'Orange Is the New Black's' Danielle Brooks on the "Heartbreaking" Reality of Taystee's Fate

The actress discusses the real-life inspiration behind her powerful season six finale performance and worries about what it could mean for her character on the Netflix series.
Courtesy of Netflix
Danielle Brooks on 'OITNB' season six

[This story contains major spoilers from the entire sixth season of Netflix's Orange Is the New Black.]

Orange Is the New Black freed one prisoner while sentencing another to life at Litchfield — for a murder that she didn't commit.

Taystee Jefferson (played by Danielle Brooks) has never given up on the fight. Despite the odds being against her, the breakout Litchfield inmate has managed to stand up for what she believes in, and find reasons to smile along the way. But after losing her best friend Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley) in season four, only to fumble the riot negotiations that leave a target on her back in season five, the sixth season begins without so much as a glimmer of hope.

"When season six opens, Taystee is trying to figure out how to fight for herself when she doesn’t feel worthy or supported enough," Brooks tells The Hollywood Reporter about the beginning of a devastating arc for the character she has embodied for six years. After being identified as the face of the season-five riot, Taystee is betrayed by one of her own and faces trial for the second-degree murder of corrections officer Desi Piscatella (Brad William Henke), who was killed by an officer in the riot. Despite backing from the ACLU and Black Lives Matter, the jury convicts her in a devastating scene — the finale, titled "Be Free," was directed by castmember Nick Sandow, who plays Joe Caputo, and sees the sound fade out as Taystee weeps about the unfair card she has been dealt. Brooks says of her character's unjust fate, "Everyone deserves to have the same privileges in life and that shouldn’t be valued by the color of your skin."

With Taystee returning to Litchfield just as leading inmate Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) is freed on early release, the contrasting cliffhangers leave OITNB viewers wondering what Taystee's future will look like when the Jenji Kohan-created series returns for its already-renewed seventh season. Brian Chamberlayne, who wrote the finale, tells THR that Brooks "doesn’t need to be too worried" about whether or not she will return. "She really does that character justice. My honest hope is that the audience will respond to the truth of that character and the truth of that situation," he says. "You want to tell the story that’s true to the world we live in. We talk about this a lot in the writers room — you don’t have a choice but to get a little heartbreaking at times." 

Below to THR, Brooks goes inside the filming of the devastating finale and discusses how the politically charged season mirrors reality. While Brooks refuses to give up all hope, she also compares Taystee's situation to the real-life tragedy of Kalief Browder. "We've seen Taystee bring such life to a dark place, and find laughter in her pain. It’s so heartbreaking to see somebody who can’t do that anymore," she says.

Going into season six, you were most concerned about Taystee being isolated and receiving harsher punishment for the riot. How do you describe Taystee's mindset when the season begins and she's in isolation in her cell?

She’s dealing with a lot of things. The fact that she has, once again, failed — or feels like she has failed. Her whole journey has been trying to do good! She’s trying to succeed. We have seen her try in so many moments throughout the series. Whether she’s trying to get justice for Poussey or run for president of WAC [Litchfield's Women’s Advisory Council]. We see her trying to win job fair, and that failed, and trying to get people to understand Vee [played by Lorraine Toussaint] and then Vee dies. Taystee is always trying to do the right thing  and things still just never fall into place. So, once again, here she is.

This is the biggest disappointment of her life at this moment, because she failed the most important person to her. We have to also remember that last season took place over the course of three days, so the fact that Poussey has died is still weighing heavy on her heart. She’s still grieving. And she's also worried about her fate. As we know, with every story there’s 100 different sides and with these girls, there are 1,000 different sides and stories. We’re going to see who is going to stay true and who is going to tell a truth for their own benefit. But I think at this point, Taystee is just more concerned with — is life worth living? Because: how can you try to do so much good, and better the world and better your community and fight for what’s right — and it still fails? It’s still not landing. I think that’s where we left off with her. Trying to figure out, why do we have hope? Why do we have faith? What’s the point in that?

