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‘Orange Is the New Black’ Season 4: Danielle Brooks on Big Death, Giving a Voice to ‘The Left Behind’

[Spoiler alert: The following interview discusses major plot points from the final three episodes of “Orange Is the New Black” season 4. Do not read until you’ve finished the season.]

Danielle Brooks’ Taystee has long been a ray of sunshine in the depressing world of “Orange Is the New Black,” and at first, season four seems to continue that trend for her. Taystee gets a plush job working as Warden Caputo’s (Nick Sandow) assistant, and she warms to the administrative role, reveling in the responsibility and structure of answering phones and doing paperwork. She manages to get the whole prison to watch “The Wiz” on movie night and even convinces Caputo to buy her baby-blue watch. In a season marked by a lot of frustration and fear, Taystee’s in a little bubble where she’s riding high.

Until the final two episodes, when her best friend Poussey (Samira Wiley) dies at the hands of Litchfield corrections officer Baxter Bayley (Alan Aisenberg). Taystee transforms from a ray of sunshine to a bolt of lightning, and in the final minutes of the season, incites a riot against Caputo and his ilk for letting Bayley off easy while Poussey’s corpse is still barely cold.

Variety spoke to Brooks about filming Poussey’s death, working with “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner, and sifting through the criticisms of “Orange Is the New Black’s” race relations. The actress, who was just nominated for a Tony for her work in “The Color Purple,” was unafraid to own up to her own strong sense of mission.

How has the fan reaction been to this season?

I’m overwhelmed, honestly. Like, I’ll just go on my Twitter, as normal people do, just to be on your Twitter and read stuff. And I cannot tell you how many times I keep getting tweets about the last two episodes, and how many fans are saying “You need an Emmy! You need an Emmy!” And I’m like: “What are you talking about? I’m just trying to go to work.” I’ve had to kind of step away from my social media. Because I don’t — I want to take everything with a grain of salt. I don’t want to get too caught up in everything. I’m having to kinda take a step back and remember why we do what we do.

It’s crazy, to me, how much people were affected by what we made in the last two episodes. I am really just grateful that people are being moved by it. And I am glad to be part of such a supportive cast and crew, and to be able to breathe life into the words that these amazing writers write. And get to tell stories that mean something. It makes me happy to be an actor, getting to tell both a story like “The Color Purple” and “Orange Is the New Black.”

What was it like to play Poussey’s death scene? You have to be very emotional in it. And you were working with Matthew Weiner for the first time.

Yes. He’s a phenomenal director. I’m really grateful that he directed that, because — I’m just going to be honest, there’s not too many people who could do that, and give us the respect that we need. He was the perfect person for it. He gave us the space to find what we needed to do and made sure that everyone gave us that space, from the cast and the crew — because  you know, for that scene, everyone was there. I just really appreciate the focus that everyone brought that day.

I remember talking to him and saying, “I have to be honest, I can’t do this over and over again. Yes, I’m trained as an actor, I went to school for this and all of that. But this is not something I can do over and over again.” So for that close-up, we only did it twice. Because I told him: “The minute you say ‘action,’ I’m going to give you what you need.” If I remember correctly, there were times where when we got close to where I needed to fall on my knees, I had to stop and go back. Because I was like, I’m not in the place I need to be, and I’m going to waste a take if I don’t go back and start from one.

So we did it twice, and he said, “We got it,” and I was relieved because — I get to shed this off, I get to take this out of my body now. And then he comes back a few minutes later and he’s like, we gotta do it again. Because, he told me, the camera was blurry. I was like, “ARE YOU KIDDING ME,” [Laughs.] and so Lauren Morelli, who was the writer on the episode, I remember taking a little walk with her, and kind of just finding it again. She helped me in that moment.

And then seeing Samira [Wiley]— Poussey — lying on that floor. It made my work much easier than it would have been if it was anyone else. Because I’ve known Samira since 2007. She actually helped me move into the dorm at Juilliard, when I was a student. So I have a very, very close relationship [with her]. I actually even helped her with her audition for “Orange,” because we were so tight, and you know, why not read with the real Taystee?

So it made the scene much easier to shoot, actually having a connection with her.

And more devastating, too.

Oh, very much more devastating. Because what was even more devastating than that — let me say this before I say that. The relief comes in the fact that Samira is still alive. So we can cry, fake-cry, all day. We can fake-grieve all day, and hug at the end. But the problem is that there are real people dealing with that issue. And that’s where the pain comes in. That’s where the real hurt comes in.

