‘Orange is the New Black’ Star Danielle Brooks on Taystee’s Failures, the Cliffhanger, and Those False Rumors of Her Exit

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read until you’ve watched season five of “Orange is the New Black.”

Poussey’s tragic, senseless death at the end of season four of “Orange is the New Black” proved a galvanizing event for the series — it shaped the course of season five, which played out over the course of just three days, as the inmates of Litchfield took over the prison in protest. But while all the characters grappled with the fallout from her death in their own ways, it was Danielle Brooks’ Taystee who stepped up. Deep in mourning, she channeled her fury and frustration into negotiations with the MCC, motivated in her mission to get justice for her friend (Samira Wiley).

Here, Brooks tells Variety how she channeled her own emotions to film this powerful season, whether Taystee truly accomplished her goals, and puts to bed those rumors that she’s leaving the series.

“Orange” has always been an ensemble show, but this season you were so front-and-center. Did (creator) Jenji Kohan tell you this was going to happen? 

I kind of didn’t realize it. Jenji has been just so supportive of me and my career. She came to see me in “The Color Purple” on Broadway when I was in previews, and she said to me, “You’ve got a lot to do this season, you gonna be ready?” I was like “Yes, of course!”, even though she knew that I was doing eight shows a week. She had no plans on changing the script, knowing that I would be as busy as I was, and I’m really grateful that they didn’t change the script and allowed me to get to play as much as I got to this season, and get to tell this story. Jenji just hinted at it without telling me much of anything. I think that’s kind of her style, you know? It’s just like, let’s go for the ride, and she doesn’t give too much information at all. So I’m finding out sometimes two days ahead of time, before shooting, I would get the script. Sometimes I didn’t even know what I was going to be doing the next week.

You know how the show works, everybody gets their due and gets their piece of the pie. There would be times that I was like, “Oh, well I had a lot to do last episode, I’m gonna be chilling next episode,” and then I would look and there would be a huge monologue for (episode) five, and then a huge monologue for six, and I’m like “What’s happening?” It’s been fun. It’s been good. I really love the material that I got. I’m just really glad people are being receptive to this story. It was kind of a simple start to a crazy Season Five, for me.

It turned out to be anything but simple. The arc of the season was so different than every other season in that it took place over the course of three days. So much resided on your shoulders with such a powerful message. 

It was a challenge that I was ready to accept. I’ve been in the show now for five seasons, and I’ve been blessed to go from somebody that was meant to have two episodes in Season One to becoming a series regular in Season Two, and getting to lead the pack. It was a challenge that I was ready to fall into. But when it comes to the story, I’m very proud of my character for stepping up, because when it comes to leading the pack for Taystee, she’s always been a natural leader, always been somebody to step up to the plate.

I was rewatching some of Season One to get a cleaner vision in my head of her journey, and there’s been so many opportunities for her to grow further, and she never takes them. There’s opportunities for her to talk about student reform, but instead she chooses to eat donuts in Mr. Caputo’s office. To see her finally step into her power and finally step into this leadership position in a way that is doing something and moving her forward, her people forward, was something I was really excited to be tackling.

Because, also it’s like, for me, at least right now because of the climate of the country, I want to make sure I am doing pieces that are saying something. You know what I mean? I feel like it is important that we have TV shows and things that will just be entertainment and make us laugh, but I think there’s something to be said about shows that go further than that, and make a conscious decision to speak on issues that are really concerning as brothers and sisters. For me, I’m just really glad that we get to highlight movements that matters, like Black Lives Matter.

Especially for me, with the Philando Castile incident and watching the clip of his mother, Valerie Castile, being super upset about the results of the officer being acquitted, I really appreciate the fact that Jenji and her writers, they didn’t shy away from that and try to put a nice bow on the season. We’re not in the lake this season, we’re not doing the Christmas pageant this season.

Taystee is so single-minded in her mission of justice for Poussey. Do you think she accomplished her goal?

I don’t. I mean, I do and I don’t. I think Taystee, she has her failures. I think that’s why in the last episode she gets so upset when she’s talking to Suzanne and Black Cindy, because she’s like, “I f–ked up, I messed up. I failed everyone. I thought I could lead the pack, but actually I’m not capable of it. I’m not as smart as I thought and I don’t have all the tools I need.” She feels like a failure, but to me, if I could tell my character anything, I would tell her “No, you did win it,” because for me, I think her not shooting Piscatella was her win.

That was her salvation, that was her moment of discovering what justice really looks like, and justice isn’t about an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. I think it has much more to do with a person’s character, and I think that was that moment of her saying, “Yes, I want to see you to die, but you weren’t what I was fighting for to begin with. The goal wasn’t to kill somebody else.” So I think that’s her way of saying, “I am bigger than my circumstance and I also am not like you. I’m not like you. There’s good in me.” So I think she did win. I think that’s what Poussey would have wanted, too. I don’t think Poussey would have wanted her to shoot and kill Piscatella.

Because what I think Taystee has learned from Poussey, and why it’s such a heartbreak for her, is because with Taystee, she’s always been abandoned by love, manipulated by love, doubted. But with Poussey, she’s the only one who showed her what genuine, pure love looks like. I think there’s a moment in there that she realizes that’s not the way to go. I think she will come out on top, and I think she also came out on top having such support. There’s very few moments in Litchfield that goes across racial divides, and that’s what we have at the end of Season Five.

