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Danielle Brooks: Taystee Delight

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A burgeoning Hollywood starlet armed with street smarts and an Ivy league education transforms into scene-stealing divalicious convict.

You can’t really understand how truly gifted she is until you chop it up with her for a few minutes off-camera — naked-faced, beaming, and sweet as a slice of pecan pie. It’s hard to imagine someone as friendly as Danielle Brooks taking on the role of a potty-mouthed, in-your-face, don’t-eff-with-me convict. Fresh-faced and Julliard trained, this Southern belle is guaranteed to tickle your funny bone and play your heartstrings like a harp. We know her as OITNB’s beloved bully, Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson, a leader of sorts at Litchfield Penitentiary, where the social infrastructure is dictated by race, reputation and inside connections.

Despite having one of the bleakest character arcs, ironically, it’s Danielle’s light-hearted and soulful rendition that make her the most relatable. She’s the “around-the-way” girl everyone knows; the one you vote for in school elections and save a seat for in the cafeteria. Peel away the bravado, dissect her squishy insides, and you’ll find a layer defined by a close friendship with Poussey Washington (played by real-life friend Samira Wiley) and an unstable existence outside of prison walls.

Fortunately, Danielle’s off-screen adolescence didn’t include foster homes or legal troubles. Raised by a loving and supportive family, Brooks always predicted a career in show business, but not one with such a smooth takeoff. Since leaving two stage productions to film Orange, Danielle is now one of the most sought after brown girls in Hollywood with future projects that include a stint as the first African-American character on Girls.

It can be a challenge keeping the ego in check throughout such an extraordinary journey, but in Danielle’s case, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Warm, outgoing and boundlessly energetic—even on Sunday at the crack of dawn—Danielle’s humble demeanor and southern charm fill the room (without overcrowding it) as she not only greets her OITNB co-stars, but introduces herself to everyone in the room. Not afraid to mingle and chat between shots, our interview felt more like a girly gabfest than an interrogation. Looks this ex-con is leaving the cross-examinations to her alter ego.

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Are you fully adjusted to life in New York?
It’s a big change. It’s definitely a positive change. I get to do what I love here. There are no limitations—that’s what’s so exciting to me. I went to a high school in South Carolina called the Governor’s School for Arts and Humanities and that was basically a mini Julliard. I’ve never been as passionate about anything as acting.

How hard did you have to fight for this role?
I had an audition and I got it. [laughs] What shocked me the most is that one, two-minute moment could change your life. I auditioned with the first shower scene and I brought a prop. [laughs] I came with my ideas; she gave me one adjustment—that Taystee has more light to her. I got it and liked it because we weren’t going the stereotypical route of the angry black woman. There is a lot of room for creative flow, which is a lot of fun. I think that’s what also adds to the show. That’s that collaboration that you need to have and to trust your actors.

How much do you and Taystee have in common?
My mouth is not as foul, but as far as bubbly personality, being happy and smiling; really channeling the good moments when times are tough; I do relate to Taystee in that way. Have I been in prison and foster home after foster home? No, that hasn’t been my experience, but I do feel very close to her. Even when she becomes president of WAC—I was also my high school president.

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Photo Credit: Jasmine L. Gonzalez

How do you play funny without making it look like an act?
Training really helps. [laughs] I feel like it’s also not playing for laughs, staying truthful to the character and always being reminded that there’s a real Taystee out there. It’s never about Taystee—it’s always about the scene partner and what they need from you.

We know you and Samira Wiley are good friends. Is she your favorite person to work with?
I do enjoy working with Samira because we were friends before the show and went to school together. We kind of can’t believe this happened. My favorite person to work with would have to be her and Uzo [Aduba]. As an actor, she’s so smart and always in “Crazy Eyes” mode. She’s so in her zone. Sometimes I get taken out of my world because she’s so funny! She challenges me.

What, if anything, do you like about the aesthetic of the show, like not wearing a lot of make-up or wardrobe?
I like the fact that it’s honest. I don’t want to play an inmate and have lipstick on. That’s wack to me. I’m cool with it on set. But, as soon as it’s over, put on the foundation and fix my eyebrows! Offset, my style is pretty funky. I like big earrings and comfortable clothes. I’m starting to do this whole New York street vibe.

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Photo Credit: Jasmine L. Gonzalez

You recently attended your first Emmy Awards. Tell us about that day.
It was a dream come true. At some point you have to stop, give God all glory for leading me to this moment in time at such a young age, because I swore this was going to happen when I was 40. Look at these actors and how old they are—they’ve been working in the game for a while. To see Kerry Washington and Diahann Carroll on that stage; to be in the same room as so many incredible actors and have them know my work; I just felt like I was in the right place.

Any starstruck moments?
I got to meet a few of the Scandal castmates. That got me. Getting to see the cast of Breaking Bad was huge, too. But getting to talk to Kerry—the first thing she said to me was “You are just beautiful!” Girl, my heart… I was all flustered! I sat next to Octavia Spencer for like ten minutes straight and I couldn’t believe it. I was holding it in and trying to keep it together.

As a woman of color, did you ever think you would get to play this kind of role?
Girl, it is so nice, for once, to be surrounded by people of color who are celebrating each other. We’re always the wife or the daughter or the maid. So, to not be worried about competition or whether there’s only one black girl to be a series regular. I don’t know if I knew this was coming. I’m very optimistic, but so early on in my career to be working with so many women is so inspiring. Also, getting to pick the brain of Toussaint and Kate Mulgrew and work with Laverne Cox, a transgender woman, is an education.

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Photo Credit: Nicholas Nichols

If you could write Season 2, what would happen to Taystee?
The writers always come up with something better than I could ever imagine. I wish the best for Taystee.  I want her to get out of prison, but at the same time, I need her to stay so I can work! [laughs] You know what would be cool? If Taystee got it together and became one of the guards.

Who is on your guest star wish list?

[Singing] A guest star for the day! Maybe Michelle Obama? What would she be in jail for? Eating too many fruits and veggies?

We can’t wait to see you on Girls! What was the best part about shooting your episode?
Lena Dunham is a genius. Watching her act, show run, produce and direct all on one show is inspiring.

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Photo Credit: Nicholas Nichols

Can you see yourself with your own show someday?
Heck yeah, I want my own show! I want to be on Broadway. I want to be in the movies. I want to do it all. I want to do things that I never thought I could do. I want to produce, direct—all of that stuff. Right now, I’m just letting things flow. I feel like the minute you start planning and trying to set your life, that’s when God laughs, so I’m letting him run the show.

What about dating? Did you see any celebrity crushes at the Emmy’s?
I want to, but I’m not dating. I’m looking for a gentleman. Columbus Short is a good one. I was hoping to see Michael B. Jordan. I don’t really have time to date. I don’t know if I want to add that complicated thing to my life right now.

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