Danielle Brooks’s Work on Orange Is the New Black Now Demands an Emmy

Spoilers for Orange Is the New Black season five ahead.

Danielle Brooks is in the middle of the New York offices, nuzzling her cheek up against two body pillows with shirtless shots of Michael B. Jordan and Idris Elba transferred onto them. She’s feeling up every lump, examining which one’s more well-loved. MBJ would be her choice to spoon, she thinks out loud. The Orange Is the New Black star has been here over an hour modeling looks and smizing for our photographer, and by now, the place feels just like her Brooklyn bedroom. When she’s ready to hand Jordan back, she gives the pillow’s owner a warm squeeze and compliments her taste in desk distractions. Later that day, she ends our chat by asking for my full first name and its meaning, so she can better commit our conversation to memory, she says.

The prolific actress radiates this infectious energy in all her work: as Taystee Jefferson on Orange, the role that gave the 27-year-old Juilliard alumna her big break; in her commanding Tony-nominated performance as Sofia in her Broadway debut in The Color Purple revival last year; or even her scene-stealing performances on Girls and Master of None. In OITNB’s fifth season, out now, Brooks extends her range from charming a room to shattering it. Taystee leads an Attica-resembling resistance against Litchfield Penitentiary in the name of her best friend and fellow inmate, Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), who was murdered by a guard last season. But her cause is bigger than that: Taystee’s fight is aimed at the systemic racism and dehumanization of black bodies designed to incarcerate two young black women like Taystee and Poussey. Some of the season’s most fraught scenes were filmed around the time of Philando Castile’s real-life death by police last summer, an overlap not lost on Brooks. She tells me she based an especially raw act of resilience this season — a press conference where Taystee does not allow a white inmate to speak for her — on the unimaginable fortitude of Castile’s girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, throughout the ordeal.

Two days after our conversation, a jury found the cop who Reynolds Facebook-livestreamed murdering Castile not guilty. Watching that same Taystee scene now is to witness Brooks performing the words of Castile’s mother, Valerie, from her indignant speech after the verdict last week — one more instance of art imitating life imitating art. Brooks spoke to Vulture about having two days to prepare for her toughest scenes, wanting to work with Issa Rae and Donald Glover, and her big feature film debut that she’s antsy to tell the world about.

Photo: Meredith Jenks/Vulture

What was your reaction when you found out this season would take place over just three days? There’s so much story to unpack in such a small time frame.
I was excited about the three days, because I was like, “This is new. This is out of the box for Orange Is the New Black, so whatever they’re going to be doing for this season, it’s going to be intense.” I already knew you were going to get a very microscopic lens on everyone’s emotions and what everyone’s feeling with the death of Poussey, especially knowing it was going from the end of season four — that cafeteria scene — right into the next hour of what happens after. Or not even — going into the gun scene.

The riot scene.
Yes, the riot scene. I remember [showrunner] Jenji [Kohan] came to see me in The Color Purple, which, I was really happy for her to be supporting me in another project. She was like, “Get ready, you’ve got a lot to do this season.” I was like, “What does that mean?” That was number one, number two I was like, “I’m probably not going to sleep ever.” I was right about that. Number three was going back to “what does that mean? What is this season going to bring for my character?” I could not have been more excited for the material they gave me this season. I feel like I got to really showcase what I am capable of doing.

Most people probably don’t know you performed The Color Purple daily and filmed Orange Is the New Black simultaneously. Did Jenji at least give you advance warning this season would be Taystee-focused?
The way this works now, because it’s so in demand, is they don’t give it to us in full. You get it episode by episode. I didn’t get it until maybe two days before shooting that next episode, so I never knew that I was going to have more and more each episode. For me, it would be like, “Okay, I have a lot to do the first three episodes. I must be able to chill for four and five.” Then I would get four and five and be like, “Oh shit! I have a lot of memorizing to do.” Because I was doing The Color Purple and it was a musical, I had to protect my voice, and a lot of the scenes required screaming and crying. That was when I really had to pull the muscles from Juilliard and take care of not only my voice, but my body. It was taxing what was being asked of me during that time.

