Off Script: How Danielle Brooks Impresses Oprah and Inspires Women in 'The Color Purple'

Danielle Brooks with the Off Script-H 2016
Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions

The Tony nominee, known onscreen as Taystee in 'Orange Is the New Black,' uses police brutality, prayer and balloon animals to play the fiercely independent Sofia on Broadway.

“It’s happening! I have one of these!” Danielle Brooks tells The Hollywood Reporter, gleefully admiring her Tony nominee pin. The Color Purple actress, known onscreen as Taystee in Orange Is the New Black, earned her first nomination for playing the musical revival’s fiercely independent Sofia, the juicy featured role patented onscreen by Oprah Winfrey. THR's review said the Juilliard graduate lets “the humor and sensuality come naturally from this gutsy woman with her outsize presence. … Seeing this titanic character brought low by white brutality is soul crushing, and sharing in her reawakening, as she shakes off her physical ills with a salty chuckle, is cause for rejoicing.”

It’s a character arc that is as demanding as it is satisfying. Brooks, 26, goes Off Script with THR with her ripped-from-the-headlines inspiration, Oprah’s praise and the stage-door interaction that has moved her most.

What do you love most about playing your character?

Sofia gives women the hope to say “Hell, No!” to some things, and prioritize yourself. As actors, what we do is not easy, standing in front of 1,100 people every night and performing on four or five hours of sleep, hoping our voice is strong and that our brain doesn’t cut off and say, ‘I’m just not here today!’ But I love it. I get to sing the words, “All my life I had to fight,” and I think of all those times people wrote me off in auditions. I fought to be on this stage. I’m singing “Hell, No!” to my fears, insecurities, and all those natural, negative thoughts.

What’s your toughest scene?

The jail scene. You don't see her actually get beat up, but the book, it's described that her skull was cracked open, her ribs are cracked, she’s blind in one eye, and her nose is torn loose on one side. I don't have make up to help me; I have to use my imagination every night to bring that scene to life. Unfortunately I just think about what’s going on in the world – Sandra Bland, all these black women who have lost their sons to police brutality, the list goes on.

What new habits have you taken on for this role?

I’ve been trying to run a mile a day, and have done it for the last two weeks.

What have you given up to play this role?

Resting. I was doing Orange and Color Purple at the same time, and I’m about to get into that next month. No sleep for me.

Do you have a special ritual before the show?

I have to have an activity before the show, so I’m always coloring or making balloon animals, and listening to gospel music. You have to use your imagination when you see my animals.

Just discovered a new hidden talent: balloon making!!! Who would've known. #broadwaylife

A photo posted by Danielle Brooks (@daniebb3) on

What do you do when you’re not onstage?

I’m going over my lines! I’m one of those people who don’t stop working, when I’m onstage, I’m constantly working to stay in the zone. I rarely play backstage.

Favorite number you wait for in the wings?

I love listening to the first number. One of the church ladies do this nice “It’s Sunday morning,” and when she sings that, she holds the “Sun” for ages, and I just wait. The audience gets so excited, and once I hear that, I’m like, “Let’s go. Let’s do the show.”

When do you eat – before or after the show?

I eat before, or sometimes during. Chicken, purple cabbage, salad. Maybe fish. Chocolate.

Danielle Brooks and Kyle Scatliffe in 'The Color Purple.' Photo credit: Matthew Murphy

Do you have trouble sleeping?

Yes. A lot of times, I don’t go to sleep until two in the morning.

When do you wake up on a normal day?

I’m up around nine. I like to cook breakfast, but I don’t like doing the dishes afterward.

What do you do on your day off?

Press and photoshoots.

What’s something special that’s in your dressing room?

Anytime I do a theater show, I write a prayer and frame it with inspiring quotes like “Breathe,” “Fly” and “Remember, you own the stage.”

Favorite backstage guest?

Loretta DeVine, Octavia Spencer, Aretha Franklin. That one freaked me out in the best way.

Oprah Winfrey saw the show on Tuesday night. What has she said about your take on Sofia?

She said to me, ‘You found it and you really made it your own.’ It was her second time seeing it, and she asked how I made it deeper [since the first performance she saw]. It’s because I keep rereading the book. I think she was pleased!

Best show reaction so far?

This is the first Broadway show I ever saw, at 15 years old, so I am that girl seeing Felicia P. Fields, LaChanze on that stage [in the original 2005 Color Purple production], and them looking like me impacted me a lot. Last week, there was a black girl, curly hair, dark skin, plus-size, and she was bawling and said to me, “Thank you for letting me realize that I don’t have to change who I am to be on that stage.” That’s so moving, to know that you inspire people in the same way that you were once inspired.