Dascha Polanco: Cuca From In the Heights Is So Much More Than a Hairdresser

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Lin-Manuel Miranda's hit musical In the Heights first made its splash on Broadway 13 years ago, telling the stories of a Latinx community on "a block that was disappearing," and now it's hitting the big screen.

It's a monumental moment for the entire cast: "I'm feeling excited; I'm emotional, but I'm so ready," Dascha Polanco, who plays Cuca in the film, told POPSUGAR. "It's not so often that we get to see a movie that's based in the Heights."

In the movie, Polanco's character works in the hair salon that Daniela (played by Daphne Rubin-Vega) owns, but her role in the community is so much more than that. Ahead, Polanco explained how she pulled inspiration from the women in her life growing up to get into character, how she channels her confidence on and off the screen, and more.

Dascha Polanco on How Cuca Is More Than a Hairdresser
Everett Collection

Dascha Polanco on How Cuca Is More Than a Hairdresser

Getting into character to play Cuca was rewarding for Polanco because she got to pull inspiration from so many influential women in her life, from her aunt to her own hairdressers. "These are iconic figures," Polanco said. "These are matriarchs that helped raise us. It was the first time that I could say, 'You know what? I can actually draw some inspiration from my tia and have fun with it and just celebrate her; be joyous with it.'"

On paper, Cuca may be a hairstylist, but she's so much more than that to her community, as many beauty experts are. "These are not just beauticians — these are women that own their own businesses, small-business owners that come here with a dream to succeed and they're able to, by beautifying everybody else and being the therapist of the community," she said. "It's very intimate when you speak about hair care and skin care."

Ensuring that Cuca wasn't just viewed as a "salon lady" was important. "They play a vital role in your upbringing as a woman," Polanco said. "This is where I got the love for taking care of myself and nourishing my skin; taking care of my hair and being OK with it. For me, playing Cuca, I had to show that her confidence, which she exuded, was in the community."

Dascha Polanco on Channeling Her Confidence Into the Movie
Getty | Dan MacMedan

Dascha Polanco on Channeling Her Confidence Into the Movie

Speaking of confidence, Polanco shared a few of her own secrets for honing your self-confidence, but she admitted, "you definitely have to work at it."

"As a teen mom, I was always ashamed — of being a teenager, being pregnant, having a kid at a young age," Polanco said. "Along the way, people discourage you to follow your dreams and take risks. So taking that risk and believing in myself was something that definitely boosted my confidence. You have to throw that fear away and be fearless and be bold and be present and do what you want to do."

But following her dreams in an industry that hasn't always made room for Latinx voices was challenging, too. "It's been a process for me as a woman of color and as a woman in the industry where there hasn't been diversity or inclusivity represented," she said. "It comes from the inside."

Dascha Polanco on the Importance of Self-Care
Courtesy of Olay

Dascha Polanco on the Importance of Self-Care

Self-care helps her channel that confidence. Specifically, things like getting her nails done, getting her hair done, and drawing a bubble bath work for her. That's why her partnership with Olay Body for its Exfoliating Body Wash Collection was such a great fit. "The Exfoliating Body Wash With Sugar and Cocoa Butter ($8) — that was it for me," Polanco said. "I love some sugar and I love some cocoa butter. Skin, smelling good . . . all that in a nutshell is confidence."

And, of course, it helps that the brand's mission resonates so well with her, too. "I enjoy working with brands that uplift our communities — it's all about self-care, self-love, and empowering women," she said.

In addition to those external rituals, Polanco also values positive self-talk to tell herself to be "bold" and "fearless." It's something she does every day in the mirror. "I like to really have a conversation with myself and say, 'You can do this. You can stand in your light, you can go for it. Do it, keep going. Don't stop,'" Polanco said.

Dascha Polanco on Why In the Heights Is Such an Important Film For the Latinx Community
Getty | Noam Galai

Dascha Polanco on Why In the Heights Is Such an Important Film For the Latinx Community

Excited doesn't even begin to describe how Polanco is feeling now that In the Heights is out, and she said, "The timing is just right."

"This is the beginning of what we've been wanting for so long," she said. "You don't realize what's missing until you come across it. We've been used to not seeing it on screen." She stressed how important it is that this movie feels "very different from just checking off a box" and isn't just phoning it in when it comes to diversity.

"There's a language spoken in the film — about the movement, the food, the music, the relationships, the dreams across the board, the story of the immigrant — all up there," Polanco said. "We're seeing, for the first time ever, people of color displayed in just a very natural [way], living life, celebrating, going through adversity, being a community, being Latin and going through it. I really hope the audience takes away the idea that they too can tell their story; they too can create; they too can direct. That whatever that dream is, you really have the opportunity to do so."