[Editor's note: This article was originally published in December 2015. Danielle Brooks is now a 2016 Tony Award nominee.]
Danielle Brooks is exhausted.
The Orange Is the New Black actress is busy splitting her time -- what little of it exists to begin with -- between filming the fourth season of the Netflix series, in which she plays fan favorite Taystee, and singing her heart out in the revival of The Color Purple, which opens at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre in New York City on Dec. 10. She’s a scene-stealer as Sofia -- a role famously played by Oprah Winfrey in Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated screen adaptation of Alice Walker’s novel -- opposite Jennifer Hudson and London star Cynthia Erivo. To make it even more stressful, all three stars are making their Broadway debuts this week.
On an average day, the 26-year-old is on set by 5 a.m. to shoot new scenes for OITNB. The show keeps her occupied until 2 p.m., before heading directly to rehearsals for The Color Purple. The rest of the cast has already been there since noon. By 5 p.m., everything wraps, letting Brooks take in a meal and a power nap. She’s then back to the theatre for the night’s performance (her call time is 7:20 p.m. and then its places at 8 p.m.). The musical goes until 10:20 p.m. From there it’s a matter of getting home after greeting throngs of fans to memorize lines for the next day’s shoot. Brooks is in bed shortly after midnight. “Sometimes I'm lucky enough to wake up a little bit later,” she says of her 4:25 a.m. wake-up call.
On a Friday afternoon in November, I meet up with Brooks to briefly chat about her stage role. She’s just wrapped a morning of press, opting to stand for the duration of our conversation. Any signs of exhaustion are hidden behind a big smile and a team of makeup and hair stylists, who fiddle with her hair as she chats with me.
ETonline: Why make your Broadway debut with this show?
Danielle Brooks: I’m just so grateful I get to. OK, let me break this down to you: I’m a theater girl, OK? Before Orange is the New Black, a year out of school, I was struggling to get a theater job. I auditioned for a lot of Broadway shows, and I heard no after no after no after no. Orange Is the New Black really helped my confidence to book Color Purple. Once I got it, I realized why God said, “This is your Broadway debut,” because it is the first Broadway show that I ever saw, at 15 years old. So, for this thing to be full circle is the exact thing that was supposed to happen. I wasn’t supposed to be in -- and I’m not going to name all the other shows -- I wasn’t supposed to be in those shows. I was supposed to be in this and that’s a much better story than I could have ever imagined.
In the process of going through all these auditions and getting turned down, did you have a moment of doubt where you were like, “Is this really what I want to do?”
No. I always wanted to do this. I never felt like, “I got to quit. I can’t do this anymore,” and like, “this just is not working for me.” My thing was, “OK, you’re going to have to put in your time. This is not going to pop off for you until you’re 40. You’re going to have some story like Miss Viola Davis,” you know, because she also went to Juilliard. I’m like, “That’s what’s going to happen for you,” and God was like, “Nope, I got something around the corner, you just need to be patient and be yourself and you will get that job.” That was a big thing for me too. When you’re first out of school and you’re young -- I was 21 when I graduated -- like, what are people looking for? Do I need to change my hair? Do I need to lose weight? Do I need to gain weight? It’s like what’s my type, right? Then you realize you are your type, you are who you’re supposed to be. Orange really helped me realize that, which has helped spark everything else.
You said you couldn’t have done The Color Purple without doing OITNB. Is that primarily a confidence thing or were there skills that you learned that have helped you here?
I think it’s really a confidence thing for me. Like I was saying, I understood that I was enough as a person, as an artist, and that I have the talent. The fan base that we have gotten so quickly also was a reminder that you’re on the right path and you’re doing the right thing. I think that helped me to understand I can do this. You know what I mean? I have the talent. That’s not in the bragging way. I have been given a gift; I got that part. Now, how do I not get in my own way?
Given that you are finally on the stage, finally making your debut, do you feel like your place is in theater?
I feel like I can’t say that yet. It definitely is my passion for sure -- this is what I’ve always wanted to do. But I still want to put my foot in some film and see what that world’s like. I do like the fact that you can do TV, memorize your lines, shoot it, and be done. 'Cause I’m not going to be done with this for a very long time.
You also appear in Master of None with co-creator and star Aziz Ansari. The show immediately got a great reaction. Have you seen it yet?
I watched five episodes. It’s a really good show. I love the topics and every day he kind of gets on us as people and he’s like, “Are you treating your parents well?” Or, “How are you treating your people of color?” I love that about the story. I think it’s very smartly written. I hope to come back for season two and stay a part of the Netflix family. I want to see how many Netflix shows I can be on.
You can be on them all. It’s interesting that Master of None, Girls, OITNB, and The Color Purple all have these layers of sexuality, gender, and race. Looking back on your work, there’s a through line in everything you’ve done. Is that why you’re attracted to them?
Yes, yes it is. That was another lesson I learned from Orange: I did not realize the impact we had on all of these different communities and how we really can transform the way that we are as people. When I realized that and I got a little money in my pocket, I said, “Oh, I don’t have to take any kind of job to pay my rent. I’m going to make an effort to be part of projects that are saying something, are doing something.”
What’s your favorite moment from your production of The Color Purple?
I really don’t have the words to describe how much I love the theater. Every night, when I get to say that at the end of the night, when I’m exhausted, when I get to say, and to a crowd full of people who are all on their feet, “Look what God has done,” that is my favorite moment. That’s my favorite moment, because it’s so true to my life.
The crowd gets very into the show, interacting with everyone on stage. What’s that experience like?
I love it! That’s right, talk back to us! That’s what it should be! I don’t think theater is meant to be stiff. I don’t at all. It’s to make you feel and want to say, “Ooh, child!” “Hell no!” That’s what it’s meant for. I love that our audience speaks back to us. We can handle it -- just stop eating fried chicken in the front row!
You have been on stage doing previews, but have you thought about the day the show actually opens? What is the night of Dec. 10th going to mean to you?
My nerves are going to be wrecked. During the first preview, I literally had so much adrenaline running through my body. It felt like heaven on earth for me; that’s what it felt like. I can only imagine what it’s going to be like to not only have Oprah and Gayle [King] and all those amazing people in the audience, but my family, my friends, my girls from Orange there. I’ve just been praying for a focus I’ve never had and a calmness that I’ve never felt before. That’s what I pray for.
The Color Purple is currently in previews, get more ticket information here. ET caught up with Brooks and her co-stars to discuss making their Broadway debuts -- and the big shoes they have to fill when it comes to the iconic story.