'Orange Is the New Black' Star Danielle Brooks Opens Up About the Legacy the Netflix Favorite Leaves Behind

The star of Jenji Kohan's prison dramedy speaks to The Hollywood Reporter about her character's full-circle series journey and unpacks the message of Taystee's final scene.
Netflix
Danielle Brooks in the final season of 'Orange Is the New Black'

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

The first Litchfield inmate that Orange Is the New Black viewers meet is Tasha "Taystee" Jefferson.

Taystee, the character played by Danielle Brooks, serves as a prison introduction for both Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) and the audience when, in the very first episode of the Netflix series, the inmate sets the scene for Piper's new bathroom circumstances while in line for the shower. Seven seasons later, the prison dramedy ends with a full-circle callback to that moment as Piper narrates about living a "clean" life on the outside and OITNB leaves the audience thinking about Taystee on the inside. Once the screen fades to orange for the last time, the inmate who viewers first met singing in the shower will be spending the rest of her life in prison after a wrongful conviction.

But the series finale of Jenji Kohan's prison dramedy also helps Taystee rediscover her light. After seven seasons of experiencing loss and failing to seek justice for the murder of best friend Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), Taystee spends most of the final season contemplating suicide when facing the future she has been unfairly dealt: Her appeal for the second-degree murder of a corrections officer has been denied. In the end, the truth about the murder never comes to light and there is no justice for Taystee, her story reflecting injustices of the criminal justice system in America.

Against all odds, Taystee still finds hope amid the hopelessness and that final message is intertwined with the legacy OITNB is leaving behind. The final scene sees Taystee teaching a financial literacy class to fellow inmates and her storyline inspired Kohan and the writers to launch the real-life Poussey Washington Fund for criminal justice reform as a result.

For Brooks, filming Taystee's suicide attempt was the series scene she found most difficult to shake. But she hopes the audience is impacted by Taystee's journey, which has been elevated onscreen as the ensemble series has evolved. "I’m glad that the show was able to have Taystee find the light at the end of the tunnel, but for so many people it’s not the case and I think that’s why it was so heavy," the actress tells The Hollywood Reporter of the road to the end. "I hope that people view Taystee's final scene as a renewal of what she’s coming into now, and how she’s accepting this thing that she can’t change in a positive way and making it work for her."

Below, in a chat with THR, Brooks reflects on the seven-year story of Taystee — who has remained a key parallel to Piper all the way through to the end — and how a character who began with one scene has become the beating heart of OITNB as the series says goodbye.

When you first auditioned for the role of Taystee, you had some hesitations about her being a stereotype. What made you take that leap of faith? [Watch Brooks' audition here.]

When I first auditioned in 2012, I didn’t know anything about the story aside from that it was set in a prison and they were calling it a web series. The character was named Delicious, from [Piper Kerman's] book. I was well-prepared; I read the book. The description said not to wear any makeup and that she was wearing a muumuu. (Laughs.) I wore a long gray muumuu, braided my hair back and wore no makeup. It was a shower scene [from the first episode with Piper] and I like props, so I brought in a towel and did the scene and it felt good. I remember [casting director] Jen Euston saying before we started, "Don’t look at her as malicious in any way. She really is the joy and she finds joy in her circumstances." When she said that I thought, "This is perfect." That was how I already envisioned her because I never wanted to play a stereotype. When you’re starting out in your career, you feel at times that you don’t have many options. I had no idea this was going to change my life but, at the time, I felt like if this is what’s being presented to me, I’m going to make sure I don’t make this character a stereotype. I’m going to breathe life into who she could potentially be. The role was for two episodes.

Many had no idea how big your role would become and found out as you filmed. When Taystee got out on parole in season one, what did you know about her future on the show?

I didn’t know if she was coming back. At the time, I wasn’t a series regular so they were not telling me anything! I had done 10 episodes and made the most money I had ever made. We got a bump in the middle of shooting season one. I first started making minimum, which is a little less than $1,000 an episode, and I was making $5,000 an episode that first season. At the time, that was everything to me. 

How quickly did you realize you were a part of a phenomenon?

I almost didn’t take the job because I thought I had to be topless. At the time, I thought that was going to affect my career. I wanted to set what I was willing to do early in this industry. And not getting the script when we first started — I only got one side of the first scene for Taystee when we see her in the shower scene. We didn’t know what we were getting into. But we all felt good about the material once we saw the story coming together. And I always say that in the course of 13 hours, our lives changed. Because it only takes 13 hours for someone to watch the season and that’s exactly what happened. On July 12, 2013 [the day after the show launched], I remember coming from my apartment in Harlem and getting on the bus and people were asking for photos and saying, “Are you that girl?” There were so many of us that were starting out at the same time and just trying to navigate this new opportunity that had been opened to us on every level. There were also people who had been doing this for a while so we could pick their brain if we should be thinking about publicists, moving agents, getting a manager. But at the core, we all stayed focused on the work. At the end of the day, the story we were telling was more important than anything.

