kind of like—abject poverty and that definitely brings a kind of grit to your personality. That gives you that sort of protective armor. You need that to survive, so I witnessed a lot of that growing up in New York. And I’ve had moments where I’ve had to dip into that for my own personal survival.
TM: So, it sounds like playing Ouija has kind of given you more reason to empathize with people who are different than yourself. Is that something you experience often as an actor?
RC: Absolutely. I think that what draws me to acting so much is to play a character that is seemingly the exact opposite from who I am, and then in sort of filling in who the character is, I realize that we’re all a lot more similar than we are different in that way. I think that the show—there’s something about the show that even though, yes, these characters are really distinct, but there is a common humanity that when the characters have their guards down is when you see that they come together. And so, what I actually find kind of fascinating is that there are times when I’m playing her when I was just like, wow! What she’s doing is not okay, but in having to play her, I can kind of justify why she would have to do that. Would I personally do that? No, but I can see how if I had grown up in those circumstances or if I had the particular kind of day that she had, I might behave in a way that probably is not the most morally sound. So, that is kind of fascinating to me.
TM: The scene where Ouija does impressions of other inmates is one of the most memorable of the season. How did you prepare for that? Which impression was the most difficult to master?
RC: It was so hard. They were all difficult for different reasons. Actually, a funny story—I got an email from one of the executive producers and she was like, ‘Well, the writer’s room wants to know if you have any special talents.’ And so I said that I could play the castanets and then I was like, ‘I’ve been told that I can do okay impressions.’ Right? Then I get to set the day of and the first AD was like, ‘Well, word on the street is that you’re brilliant with impressions!’ And I’m like, oh my God, there was a telephone game that went terribly wrong and now I definitely cannot blow this! So, basically, I was like, okay now I have to be like Al Pacino—that brilliant. So, my friend who plays Pidge on the show, Miriam Morales, she really did help me. She helped me kind of pinpoint different physical aspects of each character, like vocal qualities that I should focus on just so that I could get the distinct mannerisms for them. And I basically just hunkered down and studied all four seasons, but I focused on one character, and then I focused on the second one, and then the third. So yeah, it was practice. It’s not something that I’ve ever really done.
TM: With your character being an integral part of seasons four and five, more people have had the opportunity to appreciate you and your work. What has the fan reaction been like for you?
RC: It’s been so sweet, honestly. I can never get tired of hearing how much people enjoy her, how much people connect to her. Even when people are like, ‘I can’t stand her!’ I’m like, ‘Alright, then I did my job. I was one hundred percent committed to playing this character who doesn’t always do great things.’ And it’s been quite an honor to hear from people all over the world just really connecting with her, and particularly in this season having fun with her because that’s something that, even if it wasn’t necessarily in the writing, I wanted to explore moments where this person felt empowered holding these guards hostage and felt empowered running things. And there’s joy in that and there’s satisfaction in that where she’s, I think, been quite disenfranchised. So, I wanted to find those moments of levity because that’s life. Even in the worst situations, we’re going to try to find some light in it and I think it would be inhuman to think that someone is completely dark and cruel all of the time. So, yeah, it’s been nice to see how fans react to the light side, how fans react to the dark side. It’s just been an honor.
TM: One thing that’s really unique to Orange is the New Black is the sheer diversity of the cast and the inclusivity of the writing. What’s it like to be part of a show that gives a face and a voice to so many different types of women?
RC: Oh my God. To me, and I do think about this a lot and I thought about it a lot watching it as a fan of the show before I got on and also working on it, what genuinely excited me the most is to see how younger generations are viewing it and how it’s inspiring them to create their own work and tell their own stories, I think that has been the most—the most powerful thing that the show has done is to inspire a generation to not be afraid, to write about their lives. And I’m speaking particularly about people of color, about the LGBTQ community. We don’t necessarily see our stories day to day in the mainstream media, so I think that the most powerful thing that the show has done is to say, ‘Look at how successful the show has been and this is only a grain of sand in all of the stories that can be told. Your story is valid and important and you should tell it if you feel that you must.’ So, I think that that’s quite revolutionary and, to me, it’s empowering to the disenfranchised and that’s part of the beauty of storytelling and art. It’s not just reflecting an elite. It’s giving a voice to the voiceless. And so that, to me, makes it an honor to be on that show if there’s somebody that watches it and sees themselves and is inspired to create.
TM: How did you get your start as an actor? What is it about acting that drives you to continue to pursue it?
RC: Well, my family started a theater company in the South Bronx called Pregones Theater and that was about 36 years ago, and I was drawn—there wasn’t necessarily a lot of financial resources involved, so all I had to go by was the passion that they had for storytelling. And I was so drawn to see how their audiences—these are audiences that probably didn’t go to Broadway often and didn’t get to go to, like, the off-Broadway scene often, but how theater moved them, how theater helped to maybe change their lives or bring them joy and entertainment. And that drew me in at a very young age. So now, as a business and as a career, I really do view acting and the art of storytelling as a means to, at best, help move society forward because when it’s done really well we see ourselves in all of our virtue and greatness, and we see ourselves in our character flaws. And if we let it affect us as viewers, we’re like, ‘You know what? I want to change this and I want to do this better.’ I think that on a big scale, that’s something that’s very meaningful about the art of acting and the art of storytelling, and it drives me to want to continue to do it.
TM: What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned over the course of your career?
RC: I would say that you’re enough just as you are. I think we’re in a business, especially as women, where a lot of our work is determined on how we look, and especially acting—in the process of auditioning, we’re trying to fit the mold of what we think will impress the person that might hire us and it’s a daily lesson that you keep honoring the thing that makes you slightly different and not perfect. That messiness is where a lot of the magic and where a lot of the beauty lives. And that’s the hardest thing to do because we want to be liked and we want to feel like we’re kind of all-around perfect, but I think the thing that makes us interesting and the thing that will help us connect to more people is to truly be ourselves in our entirety—and that’s the good and the bad.
TM: Your career is really on the rise right now. What goals or dreams do you hope to achieve in the coming years?
RC: I want to create my own work. Again, I think it’s very easy to do the following things, which I am guilty of, and that is to complain about not seeing my story told or our stories told. And when I say our stories, again, I refer not just upper class white people in America but everyone else. And so, the lesson that I’m learning is that I have to be the one to take charge of my story and share it in order for that to change. I’m fortunate enough to have a community of friends that are also artists. So, what I’ve been doing is kind of connecting with those people and just brainstorming about future projects in television, film, and theater where I am behind the scenes and also on stage or in front of the camera. And what I hope to do with that is not just provide myself with an opportunity, but to provide the people that don’t get to see themselves that opportunity to create.
The fifth season of Orange is the New Black is now streaming on Netflix. To learn more about Rosal, be sure to follow her on Twitter at @RosalMargarita.