There’s one word that comes to mind when speaking with Miriam Morales: driven. The actress, who plays the energetic and funny Pidge on Orange is the New Black, has dedicated her life to pursuing every opportunity she can in the arts. After receiving her first role in a church play at age five, Morales let her passions propel her from a small Long Island community to Netflix’s top show. And now there’s no stopping her.
With her feet now firmly planted in the entertainment industry, Morales is ready to conquer any and every goal she sets her mind to. From writing and producing to starting her own fashion line, Morales has a drive that’s nothing short of admirable.
I recently spoke at length with Morales about her role on Orange is the New Black and where she hopes all her hard work will take her next:
TARA MARTINEZ: How did the role of Pidge come to you? Can you talk a little bit about your audition process?
MIRIAM MORALES: I had wanted to be on the show since the beginning and I had auditioned for it before and I didn’t book it. So, one day my manager texted me and asked me how tall I am, and I say, ‘Five feet.’ And she’s like, ‘Well, no because I remember when I first met you, I was standing next to you. I’m taller than you and I’m five feet. You’re 4’11.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, whatever. Why do you need my height?’ And she tells me about this breakdown that came off of Orange and they said the shorter, the better. And I said, ‘No questions asked! I’ll be whatever height they need me to be. Just get me in the room. I don’t care.’ [laughs]
So, I had very little information about Pidge when I got the material. I think I had maybe, like, a day to prepare, so what I did was the day of my audition, I worked with my acting coach to just help bring her to life because I literally only had one line in my—I had three scenes, and I only had one line and so I knew that to create her and make her pop, it would be in those moments where I wasn’t speaking. And so my coach helped me to bring that forward and, you know, tighten everything up. I literally, right after working with her, went straight to my audition. And I didn’t think I booked it because I didn’t hear anything right away and that was on a Thursday. By Monday, that’s when I got the call that I booked it.
TM: Do you like the challenge of having that, like, one day or just very little time to prepare? Does that keep you on your toes?
MM: You know, it’s so weird because I don’t like it but at the same time I do because it just forces—I don’t know. There’s something about crunch time that forces me to just, I don’t know—like, magic happens. I don’t even know how to explain it. So, I guess no because everyone would love more time to prepare, but yeah because it seems to work. And because I don’t have much time, then I’m really forced to get creative.
TM: Season five of Orange is the New Black was a pretty crazy ride and Pidge helps hold down the fort with Ouija. What’s Pidge’s perspective of the situation? What’s her goal in helping to move the riot forward and hold the guards hostage?
MM: That’s a really good question because the way that I envision Pidge is that initially she is not thinking things through. She just goes along with it because she’s so loyal to her friends in the cause that whatever needs to be done, she’s down to do that. So, I think initially she’s not thinking what the goal is. I think there are several goals that are probably presenting themselves as time passes, so I think she is obviously fighting for justice and to be treated fairly and getting some changes to come to the prison. But I also think there’s a part of her that’s like, ‘Okay, I’m going to have fun with this while I’m at it! I’ll fight for justice but let me entertain myself!’ I think there’s two things going on for her.
TM: She seems like the kind of person who’s always ready for a challenge. I feel like there’s also a sense of urgency in her actions. Do you think that stems from her need to have fun? Or do you think there are other levels to that as well as what you’ve just explained?
MM: I think there are other levels. I’m happy that you picked up on that because not many people do. I really think Pidge—I think that’s just how she is. There’s always an urgency to everything that she’s doing, but I also feel like there’s something else there, maybe in her past. We’ll see what the writers come up with if Pidge gets a backstory, but I feel like there’s something there, maybe anger management, violence—something that she’s working on and she’s trying to suppress it and she has her ways of dealing with it so it doesn’t manifest. So, I think that’s there too.
TM: One of the funnier moments this season was seeing Pidge and Ouija snorting coffee. What were you guys actually doing? How do you make that look real?
