'Orange Is the New Black' Star Danielle Brooks: Season 5 Illustrates "What Justice Really Looks Like"

The actress behind this season's leading voice tells THR her interpretation of the 13-episode fight and how it ends.
Courtesy of Netflix
Danielle Brooks (with Uzo Aduba) in 'Orange Is the New Black'

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

The most shocking moment of Orange Is the New Black came with last season's murder of Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley). But its most heartbreaking moment was when her best friend, Taystee Jefferson (Danielle Brooks), fell to the floor in grief beside her.

In the finale of the fifth season, Taystee elicits a similar catharsis in viewers. Her knees give out for a second time and she succumbs to the pent-up emotions that have been swirling since she lost her chosen sister and, in response, demanded a prison-wide fight for justice.

The fifth season (now streaming on Netflix) only takes place over three days — and picks up right where last season left off — but in that short amount of time Taystee cycles through the stages of grief. After inciting the uprising that courses through the 13 episodes, she runs the prison negotiations, leading the charge for better conditions for her inmates and seeking to right the wrong that was done to her fallen friend. Namely, she asks for the arrest of the guard, Bayley (Alan Aisenberg), who killed her. In the end, when she gets every demand but that one, she refuses to cave. That decision greenlights the waiting riot police to storm the prison, ultimately putting 10 of Litchfield's inmates in danger during a cliffhanger finale, and killing head guard Piscatella (Brad William Henke) in the process.

"I’m very proud of my character, to be honest. I feel like she has chosen to not give up on life," Brooks tells The Hollywood Reporter of the guilt her inmate could be carrying around for setting the riot in motion. "She’s pulling herself up by her bootstraps and fighting and I admire her a lot. She’s not always right but boy does she try to do her best and that’s what I hope as a citizen too, is to at least do my best."

Below, Brooks takes THR behind the most emotional scenes she filmed this season, speaks on behalf of Taystee for the decisions she made amid her pursuit for justice and warns of what the future might hold when viewers see her return in season six.

When the season first opens, Taystee is screaming at Daya [Dascha Polanco] to shoot Humphrey [Michael Torpey]. At this point, what is going through her head?

"How far will you dare to go when you have nothing to lose?" They don’t have anything to lose, especially Taystee. Basically, everyone that she has been so close to is gone. She does still have Black Cindy [Adrienne C. Moore] and Suzanne [Uzo Aduba], but she’s not thinking straight. I remember last season when Taystee was talking about Soso [Kimiko Glenn] overdosing and says, “I have seen death before. I know what death is. This isn’t death.” She’s seen everything, over and over, but now the other part of her heart is gone. She’s not holding anything back. Taystee set off the grenade and tossed it off to Daya.

What did you learn about Taystee through her flashback this season (which also showed when she first met Poussey)?

Litchfield is her home. This is her family. She’s going to fight for that and what I love about my character is that she's choosing to fight instead of die. Especially seeing that parallel with Soso, who goes the other direction and feels like she’s going to die tomorrow. Instead, Taystee says, “No. We have to keep going.” It’s the natural-born leader in her that wasn’t taught, because as we see in her flashbacks and what we know from the other seasons is that she’s never had anyone to guide her through this journey. Everything that she’s learning is in the system. 

How is the burning of the Cheetos and Takis bribe in that same episode a turning point for her?

I had been waiting for a set-it-off moment and that was so satisfying, but there are so many turning points. From all of the gun shifts and power plays going on, to any time someone is in or out, whether that’s a guard or an inmate. We shot the burning of the bribes the same day we shot Taystee and Poussey's flashback, so Samira was on set for that scene. Having her back on set was pure joy. Lauren [Morelli] wrote that episode and I love everything she writes. I remember it actually being a little hard to remember my lines that day, I think because I was so excited about working with Samira again. I couldn’t stay focused.

In the episode before that, Taystee says Poussey's name in her speech to the press and decides to announce the demands herself, instead of using Judy King (Blair Brown). What does that decision mean to you? 