The riot aftermath separates the more-privileged inmates from the rest. How do you compare Taystee’s post-riot situation to how black inmates are treated in reality?

Taystee has always been that character to parallel Piper. Even from season one. They had a scene together when all the head honchos of each dorm are getting donuts and Piper says to Taystee, “Why are you okay with just getting donuts? We should be fighting for real shit.” And Taystee is like, “Girl, that doesn’t work for my world! That’s not how it works for people that are brown and people that are poor. You just kind of have to appreciate the card you are dealt and take what you can get.” So I think Taystee has always had that outlook, until it really hit home. [Chamberlayne also called out the hair salon scene in episode 11 as the biggest Piper-Taystee parallel.]

Jenji and the writers have been so courageous and just on point when it comes to telling a very truthful story in showing how that’s really the case for so many people that are incarcerated. Any one of us can be in prison. Any one of us can make a bad move or a bad choice — that doesn’t mean that we’re not good people. But just like Taystee was saying in season five, about how the system is unfair for a brown and for poor people, that’s very true to the world that we live in as we’ve seen so many times, over and over, when dealing with police brutality and immigration and LGBT communities. There is a hierarchy in America in the way we deal with race and color, and it’s really refreshing to be on a show that is unafraid to make commentary about the world that we live in in hopes that people can see: Yes, we are different, but we’re so much alike. Everyone deserves to have the same privileges in life and that shouldn’t be valued by the color of your skin.

The last three seasons have featured pivotal moments that have left your character weeping. Where did you go as the actress when you filmed the moment that Taystee's guilty verdict is handed down? 

Luckily, I have been given these opportunities to really go there. Sometimes, you get a scene that is so parallel and close to who you are, and then there are other times where you have to rely on your training to help you through those moments that you might not relate as closely with. There was the moment when Poussey had passed away, then in season five when Taystee is holding the gun to Piscatella’s head and now this. I was actually really nervous about the scene of Taystee being found guilty, because that is so far removed from who I am. In all three of those situations, I had never experienced anything to even remotely understand the depth of someone who has to go through that. So, of course I did as much research as I could. YouTube is a great resource when it comes to watching people being convicted of a murder. There are so many different takes on that and for me, I have to remove Danielle completely. She has to be gone from the room, however long it takes for us to shoot. I have to let in whatever Taystee is feeling. You might have an idea of where it’s going, but I really don’t. I have to become the vessel for her and really play off of what’s happening in the room. I leaned on my director, which was [castmate] Nick Sandow and someone who I have a really great rapport with because, as Danielle, I don’t think I am helpful in that moment. I have put Taystee's shoes on and wear her heart, her lungs and her brain for those hours and see what happens.

How many times did you film that scene?

We did the scene several times. I’m grateful that Nick really allowed me to take that time and not feel rushed in that moment, until we got it. And the minute we knew that we got it was after Nick yelled, “Cut!” and the entire room of over 200 people applauded. I immediately started to cry, as Danielle now and not as Taystee. It made me feel like, “Ok, I’m doing this justice.” For all the people who have really gone through that. I felt accomplished in allowing Taystee to live in my body. That is not an easy thing, what we do as actors, to go to some of these places. And especially as a young actor, I’m learning so much. It’s been really cool to wear Taystee's cloak for six years and to grow as an actor through her. Every season with the writers and with the brilliant directors that we’re given; the script, my cast and my scene partners. I’m able to grow every year and I'm challenged every year. And that scene was this year’s challenge.

As Piper is released in a corporate windfall, Taystee is returned to Litchfield in shackles. How do you feel about Piper getting out on early release, especially when compared to Taystee’s fate, and what do you think it means for the future of the show?

