Major spoilers for season four of Orange Is the New Black ahead.
From the moment Orange Is the New Black's Taystee (Danielle Brooks) collapses in agony beside the body of her murdered best friend, Poussey (Samira Wiley), it's clear Taystee will never be the same. The jovial attitude and motherly spirit she's exuded for four seasons — reinforced by being appointed the secretary of the newly promoted Warden Caputo — leaves her the instant she realizes the prison she's always considered her home is capable of killing a member of its family. Her friend is dead, her prison overlords are scheming to cover up their own brutality, and Taystee's left to pick up the pieces — only now, she's as shattered as every other inmate. When we last see Taystee, she attempts to reclaim control, screaming, "They didn't even say her name!" to unite Litchfield in an unprecedented uprising. If the MCC or Caputo won't give Poussey justice, Taystee will. Vulture spoke with Danielle Brooks about that awful scene, saying good-bye to her real-life friend Samira Wiley, and whether or not Taystee would pull the trigger.
You were one of the first cast members to learn about Poussey's death — Samira Wiley told us she personally told you over a bottle of wine. What was that conversation like?
I kind of took a big moment of silence. I was really in shock and couldn’t believe she was leaving. It became a big moment of reflection for both of us. We really reflected on what it’s been like to work together — both as Poussey and Taystee and as friends who’ve known each other before this show — and what it meant for the show. Also what it meant for our characters and our careers. We just talked for two or three hours straight about this decision the show had made. It was very hard to wrap my head around all of it, but then I took a different approach. I was like, Let me think of this in a positive way. It excited me to see what’s gonna happen for Samira now. She just booked a new TV show, and this is only the beginning of her career. To have really made so many fans and made such an impact on the world with her work, it only excited me to see what’s next for her. But as far as Poussey and Taystee, my heart was broken. I was like, Are you kidding me? Noooo! And how? That’s the thing, Samira didn’t really tell me how Poussey died. So that was shocking. I had so many mixed feelings.
The writers told Samira it had to be a beloved character to have the most visceral effect. Taystee’s also a fan favorite. Do you think it could have been her?
I have no idea. But I do agree that it had to be a beloved character because people pay attention to who they’re invested in. It gets the world's attention about the real issues by having stories like this. It has to be somebody who people care so deeply about. I think it opens people’s eyes to Whoa, this is the world we live in. This happened to Eric Garner, this happened to Natasha McKenna, this happened to Rekia Boyd. You start to go down this path of realizing that this isn’t just a fake character. This happens in our world for real. I think the writers have definitely succeeded in getting people to pay attention to Black Lives Matter, the Say Her Name movement, and the I Can’t Breathe movement. These are all part of our culture, unfortunately. So I’m glad to be part of a show that’s not just entertaining, but is educating as well.
What kind of direction did Mad Men's Matthew Weiner give you for that scene? Samira told us that the way Taystee collapses wasn’t explicitly written in the script, but something took hold of you. Walk me through that scene.
Matthew Weiner was incredible to work with. I’m really grateful that he allowed me to find it in myself and not really get in the way. He understood that it was a really difficult thing, so he tried his best not to have us do it over and over and over again. It’s hard because you have to get all these different angles and shots, so you’re continuously having to live in this world of negative thoughts. Thinking about losing someone. I remember telling him, I don’t want to do it over and over again, and he understood that. And Samira’s right, this wasn’t something that was written in the script. It just said that me and Poussey were supposed to lay together in that way.
But I was reminded of the New York Times article with Michael Brown Sr. when he was crying over his son’s casket. His face had all of this expression of pain and hurt, so I wanted to capture that in some way. I personally can’t come close to getting it, because I’ve never been through something like that. But as an actor, I wanted to do justice to what so many mothers and fathers go through in real life. It only helped the performance that I am so close to Samira. She’s not just somebody that I came to work with and happen to call a co-worker. I’ve known Samira since college, she helped me move into the dorms. I’ve known her since 2007, almost ten years now. So it was very difficult to shoot because of how personal it became. There were so many moments of having to walk away and take a breath. I remember one moment with Lauren Morelli, who’s one of the writers, just having to take a walk away from it all as were were setting up the shot again. I needed a good two, three minutes just to take a breath from the story we were telling. She was really good at helping me; I’m really grateful to our cast and crew for being so respectful and allowing us that moment to really find it.
I also remember, I had done the take twice, and Matthew Weiner said we got it. I was like, Great, I don’t have to do this again. Then he comes back and says we have to do it one more time because the camera wasn’t in focus. I was like, Are you kidding me? I just started to try to shake this out of my body, and I had to come back and find it again. It just goes back to the reality of it. There’s people out there who are constantly having to relive that situation. I just … it’s hard to talk about. I hope I did justice to the people who are really dealing with it.
Taystee has now lost the two most important people in her prison family: Vee and Poussey. Also, Suzanne’s struggling more than ever. How does Taystee survive this? We see her at her breaking point in the finale.
I think it was such a foreshadowing with the death of Vee and how she dealt with Suzanne. But then to now have to deal with another death, in this kind of way, was a big blow for Taystee. Now it’s that moment of justice needs to be served. Being in a position that’s so close to Caputo, she’s like, I know that I can do something. We have to do something. So when Caputo doesn’t do anything, for Taystee, what does she have to lose? She’s already in prison, she’s lost the two closest people to her. At this point, let’s go. It’s war time and we’re gonna get the justice that Poussey deserves. I don’t know how Taystee can go back to being the light of the prison. She was introduced to all of us in season one as really loving this place and has her forever family here. Now that the two biggest pieces of her life have been ripped from her, she has nothing to lose. It’s gonna be very interesting to see what happens in season five.
The whole season, Taystee had this false sense of authority projected on her by working for Caputo, only to have that power turn on her in the most violent way. Do you think if the gun were in Taystee’s hands in the season finale, she’d pull the trigger?
Hell, yeah, without a doubt. I think she would take a second to really come up with the master plan to get what she wants, because Taystee’s very smart. And if she doesn’t get what she wants, I think she would shoot him. I really think she would. Because that would be her justice.
What’s the mood like going into season five? This will be your first without Samira.
I start next week, so I haven’t been on set yet. But it’s gonna be different not having Samira there because most of my scenes were shot with her. The energy’s gonna be different. But I think it’ll be helpful not having her there because we’ve gone six months without shooting, so it’s gonna remind us that we’ve really lost somebody.
This interview has been edited and condensed.