All I kept thinking about was that New York Times article, of Mike Brown, Sr., of him over his son’s casket in a very similar emotion — you know, just bawling his eyes out over his son. And that’s real life. So to me, that was the hardest part. Having to try — to try. I cannot imagine what it’s like going through that. But to try and imagine what it’s like to actually lose somebody in that way. You know, the ways in which Eric Garner, and Natasha McKenna, and Rekia Boyd, and Freddie Gray, and Trayvon Martin, and Tamir Rice, and all of them have lost their lives — was way more complicated than the scene that we shot.

So to me, my heart just goes out to them. And I’m glad that we can tell this story — and not just entertain people, but educate people on what’s going on in the world. Because there are kids out here, adults out here, that are just clueless when it comes to Black Lives Matter. And when it comes to I Can’t Breathe. And when it comes to the Say Her Name movement. They are clueless! But they are so invested in Poussey. And so invested in Taystee. And now we get to have a voice and say listen, “this is the world that we live in, we’re telling this story for the lost, the last, the least, the left behind, the looked over.” That’s who we’re telling this story for.

It makes it really worthwhile, all the work that we do, the double duty that I’m doing with both shows. It makes it worthwhile when you’re telling stories that matter.

As you might know already, there’s been some controversy about Poussey’s death in the show, and the way it was handled. Let me read you a quote from Wear Your Voice, written by Ashleigh Shackelford: “I truly believe that this show utilizes the death of black wellbeing (and black life) for profit.” How do you react to that, especially as Taystee becomes increasingly frustrated with how the black inmates are treated?

Can you read that one more time?

“I truly believe that this show utilizes the death of black wellbeing (and black life) for profit.” From a piece titled “‘Orange Is the New Black’ is Trauma Porn Written for White People.”

Wow. Wow. I’m just shocked, man, to be honest. That’s not how I viewed it. I don’t view it in that way. I view it as a moment for us to actually educate people. I — first of all, this show does not just have viewers that are white. This show has viewers from all different colors, backgrounds, religions, ages. I know that for a fact. So to think that this is something to just profit for white people — I might be paraphrasing here, but that just blows my mind. Because I would think that this person would look at it as if we were actually educating these people that normally wouldn’t know about a story like this! At the end of the day, Taystee is fighting for justice. It’s not like a closed book case of, “Oh, we lost somebody and we’re moving on.” There’s more to the story here. So I kind of don’t know what to say about that, I’m kind of just confused. [Laughs.]

You know, one thing I learned at Juilliard — our president, President [Joseph] Polisi, wrote a book called “The Artist as Citizen,” and it talks about how your work doesn’t end just when you take a final bow. And your work doesn’t end when you finally say “cut” and it’s out on Netflix. Your work goes beyond that. And that’s what we’re doing. This is a cast that has written books on immigration. Laverne [Cox]’s doing a CeCe [MacDonald] documentary. I organized the cast of “Orange is The New Black” to march for Eric Garner. We were there. In New York City, marching. The list goes on with issues like that. So I feel like this is a cast that realizes that our work goes on beyond just the story. Because at the end of the day, it’s a story. We’re playing make-believe. But we are smart enough to know there’s still a lot of work to be done. So we do it. So that’s all about I have to say about that. We do it. We do more than telling a story.

How would you describe what Taystee is going through in the last few episodes of the season? She gets very close to Caputo, and then grows suspicious of him. She gets this watch she is proud of, and then has it destroyed in front of her. What were you putting into her character?

Yeah, it’s crazy. Because you know, Taystee starts out this girl, really, who’s the light of the prison, who loves being there, who’s found a forever family there. And that slowly starts to dissipate and go away when she’s confronted with Vee [Lorraine Toussaint], and actually loses Vee. To me, that foreshadows what happens in season four, when she loses Poussey. Now you’re dealing with somebody who is no longer happy here, and is ready for war. And she’s lost everything. She has nothing to lose. So she’s ready to go to war, for justice.

And I think it is very interesting, the dynamic of the guards and the inmates. Because it’s this whole play on, who really are the animals? So when Taystee does lose the watch, it’s that whole thing of like. … Sometimes, it can feel, in this society that we live in — how do I say this? That people try to crush you either physically, by killing you, or mentally. Kill you mentally. And that’s what was happening in that moment with the watch. You know, “I’m not going to physically hurt you, but I’m going to mentally hurt you.” And that’s what it can feel like, for some people, being black in America.

Like I said earlier, I’m glad we’re delving into and having conversations about it, because I think it’s important, instead of just telling fluffy stories and focusing on the fact that “Oh my gosh, I really love Piper’s hair today,” or “Oh my god, Taystee said something soooo funny.” I’m glad we’re kind of moving out of that world, telling things and having conversations that are really worth talking about. I’m still digesting it, and still trying to figure out what all of this means, too. I’m not saying I have all the answers at all. It’s very complicated, and I think that’s what Jenji [Kohan, showrunner] was going for: The world we live in is complicated.

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