‘Orange is the New Black’ Star Danielle Brooks on Next Season, Sexual Assault and the Importance of Inclusive Casting

Danielle Brooks Variety Facetime Interview
Weston Wells for Variety

“Running around” is how Danielle Brooks, star of “Orange Is the New Black,” describes her life at the moment. It’s understandable: Not only is she in mid-production for season six of Netflix’s hit show, but she’s also doing ADR for another show she’s working on, planning the launch of her clothing line, and modeling as well.

Why did you decide to get into designing?

It just made sense. For the longest time, I’ve been preaching about brands and designers designing for plus-size. And I just got fed up and tired of trying to convince somebody I’m worthy of wearing clothes that I think are hot. Why don’t I just design my own stuff? I just wanted to be active about it and not wait for someone to get with the program.

Last season of “Orange” ended on such a cliffhanger. How does this season of “Orange” compare?

This season is different for sure. Coming off last season’s finale, there’s no up from there. There’s nowhere you can go that’s a positive. So you’re definitely going to see all of the girls trying to figure out how to get out of this rabbit hole they’ve created. Who is loyal to whom? Who is standing alone? Who is motivated by their own personal will to get out of prison? Who lies and who tells the truth? All of that stuff will come out this season.

Last season was such a showcase for your role as Taystee. How is she doing now?

Last season was just a joy to sink my teeth into some really great material. This season I don’t know where it’s going to go. She’s still dealing with being depressed in a very isolated way. All I know is that her purpose is to still find justice and the truth. I think she is really a believer in the truth will set you free. But the way in which Litchfield works, I don’t know if things still look good in her favor.

Showrunner Jenji Kohan always manages to weave politics into her stories. Fair to say, given everything that’s in the news, we’ll see more of the same?

Right now everyone is talking about sexual assault in Hollywood. That’s a subject that “Orange” has tackled before all of this came out, with storylines like Pennsatucky and Dayanara, where the guards take advantage of inmates. I definitely think we will find parallels in the political climate of where we are now and the world we are creating this season. The writers, they don’t purposely say we are going to talk about this issue because it’s happening right now. But I do think it will still align. A big part of our show is talking about matters that are important and highlighting people that are voiceless, who don’t feel like they can use their voice. Our show will definitely continue to stick to that mission that we have.

Why do you think the show has lasted so many seasons?

I think it is cosmic. I’ve been saying that from the jump, it felt magical, this thing that we were creating. None of us knew how big this was going to be. I think because of that, because we didn’t have all of these expectations attached to show, we were able to, on every inch from crew to cast, go into it because we all love what we do. We wanted to be able to tell this story in the most honest way that we could. And the most realistic way we could. Because of that, people really responded to it. It’s really been a dream for my first major television show to be received in this way, and my character to be received in this way. I feel like I’ve learned so much.as a businesswoman, as an actor, through these six years. I feel like I’ve had a speed course in Hollywood because this is a show that popped out so quickly. I’m definitely a different person and actor that I was starting season 1. Six years later, the ways in my character has grown tremendously, the guts of who she is blossomed so much. I’ve also been able to take that journey as a person and as an artist. I’m not looking forward to the end of the road.

Does that mean season 7 will be the end?

I really don’t know. All I do know that we’re closer to the end than we are to the beginning. I’m really just trying to live in the joy and milk every minute of this little space that I’m in right now. I’m trying to embrace the middle stages of being in a show. Because I hear how rare it is from other people who have done this for a long time. To be in a show where you really love your castmates, where you really love the material you’re getting to bring to life, and you really love the producers and the writers. I hear that’s not always the case.

Is there one thing you’ve learned from playing Taystee?

There are so many things I’ve learned from Taystee. If you really listen to your character, she’ll give you something. Every season, I’m given something by her. I remember the first season Taystee had a line where she said, “I don’t think they’re ever going to take me seriously.” And I was feeling the same way starting out in this business. And what I learned from Taystee is that it’s not only that other people are putting us in boxes because we think that they know us so well and this is all they’ve seen of us. What she had given me was this sense of, I’m putting myself in that box. I am capable of doing this. When we first started, this was so new, this whole new world that I was introduced to. I was scared of messing up. But now, because of my character, she’s shown me through her growth, watching her blossom and really finding her person, stepping wholly into what she knows she’s capable of doing even though she might be held in this certain kind of circumstance where she can’t fully do it the way she knows she can, she’s still doing it. That was eye-opening to me. I am finding my voice and finding my person in the same way in which Taystee has in season five.

“Orange” was certainly a trailblazer in terms of inclusive casting. What has that meant to you?

I remember my first year of college, “Glee” came out and it was really exciting because I was like oh, there’s a black girl. But it still didn’t go the extra mile. It’s such a beautiful thing to be in a show and not be the only black girl. To be on this show where there are five, six women of color that are series regulars, we don’t feel like we have to fight each other for that one role. It’s really opening a lot of other eyes to see it is possible to tell a story like this without feeling like you could only have a token.

What do you still want to see for Taystee?

I’m still always curious about her real family. We’ve explored Taystee being a foster kid, and searching for her family. I always wonder, is she going to ever have some family members come by, a brother or an uncle or somebody try to reach out to her? We’ve never seen Taystee in visitation. I also want to know the future for her. Does she get out? Does she stay in forever? What happens to her once she has done her time? What will become of her? That’s something that I’m always curious about.

You’ve conquered Broadway, TV, and now fashion. What’s next on your to-do list?

Ooh, I want to do a makeup line! Just kidding. I want to challenge myself. It’s always been a fear of mine to step into a world that I didn’t spend countless years studying. I’m curious about being on the creative end of television or even film. I will probably forever call myself an actor first because that’s what I love. But at the same time, I don’t like waiting around. I don’t like waiting for permission. Waiting for someone to say Danielle could be great for this (role), that’s not fun for any actor. I want to be able to use all of my resources and what I have learned especially all of these creative women I’m surrounded with daily at “Orange.” Create my own stuff — that would be what I want to work on next.