ABOVE: DANIELLE BROOKS AS TASHA “TAYSTEE” JEFFERSON. PHOTO COURTESY OF JILL GREENBERG FOR NETFLIX.
Danielle Brooks is as captivating as a Litchfield inmate as she is as a rehab-attending, closeted lesbian in Girls. The daughter of a Southern Carolina minister and deacon, Brooks moved to New York City when she was accepted to the drama division a member of Juilliard’s class of 2011. Now, she’s one of the breakout stars of Netflix’s hit series Orange is the New Black.
With her role as Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson on Orange, Brooks stands out as the young, vivacious, intensely talented dramedian. Taystee serves as Orange‘s resident dancer, rapper, and comedic relief, while being able to stress the real life difficulties of females in federal institutions. Among a cast of seasoned and gifted actresses, her ability to naturally balance drama and comedy does not go unnoticed. As the second season of Orange airs and the third season begins taping, we sat down to talk Juilliard, jail, and Jodie Foster.
LAUREN CHAN: Tell me about growing up with acting.
DANIELLE BROOKS: I grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, in a church, and that’s where I got the [acting] bug. I think theater and church are so relatable because it’s traditional call-and-response in the way that an audience interacts with the actors. We would put on church plays, so my first role was “Baby Girl” at six years old. After the play, everyone was telling my mom, “She was so good!”
From there, my mom put me in a bunch of acting programs. In Greenville, we were blessed to have lots of youth arts programs. I changed middle schools to go to an arts middle school. Then, when high school came, I went to normal high school for a little while before auditioning for the Governor’s School for Arts and Humanities.
CHAN: What did you perform for your audition?
BROOKS: Well, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do for my audition until a few hours before. It was nerve-racking! Especially in high school, when you’re a teenager, you’re nervous. My friend who was also auditioning called me and said he was about to go audition, so I asked what he had to do. He said he had to do a monologue, a Shakespearian monologue, and a contemporary monologue. I was like, “What the heck is a monologue?” [laughs] I ended up not even performing a monologue, but a sonnet that I learned in middle school and a poem from Steve Williams, who was a poet in the community. I pulled it all together and sang a song. After my audition, Dan Murray, who was in charge of the acting program there, came to my parents and I and said that they wanted me.
CHAN: So you got in without a monologue!
BROOKS: Yes. [laughs] I got in. At this point I do know what a monologue is. It was a lot of fun, but it was difficult too. They’re training you to be actors, so it’s a lot of discipline. It was a lot of learning. I was the only chocolate girl in my class, and all of the chocolate girls that were in the classes above me were all getting into Juilliard. I was like, “What is Juilliard?” I later auditioned and I’ll never forget when I got in. I was in my social studies class, a 917 number called my phone and I just left. I ran into the bathroom—the boys’ bathroom, because it was the closest one—and Kathy Hood said, “We would like to welcome you to the class of 2011, group 40.” I started screaming running around the whole campus. I remember going back into my social studies class and everyone started clapping.
CHAN: What did you go on to learn at Juilliard that has stuck with you?
BROOKS: “Be fearless,” is one thing. I’m still learning what that means, to be fearless. It doesn’t just mean to be fearless in your work, but also in life. “You’re enough,” is something that they always told us. Don’t compare your career to anyone else’s. It’s tough when you’re in a business that’s competitive. I was having a difficult time with that in college. Now, I’m having to learn to be patient and be where I am. Because I’m driven, I have [a hard time being] patient. The universe is like, “You’re not ready! Sit back and wait.” Everything will line up just how it’s supposed to.
CHAN: Well, it seems to be lining up for you. Tell me about your experience so far with Orange is the New Black.
BROOKS: I had booked a pilot out of school that didn’t get picked up. During that pilot, when we were shooting it, I was terrified. Terr-i-fied. There were two cameras in my face, a director, and two very seasoned actors. I only had a page or two of lines but I couldn’t remember them because I was so nervous. That experience made me say I don’t ever want to go through that again. So, when I came on set the first day of Orange, I made sure I was prepared.
I remember doing rehearsal and there was more pressure because Jenji Kohan, Michael Trim, Natasha Lyonne, and Yael Stone were sitting there watching me. I was [on set] with Taylor Schilling, the lead of the show, and on top of that, we were supposed to be topless! After we did the rehearsal, Natasha Lyonne came up to me and said, “You’re the real deal.” That’s when I was like, “I got this—and I have to bring this every time.” I believe that because I brought that focus and dedication to the project, I landed a series regular on the show.
CHAN: There are a lot of amazing people working on Orange. What was it like to work with Jodie Foster, who directed an episode?
BROOKS: I feel like I was gypped working with her. [laughs] I literally had one scene. In that one scene, I had one line. I do remember—because my character’s personality is so big—I was doing the scene talking about Miss Claudette and voodoo, so I did some googly thing with my eyes and [Foster] was like, “Don’t do that. It’s too much.” Though Taystee is a big character, she’s not always [over the top]. [Foster] helped me to find those layers and different colors. She’s an actor’s director. She’s the type of director actors want to work with because she knows the [process].
CHAN: Who else do you admire in the industry?
BROOKS: Right now, I’m on this Whoopi Goldberg kick. Everything about her intrigues me. She’s so herself. When you’re just starting out, you’re really trying to figure out [who you are]. I love to watch her journey and to watch her be like, “This is me, you either take it or you don’t.” She’s such a strong actor, she’s host on The View, and she just did a documentary about Moms Mabley. I like the fact that she pursues avenues outside of acting. I love that she has her hands in many different gloves…[laughs] I’ve never heard that. I just made it up.
CHAN: I admire Whoopi for having an amazing career free from stereotype. She’s carved out her own path. We previously spoke about how there aren’t a lot of roles written for chocolate girls. Do you feel limited because of that?
BROOKS: I think there are more factors that just being chocolate. I think being a curvy girl is also a factor. Being someone with natural hair is also a factor. Those are things that I can’t change. Personally, I don’t want to live with limitations. If there comes a time where I am dying to play Juliet or Macbeth, I want to make those avenues for myself. The world might limit me, but as the type of artist I am, I’ll create [those opportunities]. I’m not at that point yet, but I am on a show that I love and I am getting opportunities to play the love interest and work with amazing actors, where I’m not just playing an inmate or a ghetto girl. Those avenues are opening and that’s exciting.
CHAN: You also said that you and your character, Taystee, are similar. Can you elaborate on that?
BROOKS: In season one, you see some of Taystee’s insecurities. When she’s about to get out, she says that she feels people aren’t going to take her seriously. For a while, I felt that way. I’m very young, and the times when I wasn’t working, I felt like that. I was thinking, “Am I not enough?” Taystee’s so smart but she tries to handle her situations very similar to the way I do. I try to joke and make light when, at times, I really want to cry.
I also have a big personality like she does. I like to make jokes and laugh but I’m not as foul as her—at all. My mouth isn’t as dirty. [laughs] She’s very animated—she sings, she raps, she dances—that’s all part of who I am. The difference is—besides the obvious, that I’m not incarcerated—that Taystee…Well, I’m finding more differences in Season Two, which people will see soon.
SEASON TWO OF ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK IS AVAILABLE ON NETFLIX TODAY, JUNE 6.