'Orange Is The New Black' Star Danielle Brooks Won't Let Hollywood Tell Her Who To Be
Danielle Brooks has lost her phone. It's 11 a.m. on a Thursday in late June, and I am sitting with the Orange is the New Black star at Gallow Green, the rustic, ivy-laden retreat atop the roof of New York's McKittrick Hotel, about to read from the script of OITNB 's penultimate episode — except that Brooks' iPhone, where the script has been saved, is nowhere to be seen. At first, she doesn't seem to care that it's gone, but when she remembers that she needs it to read the script, Brooks freezes. "Come on," she mutters, looking quickly left and right, and only when she spies the phone, safe in the arms of someone walking right towards us, does she relax. It seems like a rare moment of nerves for Brooks, who's spent the last three years on a confident, Tony-nominated high, having broken the entertainment industry wide open with roles in OITNB, Netflix's Master of None , HBO's Girls, and Broadway's The Color Purple.
"Being that there’s still a lot of ground to break, I don’t mind being that girl. I want to be that girl," Brooks tells me. "That girl" is someone who's been working tirelessly to shatter every ceiling in Hollywood that she can. Right now, it's just a few days after OITNB Season 4 debuted on Netflix, and thanks to a devastating scene towards the show's end, Brooks, and her co-star Samira Wiley, have become the newest faces of the fight against police brutality (and to some extent, the Black Lives Matter movement by association), as well as the treatment of characters of color on the small screen. Her phone now safely in hand, Brooks reads to me from the script of That Scene, in which her character, Taystee, breaks down over the (spoiler alert) death of her best friend, Poussey (Wiley) at the hands of a prison guard who assumed Poussey was being violent when she was anything but. The actors filmed the episode over half a year ago, but Brooks is reading the stage directions as if it's the first time.
"Taystee pushes her way through the crowd, shoving people, frantic in her fear... she lies down beside Poussey, so they’re face to face. The moment may be the longest moment ever that passes."
Brooks' voice grows heavy, and the heartbreak she displays so vividly in the scene bleeds onto her face. It's barely been three years since the world outside the Juilliard School first met her, but these days, it's hard to turn on a TV (or a laptop) without seeing that expressive face, questioning authority on Orange is the New Black, guest-starring on Aziz Ansari's Master of None , appearing on Girls opposite Jemima Kirke, or performing with her Color Purple castmates during the Tonys. Her rise has been extraordinary, but not without its limitations, as nearly every project Brooks has taken on comes with a label: The Most Diverse Series on TV. The Master of None Diversity Episode. The First Black Female Character To Appear On Girls. For three years, now, Brooks has made a career out of breaking ground, and for all the perks success has brought, constantly being the person helping change the conversation could become tiresome. But Brooks isn't tired — this is actually what she's wanted all along. "I think what excites me the most is that we’re telling stories that matter," she says of her many projects.
That said, acting in such heavy roles takes a toll. Brooks says she understands Taystee's pain, for instance, because it is the pain of so many people she knows, or knows of; she lists Wiley, her younger brother, her father, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Sr., Sandra Bland. To film Wiley's death scene, Brooks says she channeled the grief and anger of the black mothers and fathers dealing with the losses of their children. It's a tactic that clearly proved effective, evidenced by viewers' intense reactions to the scene, but using it took an emotional toll on that actor herself as well.
"I kept telling the director, 'I don’t have that much in me, so let’s make sure that whatever angle you need, whatever the camera person needs, let’s get it right, because I can’t do this over and over and over,'" Brooks recalls. "Because yes, we’re pretending, but to think of that really happening to someone that you love, how devastating that is..."
She trails off, but her point is clear.
Playing Taystee, a vivacious yet easily manipulated woman imprisoned for years, and Sofia, the assertive but combative star of The Color Purple, has won Brooks praise and attention, but the roles have also made her a voice for some of society's biggest issues. Each topic OITNB tackles — sexual abuse, the rights of transgender women, even the easy purchase of assault rifles — is an echo of the problems that the world is facing at that moment; every performance of The Color Purple, about the lives of several black women in the 1930s South, is symbolic of the racism and misogyny still all too present today. In many ways, this kind of realism is for the best. Brooks notes how, for instance, Season 4 of OITNB's blatant references to Black Lives Matter could be some viewers' first introduction to the movement, and there's no denying the impact that the show has had on both pop culture and the world at large. But sometimes, being part of projects that are so eerily realistic has a less desirable effect, Brooks says.
