What Actress Danielle Brooks Think About Taystee On OITNB?

By Evil Jenji

Figuring out which characters I love the most is a real challenge if you’ve decided to love Orange is the New Black. There are a hundred of them to choose from and about 30 main ones. Okay, maybe that’s why fans need to watch it 4, 5 or 6 times. This is the time to decorate them all! Joking aside, there are some that really captivate their fans, not just because of the actor or the script, but because they reach an absurd level of excellence in every aspect, and TAYSTEE is certainly one of them.

Having studied at the famous and prestigious Julliard School in New York, Danielle Brooks was chosen for a role that goes from one extreme to the other. Capable of creating hilarious situations or moments of the deepest despair, being extremely convincing in both. If we compare Orange is the New Black to an orchestra, I honestly think it could play either instrument. It seems her talent has no end. As if that weren’t enough, she was the center of the main plots of OITNB. Okay, let’s get down to business. I did some research to get to know Taystee and Danielle even more, our Golden duo that was born along with the success of OITNB.

There are rare actors who are available to talk to me. So I try to research the best material possible. I found this interview done at the launch of the seventh season of Orange is the New Black and it remains very current, because it talks about Danielle Brooks’ relationship with her character Taystee. There are extremely intense moments in Taystee’s trajectory, especially at the end of the show. I bring here the edition of this interview made by Sam Sanders for the NPR website. If you want to hear the full interview CLICK HERE. In the sequence you will be able to read the content referring to OITNB and the beautiful relationship of the actress with her character.


DANIELLE BROOKS INTERVIEW

SANDERS: Yeah. Flash-forward to now. And you are – you play a pivotal role in a show that everyone says has pretty much changed the face and the landscape of, like, TV as we know it right now. I’m talking about “Orange Is The New Black,” this juggernaut of a thing.

BROOKS: (Laughter) I’ve never heard that – juggernaut.

SANDERS: Like, you are – you were part of one of the biggest and most successful new Netflix shows that they’ve ever made.

BROOKS: I know. It’s crazy. I think we were the second or third original series that Netflix had created and have been the most successful original series they have made to date.

SANDERS: Wow. Wow.

BROOKS: And that’s pretty phenomenal – you know? – especially because all of us, for the most part, were so new…

SANDERS: Oh, my goodness – so new.

BROOKS: …To TV. Like, we had no idea.

SANDERS: And I hadn’t seen a cast that was all women with women that looked like y’all.

SANDERS: You know? Like, seeing, like, some real folks, some real girls from around the way and to see that become literally Netflix’s biggest show – one, snaps. But two, like, were you surprised by it?

BROOKS: I was. I was on many levels. Yeah. But I think the first one was the fact that I – this was the first time that I realized there was space for all of us. You know, coming from my background where – when I was at this art school, I was the only black girl. Then when I go to Juilliard, it’s only two of us…

BROOKS: …In my class of 18. So I’ve always kind of have this mindset like there’s not that much room for us, especially from what I was even seeing on television at the time…

SANDERS: Yeah.

BROOKS: …And watching. Like, even shows that were considered diverse, like a “Glee,” that was closer to what I would watch at 17, getting into Juilliard, you still only had Mercedes…

SANDERS: Mercedes.

BROOKS: …Played by Amber Riley, you know? So…

SANDERS: Yeah – which was so crazy ’cause it was like she was hands down the best singer on that show.

BROOKS: OK?

SANDERS: And I was like, why do we you got to wait four or five songs for her to sing?

BROOKS: I know.

SANDERS: Like, why are we even wasting our time with these other ones? Anyways, I digress.

BROOKS: But I remember seeing her and being so, like – oh, my God, somebody who looks like me.

SANDERS: There she is – yeah.

BROOKS: And so to be on this show where there were so many reflections of different shades and sizes and ages and, like, lifestyle…

SANDERS: Yeah.

BROOKS: …Walks of life – different walks of life, I was like, wow, like, there’s really space for all of us to shine.

