Juilliard-trained Danielle Brooks, who plays Taystee on Orange Is the New Black, finally gets to show off her chops this season: We learn of Taystee’s childhood in a group home, watch her contend with her abusive, drug-dealing mother figure, Vee, and see that Taystee really can’t catch a break. Vulture ran into Brooks last night at the premiere of Paul Haggis’s Third Person — hosted by the Cinema Society and Revlon at the Jimmy at the James Hotel — and we chatted with the actress about the triangle between Vee, Poussey, and baby Taystee.
We learn a lot about Taystee ’s character in this season. Where did that backstory come from?
The only thing that [showrunner Jenji Kohan] told me beforehand is "Get ready, you have a lot to do in season two." I didn’t get the scripts in advance. So it wasn’t much prep for it.
How would you describe Taystee’s relationship with Vee?
It’s a tricky relationship because Vee has given her something that no one else has ever offered her, and that’s a family. That means a lot to Taystee, and so she’s conflicted because she’s raised her, but at the same time, Taystee has a good head on her shoulders and she’s trying to use discernment. When Vee comes to prison, Taystee can no longer go off what she already knew — she can’t use humor and she can’t use the joking-ness to get through her stuff. She’s forced to deal with it. I think it is such a weird dynamic, because Vee ultimately had a lot of control and power over Taystee. I think prison has kind of helped Taystee take a second away from Vee, and really try to discover who she is and what it means to be loyal and trustworthy. It’s crazy, the dynamic with Poussey, and who to be loyal to. Because Vee has given Taystee something no one has ever given her until Poussey comes along.
Where will Taystee go in season three?
No clue. I asked Jenji the other day. I was like, "Jenji, where do you think this is going?" She gave me the theme of the season but was like, "It’s not time for you to know yet." I’m just along for the ride.
There seems to be a larger conversation this season about race in prison.
I agree. There is a lot of juxtaposition between Taystee and Piper. Piper comes from a very privileged background, and Taystee comes from the exact opposite. It’s yet to be discovered how Taystee has gotten to prison. I don’t know that yet. But it’s a reflection upon our society, and how it is for people of color. That’s in the script, like if this is someone that was black, how long would they stay in prison versus someone who is Caucasian. It raises a lot of issues in the story line, and in season one, when Taystee has that conversation with Piper after they get the doughnuts, and Piper really wants change. And Taystee’s like, "You got to play the game, I’m trying to get out of here." It’s just everyone has their different ways of getting to what they need.
But the system doesn’t work for her at all.
It doesn’t. Taystee has tried every possible way to succeed. I think she really took to heart that conversation that her and Poussey had at the end of season one. Where’s she’s like, Yo, get your shit together. And you see that in season two with job fair. And she’s really trying to improve herself, like, I can do this. And she tries to stay positive about it even when Fig comes in, and is like, "I’ll give you some commissary money." And then when Vee comes in, she can no longer hide behind or try to find the joy in the moment, she’s got to deal with it. It’s interesting, the journey that Taystee gets to take this year, this season.
The job fair is so heartbreaking, because it touches upon a larger issue that it’s really difficult for felons to get jobs. Did you look into that at all?
That point comes up all the time when you’re an actor, especially when you’re playing a character like this. You are forced to really take into consideration that this is someone’s life. Somewhere out there, there is a Taystee. So I have a lot of sympathy for people who are in that situation and believe that prison is the only outlet where they have a place to rest their head and eat. That is a reality. That has been a challenge playing Taystee. I want to help her so much, and be like, this is the direction to go in, but I have to stick with what is on the page.
Why do you think she ended up in jail? How do you imagine it going down?
I have no idea. I have speculations, but I don’t want to reveal them yet, because they might come up in season three.
She’s so smart.
She’s so smart. She’s so street-savvy. Even watching little Taystee. Baby Taystee. She’s observant; she’s knows what the parents want.
Did you get to hang out with Baby Taystee?
I got to see her after she finished shooting, and I took a picture with her. I think it’s so flattering to see someone take all the physical choices that you make, and to see someone embody that it’s very flattering. It’s also cool to see another chocolate girl stepping into her dream, the same dream I had.