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INTERVIEW: OITNB's Diane Guerrero opens up about the past that helps her play an inmate

A native of the storied coastal city of Charleston, South Carolina, Julie Sprankles has been a lover of words her entire life. As a Southerner, she certainly has what her mama calls “the gift of gab.” When she’s not writing, Julie can be...

"I'm pretty spicy myself"

When Diane Guerrero landed the role of Maritza on a new Netflix original series, she had no idea the show would become a cultural phenomenon of binge-watching proportions. Now enjoying the ride of her life, the Colombian-American beauty gives us the skinny on life behind bars, her next big project and everything in between.
Diane GuerreroPhoto credit: Jordan Matter

When Netflix released the second season of Orange Is the New Black on June 6, we did the only thing that seemed logical: We holed up in a dark room with a box of Junior Mints and binged-watched the show all weekend. Although no one could have predicted just how successful the show has become, it's not altogether too surprising it's a hit when you consider the rich roster of colorful, eccentric characters.

Orange Is the New Black Season 2 binge-watch review >>

Like everyone else, we're hooked on the stories of inmates like Piper and Alex, Crazy Eyes, Red, Taystee and, of course, the ladies of Litchfield's Spanish Harlem. Even prison guards like "Pornstache" have their appeal.

Diane Guerrero as Maritza

So, in the interim as we patiently (read: anxiously and irrationally impatiently) await the next installment, Colombian beauty Diane Guerrero gives us our OITNB fix by chatting about the current season and her role as the saucy, albeit sometimes ditzy, Maritza — a role she didn't put much stock in at first.

"At first when I got the role, I was excited to just kind of work on anything," she laughed. "I was very hungry as an artist — and I don't mean, like, literally starving. I wanted to work on things. I wanted to tell a story. I think any actress just wants to tell a story all the time."

Guerrero's backstory, which is as equally riveting as many of the characters in Orange Is the New Black, also keeps the star grounded. Born in New Jersey and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, she is the only American-born child in a family that saw many of its members deported to Colombia. At 14 years old, Guerrero even had to say goodbye (temporarily) to her own parents and older brother.

"You know, I kind of just taught myself not to expect anything," she revealed. "I think that's the way I've grown up — just don't expect anything, because s*** may not happen."

It's Guerrero's own fractured past, in part, that helps her relate to the young women in prison that the show portrays.

OITNB star Laverne Cox talks gender identification struggles >>

"I got into this because I was like, 'One day, I want to tell kids about the neighborhoods that I grew up in so they can see that it just takes a little hard work and a little imagination to get here. That's all it takes... because I didn't see it in front of me, but I imagined it," she said.

"I still have a very long way to go, but I always saw something else through the debris in my head," she said, joking she was "getting all philosophical and s***" before continuing. "I saw past that, and a lot of underprivileged youth don't see this and can't imagine it. I want to show these kids — these underprivileged youth like me, if you will — that they can do it. And a lot of it is fear, too, right? Fear of failing. I want to show them that the only failure is not trying."

Orange is the New Black

Of course, it helps that the feisty character she plays feels organic to who she is and where she comes from.

"Maritza definitely has kind of a similar attitude to what I have. I'm pretty spicy myself, I think," she admitted. "You know, I love to have a laugh, and so does she. She's very fun and very playful. Like her, I can be very juvenile when I want to take it there. But she also just kind of adapts to whatever situation she has and makes the best of it, and I think that's where we connect."

OITNB's Laura Prepon on playing Alex: "She scares me a little bit" >>

The actress also offers some pretty interesting insight into Maritza's at-times hard facade.

"I'm pretty sure I was Maritza when I was 12 years old, except the whole jail part," she joked. "I definitely had mad attitude, would just talk back for no reason or made fun of folks just to make sure the other kids thought that I was cool, and definitely tried to have a tough exterior so the other kids wouldn't pick on me. I thought I had to be tough in order for people to respect me, because I was little. And because I've always kind of been the way I am now, just very silly and kind of dorky," she told us, confessing her quirky love for things like cartoons and comic books. "Things that when you went to middle school you wouldn't think were cool, I just enjoyed the hell out of them."

[SPOILER ALERT! If you haven't made it through the second season yet, be warned — the following passage reveals pertinent plot points that occur in episode six.]

And although Maritza and her prison bestie Flaca, played by Jackie Cruz, often make light of their situation, one particular scene in the second season hints at the more serious emotions sitting just below the surface.

During the scene, which takes place on Valentine's Day, the two share a kiss. "That day, we got hooch, and we were drinking and feeling sentimental and very lonely," Guerrero said. "I feel like any person who's incarcerated and anyone who's been separated from the one that they love — when you're stuck somewhere — you're going to be missing a lot of that stuff that before you took for granted."

And although she looks forward to the episode when Maritza's backstory is shared, she's happy for now to keep showing the upbeat side of Litchfield's sassiest Spanish Harlem gal. "I think Maritza's a fun character, and I think she has a lot more layers than you think," she hinted. "I definitely hope you get to see more of her."

Catch Guerrero up next in the CW's new drama series, Jane the Virgin, slated to premiere this fall. Of her new character, Lina, she laughed, "I'm excited to play a girl that's feisty but, you know, not in jail." Learn more about the show here.

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