SANDERS: Yeah.

BROOKS: This is – that was new to me.

SANDERS: Well – and then, also, with your character, when you auditioned for the role of Taystee, it was at first just going to be, like, that character in, like, one or two episodes.

BROOKS: Yeah…

BROOKS: …Which – I kind of learned – you know, it’s cool, but I kind of learned that was the case for a lot of us. And I didn’t know that.

SANDERS: Really?

BROOKS: I’m not the only one with this special story, even though I will act like I am.

BROOKS: Yeah, when – on the breakdown, it said Delicious, actually. The character’s name was Delicious; it wasn’t Taystee. And it said two episodes. And I remember almost not accepting the job because the first scene – I didn’t get the whole script, so I didn’t get to read what was happening. And so I only got the sides, which were basic…

SANDERS: What’s that mean?

BROOKS: The sides are basically – when you go into an audition, you’re only going to get, like, a page. And sometimes you’ll get, like, 10 pages of what they want you to memorize. They won’t necessarily give you the entire script.

SANDERS: Well, ’cause then they give the plot away to people.

BROOKS: Exactly. So I did not get the entire script. I didn’t get none of the script. I just got one page. But in that side, it said, you know, it’s a shower scene, where she rolls up on her – Taylor, who plays Piper – and she’s like, you got them TV titties. And she then gets – after having this conversation with her about her breasts and how she better not, like, run out of hot water, she then gets in the shower naked. So I was like, oh, no. Like, I can’t start my career off like this.

SANDERS: Yeah. Like, that would be the start because you had been doing stage before that, not TV, right? Yeah.

BROOKS: No (laughter), I can’t, like – like, I was freaking out about it. And so was my mother. And she was like, no, don’t take that job – ahh (ph). And my father was like, you should just follow your heart, OK? And so after literally calling the two, three casting directors I had known at the time and asking them their thoughts, they were like, girl, if you don’t go take that job…

BROOKS: So I did, and I’m so grateful I did.

SANDERS: All right, time for a break. When we come back, Danielle breaks down those emotional final scenes.

SANDERS: I talked to one of your co-stars in advance of Season 6; I talked to Uzo Aduba. And she talked a lot about playing her character Crazy Eyes without stereotype. And she told me, basically, it’s possible, but it’s hard. And you’ve talked about this before, and you’ve talked about even addressing this challenge in the audition. Like, how do you walk the line of playing a role that has typically been stereotyped – a person of color, a woman in prison.

BROOKS: Mm-hmm.

SANDERS: How do you take on that role and, from the start, say but we’re not going to let it be that; we’re not going to let it be a caricature? Because it could be really easy for that just to happen.

BROOKS: You’re right, Sam. It can be very difficult to break out of a stereotype, especially when kind of all the cards are playing into it. I think, for me, I have to stay in the world of realism. I have to stay in the world of – this is truly someone’s story out there. And I think it’s a prime example, even though this story came out after “Orange” had come out – “When They See Us.”

BROOKS: You look at the Exonerated Five and the trajectory of their lives and how that is what they lived – for real, for real.

SANDERS: Yeah. How the system failed them, yeah.

BROOKS: How the system failed them – and that was Taystee’s story. You know, she was innocent, is innocent and has been convicted of doing something that she did not do and has to spend her life in prison. And to me, like, I have to come from a place of wanting to honor these people. …Who have had cards dealt to them that they never deserved. I think – for me, if an actor starts from that place, you’ll be safe. I think you’ll be OK. But I think there’s also conversations that have to be had with the writers, as well, and making sure that they are aware when you feel it’s kind of hard to get out of that stereotypical box – ways to break it. But I think it’s good to have that communication with the writers…

SANDERS: Yeah. Were there ever moments…

BROOKS: …As well.

SANDERS: …With the writers where you were like – this ain’t it?

BROOKS: I think I’ve always kind of trusted the writers. You know, ask my questions of, like – OK, where are we going with this? – before the season starts. To be honest, like, in the beginning, Sam, I didn’t know to even ask, like it was OK – that I had permission to talk with the writers…About the story.