You were promoted to series regular for season two. But at what point did you feel secure and that Taystee was not leaving OITNB?

I don’t know if I ever felt secure on Orange. Because all of it was so new. I was still learning what the terms meant to be a series regular, to be recurring, to be a guest star. I had been out of school 10 or 11 months [when I got the role] and I studied theater. I knew the ins and outs of theater, but not TV. And I am smart enough to know that just because you’re a series regular doesn’t mean you are going to stay. It’s a prison — anything can happen! The only time I felt like they couldn’t get rid of Taystee is when Poussey died [at the end of season four]. Because Poussey is such a beloved character and Taystee is such a beloved character and they’re so close, they couldn’t kill Taystee off after Poussey. 

Poussey is a driving force for the rest of the series. The events surrounding her death impact Taystee and the entire show all the way through to the end. How surprised were you when you got the official word from Jenji Kohan that season seven would be the last season?

I remember rumors going around like, "Is this going to be it? I think it’s going to be it. Jenji told me it’s going to be it." It was like that schoolgirl game of telephone. It felt like that until when we were getting closer and everyone is trying to renegotiate their contracts that it became real. But, for me, it didn’t become real until Jenji called me to say that this was the end. I knew the call was coming. You can’t have a bunch of women who work together not talk to each other about what's going on! (Laughs.) But once the call came, I began to cry. You start to reflect on the beginning and how far you’ve come in these seven years. I was in the process of buying a house and got emotional thinking about when I first started Orange to now getting to buy my first home. That was also the first time she’s taken us through the arc of our character. I kind of didn’t want to know, because every time I got a script it felt like Christmas — every two weeks, getting a new gift you're so excited to open and read. I remember getting that final episode. I would always sneak into hair and makeup and try and read the scripts early, and that last episode I was like, "I don’t want to look at it!"

How did you feel about the series ending?

I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had done one more season. But I think it was smart to end it at seven. Seven is the number of completion and I think this show has done what it needed to do. It’s changed the way we view television in Hollywood; it trailblazed in that way. But it has also shown the capability of the power of shows and what they really can do for our society. In the same way that you watch Ava DuVernay’s When They See Us — even though it’s been years and years, it’s shifting people's lives and the world we live in. It’s the same with Orange. This show has proven that TV can be way more than just entertainment. We see that at the end with Jenji announcing the Poussey Washington Fund [in the series finale's title card].

The Poussey Washington Fund became a reality because of Taystee's storyline. How did you react when Kohan and executive producer Tara Herrmann took you through Taystee's final season arc? 

I had a sense of where Taystee's story was going. I knew it would possibly end that way and I think it’s because it’s the truth of how the world and the system has worked for women like Taystee. So I wasn’t shocked about the ending. I was shocked Taystee contemplated suicide.

What was it like to portray that hopelessness and Taystee's suicide attempt?

That was heavy to me and that was heavy to do. It was a difficult scene to get through. Even during the rehearsal, because we had to rehearse how I got into the contraption and how we were going to do it safely. I was harnessed into it and even that was difficult. To put a noose around my neck was uncomfortable on so many levels. I also thought how lucky the show was to have had women who could deal with this issue in a healthy way. I just did a movie, Clemency, that also talks about death row and is set in a prison. They had a psychologist on set for the actors. I’ve had to do a lot on Orange. There has been a lot of loss for Taystee. But her trying to commit suicide was the one moment I wish I had someone to talk to after. I had to walk around the set for 10 to 20 minutes by myself. We have great producers and they were looking for me and holding my hand and very attentive to my needs, but at the end of the day, people move on quickly and sometimes quicker than the actor might move through a very difficult scene. I am glad that I got through it. And I think it’s just this capacity for the character to maintain hope when faced with such irrational resistance, and to know that this is the case for so many people, especially black lives where their lives are not worthy of the truth and, in result, they submit to it. Taystee was able to hold onto hope a little longer. I’m glad that the show was able to have Taystee find the light at the end of the tunnel, but for so many people it’s not the case and I think that’s why it was so heavy. From that reality and actually acting through the motions from head to toe, from spirit to soul, that’s when it becomes overwhelming sometimes.

There is no justice for Taystee, but she does find that light from the very first scene. She sees the impact she made with Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) and she remembers wise words from Poussey. What was it like to have Samira Wiley return for that meaningful cameo?

I thought we were going to be able to film together or see each other in passing, but that didn’t happen. I was super bummed! She had recorded [the phone conversation] before I did, so I was able to hear her voice on the other end. That is also one of those things where you really have to cherish each moment. And to know that when it’s the last [scene together], it's the last. Everything must come to an end. As long as we enjoy the moments, when things do come to an end they won’t hurt as much. Luckily, all of these women will and can still have a place in my life. My baby is going to have a lot of aunties from Orange Is the New Black! [Brooks is pregnant with her first child.]

