Danielle Brooks of Orange Is The New Black: 'We Weren't Going To Sugarcoat Things'
By Samantha Henderson
Photo: Ira L. Black
How did you research your character?
DB: I read Piper Kerman's book [on which the show is based]. Taystee is in the book but it’s not really her story. Then I watched a hell of a lot of Beyond Scared Straight. You can see these all these women who are already in prison and these kids who are on their way to getting there. So you have that whole journey from 13, when they started out being badasses, to when they actually land in prison, so the whole storyline is there.
Was that a challenging role for you as a classically-trained actress from Juilliard?
DB: People joke about that! Going to Juilliard, you do Chekhov and Shakespeare. You aren’t really trained for something like this. You pull from what you have from classes and finding ways that get you into different characters. So Juilliard did help in that way. Actually, Samira [Wiley], who plays Poussey, and I went to Juilliard together. She was a year ahead of me. She told me she was auditioning for the show and I was like, “Yo let’s get together, let me help you.” But she’s brilliant on her own. I take no credit for her booking it. You gotta look out for each other. The bromance definitely started way ahead of time. That was our research.
What is the mood like on the set with all these women around? Is there camaraderie? Catfights?
DB: We love the hell out of each other. It’s ridiculous how close we are, no lie. We don’t spend much time in our dressing rooms: We're on set watching each other work. We go out a lot. We went to Fat Cats recently and went salsa dancing together! We love hanging out—we all enjoy each other’s company, and we want to see each other do well. This is such a small business, especially when you get down to certain groups. I was friends with Poussey, Black Cindy, and Uzo "Crazy Eyes" before the show; it’s a small world. Being women of color, a lot of the time we’re going out for the same parts, even though we’re so different, as you can tell on the show. I’m pretty sure some of the Hispanic women knew each other ahead of time, too.
One of the most interesting parts of the show that there’s this acknowledged separation among the groups, but it's done without tokenism, which is almost shocking at first because it doesn't conform to political correctness. Do you think it's more true-to-life?
DB: I think it’s much more realistic to the world that we live in. It’s kind of hard to see sometimes, living in New York, but being from South Carolina I find that even if you really break down New York—you go to Harlem, you’re gonna see blacks, you go to Spanish Harlem, you’re going to see Hispanics, Washington Heights, you go to the Village—it is, actually, a sort of fucked-up system we have, and it translates even more into prison. I can only imagine what it's like for a character like Laverne [Cox], a transgender woman. That’s also what excited me about the project: That we weren’t going to sugarcoat things.
The show is like a microcosm of American racial, social, and civil rights issues with race and LGBT equality, and it takes a very stark view of that, which most television shows don’t do.
DB: It’s really cool to be on a show like this. The world is changing and I’m glad that TV is starting to get on board, and that’s why I got into acting. I like to step into different shoes that aren’t my own. I feel like it’s a way for people to look at themselves in a different way and examine why [they] act this way, and to get to be on a show that puts it in your face. It’s not acting like everything is peaches and cream. This is it.
Does it bother you to be labeled as the "funny black girl"?
DB: A lot of the time we try to put people in boxes and try to label things, and it makes people feel good about themselves when they can say, “This is what you are. I figured you out.” I think that’s where a lot of fear comes in, because people don’t want to get to know someone on a deeper level, and I do relate to that. I’m not gay, but as a straight woman, a black woman, not a size 6, and from the south. People try to label you and say, “Oh, I know what you believe, who you are. I got you down.” But I’m more than that, and to get the opportunity to be on a show that celebrates everybody for being different, and for being more than what you see, is exciting. I think it's way overdue.