SANDERS: Yeah.

BROOKS: You know? And I remember being bothered at times – you know, when we first did Season 1 and Taystee’s particularly running for president of the prison and she’s like, chicken for the people. And I remember…

SANDERS: I don’t remember that.

BROOKS: …Being bothered by that.

SANDERS: Really?

BROOKS: But I didn’t know what to say because I didn’t know where the story was going. So I kind of felt like, as a young actor – well, I better not say anything. I better…

SANDERS: You want the job, yeah.

BROOKS: …Just run with it. I want this job. And there’s other little black girls out here that wish they had it. You know?

And as I look back, I definitely wish I maybe would’ve pushed that a little bit because – but then at times I don’t. Like, I – like, if I really think about the trajectory of that character, I think at that moment that’s where Taystee truly was. But now you get to take this journey with her. And thank God these writers are intelligent enough to know, like, let’s actually give this girl a journey with some depth. You now see her, you know, starting a riot for prison reform and, like, really digging into some deep, deep work when it comes to politics and when it comes to this community of prisoners, you know, that she considers her home, making it better. And that to me is cool too, to watch somebody go from, you know, that kind of stereotypical black girl talking about chicken for the people and getting some hot sauce to, like…So it’s a journey.

SANDERS: But she sure did learn a lot along the way. I’ll tell you that.

BROOKS: (Laughter).

SANDERS: She got education. Whew (ph).

BROOKS: Yeah, she did (laughter).

SANDERS: I want to talk about your character’s plot arc in Season Seven. So anyways, if you have not watched Season Seven yet, turn this off right now. But if you have watched…

SANDERS: …Keep listening.

BROOKS: And come back after (laughter).

SANDERS: Yes. Oh, and come back for sure (laughter). I want to talk about the really, really, really intense, you know, final scenes for your character. She survives a suicide attempt.

BROOKS: I know.

SANDERS: I want you to tell me how hard of a scene that is to play. It seems like it’s probably up there.

BROOKS: It was, Sam. It was. I remember the first day, before we even shot, I had to come in early on an off day to go over the rigging of the hanging scene.

SANDERS: Oh, God. And, like, because they had you in a cell with, like, a noose, basically.

BROOKS: Yeah. So I had a noose that was made out of a pants – prison pant. And – but they had to, like, rig me in it so it can really look like I was, you know, doing this act. And so I’m in a harness. and they had, like, a whole system. And I have to say, it was one of the roughest days I’ve ever had. And when I say I’m so grateful for my training and my sanity – like, the fact that I, like – I think the show is very blessed to have had a lot of women with sane minds because a lot of these topics that we’re dealing with are heavy AF.

SANDERS: Yeah.

BROOKS: And that was one for me. Like, we did it – ’cause when you’re shooting a TV show, you’re not – it’s not like theater where you, like, do it one time and now you’re good. You’re doing this over and over and over with different angles. And God forbid, you know, some lighting thing didn’t go right…

SANDERS: You got to do it again.

BROOKS: …Or the rig didn’t work. Yeah.

SANDERS: So you had to fake hang yourself how many times in, like, one day?

BROOKS: At least 10 times – at least 10 times, if not more – probably more – because you’re having to come from different angles. And I hated it. I really did.

SANDERS: I could see that you would.

BROOKS: And it’s not because – for me, again, I go back to the reality of how many people are actually experiencing this and going through it. And then I also have the added – addition of being a black woman and…

SANDERS: Well, the symbolism is heavy.

BROOKS: …The system. Oh, come on.

SANDERS: So like, you are a black woman placing a noose around your neck.

BROOKS: Around you neck. And then I’m from the South and all the layers of slavery and Jim Crow and all this is just stuff that comes up – you know? – people that you know that are incarcerated. Like, I have a friend that’s in prison basically for life…

SANDERS: Oh, my God.

BROOKS: …For something. And just, these things that you just – that come up in your mind…That, you know – yeah.

