After a breakout season, 'Orange Is the New Black' star is working hard to balance acting with life as a death-metal frontwoman
After a breakout season, 'Orange Is the New Black' star is working hard to balance acting with life as a death-metal frontwoman
It's just after 6 p.m. on a Friday, and Duff's – a noisy heavy-metal bar adorned with autographed memorabilia and jagged-looking instruments in Williamsburg, Brooklyn – has just opened its doors to the sober, work-weary masses. In the center of the room, a woman clad in a black dress and high heels is headbanging atop a carpet adorned with Iron Maiden's corpse-mascot Eddie. The music is "Bleed," an angular, machine-gun–like aural assault that's little over seven minutes long, by Swedish extreme-metal growlers Meshuggah. Bargoers sip their beer in the back, some nodding along they stare at this rare vision in the middle of a photo shoot. Here is Jessica Pimentel, someone they've seen lead a prison riot on television, and she's rocking out to the heaviest of heavy music right in front of them.
A double-life is nothing new to the actor, it's just become more apparent in recent years. Since 2013, she's played Orange Is the New Black's hard-as-nails inmate Maria Ruiz, who suffered through a pregnancy while incarcerated and was forced to give her baby away. This year, she became the Netflix show's breakout character, leading a Dominican resistance to Piper Chapman's underground used-panty business; now that she's officially been made a series regular, we're likely to see a lot more of her in the next few seasons. Meanwhile, Pimentel has been fronting the confrontational indie death-metal group Alekhine's Gun, which has released two EPs and has gigged across the East Coast playing alongside the likes of Kittie and the Ocean, among others. Both of her careers will be recognized at a benefit gala in Brooklyn this Friday for the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, an occasion for which Kathleen Hanna is serving as honorary event chair and Pimentel is an honoree.
Her career has been a slow yet steady crescendo building to this point, and Pimentel knew she had made a breakthrough shortly after Orange's first season. As she claims a chair in a low-key, dimly lit bar a few blocks from Duff's, she orders a hot toddy and relaxes a little. The moment she knew her work had become transcendent was when a group of strangers singled her out at the Afropunk Festival in Brooklyn in 2014.
"A bunch of girls come over – 'Maria! Maria!' – and they just jumped on me and started hugging me," she says. "It was a little overwhelming. I like my personal space. But this one girl was bawling tears. I was like 'OK, breathe. It's not that big of a deal.' But she was crying, and said, 'I am that baby. My mother was pregnant in prison, she had me in jail, and we didn't get to see each other. Thank you for telling my story of what my mom went through and what I went through, because nobody really ever thinks about that.' It broke my heart, but then I knew that everything had worked out for the better – that what I was doing was dharma work, works for good."
Pimentel grew up in Eighties Brooklyn, in the borough's small, residential Cobble Hill neighborhood. She remembers it as being a beautiful area, though her mother wouldn't allow her to cross Smith St. when she was bicycling around in fear of "terrible things." "I guess the projects were more prevalent then," she says. "The rich people would come out of the train and would get jumped when they were going to Brooklyn Heights." In Cobble Hill, however, she felt safe.
Both of her parents immigrated from La Romana, a city near the southwestern tip of the Dominican Republic with a population size similar to that of Topeka's. Her mother, Loida Perez, a psychologist, moved to the U.S. at age 13, and her father, Ervido Pimentel, who was a competitive swimmer and water polo player, followed her at age 18 or 19 and the couple was married shortly thereafter. Jessica was their only child.
Her parents divorced when she was 6 and after that, she was raised by her mother and grandmother. Her father died in 2006, but he was not a part of her life after the divorce. She grew up with difficult-to-explain feelings toward her dad that she was only able to reconcile recently, though acting.
She discovered the arts around age of three, she claims, when one of her mother's coworkers gave her a toy-size violin she had found while cleaning out an office. "They were going to throw it away, but my mom was like, 'No, my daughter could play that,'" Pimentel says. "I really liked it. I knew automatically what to do with it. It was like from a past life." She learned Felix Mendelssohn's infamously challenging Violin Concerto in E Minor by ear and eventually got into New York's "Fame school," the High School for the Performing Arts. But she developed a numbness – "this unbearable pain" – when playing and had to abandon the instrument. That's when she turned to acting.
And to cope with her emotions, including depression, she'd spend afternoons sitting in a local park and listening to the metal she'd discovered as a preteen. One day in 1994, she met the man she describes as her "counselor": Type O Negative frontman Peter Steele. "He was pale as a ghost, and he'd be dressed in all green, with long, jet-black hair," she says. "One day, he said in the heaviest New York accent I ever heard in my life, 'Shouldn't you be in school? What are you listening to, kid?' I'm like, 'King Diamond and the Cro-Mags.' He's like, 'Have you ever heard of Carnivore? Come back tomorrow. I'll give you a mix.'"