Maybe it was better that you didn’t know.
I think it’s way better. I loved it that way. I wasn’t able to get in my head with any of it. I was like, “Okay, this is what’s next. This is the next task that you have, let’s complete it.” Versus getting to ponder on this huge monologue in episode five. For that scene, the one that everyone’s talking about when she’s talking to a reporter …

The press conference.
I had gotten that two days in advance, and I wish I could remember what day we were shooting because I probably had a two-show [Color Purple] day somewhere in the midst of that. I was trying to break this down and saying like, “How am I going to do this?” I had to go with my instincts. Luckily I was informed with what was going on in the real world and had watched these clips of what I find the most parallel situation to it, which was the Diamond Reynolds interviews she had done once Philando Castile was murdered. She had done the same thing. She’s sitting in front of the press and speaking up for him and not allowing her lawyer to do any of it. For me, I went back and I watched a few of her clips and I was like, “That’s it. That’s what I needed.” Also, to drop into the reality of the situation was what I was playing in this fictional world. That helped when you only have two days to memorize the material.

Since you didn’t get the whole season ahead of time, did you know your flashback with Poussey was coming?
Shit. I can’t remember — being that I work so much, half of it has left my memory. I feel like I knew a little in advance, but it wasn’t finalized because Samira was working on other projects. Seeing if she was available was the big deal. It was like, “Will we get to have her?” That was the part I knew, that it was in limbo. Then when I did find out she would be able to come to New York and shoot it, it made me very excited. I was like, “I get my girl back.” Also in that time frame, being that it’s the middle of the season, is such a great reminder for my character of the reason why we’re all doing this. It’s also for the audience. There are so many distractions from episode one to five that I think even the audience can lose sight of why we’re here again, or what we’re fighting for. That flashback brings us back to that moment. [It helps] when we’re talking about time too, having this season in three days and then expanding that into a glimpse and reminding us that this journey has been a long one for these girls.

What was it like on set the day you and Samira were reunited?
I think I forgot a lot of my lines that day to be honest, because I was so excited to be back with her that some of them were going out the window. I was like, “Why am I having brain fart moments right now?” It was because you go back to the beginning.

Let’s talk about Taystee’s past because we see more of it. Did you know the extent of her relationship with her birth mother before this season?
Not at all. I didn’t have a clue when I read that her mother was coming and there was going to be a scene with her biological mother. I was so excited and kind of nervous, too, to be like, “What is this going to be? How am I going to tell this story and interpret this story for myself, as someone with both parents living in the house who have been married for over 31 years to now act like none of that has ever happened in my life?” But I was super invested, so I even asked Jenji if they wouldn’t mind me sitting in on the auditions and auditioning these women. So I sat in on the callback with about three or four women, and read with them and, I told them Tiffany Mann is the girl. They listened to me and hired her which was good for me. It made me feel like whomever I was going to be playing opposite — first of all, you have to be able to trust them in that way to be throwing them against the car — but I knew she would be willing to play ball with me and I felt safe with her. I personally think they were beautiful scenes with her.

The flashbacks explain why Taystee is such a mother figure to her prison friends. She wants to do better than her birth mom and Vee. Did it inform your view about why she is so mothering and caring?
I think the love she has for her girls also links into Poussey showing her what true love really looks like, and what continuously holding on to your hope and faith [looks like]. Because with her biological mother, Taystee has been abandoned by her and by Vee, her fake mom or whatever you want to call her. That love was manipulated. The love with her biological mother was also false love. It was selfish love. Her concern was more about closing a chapter for herself than what Taystee needed. So, here’s this girl who’s dealing with that and still has no sense of what it means to receive love or give love until she meets Poussey. Poussey is really that person to help her navigate what that looks like, which results in her trying to do the same for her when she’s gone. That’s why she fights so hard, because this is the one person who has not wanted anything in return. There is no fake motive. It’s authentic love.

