By: Donna Freydkin
You know her as slightly dimwitted inmate Marisol "Flaca" Gonzales at Litchfield Penitentiary, who was part of a panty-smuggling in season three. Now, when season four of the Netflix hit "Orange is the New Black" returns on June 17, Jackie Cruz promises more mayhem, more drama, and even more clique-bait. Plus, way more of Flaca; Cruz is now a series regular.
"She says what's on her mind. She's not afraid of speaking up. She's not afraid of other people. I'm more reserved. Maybe I won't tell you how I feel. Maybe with a few tequila shots," says Cruz of Flaca.
In person, Cruz is outspoken and exudes self-assurance. But, she says, "I'm not confident at all. I freak out. I'm myself at the moment. I feel like I've become more confident because of 'Orange.' They made me feel like I can do this."
This, of course, being acting -- Cruz moved to Los Angeles as a teenager and faced mostly rejection. Then, at 17, she was in a car crash that left her with a collapsed lung; she was thrown from the vehicle and had to undergo brain surgery.
"I was this angry teenager. I hated everybody. I was mean to everybody. I was in my own little dark world and then I saw the light," she says.
She credits a little girl she met in the hospital, when Cruz was at her lowest. She told Cruz she was beautiful. "The moment that little girl said I was pretty. I felt beautiful in here. It was never about this," she says, pointing to her face. "I get to be part of a show -- I feel like I work with the most beautiful people in the world. It's cool being a part of that. There are all types of beautiful. It's not just the outside."
If there's any upside to almost losing your life, it's perspective. "I can handle anything -- I had brain surgery," says Cruz.
The person she also credits with her attitude is her mom. "I'm nothing like her. She taught me to stand up for myself. When I moved out at 16, she said, 'You want to be an adult? Go be an adult. And don't come back.' And I went and I almost killed myself and then I stayed home until I was 23. It's really hard being an adult," laughs Cruz.
And yes, today, she gives speeches about her crash and how it changed her life. She connects with listeners, takes selfies with them and hears their stories. Of course, this being Cruz, she even finds the ridiculous moments, like the time she spoke to the hearing-impaired.
"Somebody was doing my speech in sign language. Each person would come and sign to me. I knew a few things. I thought it was, 'Nice to meet you.' They were laughing at me. I'd said, 'Nice to (have sex with) you.' I didn't realize. They were dying," she says.