MM: The people in the props department are great with special effects. So, it really was like a big tent and they just like cover each part of it, and there was a little tube connected to a suction pump. So, every time we snorted, someone was on the other end suctioning. But that was real coffee and a few particles did get up there. I felt it. [laughs] But yeah, they did a great job of making that look very, very real. And it was challenging to shoot that too because we had to hold the pen in a way where the tube wasn’t showing in front of the camera and I would say that was one of the hardest scenes to shoot, only because of the technical aspect of it. But it was fun! It was a lot of fun.
TM: You’ve been on Orange is the New Black for two seasons now. What’s that experience been like for you overall? What kind of feedback have you gotten from fans?
MM: Well, you know, Pidge is—she’s one of those people that just crops up here and there in very random moments. So, when I get a lot of, ‘I wish there was more Pidge!’ or when people think that she’s funny—and I think she’s funny too—I think for season five, they really enjoyed seeing her more and learning a little more about her, which I did as well. So, that’s exciting. But most of the feedback has been like, ‘Oh my gosh, Pidge is really funny! I wish we could see more.’ And I’m like, ‘Great, thanks! Keep putting that out there to the universe. Hopefully, that’ll reach the writers!’
TM: What has been your experience playing Pidge and making her real given that she doesn’t have a backstory? Is there anything about her that you can relate to?
MM: There’s something great about not having that much information about her and that’s that I get to play and work with my imagination. So, in that sense, it’s just inserting what I think is already there and making sure that it comes to life through her lines, but one thing that Pidge and I have in common is our fierce loyalty to our friends, so in that sense I do relate to a lot. You know? Just how she’s always ready to help someone and I’m kind of like that, too. I’m not always thinking like, ‘Should I be doing this? How is this going to affect me later on?’ In that sense, I think we’re a lot alike. And you know, I have my funny moments. They don’t come out all the time but they’re there. I’m very facetious, so I do have fun with that part of Pidge. I just love that. But I do have a silly side, so when Pidge gets to just be silly and let loose and not always be just like the tough girl in prison or sidekick, that’s a lot of fun for me.
TM: This season was all about the inmates of Litchfield finding their voice and sense of empowerment in a situation where they’re not always treated humanely. What do you think empowerment looks like to Pidge?
MM: Empowerment for Pidge—aside from the obvious of what’s going on with what everyone else is fighting for—is taking charge of her own voice and finding that and not being afraid to let it out and not holding back, which is why I think I said that she’s down for this but she’s going to have fun in the process. And I think in that sense of freedom and not having a system to abide by and guards and, you know, what very little life is in prison for her, she’s winging it and I think that’s where that sense of play and whatever happens, happens, and ‘let me be free in these moments’—that for her is empowering. I think Pidge has an issue with authority which is why she’s with Ouija guarding the hostages, the guards. It’s like, ‘Okay, it’s my turn now.’ And I think there’s more there, just that sense of self and being a little bit in control for a little bit is empowering for her.
TM: What does empowerment look like to you personally?
MM: So many things. In a lot of ways, the same thing as Pidge. Finding that voice, owning that voice and not holding back. The power of saying no on so many levels, and standing your ground and teaching people to respect you as a person and your boundaries. Empowerment in just being a woman, being a Latina, being an Afro-Latina in this country which is so often overlooked. There’s so many things—empowerment is so big for me because it means so many different things in a whole bunch of different categories. Overall, it’s just being empowered to be who you are.
TM: How did you get your start in acting?
MM: I did a play in church when I was around five or six years old. It wasn’t a big part. I don’t even think I had any lines but I just remember going to rehearsals and putting on the costumes and singing and stuff like that, and I absolutely loved it. So, anything that I could do to be in the arts or do a play or take a class or whatever, I was there. I knew I wanted to pursue it; I didn’t know that I could do it professionally. And so when I was in high school, I was in honors classes and advanced classes and advanced AP classes and there was this pressure to, like, go study to be a doctor or lawyer or something. And I just wanted to audition for theater school. I didn’t care about taking AP classes or paying for advanced credits or anything like that because I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to be an actor. I don’t need this.’ [laughs] That was the first time I was actually vocal about it, I would say, when I was a teenager, like when I was a sophomore or junior. I was like, ‘I’m going to acting school. That’s what I want to do.’ But I always pursued it even up to that point. You know, local community plays and I would beg my parents to drive me to the city to go to some open call or whatever I could find. My parents didn’t have any connections or money, so there were so many things that I couldn’t do, but I did take advantage of what was free, whatever I could learn. And I stuck with it even when I had a nine-to-five.