What did you think of her turning down all of the other demands that the prison was going to meet because justice for Poussey still wouldn’t be served?
I think it’s great because at the end of the day it’s not tying a nice bow around it and saying, “Woo-ha, we did it!” That’s reflective of the world we live in. I think sometimes we feel like, “Oh, well we marched in Black Lives Matter,” and “Oh, we did the Women’s March in D.C. so let’s tie a bow around it.” No, there is still a lot more work to be done and we still have a far way to go, so for the writers to choose to say, “You know what, we’re not going to make this nice and neat. We’re going to make this complicated because this is the world that we are reflecting.” So, I was not shocked. I was hurting for Taystee, but I do think a lot of our fans would say that she failed, that she lost, and that she made a mistake. But I feel like she did not lose. She found her salvation in not shooting Piscatella.

That was her moment of saying, “I am not like you. And there is another way to have justice than to have a tooth for a tooth or an eye for an eye. To take a life in the same way in which you took my best friend.” And I think if we continue as a society to operate that way, we can get further. At the end of the season, those women band with her and say, “You know, we will stand with you in dignity and fight this thing in a positive way.” So she did win, in my head.

I questioned how Taystee could put her faith in a system that has consistently failed her and never cared about anyone who looks like her.
Yes. Yes. Yes, girl. But that’s why I think justice comes down to character. How you treat the condemned and how you treat the incarcerated and how you treat those types of people. That’s the moment where Taystee’s like, “I do have character and a heart.” I don’t know if Taystee looks at it that way. I don’t know what season six has to hold, but I don’t think she’ll see it as a victory. It’s going to take her a minute.

Let’s talk about that scene with Taystee and Piscatella in the bunker. When we spoke for season four, I asked if the gun had been in Taystee’s hand and not Daya’s, would she have pulled the trigger, and you said, “Yes, because that would be her form of justice.”
Isn’t that crazy how a year can change!

Obviously only three days have passed in the show and it’s important to remember that Taystee hasn’t slept in those three days.
No. Danielle didn’t sleep right either.

What do you think is going through her head when she doesn’t shoot Piscatella, and what was on your mind when you were filming this scene?
So much. I was so concerned about getting it right. I wanted the audience to really feel what you’re saying, like this is somebody who feels like this is her last chance to get that justice, or what she thought at the time was justice. And somebody who is exhausted, like you’re saying. I remember hating that scene, too, while doing it because just holding a gun up to somebody’s head is not cool. It reminds me how corrupt and how much hatred people have to have in their mind to do something like that.

To not just hold up a gun, but to actually shoot someone like that — that takes a lot. I don’t think I even have the words to describe it. So for me to just be acting this, knowing there’s no bullets in this gun, but holding it up to Brad’s [William Henke] head … It was … I did not enjoy it. I actually was glad Taystee did not shoot him.

How do you decompress after a scene like that? This is now the second season finale where we’ve seen Taystee collapse in grief.
Some of that release comes from doing it. Really giving all of yourself so that you can release everything you are feeling, and not holding any of it in. Sometimes I have to take a walk. I definitely had to take a walk after the death of Poussey and that scene in season four. I really wanted to take a moment — there are a lot of moments where I wanted to take moments — even as I was watching the speech in episode in five, I was reminded of how I wanted to stop, even in the middle of it. When I’m wiping my face, that was a moment where I just wanted to say, “Hey, can we just take a second and I can go back.” But then you realize that it’s not about you, this is a part of the storytelling too. Everything that you’re feeling and going through, push through it, because that’s what this woman needs. This is what Taystee is going through.

Photo: Meredith Jenks/Vulture

Because time is so compressed, we learn more about who these women are from different angles and how they react to the situation. We’re reminded Taystee is a deeply intelligent person. 
People get confused, they be forgetting that Taystee has always been a smart girl.

In a different world, Taystee could easily be sitting in Fig’s seat. She could have her job. 
Oh yes, she could have Fig’s job, the MCC lady’s job. She knows her shit, but this is a world that she cares about and I love that the writers have written that Taystee finds her purpose. Because that’s the thing: We’ve seen her be a natural born leader, we’ve seen her take over as a mother. But all of those things didn’t really have the same weight because she still hadn’t found what her true calling was. And in this moment you see it so clearly that that’s what she’s good at. But this is her home, this is all she knows. This is a girl that grew up in the system.

