EXCLUSIVE: Danielle Brooks Credits Broadway, Black Lives Matter Movement for 'OITNB' Performance
By Desiree Murphy
Warning! This article contains spoilers for season five of OITNB. Do not proceed if you haven't watched the first five episodes from the new season.
Danielle Brooks has been a fan favorite on Orange Is the New Black since the beginning, but season five is her season.
Still mourning the tragic death of inmate Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) -- who was accidentally murdered by correctional officer Baxter Bayley (Alan Aisenberg) last season -- Brooks' character, Tasha "Taystee" Jefferson, is desperate to give her best friend proper justice. A riot breaks out at Litchfield Penitentiary and the tables are turned when the inmates take over. Demanding that changes be made, Taystee becomes the movement's leader.
"I appreciate the writers and [creator] Jenji Kohan for trusting me with the material that they gave me this season," Brooks, 27, tells ET, thrilled that the show's large ensemble of women each get a chance to tell their story. And for Taystee, that happens over much of season five as the character moves to the front of the narrative. "I feel like they've just really allowed me to blossom and show what I'm capable of doing throughout the entire season. I'm just grateful to get to play, to tell a story that has so much depth."
One of Brooks' most memorable scenes this season takes place outside the prison in episode five, when Taystee steals the spotlight from celebrity chef Judy King (Blair Brown) and delivers a tear-filled speech to the media, informing them of the atrocities inside Litchfield. Holding absolutely nothing back, Taystee recalls the devastating details of what happened to Poussey. She also threatens that the inmates won't release the guards being held hostage until their friend receives justice and the privately owned prison honors their list of demands.
"That speech very much is about not having someone speak for you. I feel like that wasn't just another moment for Taystee -- [it was her] stepping into her power to ultimately help the greater good and to help what she's fighting for," Brooks says, crediting her co-stars for giving her the space to deliver this performance. "They did that day; I felt supported in that speech."
While Poussey's death recalled the real-life tragedy of Eric Garner, who died while being pinned down by police officers, and season four mirrored the Black Lives Matter movement, Brooks was reminded most of Diamond Reynolds. Last July, while season five was in production, Reynolds live-streamed the fatal police shooting of her boyfriend, Philando Castile, after he was pulled over in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota. "After that incident happened with him, Diamond was so vocal; she was so unafraid to speak," Brooks says.
"I remember specifically watching this young black woman speak so eloquently without foul language, without cussing anybody, just with such grace and dignity and pride and strength. She didn't call on her lawyer to speak for her, just like Taystee wasn't calling on Judy King to speak for her. She could do it."
But what took it to another level for the actress was the thought of Castile's surviving family, whom she found herself speaking for in that moment. "Yes, we're fictional characters, but there are so many people that this story is parallel to. There are real people that are dealing with [this]," Brooks says. "That's the part that weighed heavily on my heart when I had to do scenes like that."
Now more than ever, it'd be hard to imagine Orange Is the New Black without Taystee, who has grown from a sassy sidekick to den mother of the prison's black population and has been dealt heavy blows from manipulation by Yvonne "Vee" Parker to the death of Poussey. But when writers were first developing the show, Brooks' character was only slated for two episodes.
"I started work two days after my birthday -- Sept. 19, 2012, that's where the story began," Brooks explains. Having only booked one TV job right before OITNB, the actress recalls completely bombing the audition. But, "by the skin of my teeth," she got the part. "And once I got it, I was so nervous. There were so many elements, like two cameras in my face, a whole crew, directors yelling, and it terrified me. I remember feeling so underprepared. I told myself, 'If I ever get another job in TV, I will make sure that I am prepared.' And that next job was Orange Is the New Black."
Feeling the pressure on set, acting opposite Taylor Schilling as two of the show's other stars, Natasha Lyonne and Yael Stone, gathered around to watch their rehearsal, Brooks knew she had to turn it out. "I just told myself, 'Girl, you got a job to do. You need to sort this out and you better do your damn best.' And I guess I did, because they kept me on!"
And since then, she's delivered her "damn best," particularly in season five. While the new episodes have only been streaming on Netflix for less than a week, fans and critics alike have already praised the actress for her performance, kick-starting early buzz for the 2018 Emmys. (Released on June 8, season five is not eligible for this year's Emmys, which will consider work on season four.)
While she hasn't been nominated for a major individual TV award, Brooks has gotten a taste of what it's like to be in the room when she was nominated for a 2016 Tony Award for her portrayal of Sofia in the Broadway revival of The Color Purple. "It's one of those unforgettable feelings to be recognized by people in this industry. I would be honored and so gratefully humbled by all of it. But I just really hope for longevity. I hope that through the work I'm doing, people will be like, 'Oh yeah, maybe Danielle's right for that job.' That excites me."
And pulling off The Color Purple was no easy feat for the actress, who made her Broadway debut while filming part of season four and all of season five. An exhausting experience, Brooks credits the production for improving her skills as an actress. "It felt like being in the gym," she says. "I got to work my acting muscles every day, so when I came into doing Orange they were already warmed up."
Since OITNB made her a breakout star, the actress has only done a handful of projects outside of the Netflix series. In addition to The Color Purple, she's appeared on Girls and Master of None. While dabbling in theater again isn't totally out of the question, Brooks calls herself a "TV girl right now," looking to take advantage of the opportunities OITNB has afforded her and her co-stars. "I feel like this is the beginning of a lot of our careers," she adds. "Definitely mine."