SANDERS: Yeah, that are just jarring. Like, how – after the last take, how long before you were OK? I was reading somewhere that you, like, had to just walk around set quietly for a long time.

BROOKS: Yeah, I just walked around and had a breakdown…Of release, you know? Not of, like, insanity – of just, like, I need to get this out…

SANDERS: What were you releasing?

BROOKS: …And just had a breakdown – just all that grime, you know, from all that – I don’t even know the word to describe it. But just the weight of what someone carries to get to that point. It’s heavy. And I’m grateful that – you know, I’ve had my struggles as a teenager – because who doesn’t as a teenager? But like, to truly want to take your life and attempt it – actually go through with is – it’s a lot of weight.

SANDERS: Yeah.

BROOKS: I did tell myself, you know, when we were just talking about, like, those things that young actors don’t know to ask for – you know, I definitely, next time, will ask, if I ever have to do something like that again, to make sure that there is someone on set that can help you move that energy around to get it off of you.

SANDERS: Like a counselor?

BROOKS: Yeah, like a therapist…Like a psychiatrist…..Somebody. You know, and that day, I wish I would have had that. And I think it’s just the awareness, you know? I’m just grateful that, you know, I have enough – like, I keep using the word sanity, but…

SANDERS: Yeah, I know…

BROOKS: …Sanity to get through something like that.

SANDERS: To get through it – yeah. It’s hard.

BROOKS: And so it just was a lot.

SANDERS: Looking back at your character’s role on the show the last seven seasons, like, looking back on Taystee, you know, in totality, what, for you, is the moral of her story?

BROOKS: I know you talked about hopelessness at the end of this. But to me, I think they still try to find hope…And especially through Taystee.

SANDERS: Yeah.

BROOKS: I think that was the biggest lesson for everyone to…

SANDERS: She ends up helping folks there in the prison, yeah.

BROOKS: Yeah, and she found her strength to live again. Like, she found a reason to continue to breathe. Like, she found her purpose once again, and she didn’t give up on it. And, like, to me, I think she’s – that’s been the biggest lesson, I feel – is you take somebody like her, who’s seen so much death, who’s had so much heartache, who has had no support system, who – the system itself has failed her, but yet she still comes up, you know, breathing. She still comes up for air. She still finds her way, and to me, that’s just been the most empowering storyline.

SANDERS: I was thinking about seeing some of those posts from you. I’m wondering if doing this show and playing Taystee has made you think differently about how you might raise your child.

BROOKS: Ooh, yes, definitely.

SANDERS: OK. Break it down for me.

BROOKS: The biggest one is allowing my child to be who they are. You know, I think – I love and appreciate the way I was raised. I think it made an impact on my life, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. But what I do want to instill in my child is that they can be whoever they want to be, and I mean that with who they want to love, and that has not always been the case in my household. And so I just would want them to know, like, it’s OK, you know? Whatever you want to be, your mama and your daddy are going to rock with you….And going to love you unconditionally. So that’s what I would want to leave with my child.

BROOKS: And that’s what I’ve gathered from “Orange.”

SANDERS: Yeah. Well, I also think that, like, playing the kind of roles that you see on the show – it definitely makes you, as a parent, say, well, there but for the grace of God goes my child, you know? Like, I think one of the things that sticks with me the most from the show is that, like, people who are in the prison system – they’re, a lot of times, no better or worse than you.

BROOKS: Oh, yeah, definitely.

SANDERS: They just had a series of unfortunate events.

BROOKS: Definitely.

SANDERS: Like, it’s very easy for those of us on the outside to look at those on the inside of that system and say, well, you did it, and it’s your fault. But, like, a lot of the folks that are in that show…..They were caught up in things that often…

BROOKS: Yeah.

SANDERS: …Weren’t even true about them, and then before you know it…

BROOKS: Yeah.

SANDERS: …There they are.