I don’t even know that we can say that Taystee completed high school. Because she’s been even out of juvenile. In season one, when she’s about to get out, she says, “I don’t think anyone is going to take me seriously.”

If Taystee ever gets out of prison again, what do you see for her future?
She’s getting out the next time. I think she’s gonna be standing alongside those three women who started the Black Lives Matter movement.

That’s beautiful.
I think she would be starting her own organizations. I see her standing with the mothers and the fathers who have lost their sons and daughters to police brutality. That’s what I see for her now. And that’s crazy because that’s the thing, I remember a year ago being asked, “What do you see Taystee doing when she gets out?” And I really didn’t know how to answer that, you know? But now it’s so clear, because they’ve made her so clear this season.

That’s why the end of the season is such a shame: Not only is everything going to change for Litchfield, it seems like there is no more Litchfield. The whole show has changed. Have there been talks of where it will go from here?
No, no, no, no. We haven’t had talks yet.

Are you signed on for next season?
I mean, you can’t get rid of Taystee. I think you would have to riot that. [Laughs.] We’re going to have to riot the rioters if that was to happen.

What do you think about the way that the show has reset itself?
It’s definitely a hard reset, but I think audiences will be happy. We’ve come to love a lot of new characters, but people will enjoy getting back to the core leaders of each sector in the prison. I mean hell, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I definitely don’t think there’s much more Litchfield at all and I think the structure of even the guards and Caputo and all of that definitely has to shift. They might send all of our asses to max; they could just take us to another prison; they could kill all of us; there is no telling what could happen. But I still have a job.

So, just to be clear, you are signed on through season seven?
I’m signed on. I don’t know about seven, but I think it’s safe to say I’m signed on for six.

How do you feel about being a part of the Netflix original programming machine for so long, and the company’s choices since you’ve been here close to the beginning?
A lot of the Orange girls feel like OGs. We’ve been doing this from day one. So, now that [Jenji Kohan’s] new show GLOW is coming out we’ve met with some of those girls and can talk to them and give them advice on what they’re going to step into, because I feel like that show is going to be a big hit as well. But to take this journey with Netflix and see how having a format where you really do allow your writers and your actors the freedom to create what they want to has been beneficial, and it also goes down to the actors as well, because it makes me say, “Hey, I should have the freedom to work with the people I want to work with and create the résumé I want to create.” Because I’ve worked with Netflix from the beginning and that’s my first job, I only want to work with creators, producers, and networks that are pushing the limit and putting people on the screen that haven’t had their stories told yet.

That’s very, very important to me, to give another narrative. And Netflix has not been afraid of doing that, as we see from the plethora of shows that they have, from British shows to American shows like Master of None, which I’ve been very grateful to be on, too. Just giving platforms to people who haven’t seen themselves on TV. I think that’s why people gravitate toward this show. They get to say, “That’s me.” And that’s a big kudos to Netflix. It’s doing it in a way that is also not generic because sometimes shows can act like they’re being diverse or innovative, but it’s still such a generic, boring formula.

As busy as you are already, are you open to other Netflix shows? Or, in general, what are you putting on your plate?
I was in Master of None season two, I came back for that. I just finished two independent films this year and I’m working on another movie that I wish I could tell you about, but I can’t. It’s a bigger film, it’s gonna be my first major film. I feel like it’s one of those things you can’t talk about it until it’s there because it’s unannounced and untitled, which, you know how they are with untitled ones. They’re really being safe with it. It’s a big director, big part. I mean, hey, you gotta be careful with the big parts, too, because they’ll cut you real quick. You’ll be like, “I thought I had a big part,” and then all of a sudden … But I’m really excited about that, I’m about to go shoot that in the DR, and then I’m doing some guest spots this year on some fun shows. Damn, I wish I could tell you stuff.