As far as the future of the show, I have no idea what it means. I think I never do. As we’ve seen, characters can come in and out. We’ve seen flashbacks and we’ve seen people out of prison and how they’re living life out of prison. So, I really have no idea which direction the writers will take for season seven. As far as how I feel about Piper getting out, I think it’s a reminder to the audience of how much work we have to do as a society on really caring for our fellow man. How privilege does play a huge part in a massive society. It’s that commentary reminding us just how much we devalue people that aren’t like us and how much we throw them away. We forget that they are just as valuable in their skin tone as anyone else. Because, it really is not just the color but it is also class. I get reminded of that when watching the Netflix documentary 13th by Ava DuVernay about just how messed up the world is and how we have to really pay attention to where our dollars are going and which companies we support. Because even though we might think that we are people that are forward-thinking, sometimes the smallest of actions that we make really do affect an entire community. I think that ending is a reflection of how far we have to go as a society.

Taystee has always shifted from hope to hopelessness. But now she's returning to Max with a life sentence and her family, Cindy (Adrienne Moore), having betrayed her. If you say she was questioning faith in the beginning of the season, how scared are you for her future now? 

Jenji has not told me that the storyline is based off this character, but with Taystee's story this season I’m so reminded of Kaleif Browder. Nick Sandow produced the docuseries about him [Netflix' Time: The Kalief Browder Story] with Jay-Z. He is the young guy who was accused of stealing a backpack and ended up going to Rikers Island [for three years, where he spent two of those years in solitary confinement]. When he got out, everyone thought he was going to be OK, and he ended up committing suicide. That’s sort of where I feel Taystee is right now. Her headspace is not knowing if life is worth living. That’s just my outlook — I don’t know what’s going to happen. But she’s just gone through so many things at this point that I think she’s really battling: What is hope and what is faith and why do we have it when life just doesn’t throw us any love? And it’s heartbreaking because we’ve seen her in previous seasons have such joy while in prison. We've seen her bring such life to a dark place, and find laughter in her pain. It’s so heartbreaking to see somebody who can’t do that anymore. 

Did you give any input on Taystee's storyline this season?

No. I’m always fishing for information from the writers every time they’re on set. I didn’t have any input, but I wanted them to make sure that if we were going to have Taystee sitting around in the prison cell for a while, let’s really deal with what it is to be depressed and what it is to grieve. Let’s really delve into that. And they were already on the same page. I tend to let them do their thing because they’re super smart. They’re very open to hearing the things that we have to say, but they are going to do what they want to do anyway!

Caputo (Sandow) tried and failed to get the officer who actually killed Piscatella to come clean. Are you holding out hope that the truth will come out in season seven?

Hell, yeah. I hope to God somebody will tell the truth. Maybe that will be the hope. Maybe somebody will come out in season seven and say, “Hey, this is actually what happened.” Someone who actually has the power to change some things. But it doesn’t look likely that that would be the outcome. (Laughs.)

Blanca Flores (Laura Gomez) is dealt the other devastating finale blow when it's revealed that instead of being released, she is actually facing deportation. This season threw out its show timeline to place OITNB in 2018 and ended with the reveal of an immigration detention center. What do you hope viewers take away from all the injustice that season six exposes?

I’ve always said, looking through the lens of my character, that there’s always something to do. We see someone like Taystee who started this riot — she was incarcerated, just lost her best friend and had no resources, and yet she really tries to get justice. She found a way for the politicians and the corporation to try to meet some of her demands. She found a way to reach the news and make some news for things that mattered for her. That’s what I take away from her. A lot of people think, “Well, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where to start, I don’t have the resources.” If you look at Taystee, it shows how there’s always something you can do. It might not reach the masses, but even if you can touch one life, then your job on this earth is done. I’m just glad that this show is so international and that it reaches the smallest neighborhood to the big major cities, because sometimes it can take a show to make people realize — to wake up and understand what’s going on in the world. 

What do you hope to see with Taystee's storyline in season seven? Sound off in the comments, below, and bookmark THR.com/OITNB for more Orange Is the New Black season six coverage.