She gets our vote for being the most sensible inmate at Litchfield, which is why Orange Is the New Black star Selenis Leyva has us concerned about her Gloria Mendoza. Leyva told Yahoo TV Gloria continues to try to be the voice of reason in the tense fifth season, which unfolds across three days as the inmates riot when events pick up right where they left off — Daya holding a gun on sadistic Litchfield guard Humphrey — in the Season 4 finale. But she also finds herself at crossfires with some of her fellow inmates, and the prison simply can’t afford to lose one of its true leaders.
Leyva — who, along with Danielle Brooks, is among Season 5’s MVPs based on the six episodes Netflix provided for review — also talked about the intense experience of telling such a powerful, chaotic story across a three-day timeframe; about how Gloria continues to shine a light on the struggles of women in prison to keep their families together; about how, in spite of all the drama, Gloria also gets a brief moment of relaxation; and about how, like several other TV series post-election, OITNB’s fifth season has a lot in common with the country’s current political climate.
What was your reaction to the storyline for the new season, and the format of having the whole seasons unfold across just a few days?
You know, the first time I heard that it was literally going to take place across 72 hours, I thought, “Wow, that’s going to be intense,” because I knew what we were picking up from. So, you know, you can’t go from how we left off before and then have a slow, easy-breezy Season 5. So, I knew that it was going to be intense, but nothing can prepare you, I think, for what really does take place; we started at 100, and we just continued at that pace. To have to be at that level all the time was exhausting. It was also scary because, as an actress, you know, I get into what I’m doing. We all do. And it’s hard, it’s heavy stuff. I felt very heavy this year, because they gave me some really intense stuff to deal with, you know, that I could relate to as a mother, as a woman. So, it was just intense and all a blur. I cannot even tell you… I can’t wait for June 9th, so that I can see what happened, because I know what happened, but I cannot tell you the steps that we took to make it happen.
Things are especially tense for Gloria this season, because amidst the chaos of the inmates taking over the prison, she continues to try to be the voice of reason. She continues to be a leader. And she, I think more than any of the characters, really tries to walk a very tough line between doing what is best for her family — her kids on the outside — and the people inside, who are also a family to her. She is a fierce mama to everyone she cares about.
Gloria is just a character that hasn’t changed much, who she is. We’ve seen some characters kind of change somewhat and do unexpected things. But Gloria’s been the steady, steady, steady human being. And it’s all about loyalty. It’s all about survival. It’s all about, for her, just being out of trouble. She doesn’t care for it. And she’s, from day one, just so down-to-earth, considering everything, even when she’s smart-alecky and kinda sassy. It’s still coming from a really grounded place. So, I love that [series creator] Jenji [Kohan] and the writers continue to honor that in her, and give her such heart. I love that Gloria takes care of all the kids… they’ve become her kids even if they’re only a couple years younger than her.
I love that, at the same time, I find [Gloria] this season going, “Oh, come on. Enough already,” like, let everybody deal with their own issues. There were times that me, as the person outside of it, reading the scripts would kind of go, “Ugh, come on, can Gloria just have one moment where she sends everyone to hell?” Where she just kinda throws up her arms and goes, “You’re on your own. I can’t deal with this anymore.” And we do see a little bit of that, a glimpse of that, in one episode in particular. There is an episode where she’s just like, “You know what? I think I’m just gonna hang out and do me,” because I need that. A side of her that we haven’t seen, perhaps, where she’s just more relaxed, just kind of hanging out. And, I love that they gave her that break. We haven’t seen her kind of carefree for a couple of seasons, I feel. She’s been on this intense ride to save everyone. I so desperately wanted her to literally turn around to Daya and be like, “You’re on your own, kid.” You know? “And you with the problem, you’re on your own.” I just feel like the more she tries, the more crap she got from people, so it’s tough, because I love Gloria so much. And to see her kind of get a little bit abused here and there is tough.
We don’t want to spoil anything specific, but as an example of Gloria’s commitment to the other Litchfield women, there is a great scene between her and Suzanne in the cafeteria. Viewers will know it when they see it, and it’s a small moment, but it perfectly sums up what Gloria is really all about, and how, I’d argue, she is the sanest person in the place, prison employees included.
Oh, thank you. That was a really sweet moment. It’s not a long moment, but I think it’s very true to who Suzanne is, and it’s very true to who Gloria is. And these women, at that moment, even in the course of such chaos, can find time to just be themselves, and have a real human interaction.
Again, without spoiling specifics, Gloria’s story also continues to shed light on how difficult it is for mothers in prison to try to maintain their connections to their children outside, to try to continue to parent them, have a positive impact on their lives. Gloria epitomizes what those mothers go through, and that must mean a lot to people in that situation, that you are portraying this so beautifully.
