'OITNB's' Danielle Brooks on Shifting Gender Roles, Breaking Size Barriers

"I don’t want to be limited because of my size," said the 'Orange Is the New Black' star of her hopes to make labels extinct.
Danielle Brooks, Jessica Henwick, Kate del Castillo

Growing up, Danielle Brooks didn't have many onscreen role models to look up to.

“I was drawn to anybody that looked like me, and that meant fat and curvy,” the Orange Is the New Black star told reporters during a Netflix press event Wednesday. She could only name Moesha’s Countess Vaughn and Cinderella‘s Natalie Desselle. “It wasn’t many because at the time everyone that was plus-sized was of a different age group. They looked like me, and they could sing and they were chocolate and had curly hair, so I thought, 'I want to find a way to do what they’re doing.'"

Now a series regular as Litchfield inmate Taystee on OITNB — the Netflix prison dramedy releases its sixth season this summer — Brooks is a proud part of an ensemble cast that showcases female roles of all sizes and colors. 

When asked to define a kickass female role in 2017, however, the 27-year-old said TV still has inclusive hurdles to cross.

"Our definition of female and male is starting to shift," she said of more and more people who are identifying as gender fluid. "I hope in the months to come that we really expand the definition of what it is to be female because there are a lot of people out there who identify in different ways. If we hit on some of that as well, it could be really cool storytelling and a lot of people will feel like they see themselves in even more characters."

OITNB, with creator Jenji Kohan at its helm, features one of the most diverse casts on TV and broke barriers for the transgender community by catapulting Laverne Cox, and her incarcerated character Sophia, to widespread fame. 

When the cast picked up their third consecutive SAG Award for an ensemble in a comedy series in January, star Taylor Schilling highlighted that diversity in the face of President Donald Trump's immigration ban. "We stand up here representing a diverse group of people, representing generations of families who have sought a better life here," the actress said, as cast members shouted their countries of origin. 

Brooks, who earned a Tony nomination in 2016 for her Broadway role in The Color Purple, said it blew her mind to star on a series where at least four black women are series regulars.

"You don’t only have one white female lead, you have a Hispanic female lead, you have a transgender female lead, you have black female leads. Everything that I had seen, you only get one," she said. "It’s really shifted my view on beauty because coming into this business right out of school, I was very confused, thinking, “How do I wear my hair? Do I need to lose weight, do I need to gain weight? I can’t change my color, so that’s going to have to stay the same.'"

She added, "So to be on a show where they say there’s not one formula of what beauty is: You can have a hint of mocha-chocolate, you can have a hint of fatback, you can have a hint of pimples and zits, you can have that and it’s still beautiful because people are seeing themselves on TV, finally."

Still, Brooks says she'd like to see more female leads of different shapes and sizes.

"I don't want to be limited because of my size," she said. "I want to be the love interest. I want to wear makeup, I want to put on heels and put on my Spanx and look fabulous and have some man be doting over me. I want to be in a thriller movie. I want to be in an action movie. I can run up, stuff! I don’t want people to feel that I can’t do things or I’m not attractive because of that — that’s what I want to see.”

During the press event, Brooks was joined on the panel by four fellow Netflix female leads: Love's Gillian Jacobs, Ingobernable's Kate del Castillo, Marvel's Iron Fist's Jessica Henwick and Dear White People's Logan Browning.

While all five said TV still has strides to make in its future, the panel of women collectively agreed that the little screen is leaps and bounds ahead of film.

"Hidden Figures has surpassed La La Land as the highest-grossing Oscar-nominated film," said Jacobs, "so hopefully people will stop looking at that as an anomaly and more as an indication of the potential that there is."

Brooks replied, "And that’s the first time that three black women have been the leads in a movie — and this is 2017."

Watch the panel on strong female leads on TV below.