I was sure she wouldn’t remember me. I first met Danielle Brooks, the 23-year-old actress who plays the friendly and foul-mouthed federal inmate Taystee on Netflix’s hit summer series Orange Is the New Black last spring. We were both attending the packed Washington premiere of Katori Hall’s On the Mountaintop.
At the reception afterwards, Brooks walked over to where I stood guard over a plate of fancy cheese to say that she liked my dress. I immediately complimented her hair, a confident collection of curls overflowing past her shoulders. Then, as is the way of women, we became instant short-term buddies, chatting about life, careers and etc.
The “etcetera” part? That’s when she happened to mention she’d be appearing in a new show called Orange is the New Black.
“Based on the book?” I asked.
“You’ve heard of it?”
She was modest and mostly thankful. And now, after the series made it debut this July to both critical and audience acclaim, Brooks is much the same.
“Isn’t it a small world?” she asked before we settled in to talk once again about her life and what’s shaping up to be an amazing start to an inspired career. Danielle Brooks, the actress who remembers the girl hoarding the cheese, is a name you should definitely remember.
EBONY: First off, congratulations! It was recently announced that Taystee has been promoted from recurring character to series regular. When did you get the news?
Danielle Brooks: I found out probably a few days before it was announced. So it was just as much of a shock to me as it was to the world. I knew I was going to return, but I didn’t know how much. With a show like this, about prison, you just never know. Your character could be going to the SHU [Special Housing Unit] or you’re going to die. You never know the spin of it all. I was thrilled to learn that Taystee was going to be there for a while.
EBONY: You’ve said before that it could have been easy for Taystee to become a stereotype but your character has emerged as the layered and loveable fan favorite. How do you keep Taystee real and relatable?
DB: I think that goes straight to the writers. That’s the real reason why I decided to take this job. Jenji [Kohan, the show's creator,] and her team play off the fact that these women can come off as stereotypes, but they’re so much more than that. The fact that Taystee is very intelligent, which most women in prison are let’s not get that wrong. But just because Taystee has landed herself there doesn’t mean that she isn’t intelligent, it doesn’t mean that she’s only that situation.
EBONY: When Taystee described another inmate confusing “your” and “you’re” as “some ignorant b*tch a*s sh*t,” I almost died. It was such a hilarious moment that still really underscored her character.
DB: [She laughs] That’s exciting as an actor to share with the world, the idea that until you get to know someone that maybe your opinion of them isn’t quite correct. People have ideas of what Black women in general are. I get to show people that we are just as complex and we are also relatable. These women are regular people.
EBONY: So did you have any reservations at all about playing a Black woman in a prison?
DB: Not really. I like to play people who are underdogs and misfits. People who are not on a straight and narrow path. That’s exciting for me. I know the rest of my career isn’t going to be playing inmates. I didn’t have any hesitations because working with someone like Jenji and Netflix; they’re not about following the trends of what we think television has to be.
EBONY: When did you first realize that the team behind Orange Is the New Black was going to push that envelope?
DB: I auditioned with the shower scene and I remember the first time I played [Taystee] it was a little general, it was very hard, how most people would consider someone in prison. The casting director said, “You know she’s actually a little more joyous. Can you play it with more joy?” I did and I realized that this character was going to be more. That was just a glimpse into what the larger picture was.
EBONY: Okay, give me some of your favorite Taystee one liners.
DB: Oh boy. I had fun when I said, “You got a little something on your nip nip there.” I had a blast with the rap. I really thought it was fun to do “Mr. Healy, those cracker meth head b*tches won’t let us change the channel and it’s our turn!” because that is something that I would never ever dare to say.
EBONY: You’ve talked about morals before, having grown up in the church in South Carolina with a father who is a minister and a mother who is a deacon. Is it hard to maintain your moral center as a young actress?
DB: I think at first it is very difficult because you just want to work. So sometimes you feel like, ‘Well maybe I can compromise what my morals are.’ Luckily because of my background and because of my parents and the way they raised me, and the team I have, they all are helping me to realize that it’s OK to say ‘no’ to projects.
EBONY: What types of projects won’t you do?
DB: My biggest thing is telling a truthful story, something that is rooted in something and is very honest. If I read a script and you want me to take off my top and it doesn’t serve a purpose, then I’m not going to do it. In the first scene of Orange Is the New Black, I had to be topless but there was a purpose for it. I’m in a shower and that’s what women do in prison. I didn’t feel violated at all. It wasn’t a mockery. It wasn’t a joke because I don’t take my body as a joke. As long it’s rooted in truth, I’m cool with doing it, as long as I don’t jeopardize myself and my self-worth and don’t feel bad at the end of the day. I feel like I’m in the position to be careful with the projects that I choose. It’s OK to be selective now.
EBONY: Taystee and fellow Litchfield inmate Poussey [actress Samira Wiley] have such a sweet friendship on the show. Was that written in or was it something that developed?
DB: It has been such a pleasure working with Samira. We both went to Julliard and we’ve been friends for six years now. Getting to work with her has been such a treat because we actually really enjoy each other’s company. Our relationship is very similar to Poussey and Taystee’s. We’re very honest with each other in real life.
EBONY: Have fans been coming up to you left and right?
DB: Taystee is such a likeable person. A lot of people will come up to me as if they’ve known me for years. Yesterday I had a police officer stop me and ask me for a picture and that was kind of cool.
EBONY: Has it been overwhelming at all?
DB: It’s weird with releasing all the material at once. This being the beginning of my career it happened so fast. I was in a press tour in Brazil and then when I came back, people were like ‘Oh my gosh, it’s Taystee.’ It’s definitely challenged me to stay grounded and humble—which I will never not do—and [to] stay grateful. I’m very grateful for my fans, which is so weird to say now. A lot of Black women come up to me and say they’re happy to see someone like myself with natural hair and dark skin and who is my size. It’s just cool.
EBONY: What’s next for you?
DB: Of course you’re going to get to see a lot of Taystee in season two and I just shot an episode of ‘Girls’ for HBO. I will be the first Black woman to be on ‘Girls,’ so that’s exciting for me. Other than that I just don’t know. I’m hoping Melissa McCarthy will hit a sister up.