I appreciate the way they wrote it where Taystee had to speak about the situation and did not allow Judy King to speak in that moment. It’s important to highlight that we do have a voice. We can say something and be heard and be effective as women, as black women, as people that live in poverty. We briefed Judy on what to say but when the moment finally came it was like, "No. You need to hear my voice. You need to hear my pain and my perspective." Seeing how Jenji Kohan, who has so much acclaim and who still had to sort of fight her way through to launching Orange through Piper's story to now, this is the moment where we are saying, "No, we’re going to put the Trojan horse aside and we’re going to speak." That was very powerful. 

I think that’s what makes a person an artist, in a way, and not just an actor: When your storytelling is saying something to the world and people are actively doing something, too. Giving a voice to those who don’t have one, or feel like they don’t have one. That is something that is helping all of us to be specific about the roles we choose in the future. In the beginning, I can only speak for myself but I feel like for a lot of us, we did need a check. I had to figure out how I’m going to pay my rent. So I said, "Yes, I will play this inmate. I have no idea if this was will be a stereotype or not, but I have to eat." But now, we have this beautiful opportunity because this show, I believe, has been so influential to storytellers and creators of TV shows. It’s showing that you can tell a story that is radically moving us forward and that will effect change.

What was it like for you to actually film that speech?

The research for the scene was easy because it unfortunately is so relevant to what we’re going through in this country. I watched clips of Philando Castile’s girlfriend after he was dying in the car and his baby girl is in the back. You get flashes of things that happened so close to when we actually filmed it, so you can’t help but feel, be empathetic and want to give as much respect to what they were actually going through. At the time, I was also playing Sofia in The Color Purple on Broadway, in the time span of 1910-1940s, and there is a scene that is a symbolic moment of black women being knocked down by society. Here we are again in the 2000s dealing with the same issue. That Orange scene for me was a compilation of the past now meeting the present and it being too parallel.

You get the scripts as the season goes, so when you were seeing the first half of the season and Taystee’s negotiations, did you think she was going to get her win in the end?

I, Danielle, was hoping that Taystee would have a win because she’s been through so much. We’ve seen this girl be abandoned by her biological parents, be manipulated by someone she thought loved her [Vee, played by Lorraine Toussaint] and tossed to the side after winning job fairs and trying to do something with her life. So as an audience member and as the person playing her, I really wanted her to win. Especially after losing Poussey. But that wasn’t the case.

In the end, do you think Taystee did find justice for Poussey?

I have to say, I do feel like Taystee did win, in a way. Because I think she shows people what justice really looks like. If Taystee is really operating out of justice, she has to practice what she preaches. By the end of the season and that last scene with her, by choosing not to pull that trigger [and kill Piscatella], she did win because she’s not doing the same thing that was done to her. She is coming out on top and saying, “I want to end this. I don’t want to end it playing an eye for an eye. I just want Bailey to get what he deserves, I don’t feel like I have to add onto that by murdering another life." It's her way of saying, “You’re not even worth me losing my character and what I really stand for in the fight that I have fought. You’re not worth that.” I feel like she won, internally. But externally? She did not.

This season brought us the second heartbreaking time Taystee is brought to the ground, wailing. How do you prepare for that?

We had to do it a few times because the camera angles were really challenging being in the pool. It was kind of technical, where I had to stand in relationship to Brad. But, oh man. When I’m given scenes like that, I have to remove Danielle and any hangup that I might have and get it out of the way. That is completely not about me. It has to become a moment where you really, truly are 100 percent vulnerable. You have to allow your whole being to just let go and not have any hangups about the result. You have to go on the ride, and I feel like that’s what it was. I have to allow Taystee to breathe through me. I know that sounds so actor-y, but I had to let her do her thing and give her the space that she needs. That’s what we end up seeing. But really, you almost blackout — in a healthy way. Danielle has to disappear that much.

How are you able to go that place for multiple takes?