TM: One of the things I was really excited to learn about you was that you’re from Long Island. Have you gotten any feedback from the Long Island community about your work?
MM: I don’t know if you’re aware of the civic organization in Brentwood called Adelante but I won a scholarship that they awarded back in 2000. So, when I booked Orange, my manager contacted them just to let them know like, ‘Hey, she won your scholarship all these years ago and this is what she’s doing.’ Because even then, I was one of the only few candidates that was going into the arts and you know, that’s not something that people really think is possible, so they don’t support it. So, when I booked Orange, my manager did contact them to let them know and they have a relationship with another organization on Long Island called Latinus Magazine and this past year, I was one of twelve recipients of their Latinas de Éxito awards, so from that side of it, yeah! A little bit from the Latino community but overall, not that much. I don’t know if people on the island other than my family and people that know of me are watching Netflix or watching the show, but it was nice to be connected with the organization again that basically helped me pay for acting school and to just—to even be thought of, to be one of the twelve recipients of this award was pretty amazing. So, that was nice because I’m sure through their magazine and everything that they put together, people will learn about fellow Long Islanders which is always nice because even when I was young, I looked to see who’s from Long Island and who’s making it big.
TM: In researching for this interview, I learned that writing is a passion of yours. What do you love most about writing?
MM: What I love most about writing is I can write whatever I want. I don’t have to write to someone else’s standard, at least when I’m doing my own thing. Obviously, it’s different when you have an entity to write for or a client, but my own writing it’s like, ‘This is mine. These are my words, these are my feelings, these are my experiences, this is what I feel like writing about right now in this moment.’ So, it’s just kind of therapeutic for me and it’s another form of storytelling. That’s what I love. I’m better with my written words than verbally anyway.
TM: What types of writing do you find yourself most engaged in?
MM: Well, I have a blog that I write. I recently merged it with my official site. But I write a lot of personal style, beauty, and motivational types of posts. My motivational posts are always my most—the ones that I’m most excited to write about because I like to share my own experiences, something that I’ve learned in the hopes that maybe it could help someone else. Growing up I didn’t always feel like I had that motivating factor and that was what was missing for me. And since I can provide that for someone, I mean I love to do that.
TM: What are some of the things you hope to achieve in the coming years now that your career is gaining momentum?
MM: I would love to do more film work and TV work in front of the camera, basically just work that is strong—that has strong female characters, that feature Latinas in a positive light, that tells a story that we haven’t seen before, something that’s challenging for me. So, obviously more work in that aspect. But I would like to write and produce. That’s a passion of mine, just learning the ropes. I produced a short film last year which was super challenging and now I know what it’s like, so I have a little bit more insight about what I need to brush up on. I really am so passionate about publishing a book, so once I decided I wanted to do that, I started writing it last year. There’s so many things, they’re all related to the arts. I just want to continue acting, I want to write more, I want to produce, I want to publish this book. I would love to have my own fashion line one day for petite, curvy girls. But there’s so many things, and one of them—not acting related, but hopefully starting to happen is to start a foundation in my cousin’s name. My cousin Jonathan was born with a very rare disease called Smith-Lemli-Opitz Syndrome and one of my goals is to learn more about it because I’m sure there’s been new discoveries since he was born in the nineties that maybe they didn’t have back then, and to bring more awareness to it. That’s really important to me.
Tara Martinez is a New York-based writer with a passion for pop culture and a penchant for analysis. She frequently covers film, television, and representations of women in the media.