BROOKS: I think – I feel, for me, I’ve always been pretty nonjudgmental. Like, I think that’s why I am an actor – is because…..I’m just – I’m so curious about other lifestyles and walks of life that are different, and so I don’t judge them. So I already know that that’s not going to be a problem with raising – when it comes to raising my baby. Like, you’re going to know, like…It’s one – it take one little banana slip-up to…

SANDERS: Yeah.

BROOKS: …Be in that position. And your mama almost was in that position for real.

BROOKS: …For sure. So I know – the one thing about me is I’ve always tried to learn from other people’s mistakes. Like, this is what I’m hoping. I’m hoping my baby will learn from other people’s mistakes.

SANDERS: Yeah, totally. People may not know, or they’re coming to know more, like, before TV, stage had your heart – has your heart – and you are, like, a big and real deal on Broadway.

BROOKS: Thank you.

SANDERS: What – and you trained more in stage and theater than in preparing for TV. What was the hardest part for you as a, you know, classically trained theatrical thespian, you know, adjusting to television work?

BROOKS: The hardest part for me adjusting to television was the scale, and not literally a scale because I am plus-size – but no, like, the scale in which I could be big or not, like, character-wise because I’ve always thought that you had to be smaller on television, and with theater, you could be more – broader and bigger strokes with, you know, the choices that you make. And then I worked with Michael Trim, who directed our first episode of “Orange,” and I think he directed Episode Two. But he came back a lot, Michael Trim. And one day, we were working on a scene, and I had – I was doing something Taystee-esque (ph), you know, being extra. And he was like, more.

SANDERS: Really?

BROOKS: I was like, are you serious? And he was like, yes, more. So, like, first I get on the chair, and he’s like, you didn’t give me more. So I get on the table, and, like – more. I’m like, are you kidding me? Because, like, I feel like – am I doing too much for TV? And he’s like, no. This is who your character is. Like, she can live in this place. And that’s when I was like, whoa, OK. So this – all this B.S. that I hear about, you know, being too small or you need to be bigger or whatever that is is throw it out the window. Where you need to come from is a truthful place for your character. That is, if your character is big, let her be big and bold. If she’s small, let her be small and wonderful in that place, too.

SANDERS: Yeah. You – like, the world seems to be wide open for you right now. You have your foot in Broadway. You got your foot in, you know, the music world. You have an EP out, like, right now.

BROOKS: Yes.

SANDERS: It was featured on the series finale. I’m sure you’re going to keep doing whatever you want to on TV. But, like, this character who was such a big part of your life and our lives for several years – she’s going to stay in prison. What would you say to the character of Taystee right now as she continues to live out what some would say is an unhappy ending?

BROOKS: I would say that your purpose is so great, even if it reaches one person. And I think that’s what I would leave with her – is you served your purpose if you’ve reached at least one. And I think she’s found that with, you know, Pennsatucky – spoiler alert – when she dies. But before she passes away, she passed her GED, and Taystee helped her with that.

SANDERS: Yeah.

BROOKS: And I feel like that’s the thing that I would want her to remember, and I think she does. I think that’s what gave her her footing to continue to go, and I think that’s a lesson for everyone, you know? You get all these incredible stars to talk about their life, and it’s so cool, you know, to – I’m so humbled to be on NPR and be able to speak about having an EP and, you know, working in theater and film and having a baby – all this joyous, you know, beautiful things that are happening in my life. But at the end of the day, if I don’t have any of that, if I could at least reach one person…

BROOKS: …Like, life is still worth living. Like, it’s still worth going and continuing to push through.

SANDERS: Well, you reached me today.

BROOKS: Oh, thank you, Sam.

SANDERS: Danielle Brooks, I really – I thank you for your work. I thank you for your honesty, and I’m just glad you’re out here putting good vibes out in the world.

BROOKS: Thank you.

SANDERS: Big thank you to Danielle Brooks.

In my opinion Taystee remains the main character to be developed in a spinoff. We want to see her free!

DANIELLE BROOKS AND SAM SANDERS SPEAKING ABOUT ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK

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