"You really kind of hope that the world that we’re living in is getting past hatred and senseless deaths, but then something like Orlando happens and you’re like, nope, this is the reason why we tell stories," she says. "This is the reason why we do what we do."
She takes a breath. "So that’s all I have to say about that."
With such heavy storylines to work through together, it's no wonder that the OITNB cast has grown extraordinarily close, joining forces in everything from awards show acceptance speeches to Pride parades. Paralleling the bonds between their characters on the show, Brooks is especially good friends with Wiley, whom she's known since their days at Juilliard, as well as Uzo Aduba (who plays Suzanne Warren). Shortly before her co-stars got their scripts for Episode 12, Wiley sat down with them to explain what was about to happen to her character, and together, the trio had a good cry. "We sat in Uzo’s apartment, and we just talked about it for two, three hours," Brooks recalls. "How does she feel, what it meant for the show, what it meant for us... [Wiley] will always be a part of the family, but to know that we won’t be filming together every day anymore, it just really was sad."
The death of Poussey had sprawling effects not just on the characters and their portrayers, but on the scores of fans who've grown to love the character over the course of OITNB's four seasons. While many viewers praised the show for its moving portrayal of the tragedy and depiction of police brutality, others took issue with how the series handled the sensitive, race-focused storyline, considering the fact that, as a 2015 photo that recently went viral shows, OITNB's writing staff looks to be predominantly white. When I bring up the controversial image, Brooks laughs uncomfortably, pausing before carefully choosing her words.
"I do think that the writers room should be diverse," she begins. "But at the end of the day, I think what’s most important to me is that you’re seeing so many women of color on television. I think I would have a bigger issue with it if it was the other way around, and this was a complete show of just Caucasian women in prison. I think I would have an issue with that, but the fact that I’m on a show when there’s more than seven women of color that are series regulars, and it really has been so diverse with every aspect of humanity, then I’m cool."
Gaining more confidence in her answer, she adds that the OITNB writers encourage feedback from the cast, frequently asking them to speak up if a storyline or piece of dialogue isn't right for their characters. Says Brooks, "There are moments that I might see something in the writing, and I’m like, 'I’ve never heard a black woman say that.' And they’re willing to listen to that. They allow room for collaboration. We really do try to adhere to the words that they wrote and not try to change them, but at the same time, they do allow us to be honest and say, 'actually, I don’t think that would happen.'"
And Brooks has never been one to stay quiet on matters she believes in, tweeting messages about gun control and civil rights in between Color Purple promotion and selfies from the OITNB set. When she talks about working with filmmakers like Ansari on Master of None or Lena Dunham on Girls, people who've made it a mission to feature controversial storylines or atypical casts, there's reverence in her voice. She passionately tells me how happy it makes her to take on roles that would typically be given to more "traditional" looking actors. Says Brooks, "I’m really glad that I’m able to be seen in roles that people would not normally place me in, working with such diverse creators ... I’m just glad that I’m able to put my foot in a lot of different boxes."
Right now, she's thrilled to be in the place she's at, starring on one of TV's most acclaimed series and earning a Tony nomination for her first Broadway show, but at 26, there's so much more she wants to do. She says she wants to act in more movies, but also produce, maybe write; mostly, she just wants to keep messing with expectations, in every form.
"I really want to play a superhero, the first plus-size superhero," she says, laughing. "But I also want to be playing love interests in stories that are not just considered 'black movies.' Like, very upscale, big blockbuster-type movies, where the black, plus-size, curly-haired, dark-skinned woman is the one everybody wants. I think that would be cool."
"Cool" barely scratches the surface. For Brooks to get the role she's describing would be to go against every convention that Hollywood has set forth about what its stars should be. But then again, defying tradition is standard for Brooks, an actor who is more than happy to be "that girl" — the one who keeps on shattering every ceiling that Hollywood has chosen to put in her way.
Images: Meredith Truax; Location: Gallow Green at The McKittrick Hotel; Design: Liz Minch; Styling: Kara McGrath; Photoshoot Producer: Kelsea Stahler; Bianca Consunji; Kenny Suleimanagich
Danielle's Wardrobe: Boohoo Plus Clara Printed Bomber Jacket, $30; Eloquii Neoprene Column Skirt, $19.97; Baby Blue Short Sleeve Dress, $39.99, item available at Marshalls; ASOS Phrase Pointed High Heels, $62; Bra: Brooks' Own; White Dress, $79.99, item available at Marshalls