At that point, Steele and his dreary doom-metal bandmates had just put out their platinum-selling breakthrough, Bloody Kisses, a record filled with tongue-in-cheek odes to depression and frustration. He'd previously played in Carnivore, a proudly un-P.C. hardcore band with post-apocalyptic imagery; after striking up a friendship with Pimentel, he would make her mixtapes that reflected her mood – Type O, Carnivore, Bad Brains, Minor Threat and "old-school hardcore." Other times it'd be Depeche Mode and Slayer. "He would give me medicine," she says. "He was like a big brother. He was always humble and real. The music came from the heart."
She tears up, recalling their friendship. Steele died of an aortic aneurysm in 2010 at age 48, though they had grown apart years earlier. He'd waved to her from the dressing room of New York's Irving Plaza at a show a few years before his death but she didn't say hello because of a jealous boyfriend. "I never got to say goodbye," she says. "It sucks."
Acting became her prime creative source from high school through college. "I got a touring role in Romeo and Juliet; I got to be Juliet for eight months, which was amazing," she says. "Shakespeare is what I love to do the most, but it's very hard to sustain yourself." Between 1995 and 2013, she played a variety of roles and bit parts in movies and TV shows — characters with generic names like "Hooker," "Young Mother," "Ex-Girlfriend." Before long, she grew tired of playing one stereotype after another.
So when the prospect of auditioning for what her agent described to her as a "computer show about jail" came up, she cautiously accepted. The fact that the creator of Weeds, Jenji Kohan, was behind it intrigued her, so she auditioned for Crazy Eyes, Daya Diaz, one of the inmate mothers – and she was not cast. At the same time, she'd been going for a role on another series; when it became apparent she wasn't getting that part either, she felt the urge to quit on-screen acting altogether and seeking out a job in the tech industry. "I said, 'This is a bullshit business,'" she recalls. "'It's garbage. It doesn't even matter.'" Then she got one more callback for Orange Is the New Black.
Flustered, she asked her manager to describe the role. "'Well, the character's name is Maria … ' That's a shocker right there – Latina Maria, they couldn't even come up with anything more creative" she says, her voice getting louder and angrier. "'What's next?' 'Well, she's in jail.' 'Obviously. She's not going to be on the outside. She has to be on the inside. And?' 'And she's, you know, 30 years old, and she's very pregnant.' I'm like, 'Perfect! So she's a 30-year-old, pregnant Latina and in jail. Is her boyfriend a drug dealer?" She's like, "We don't know that yet.' I'm like, 'Has to be. Has to be. I can't wait to tell my mom this. I'm so happy I got a degree in Shakespeare for this.'"
When the casting agent scheduled the audition, Pimentel was so annoyed she asked for it to be an hour earlier so she could go to Sephora for free lipstick and a makeover to celebrate her birthday. Once there, she still had to wait, and her agita grew. "I've never been so tense in my life," she recalls. She then steps into the character of herself to demonstrate how irritated she was during the audition. For the prompt, "How are you doing," she raises her voice again and speaks with staccato emphasis: "I'm doing fine. I'm great. And my back hurts because this baby gotta get out of me." Stepping back into herself now, she says, "I swear to you, the whole delivery was, 'I need to get the fuck out of here. I gotta go to Sephora.' … But that was Maria." The casting agent told her she's always been good at auditioning, to which Pimentel replied, "You always say that." Then she left to get her makeover. She got the call the next day. She had the part.
In the first season, Ruiz gives birth to daughter Pepa, whom her boyfriend takes. She suffers great depression. It's a struggle that continues into the second season, as she faces the possibility of being transferred to another prison. And it worsens in the third when her boyfriend tells her that he will no longer be bringing Pepa to visit her in jail, and she screams as he walks away. She helps her pregnant bunkmate Daya Diaz when she goes into labor but disowns her furiously when it becomes clear that Diaz would give the baby to the mother of one of the prison guards.
"That scene showed how much love and loyalty and sincerity Maria can give," Pimentel says. "She's really there for you, but you say the wrong thing, you are cut off in a second. 'You're giving your baby away? I hope you die.'"