That was one of the great things about the cliffhanger. This was a group we’ve never seen together before.

Yes, and they’re all standing as one, and that’s the love what Frieda says about Taystee and how they plan on fighting it. Frieda’s like, “We’re gonna hold our dignity just like she did. Just as we’ve seen Taystee do in this moment. Just hold her dignity together.” I think it’s a lot to be said about women standing together and uniting. And not just women, but people of all different walks of life that are so different from each other, coming together for a cause. And I think that’s what we definitely could use more of. As much as I try to stay on topic with the truth, there’s no way around talking about the world that we live in. There’s no way around the fact that how these women are coming together at the end of Season Five I really wish that we could do as a country. Because there’s just so much going on, just so much hate and killing and injustice which is happening in the world, that if a little TV show on Netflix can have a part in changing someone’s mind and viewpoint, then that’s amazing. That’s worth it.

What do you think is ahead for Season Six? The season ended with the inmates being separated — can they be reunited?

Well, that’s the thing. Once you have a riot, it can’t end well. And I’ve always said it takes a lot for a person to start a riot. You have to be fearless. You have to be unafraid of death. And that’s exactly where I think Taystee is right now. I don’t know. I can’t speak for the other characters. But I think they’re definitely all operating in a fearless manner, in a way of, “We’ve gotten ourselves here, and let’s finish it out. Let’s go all the way.” And they unite hand in hand. And what we don’t see at the end of Five is them riding away from this explosion. You know what I mean? They’re standing firm in it. And I think that’s gonna be a good foreshadowing, maybe, of what’s to come in Season Six. I don’t have a freaking clue, but it’s definitely a doozy of a question. But I think it could be showing us what’s to come is that these women are gonna stand strong and are gonna fight.

So where that leads us, I have no idea. I don’t know what Litchfield will turn into, if there will be a Litchfield, I don’t know how many women are left standing, what’s going on with these buses, I don’t know. And that’s the crazy thing for us, too. There’s so many moments we feel like audience members too, because they don’t tell us anything. They don’t tell us anything until we have to absolutely know. So I’m just going on the journey with all the fans, too. No clue.

I’ve seen stories speculating that Season Six will be your last. Is that really true? Are you ready to leave Litchfield?

It’s not true! Not at all. I think that’s crazy! ‘Cause I think now with social media , I think things can get misconstrued and then that’s totally not what I was saying. What we do know is that the show has seven seasons, and I was just saying I’m totally excited to finish those seasons out, but where I will end up after that, I have no idea. I would love to stay with this show, but I’m also excited at the possibilities of getting to tell other narratives, which I have been so blessed to still do while being on the show. I did a year on Broadway with “Color Purple,” and guest-spotted on a lot of shows in between, even on Netflix. So I’m not leaving! I am there!

What did it mean to you to have Samira Wiley come back so you could have that flashback scene with her?

Oh, man. That was just a moment that I will never forget. As we documented our last time together in Season Four, by taking a photo, and for her to return, and me getting to be with my girl, it was very exciting. It kinda made me so excited that there were moments when I forgot my lines. I was excited to live in the moment. And it’s weird going further than where we started. It was also weird for me to now be introduced to this new part of who they are, this new storyline, this new moment that I didn’t know that existed is now here, but starting farther back than where we met them. So it was kinda tricky mentally to go back that far. Right now it’s so deep into Season Five, and we lost her. She’s dead. They’re completely different people. And so to go back to that mindset was hard. It was hard, cause they changed so much. But I love Samira, and I’m really excited for her getting to spread her wings and show all of what she’s capable of doing, shining on “Handmaid’s Tale” and all that. It’s that cool.

It was heartbreaking to see the memorial that Soso built for her get destroyed. 

Yeah. It’s been quite interesting, the dynamics between Soso and Taystee. When you’re grieving, people have all different ways of doing that, but especially when you see in the course of three days, it’s so compresses. So you see these two people in two different directions, one is fighting for justice, and another one who is just like, “I could die tomorrow and be fine, cause I’m so depressed and upset and sad because of this death.”

But to see such beauty come out of such devastation — kudos to the writers for finding a beautiful moment like that. I really loved that, too, with her character so immersed in books. And then both fighting out, fighting for who knew her more.

Of course Taystee does win at the end of the day. It just was that reminder that life sucks. Life is hard. Nothing’s gonna hit you harder than life. But there’s beauty that can come from it. And I feel that same way again with what’s going on in our world, as messed up as it is, I think there’s reasons for everything. And I think that we as people can find the beauty in the most devastating and heartbreaking moments of our lives, and I think we have to continue to fight if blood is still pumping in our veins, I feel like that’s part of the purpose of life, to continue to try that.

Is there one question you have for Jenji going into next season?

That’s a good question. I guess the first question is, “Where do we go from here?” The other questions are like, “Will Taystee live?” I think for me it’s just like there’s so many questions that I want to know, of all these girls, will Taystee find her true justice? And I don’t know. Also, where are we going? Literally, where are we going? I don’t know. What’s our way out? What is the way out? But all I do know, it’s gonna bring so many challenges for us as actors. For them to go as far as they have has been what every actor dreams of, getting to show so many different layers and colors of what’s in your tool box. And I’m like, “Damn.” I am excited to see what I am capable of as an actor, because I know whatever material they give us is gonna be hard, and not easy to deliver.

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