Jessica Pimentel: Actress By Day, Death Metal Frontwoman By Night
You might be surprised to learn that actress Jessica Pimentel, known for her role as Maria Ruiz on Orange Is The New Black, isn’t just an actress. She’s also in a band ... a death metal band. Nerdette’s Tricia Bobeda sat down with Pimentel to talk about what it’s like to lead an alternate life as a death metal frontwoman and how her music, which is heavy and hardcore, is inspired by her Buddhist faith. Pimentel also talks about what it’s like working with one of the most diverse, majority women casts on what she originally referred to as, “that computer show about jail,” and what’s cooking for Maria’s character next season.
Tricia Bobeda: I’ve heard that you were a little hesitant when you were first auditioning to play the role of Maria on Orange Is The new Black. Is that right?
Jessica Pimentel: Yeah, absolutely. I’d been an actress for a while. And I had been on a string of callbacks for this other show that was going on. They called me back and called me back and called me back on this other show. And I kind of envisioned myself already there. Like, I was so close [that] I thought I had it.
And throughout this process of this other show auditioning me, I had been going in for several roles on Orange Is The New Black. I went in for one or two roles, and I was starting to take the description of the characters personally. One of the character breakdowns was “not very pretty, a little bit fat, and not very smart.” And I was like, “Oh yeah? F you. I’m the first person you think of? Great.”
It was literally the second that I had the phone in my hand — I was calling my manager to ask her for a break from auditions for the rest of the year, because I didn’t want to go through that up and down any more. It was taking a toll on me. And my manager said, “Well, I have one more audition for you tomorrow.”
And I’m like, “Tomorrow?” No time to prepare. I asked what it is, and she’s like, “Well, you remember that computer show about jail?” Which is how we’d been referring to it for months. Because we didn’t know all the details, you know?
Bobeda: And at this point, Netflix hadn’t made a bunch of super-popular TV on its own.
Pimentel: No, they hadn’t. Right. I’m like, “I’m going to lose sleep tonight for a show on the computer? A webisode where I’m in jail, again?” Because that’s been the recurring theme of my career: hooker, hooker, hooker in jail, Lady Macbeth, hooker, hooker, hooker that kills her kid, Juliette.
I said fine. I was annoyed. Things were running late, and that was gonna be my last audition, and I was so over it. And that’s what Maria is. She’s just over it. So I came in, and with line one, straight-up Maria just came out of my face. It was kind of perfect. I believe she called me the next day, and I was working by the end of the week.
Bobeda: So much of what’s driving your character, Maria, and so many of the women on the show is the relationship between mothers and daughters. Is there anything that you took from your relationship from your own family or other mothers you know to try to infuse this with that motivation?
Pimentel: The way Maria speaks is based on my mom. My mom came to this country from the Dominican Republic when she was about 12. So Spanish is her first language from a very specific region.
As far as mothers and daughters are concerned, take an example of me and my mom. When I was a young child, I had this chair that I used to, like, to lean back on. My mom said, “Don’t lean on it, don’t lean back, don’t lean back.” Eventually, one day I leaned back too far and split my head open. The next door neighbor was like, “Call an ambulance or I can drive you.”
My mom said, “No!” And she just grabbed me, bloody, and ran to the hospital, about four blocks to the hospital. She ran on foot to the hospital, because she knew that was going to be the fastest way. Sometimes, a mom will do something completely illogical, but at the end of the day, she’s right. And it seems the most dangerous thing to do, but if your child is in danger, you do whatever it takes.
Bobeda: Another dimension of your career, one that people might be surprised to know, is that you are a frontwoman of death metal band. Tell us about your band.
Pimentel: My band is Alekhine’s Gun from Brooklyn, New York. I tried to play bass and sing, but something about this particular project, I decided I only wanted to front. I didn’t want to play an instrument. We’ve released two EPs, and we’re working on an album right now. Basically, all of our lyrics revolve around Tibetan Buddhist studies, philosophy, and some personal experience. They’re about meditation. They’re about transcendence. They’re about overcoming obstacles of life.
Bobeda: It’s such a fascinating combination. I think when people aren’t very familiar with death metal or Buddhism, they’d peg them pretty far away from each other in terms of volume, in terms of themes. But for you, they’re really tied together. How did those two things first come together for you?
Pimentel: I had been part of a New York hardcore scene, and there was a wave called Krishna consciousness that was a popular theme in a lot of hardcore bands, and that exposed me to the Eastern religions. I started studying Taoism, and I felt a really good connection with that, but once I got into Buddhism I felt the closest connection. For the first time, everything made beautiful, perfect sense to me. Everything was completely logical. Everything was completely sound. It spoke to me.
Bobeda: You’ve spent a lot of time becoming a very talented, classically trained musician. What, from your years of playing classical music, did you bring to the music you make now? What do they have in common?
Pimentel: It requires intense discipline to be a classical musician of any kind. You need to put in your hours, not just on the stage for performance, but also in rehearsals.
I wanted to start playing guitar when I started to listen to heavy metal music. I just loved the power of it, the intensity of it. It’s kind of how I felt playing classical music, because classical music is powerful and intense. There are pieces that are just as heavy, if not heavier, than any heavy metal song I’ve ever heard.
Bobeda: Who introduced you to heavy metal?
Pimentel: I mean, it was kind of a natural progression. I had the radio on, and you have top 40 radio, and then you hear things that are a little “heavier,” like Bon Jovi or something like that. And then one day you mess up and you turn the dial a little bit, and you turn to a classic rock station, and you hear Jimi Hendrix, and the Doors, and Black Sabbath, and then Joan Jett, and it just spiraled down from there.
One day my friend handed me an album and said, “I think you’d really like this since you like violins,” and it was King Diamond’s “Conspiracy.” King Diamond is this Danish band. When I first put it on, it started with these cellos and strings, and it was so gorgeous and lovely. And he started singing in this haunting operatic voice. It wasn’t a scary death-metal voice, but the subject matter was terrifying. I was 12 years old and I couldn’t go near my closet for two weeks; I was so scared of the story! It was mindblowing.
Bobeda: So who gave you the nickname “The Crusher”?
Pimentel: That comes from one of my old bands, Everybody Gets Hurt. We all had a superhero name. “The Crusher” is actually a shortening of my original superhero name, “Captain Boy Crusher.” If any guy tried to approach me [and] my older brother, my brother by choice would say, “Oh, don’t even try. She will crush you.”
But it’s also a very male-dominated musical genre. I felt like if I did anything, I had to go above and beyond to get recognition from people who were lesser-than, so to speak, playing wise or anything wise. So I always set my sights to “crush.” I wasn’t going to just do it; I was going to crush it.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire conversation.