Thank you. I’ve had some interactions with women who had been incarcerated, who will say, “I’m so glad they are touching on the subject of motherhood behind bars,” because that’s something that, up until very recently, we weren’t really hitting on. But the beauty of our writers is like, just when you think they’ve done it all, they will come up and they will touch on new subjects. I love the fact that they focus on this, which they started two seasons ago with Sophia and Gloria and their struggle as mothers.
I think it’s an important story to tell because a lot of times we forget that a lot of these women, they’re not just “criminals.” They’re women with families, with lives, and most of them are in prison for petty crimes. They’re taken away from their children. And, so what happens to the children outside? That’s a subject that we still don’t really hear about in the media. And Gloria, who people really do like… they know she’s a mother. And the writers have given her this story, which is so powerful, and I think that because people care about her, people will pay more attention to the topic. This will matter a lot more than maybe it mattered in Season 1, because [viewers] are invested. And I’m glad because I have a feeling that this season will really shed light on what it means to be behind bars and not there for your children.
Specific to Season 5, Gloria’s desire to avoid trouble, for herself, and to try to help the people she cares about do the same, conflicts with what a lot of the Litchfieldians want when they take over the prison. Yet again, no details spoiled, but when the riot happens, there are competing priorities for demands by the prisoners, and Gloria is not necessarily with the rest of her fellow inmates.
Yeah, no. I like that because it’s, you know, that’s how life is. We have to juggle. And sometimes we have to juggle several crises at once… poor Gloria, running around, trying to put out all the fires that are being created, and having something huge happening in her personal life. I really did love that. And I felt that there was a moment like, “Is she gonna make it?” And you’ll see as this season ends, it gets… she puts her life at risk. She is willing to put her life at risk. Without ruining it, there is a moment towards the end of this season where she does have a conversation with a family member and says, “If anything happens to me…” It is really scary because it ends in a really scary [place], where you’re like, “Is Gloria going to be OK?” She’s put herself out there, and she put herself in danger. Will she survive this?
There’s some humor, there’s some heartbreak, there’s some danger that springs from this takeover. For you, what was the most surprising thing that happens during the riot?
The different people that had to come together. We saw Litchfield in the beginning. It seems kinda like a party, one big party. And everyone’s having a great time. And then cut to like Season 3, and it gets a little bit more menacing. In [Season] 4, all hell breaks loose. And there’s division… there is a divide in that prison that we did not experience in the very beginning. We may have seen it a little bit with Pennsatucky and her crew, but it was never something of a takeover, you know what I mean? In Litchfield Season 5, they really needed to say, “In order to survive, we have to stick together. We have to put all our differences aside. Are we willing to do that?” That to me was surprising to read because we had created such a huge divide in the storyline, and then all of a sudden and we’re like, “OK, [now] to survive, we need to do this.” And it goes to show you that, when it really gets bad, people can, do turn to each other and say, “You know what? Let’s think about the betterment of it all.”
And you know, we shot this almost a year ago. Politically, what’s happening is just that… we’re seeing people go, “You know what? We may not agree on many things, but we do agree on one thing. There is an abuse of power. So, what are we gonna do?” I love that. We were kind of like, Jenji has her hand on the pulse so much, she gets it so much, that she’s predicting stuff, you know what I mean?
Gloria truly is a leader. She is someone you could see running an agency, a charity, a foundation, a social services program, a political office, on the outside. She would be getting things done, don’t you think?
Yes. When everything is said and done, I think that she’s one of these women that, she’ll be telling her story, going to schools, and shelters, and sharing her life, because she is a leader. At the end of it all, you know, not that I have any plans or desire to leave Litchfield, but, if ever they give Gloria an exit, let it be glorious, and let it be like she goes off and has a piña colada on a beach somewhere, has a cigarette. And then goes off to a life of leadership.
That has to be how her prison life ends.
But, if she keeps saving everyone, I don’t know about it. I’m questioning her survival at this point. Her mental and physical survival. She’s getting in too many crossfires. She’s in the way of too many moments that all have left me losing sleep, like, “Oh, my God, I can’t wait for the next script. What happens? Do I survive this moment?” I mean, that’s how this season was for me. I was like, “Oh, dammit. I’m gonna get back home… I’m gonna get back home.”
You really have me worried for her now.
Well, you’ll definitely… there will be moments. There will be more than a moment because towards the end of the season, you do question like, “What’s gonna happen to this woman?” You do question it, and the way it ends, you know, we don’t know. We’ll see.
Orange Is the New Black Season 5 premieres June 9 on Netflix.
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