I had the shots on me to do maybe four or five times. Then I also want to be there for my fellow actor so Brad can drop in as much as he needs to, and he does it a few times too. In total, we probably did this scene 10 times over and over. That’s how I work and I can speak for all my castmates because we are all that way. There are certain scenes you do that you can’t half-ass or give 50 percent. You have to give everything so the other person can do their best work. That’s what I mean about that blackout, you really have to get out of the way for however minutes or hours it takes so that the character you’re playing can do their thing and follow their objectives and go after their wants and needs.

How do you think Taystee will react when she finds out that after choosing not to kill him, Piscatella dies at the hands of his own riot men — is it poetic justice?

I think for her, it’s like the giant has fallen. The big bad wolf is dead. I think it will be a sigh of relief and that she will be able to take a breath that she hasn’t been able to take in the last three days. I don’t know how she’s going to swallow or handle it. I know that she will be happy that she didn’t do it and that, ultimately, a part of that justice was still served without her having to have blood on her hand. The thing about all of this as we have seen in the past five years is that when you’re incarcerated and not even seen as human, things can turn really quickly. People can blame people and point fingers and do all sorts of things, so I’m not sure how it’s going to play out for Taystee, nor am I quite sure how she’s going to take it.

They put themselves in such a dangerous position, even from the beginning. I’ve always felt that for somebody to haven enough in them to start a riot, you have to be willing to die. There’s nothing there for her to lose, but now she has this gang of women that she really does believe their agendas are all one and all on the same playing field. Everybody has come back to why we did this in the first place. Throughout the three days, everyone has had their own agendas, but now I feel like Taystee trusts that she has this tribe of women that are going to support her and that she is also going to support in whatever battle they have to fight in episode 13.

The cliffhanger ending is certainly not a happy one. Why is it important to sacrifice the ending viewers may want in order to tell a larger story?

It reminds us of how far we have to go as a society. We have a lot of work to be done. Taystee not getting justice when it came to Bailey was a reminder that that still happens. We look at all these situations when it comes to police brutality and the indictment numbers and how many people are let off. How many officers are given a slap on the wrist. We have a long way to go. We’re going to keep fighting that and still tell those stories until things shift. I like it that way because we continue to hold that mirror up to society to say, “Look at us.” When are we going to get on one accord and band together? Prison is a great setting to do that because of how reflective it actually is on so many levels: when it comes to how segregated we are as a people, how we treat people when it comes to class, how we treat transgender people, black people and immigrants. I think people get it. People are so invested in these fictional characters, like Poussey, but forget that the whole reason we’re talking about this is that it’s actually happening. But I do feel like it’s opening peoples’ eyes. That’s the beauty of having an international show. People all around the world are seeing the things that really matter to us in America and what we’re dealing with as a society. 

Prison riots don’t end well and given Taystee’s leader role, she could get punished more than others. How do you think she would handle having to be separated from her family and her home at Litchfield?

I really couldn’t tell you. At this point, I think Taystee would strive so much more being with those women, but I don’t know who is going to be isolated. I don’t know if Taystee will be isolated from everybody and what affect that will have on her feeling like she spun this whole thing and started it. She set off the grenade and now she’s alone. If anything, I would pray for my character to at least still have Crazy Eyes or Black Cindy or somebody, even Piper (Taylor Schilling). I think she’s going to need to have someone to take the next step with.

What do you know about the sixth season at this point? [Orange has been renewed through season seven.]

I know nothing. They don’t tell us anything. We didn’t even know the show was coming out June 9 until everyone else did!

What is most important to you about this show now five seasons in?

This cast is an incredible, phenomenal group of women to work with. What I’ve learned in the five years of being in this cast is what I want to take into whatever show that I do — how we treat each other as women in this business. It is possible to be in a show with so many women and to allow each other to shine and to celebrate each other, like Samira, for getting new shows and Diane [Guerrero] for writing books and seeing Laverne [Cox] killing it during this past pilot season. I appreciate these women showing me the standard I want to hold throughout my career and how I want to work with people. It’s important to highlight that the sisterhood is real and I think that’s what helps us to do our best work. 

What do you want to see for Taystee in season six? Tell THR in the comments and keep up with Live Feed for cast interviews and full Orange Is the New Black coverage throughout the week.

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