What was it like to find out that Taystee's legacy would be a micro-loans program in Poussey's name, and that it would become a real-life criminal justice reform fund to become OITNB's legacy?

When they told me about Taystee's arc, they said there was something else happening. Once I started shooting and was asking for more information, that's when they told me it was real. I feel very grateful that I get to announce it, in a way, through the storytelling. And I hope that other shows can follow suit. Orange has led the march in a lot of ways with shows taking risks and chances. Getting to hear about Pose starting the first transgender suicide hotline, those are things we should be doing with our artistry in television. It happens a lot with theater. It’s good to be on that side of TV where change is really happening and I’m grateful that Jenji and her squad put the fund together because it's truly going to change lives. Playing someone like Taystee is always reminding me that you don’t have to have all the resources. There’s a plethora of ways you can get involved. Even if it’s on a smaller scale and only affecting one or two people, you’re still effecting change for someone. I’ve always appreciated that lesson.

How do you want viewers to feel about Taystee after her final scene?

Taystee’s power lies in her ability to find the joy within her hardship and to use her street smarts to get what she wants. We see that when she is on the phone with Judy King (Blair Brown) and using that skill to hustle Judy into helping her to start this program. When we were getting ready for that last scene with Taystee teaching the class, I was supposed to wear the Taystee wig and it didn’t feel right. It felt like there was so much weight held in her hair. I had just cut my hair and I remembered that feeling of releasing and finding myself renewed again, and I felt like that’s what Taystee needed: she needed some kind of renewal. I asked Jenji, "Can we get rid of this wig? Truly, I feel like there is trauma in hair.” And she let me do it. I hope that people view Taystee's final scene as a renewal of what she’s coming into now, and how she’s accepting this thing that she can’t change in a positive way and making it work for her.

When you think about the end after reflecting on the beginning, you can see that Taystee has become the heart of this show. How does that feel? 

I never saw that. I heard it from people who watch the show, from press. But I never viewed it like that because I really do feel like I’m just a part of the whole. The character is a part of the whole. I do realize they are saying something by putting Taystee in the forefront. I appreciated that shift within our story to not only give me a platform but so many other black women on this show an opportunity to be more than just a recurring or guest star. They’ve always kept the parallels of these two women [Taystee and Piper] present. What we see in America is this struggle of really seeing the privilege and the difference, but this show allowed people to swallow that horse pill in an easier way because we also did it through humor. When I walk down the street in Brooklyn where I live, there are so many Taystees. And I’m just glad that people can relate to who she is without having to say, "I like this show, but I don’t see anyone like me on it." It’s been a privilege to be that vessel for so many women who see themselves in her.

You sing your OITNB-inspired song, "Seasons" over the end credits. What was it like to wrap the series on that note?

I wrote "Seasons" because I was grieving the loss of working with my castmates and wanted to honor what we’ve built together. I added as many girls as I could in the lyrics. There are so many references to the show that are a reflection of what we shared together. One of the lines is: "Seasons pass us by and we think that we have time, but here we are at the end. It’s hard to let you go, I miss you more than you know. And I won’t forget how you made me feel." And I got to sing that and look at everyone after seven years, including the crew and having Jenji there. I was the last person to shoot the final scene of Orange. Right after we took the cast and crew picture, I took the bullhorn from Jenji and told everyone I wrote a song for them. I really wanted to sing it, but I ended up sing-talking it because I was so emotional! (Laughs). But as music is supposed to do, it moved me and all of us that day. It was just a good closing moment. I had no idea Jenji and Tara would ask me if they could use it for the finale.

Lionsgate and Netflix both said they would love to talk to Kohan about a sequel if/when she is interested in having that conversation. Right now, she says she isn't. What are your thoughts on the OITNB world continuing?

It’s time for us all to spread our wings and see where we land. If we did a spinoff in 10 to 20 years from now, I think I would totally be down. I have no idea where I’ll be in my career. I am also in this mommy phase and I don’t know what that’s going to be like and how I’m going to feel. I’m just trying to stay in the present! I feel grateful. I feel a sense of gratitude that I’ve gotten a chance to show the world what I’m capable of and for someone to have given me an opportunity on such a large scale. When you watch that first episode and see that Taystee is the first one Piper is introduced to in prison; to have only that one scene in that episode and for it to have spiraled into seven years of bliss working on this show, I’m really grateful. I didn’t realize this show was going to allow me to use my voice as a platform, to grow into this character but also to grow into myself as an artist and activist. It has brought me so many opportunities and blessings. I’m grateful for the women who have surrounded me and who have helped me to grow, and I hope they can say the same from working with me. When I look back, I never knew I was going to get so many presents from the gift of doing this show.

Bookmark THR.com/OITNB for continuing season seven coverage of OITNB, which is streaming on Netflix.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.