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Jessica Pimentel must never get a chance to sleep. The gifted actress and musician lives a double life not only playing the very emotional role of Maria Ruiz in hit television prison-drama Orange Is The New Black but is also the lead singer of New York hardcore band Alekhine’s Gun.
When Heavy gets a chance to catch up with her she is sitting in a Melbourne hotel restaurant drinking a Jack Daniels Manhattan while on tour with her partner – Tomas Haake from Meshuggah. “We’ve hit that mark,” she laughs as she orders her drink from the waiter and then declares how amazing Melbourne is as she surveys the beautiful Fitzroy Gardens that pan out several feet below us.
She laughs even more when I ask how she juggles the acting, the music and now touring with Meshuggah. “This was supposed to be my vacation,” she says her smile getting even wider. “This is actually the easy part because the touring is all set. Tomas asked me to come here (Australia) because he knows that I have always wanted to come here and to New Zealand. And he just said ‘it’s all set… it’s all set up for you’ so it was a bit of a no-brainer. Plus we get to spend time together which is great because we live so far apart and we travel back and forth all the time, so it’s just nice to be able to travel together. What ended up happening though was just before we were set to leave I booked a film so I get up in the morning and I’m reading this film script every day. It’s an independent film that will be filming in April when I get back. So it hasn’t really been the vacation time that we thought it would be and I guess a tour is never really a vacation but it’s been nice to spend time together and be able to watch him play every night… but I’ve ended up making this a work trip as well. But I think it is just like anyone that has music and a regular job, you just find a way to juggle it because you love it.”
“Orange does have a set shooting schedule in July-Decemberish so during that time there is really no way for me to do anything but a weekend warrior kind of time so that becomes the perfect time to write, record, polish and sharpen and do all of that stuff. We also just hang out and be a band and enjoy ourselves and then when that time is over we can go off and do other stuff.”
Jessica also admits then when she is travelling and in a new city like Melbourne she finds herself getting really creative and wanting to write. “It happens all the time,” she says. “Especially when you are touring because you are playing the same set over and over and each day becomes really mechanical. You know – wake up at this time, and do this at that time, but then you see things that start to inspire you because you aren’t around it so much. Soon music starts to come and then lyrics come and then a riff pops into my head. For me working on this script while on the road has been perfect because I have no local distractions – there’s no local pub or my friend’s party or ‘let’s get together for dinner’, there’s nobody here. When they are doing sound check and whatever it’s just me. I can just sit in the beautiful park like the one right here and soak up the nature and let my imagination run wild. The weird sleep patterns and the jetlag also help with the creativity because you are kind of in this bizarro world.”
As Jessica talks about unwinding our discussion moves to how she unwinds when filming Orange Is The New Black as her character just seems to have moved from dramatic storyline to something even more harrowing over the past few seasons – scenes such as the traumatic swastika scene. “Yeah that was a really rough scene,” she says nodding. “Basically you just have to leave it there. So you do the scene to the best of your ability and then you just leave it. When it’s over it is over, you can’t go back, because there is a part of you as an actor that keeps saying ‘oh I could have done that or I could have done it this way’ but you have to leave that there to and emotionally if you give everything when you are shooting then you are not going to have anything left over. My favourite thing to do is to go back to the trailer or to the dressing room and blast the loudest music that you can find and that will get you out of that mindset. I do whatever I can to put it behind me, that might mean I put on some dance music or some Meshuggah (she just happens to say this as the lead singer of Meshuggah walks past our table), it might even be reggae or Latin music… whatever I need really.”
She admits the other thing that makes it easier to leave Maria behind and become Jessica again is taking over the prison uniform at the end of each day. “That absolutely helps,” she says. “Once we put that uniform on it even changes the way we walk. It changes how we stand. They are not very flattering clothes so you walk differently and the shoes are so heavy. As you take off your clothes and your make-up and you put on those clothes and add the bags under your eyes and do your hair your character starts to emerge and that is the process every morning when we start.”
One of the things we have seen with the character Maria over the seasons is for her to move from being a character in the background to one of the shows most important characters and Jessica said that was something she knew would happen right from the start. “They actually told me on premiere night that they had plans for Maria and that I just had to be patient and I was like ‘that’s okay I’m happy.” Then with every season after that has been great for me. I just thought that every scene for Maria, she might not have been a key player, but every scene she had was just heart-wrenching. – the visits with the baby etc. You could really see how much she cared for that child, making sure the father did the right thing when they weren’t there. Every scene was something spectacular and then when the baby gets taken away from her the father doesn’t want to come back and then I had to play that whole season with the gut-wrench of knowing that she may never see her child for years, but when season four episode two came with Maria’s back story and I saw that flashback I was like ‘here we go!!!’ Before I even read it I knew the creators had something up their sleeve for Maria.”
With acting well and truly covered we switch the discussion to Jessica’s music and she begins by telling me that she discovered New York’s hardcore scenes at a very early age. “Growing up in Brooklyn everybody kind of hung out together so in our neighbourhood you had people from all different musical styles. We all hung out on the corner together and then when we went to school you kind of divided yourself out into the musical styles, but on the corner everybody listened to everything. So there were skaters and gweedos and ravers and Goth kids and we’d all be on the corner because we weren’t allowed to go anywhere else. And then on Sunday there were these All Ages hardcore shows so Mum would walk me over and talk to the bouncers all protective like, so yeah I just started going to the All Ages matinees when I was about 13 or 14. New York hardcore is something very special, it’s ours and it’s very unique. It’s urban, it’s real, it’s gritty – it’s just us.
“I then played classical violin for my whole life and then I begged my Mum for a guitar and then I got my first guitar at fourteen. She got me a Fender because she knew I loved rock ‘n’ roll, so she was cool with it. Then she let me listen to anything that I wanted in the car and that would normally be Metallica, Slayer, Minor Threat, Bad Brains, Sick Of It All, King Diamond or anything – the only one she didn’t like was Red Hot Chilli Peppers because she thought they were too vulgar and sounded stupid”.
As talk turns to her band she surprises me by saying Alekhine’s Gun was pretty much a fluke. “We were an amazing fluke,” she says. “I had a huge break from playing music and during that time I realised that I really missed it. I just really missed it from my life. I put that message out into the world and then that night at work these four people who knew I was kind of looking showed up with CDs and it was literally eenie-meenie-minie-mo, so I went home and listened to all of them and then Jeff Martinez who I consider my brother, not just a band-mate, heard I could sing and he Googled my old band, Everybody Gets Hurt, and he liked my singing style and he handed me the CD and when I heard it it was exactly what I wanted. I didn’t want to do the same stuff as I had been doing, not the same kind of hardcore and I’m not that kid anymore. I’m not running down the street anymore huffing and puffing and wanting to punch stuff anymore. I thought this was really evolved and really different. It was a challenge and it was out of my comfort zone and that was the most important thing – it was stuff that I was scared to do. I knew I had to do it so I called him and said ‘let’s do it!’”
ALekhine’s Gun is still ‘doing it’ and have a new album in the works right now. Orange Is The New Black is available on Netflix in Australia.
Written by Dave Griffiths