Success right out of college came as a shock to Danielle Brooks. “I thought this ain’t going to happen until I’m 40, 45. I thought I was going to have this Samuel L Jackson story,” the “Orange Is the New Black” star told Variety‘s TV Take podcast.
Brooks landed the role Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson in “Orange is the New Black” in 2013, two years after graduating from Julliard. Initially, the actress had her reservations about the role. She didn’t want to play a “stereotype.” When first reading the script she saw a character she described as a “black woman in prison and she’s sassy.”
But as she read more, she saw the depth in the character. “You’re reading and what they’re asking of this character and bringing out of this woman were things I’ve never seen before,” she said. She didn’t want to be that “one person of color” or “just that sassy black woman.”
Brooks had to adjust to overnight fame. “Literally when that show dropped, 13 hours later I had become famous,” she said. She quipped, “I feel for those ‘Stranger Things’ kids.”
On set she formed a tight-knit community. She recalled an experience coming to set and expressing disappointment to an “Orange is the New Black” script supervisor in a music video she had just shot for her song “Black Woman.” Immediately, the script supervisor rallied crew members to help Brooks out with a reshoot. She said, “They [lent] me their services for free to shoot my first music video. That’s just a testament of community. I’ll forever be appreciative of that moment.”
Brooks began her career in theater and often returns to the stage. She discussed starring in a Shakespeare in the Park production of “Much Ado About Nothing” while several months pregnant: “Carrying a child, especially when you’re doing Shakespeare in the Park, when you’re out in the elements in the rain, you have to do a show come rain or shine. It’s cold one day its hot [another]. You got bugs in your face. You’re going up steps. My feet are swelling. I’m tired. I can’t breathe. But my baby just reminded me it’s not that deep. Enjoy it, have fun, breathe, take care of yourself. I think really truly the beginning stages of motherhood got me through being the lead of this production.”
And what of the future for Brooks? “I pray for longevity, number one, past 30, 40, 50. Second of all, I want to break barriers. I want people to relate to me, to say Danielle Brooks did that in the same way I look at Queen Latifah’s career or Octavia Spencer’s career or Viola Davis. I’m like these women broke barriers and that’s what I want to do.”
She concluded, “I want to stay true to the fact that there are millions of millions of black women out there that have millions and millions different stories and I want to be a vessel for them.”