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"Orange is the New Black" star Jackie Cruz on her music and the car accident that changed her life

Jackie Cruz is best known for her role as Marisol “Flaca” Gonzales, the Litchfield Penitentiary inmate who sports faux-teardrop tattoos under her eyes and has a fondness for the Smiths on Netflix hit “Orange is the New Black.”

What fans may not know is that that her first love has always been music -- the actress even performs with her own band, Family Portrait. Now, aspiring singer-songwriters will have the chance to learn from Cruz through a contest with Rémy Martin’s Circle of Centaurs Mentorship Program

Cruz spoke with CBS News about her own mentors and the show that changed her career. 

You said “Hollywood chewed me up and spit me out.” You are now about to become a mentor yourself for Rémy Martin. Who were the mentors who guided you when you started?

My mother and her sisters. I’ve had five powerful women that raised me. I know the value of that and I know how important it is to have at least one person who believes in you.

What do you think will be the main piece of advice you will give someone?

I’m just going to tell them, “It’s not easy, but if you want it, you can do it.” And I’ll just tell them my story, listen to their story, and maybe they can learn from some of my mistakes.

What was your biggest mistake?

Moving from the Dominican Republic to Hollywood alone with my mother and leaving my family was really hard. And being a high school kid and being the new girl in 11th grade. Getting involved with the wrong people. Getting in a huge car accident at 17 -- that was the main thing that woke me up and showed me what was important. My whole life, I studied to be an actress and a singer, but I wanted to be this little rebel. But, you know, my accident woke me up and forced me to say, “No, you have another path, don’t lose that path.” 

I listened to my mom for the first time [laughs]. She’s my mentor, and she said, “You have to make it even more now, to share your story.”

Did you have an “aha” moment during your recovery?

It came from a little girl who inspired me. She was 8 years old and would always come into my room. I was in my own little world and selfish because I didn’t like the way I looked. I stepped up to her, I said, “What’s up?” And she said, “You’ve had brain surgery, too.” Because we both had that shaved head thing in common. And I was like, “Yeah,” and she was like, “I think you’re really pretty,” and I was crying. I was like, “My God, she thinks I’m really pretty and I’m bald, my face is crooked. This little girl thinks I’m pretty and says I want to walk like you.” And right there I cried because she’s quadriplegic and she’ll never walk again. 

Sorry, I get a little emotional talking about this. I met her again after 13 years and she wanted to be an artist and she likes to do makeup -- she does it on herself and other people. She inspires me. That was that “aha” moment. It wasn’t the beauty, it’s what’s inside. She didn’t need to see my face. She just knew I was a good person.

How long between that and your “Orange is the New Black” audition?

Eight years. I booked two things in eight years. And then I let go of acting because I wasn’t booking. Music was my go-to -- that’s what brought me to Miami and then New York. I missed acting. My friend was like, “Go see my manager,” and then my first audition was for “Orange is the New Black.”

When you first read that script, what did you think?

I didn’t read a script. They gave me a page and I had two lines. All it said was “feisty Latina.” I knew a feisty Latina, I worked with her in nightlife in New York. I said, “I’m going to play you on TV one day, you’re hilarious.” She had this unique New York accent and would tell you stories of how she ended up in jail and did not know how she got there. She was this skinny little feisty Latina, and I imitated her. I always talk about her -- her name is Karina Correa.

How has Flaca changed for you from those two lines to now?

I feel validated, I feel I worked really hard to get to this and it wasn’t just given to me. I had two lines, and after that they saw something in it, and after year three they gave me some more, and then four, and then five -- it just feels amazing.

Do you have a memory of a favorite gig?

The best where I felt super loved was for the Women’s Prison Association. I’ve done it three years in a row, and every year I perform for them and just love that they realize that I can sing and they love that, they love the show -- it’s just all love. 

What was it like to meet the women going through the experiences that you and your cast members portray on screen?

The system is so messed up in a lot of ways. I did the Second Chances campaign with the Women’s Prison Association and just listening to their stories was crazy. I mean they are human beings and, before, I was one of the people who judged and I don’t anymore.

Bringing it all full circle, if you ran into 17-year-old Jackie now, what advice would you give her?

“Listen to your mom (laughs). And never give up” -- but I haven’t. So, “it’s going to happen for you, girl. Patience!”

Learn more on how to win a $4,000 prize and mentoring sessions with Cruz through Rémy Martin’s Circle of Centaurs Mentorship Program here.

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