What kinds of roles do you want to be doing?
I want to get into some action films because I don’t like the sense that people feel that curvy women, plus-size women, aren’t active as well. I think that’s very important to let the world know that I can jump up shit and do fancy things with swords, too, like combat. I went to Juilliard, for God’s sakes, I know a little something about combat. To get in that, to show that side of someone who is bigger than a size 6, would be fun for me. Also playing the love interest. I don’t get to do that as often. That’s also another reason I’ve loved being in Orange, too, because I really love the way in which they told the Poussey and Taystee story, where Poussey was in love with Taystee versus Taystee being in love with Poussey in that way.

I appreciate them giving a moment for me to be the one that was being pursued instead of being the one that’s pursuing all of the time. I think that’s not a narrative that’s been told a lot, unless you are the Taraji P. Henson type, or even like — I was thinking about this earlier today — the whole school of TV that I used to watch in the ’90s, like Laura from Family Matters, even in Fresh Prince, Jada Pinkett Smith being the love interest or Tyra Banks being the love interest. But then you watch The Parkers, and you see Mama Parker chasing after Mr. Oglevee. I want to be the one being chased. And hell, I am being chased [laughs]. So, let’s tell that narrative.

Dear Hollywood, let Michael B. Jordan chase after Danielle Brooks in a film.
Ooh, hey. He better be ready. [Laughs.]

Are there any shows you’re a fan of right now that you would want to be on?
I love Insecure. I want to play Issa Rae’s sister. I do know Issa Rae, but we ain’t besties or nothing. I would love to be best friends with her. Before she lost all that weight, people would say we looked like sisters, and we get that a lot. What else? I really like Chewing Gum, but I don’t think I could be on that show, it’s not really my show. Atlanta. I really want to be on Atlanta, hang out with Paper Boi, do a scene with Paper Boi — I think it’d be dope.

Do you know Donald Glover at all?
I don’t know Donald.

Someone could introduce you. Black Hollywood is a small circle.
Six degrees of separation, I’m sure there is some kind of way to make that happen. But I feel like that show’s not even coming back for a while because he’s doing Star Wars.

Atlanta was pushed to next year. So that means you have time!
I do have time. [I also want to be on] High Maintenance.

Have you watched The Handmaid’s Tale?
Not yet. I know, I’m behind.

And Samira is okay with this?!
I don’t know, has she seen season five? [Laughs.] I don’t know if she’s seen season five of Orange yet. Look, we busy. She understands we’re busy girls, but I know she’d probably hit me. She wouldn’t be abusive to me, but I know she’d probably be a little upset.

Is there more theater in your future?
Oh girl, I need a break from the theater. I think if I get back into the theater – I will get back into theater – but when I do, I want it to be a straight play first, and I want to originate something. I love new material.

Why not more musicals?
It’s too taxing on the voice. And it’s too many obstacles with that because it’s not only your voice that you have to take care of, but it’s like, can you hear the sound that day? You might have a new pianist, so how does he play different than the other one, or there are cell phones going off, there’s distractions. Or like, oh, I can’t hear the drums this time, or like, the sound went out during my speech. It’s too many moving parts for a musical for me right now. We the hell out.

I guess if you want to do something original, it’s easier to do a play.
There are some musicals I wouldn’t mind doing — I would like to do The Life if they brought that back. Anything Lillias White did in her career, I would totally love to do it.

Are you really happy with where you are in life right now?
That’s a beautiful question. Thanks, Dee. I am very happy. I’m happy with my career, I’m happy with the growth that I’m taking as an artist. I love the career that I’m starting to build for myself. I like the patience that I’m learning in this process. I think sometimes when you come out of school you’re just so hungry to be accepted in this business, and then once you’re accepted you just want to take it to another level with being one of the top in the industry. But I’m realizing, for me, what’s most important is the work and continuing to be asked to be a part of the work, to have that longevity in this business. That’s really important to me, to have the respect in that way. And sometimes that respect doesn’t only come in these awards that so many of us hope for. It comes with the hiring, in people saying, “Hey, I want to work with Danielle Brooks.” That to me is winning. Because ultimately what I want to do is continue to tell narratives that haven’t been told, for that little black girl that wants to do this. They can look up and say, “Oh man, there’s me.” That’s what I want.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Danielle Brooks’s Work on Orange Now Demands an Emmy