Last season, as Litchfield welcomed a spate of new Dominican inmates, Ruiz became politicized. After watching two white inmates push her friend down a flight of stairs, she rallied together the Dominicans and clashed with the show's central character, Piper Chapman, by becoming her competition in selling used female-inmate underwear to the outside world. (When Chapman snitches, Ruiz abducts her from a party and brands a swastika on her.) We also gave a view into Ruiz's pre-prison life, which saw her clashing with her drug kingpin father. When she falls for a rival dealer – the father of her child – she and her Dominican-pride-espousing dad have a devastating falling out.
"Jenji actually told me that she had very big plans for Maria early on, just to wait," Pimentel says, smiling. "I didn't think it would be three years later. For me, this last season was super special, because I also got to play myself as a teenager. And they found someone who looks so much like my dad that it took my breath away. My mom had a hard time watching. But I got to scream and yell at my dad, which I never got to do." And how did that feel? "Great and awful. But I needed to do it, and he deserved it. It was pretty surreal. Everything came full-circle. Everything got resolved."
And then there's Pimentel's other outlet for screaming. In 2010, she was bartending at the Brooklyn metal bar Lucky 13 when a man who was DJing there, Jeff Martinez, asked her about a Facebook status update she'd posted about wanting to start a band. Although his background was in hardcore, he'd been playing death-metal guitar with a friend and had a batch of songs that needed vocals. They were both fans of Behemoth, so he offered her a shot – and she ended up wowing him. "To sing death metal was a bit of a stretch, since she came from hardcore, so she had to adjust," he says in a slight New York accent. "Her lyrics draw from her Buddhist religion and are very deep."
She named the group Alekhine's Gun, after a sneaky chess formation where the queen lies in wait behind the rooks. Before long, they were gigging around New York playing a mix of gut-rattling riffing with slower, ponderous moments of melody, as Pimentel sings about taking people's breath ("Atlas") and references the Buddhist concept of the wheel of sharp weapons ("Crown of Knives [Tsconcha Korlo]"), which teaches people to be more compassionate. They put out an independently released EP, Meditations in Wrath, in 2012, and followed it up two years later with another, …And Kings Will Fall. Martinez and their bandmates are currently writing a full-length while Pimentel works on Orange. He hopes it will come out, again independently, by March.
When the band is performing live, Pimentel becomes a dynamo – gesticulating her lyrics violently, waving her hands in the air, staring down anyone in her sightline, headbanging with her tongue out. Lately, she's begun wearing black-metal corpsepaint – which she feels pop-star Rihanna has co-opted ("Her stylist stole all of my face," Pimentel exclaims) – and wearing a spiked metal gauntlet on her right arm. "The lyrics are dark," Martinez says. "It fits well. She can be the sweetest woman; she's got great morals. But if you cross her the wrong way, see ya later."
Lately, Pimentel's good karma has been paying off. In addition to her role becoming more prominent on Orange Is the New Black and her band working on its debut full-length, she's also recently fallen in love, a notable fact only because it's a prominent part of her public life on social media. In 2013, she met Tomas Haake, the highly skilled drummer and lyricist for Swedish calculus-metal greats Meshuggah – the band Duff's was blaring – face to face. They had a flirtatious vibe and after a year of communications, he told her he felt they should be together. The woman who has embraced the nickname "The Crusher" – a variation on "Captain Boy Crusher," her nickname from her time in a band called Everybody Gets Hurt – had found her match.
"He was very confident that we belong together, and who am I to argue?" she says. They've since worked out a long-distance relationship, since they live in different countries. "He's a sweetheart, but he's also a man," she says. "He's like, 'This is what I want, this is how I'm going to get it. And I'm going to show you.'" She's since taken to calling him her "husband," though the couple aren't officially married. "At our age, it sounds kind of stupid to be like, 'That's my boyfriend,'" she says. "His parents call me his wife."
She texts him a pic of the photoshoot earlier, when she was dancing to his song. "He loves the picture," she exclaims suddenly. "He loves it, he loves it, he loves it. He said, 'Hot much?'"
And she's currently filming the next round of Orange episodes through January. "If you're familiar with Hamlet, there's a play within a play – it will make sense next summer," Pimentel says, referring to Season Five's premiere date. "But we can't do a nine-day episode anymore. We had to move to 10-day shoots, so we're working on Saturdays to make up for it. It's exhausting."
The way she looks at it, both acting and making music have been the two things that have kept her grounded. "No matter what's going on with my friends, my family, my spiritual life, I'm not changing," she says. "I'm always going to be focused because everything I do is dedicated to a higher purpose, which is the art, which is the spirituality. Everything you do has a purpose in this world. I've just always felt like I didn't have a choice. This is how you do things if you want them to be right."