'Orange Is the New Black's' Danielle Brooks on Powerful Season 4 and What's Next: "It's War"

In an emotional chat with THR, the actress behind Taystee opens up about filming the end of season four and why the shocking events hit so close to home.
Netflix
'Orange Is the New Black'

[Warning: This story contains major spoilers from the entire fourth season of Orange Is the New Black.]

The devastating ending to season four of Orange Is the New Black shattered hearts over the loss of Poussey Washington, and then broke them all over again for her best friend Taystee.

In the penultimate episode of the Jenji Kohan-created Netflix dramedy, Poussey (Samira Wiley) was accidentally killed during a prison-wide protest. The black inmate choked for air under the weight of a white guard (Alan Aisenberg) in a gut-wrenching and provocative scene that ended with Taystee (Danielle Brooks) collapsing to the ground in agony next to the body of her lifeless friend.

During an emotional chat with The Hollywood Reporter, Brooks found herself choking up several times while discussing the episode and its parallels to the death of Eric Garner and the Black Lives Matter movement as a whole.

"It’s so crazy that I’m crying, because we actually get to keep Samira," Brooks tells THR. "Samira’s still with us. There are a lot of people from very similar situations that are not."

Rattling off the names of many black victims who have ignited the movement for change, including Garner, Sandra Bland, Natasha McKenna, Trayvon Martin and Freddie Gray (on Thursday, Baltimore police officer Caesar Goodson was acquitted), Brooks said the scene hit close to home on two fronts: her connections to the issues — she's the one who organized the cast to march for Garner in NYC — and her love for Wiley.

"I'm an actor, I went to school for this," says the 2011 graduate of Juilliard's drama division. "But acting out the scene over and over and over again is not an easy thing to do. There’s nothing like having to imagine losing someone like that in that way — especially with everything that’s going on in the world that we live in."

On top of the all-too-real parallels, Brooks, now 26, had to grapple with the fact that her friend was leaving the show. The on-screen best pals have been close since they were teenagers, with Wiley graduating a year ahead of Brooks from Juilliard.

"Just looking at Samira, seeing her on that ground and imagining my friend, who is really my friend, not being with us, it brought me right where I needed to be," she says. "After we shot the last shot, I just held Samira for a very long time."

Wiley told THR that she knew about the storyline for more than a year — the episode was written by her real-life girlfriend, Orange writer Lauren Morelli. She was instructed to keep the news under lock and key, but she specifically asked for permission to tell Brooks before the scripts were sent out.  

"I’m glad I had a moment to digest what was going on," Brooks says about a dinner that also included season one regular Uzo Aduba (Crazy Eyes), and as Wiley recounted, lots of wine. "I am going to miss my friend on the show [crying] but I’m really excited for her to blossom and see where the rest of her career goes. We were just shooting season one, episode one and it reminds you how quickly this process is moving and that at some point, this is all going to end. So I’m really just trying to take in every moment with all of my girls and getting to tell stories like this that mean something."

Still, the heads up didn't make filming Poussey's death any easier. The final scene called for the entire Orange cast to be on set, something that hadn't happened since the early days of the series, and was shot by a first-time Orange director: Mad Men's Matthew Weiner.

"We took it very seriously, there was no playing around that day," Brooks says of the usually rowdy vibe. "I remember telling Matt, ‘I have to tell you, there’s only so many takes of this I can do. So let’s do it. No holding back, when you say action, I’m giving you everything I got so make sure everybody’s ready.’ "

When it came time to film Taystee's agonizing reaction — the moment garnering the most emotional of social media reactions from fans — Brooks said they did two takes and thought they got the shot. The Tony-nominated actress had to ready for a performance that same night as her other character, Sofia in Broadway's The Color Purple, and she was already moving "into another headspace." But then Weiner told her the camera was blurry and they needed to do one more take.

"I remember taking a walk with Lauren [Morelli] and just taking a second," she says. "I took a minute to collect myself and get back into that world. I kept checking in with Lauren and Jenji because I wanted to make sure that they were really feeling every emotion that someone like that would go through." 

The reaction to Brooks' performance and the episode was swift and has continued to pick up momentum since the series' June 17 release, as Orange viewers continue to mourn the loss of a fan favorite and applaud the powerful story her death is aiming to tell.

"That’s why it was so important to unfortunately lose a character like Poussey — people pay attention to that," says Brooks. "I want us as a country to be just as invested in real lives as we are in fake characters. I'm really glad to be a part of a cast that is so active in the world that we live in and I do feel like we have an impact."

Brooks recalls a moment in the series that sums up that message when, in episode 10, Piper says: "This isn’t other peoples’ shit — it’s all of our shit."

"It’s not just a Black Lives Matter thing: we all have to fight this war on hate together," she says. "The structure of Orange is that you're learning about people who you consider to be criminals on a deeper level. You learn who they are and why some of them have committed these crimes and you realize, 'Damn, I probably would have done the same thing.' We need to find a way to bring that into situations with the real people we've lost and understand that there’s more to people than meets the eye."

After digesting the powerful episode, the finale ended on a cliffhanger, with the entire prison banding together in a riot to protest the injustice of Poussey's death and overall brutality from the new guards. The season's final moments, which sees Daya (Dascha Polanco) pointing a gun at one of the guards, have many asking: Where will the show go from here?

"It's war," says Brooks. "Taystee has nothing to lose, she’s lost everything that she cared so deeply about. It’s time to fight. I think — I don’t know! — but I think that’s where we will see Taystee go."

When Orange, which has been renewed for seven seasons, begins production on season five next week, Brooks will continue to pull double duty for the next few months as she films Orange during the day and The Color Purple at night until her run ends on Broadway.

"You see Taystee in the beginning as someone who is just full of light and love," she says. "Then she lost her 'mother' Vee and had no explanation of how she died, while she's also watching out for all of these women. Now she's seen the death of her closest friend and has no justice for that."

She reiterates: "It's war."

Season four of Orange Is the New Black is streaming now on Netflix. Follow all of THR's OITNB coverage, including more interviews with the cast, here.

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