When Danielle Brooks won the role of Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson on Orange Is the New Black, she wasn’t wearing any pants.
And you thought you couldn’t love her more.
Brooks nearly loses her breath giggling at herself as she recalled her pantsless audition to play the sassy solar flare of joy on Netflix’s breakout dramedy. Orange Is the New Black is about the eclectic inmates of a women’s prison in Litchfield, New York, where well-adjusted career woman Piper Chapman is sent to serve time for drug-trafficking charges from a decade earlier. Taystee’s first line to Piper is, “Gurl, you got those TV titties!” Taystee is the best.
That’s mostly because Danielle Brooks, the breakout actress of the show and one of the most refreshing and exciting new talents of 2013, is the best, too.
Shining bright in an ensemble already blinding with talent (look out for any combination of co-stars Brooks, Taylor Schilling, Laura Prepon, Natasha Lyonne, Kate Mulgrew, and Taryn Manning to score SAG and Golden Globe nominations this week) Brooks could be one of the biggest rising stars in Hollywood—she’s already been cast on the new season of Girls as the show’s first female black character. She’s just going to have to stop giggling first.
“I went in there with my hair cornrowed and changed right there—I took off my pants!” Brooks recalls about that audition, clasping her face in shock, either at the memory of the stunt or the fact that she’s telling a journalist about it over lunch. “I just really wanted to wear my mumu. So I just took off my pants. And then I was Taystee! I was like, let’s go! I’ll never forget that audition.” The giggle fit continues, finally abated with a gratified sigh. “I think that’s the most in-depth I’ve ever told that story.”
Everyone loves a Cinderella story, and Orange Is the New Black has a prison full of them. The show itself, created by Weeds showrunner Jenji Kohan, scrappily became the most-viewed of all the series streaming service Netflix launched during its ambitious original programming onslaught last year. That means it was streamed more than House of Cards, which had the pedigree of Kevin Spacey and David Fincher contributing to its buzz, and more than the revival of Arrested Development, which had seven years of rabid fans quivering with anticipation of its return contributing to its buzz. The pre-buzz on OITNB (which was really more of a dull hum): what is this show?
It’s a show that, proudly adhering to the spirit of Netflix, was specially brewed for excessive binging. An unflinching cocktail that mixes the bleakness of incarceration with the signature Weeds-like zaniness of Jenji Kohan, OITNB makes a harsh first impression, but goes down easy once the warmth of the family dynamic forged among the show’s inmates kicks in. It’s that warmth that leaves you drunk with love for Brooks’s Taystee.
“One of the notes that the casting director gave me was that Taystee is very lighthearted,” Brooks says. “Her demeanor isn’t mean. She’s not just being ugly when she says thing like ‘you got those TV titties.’ That’s what made me really cling to her. She wasn’t the stereotypical black girl, ‘I’m a gangster.’ She has a light spirit to her.”
You could say the same of Taystee’s creator.
Danielle Brooks giggles a lot. She giggles as she offers me a piece of the margherita pizza she ordered for lunch. She giggles after she unconsciously sings along to the Ray Charles tune playing over the restaurant’s radio. She giggles when she talks about the OITNB cast’s plans to hit the town for co-star Dascha Polanco’s birthday this weekend. And once during lunch she cried.
She may be one of Hollywood’s freshest gems, a seasoned New Yorker after six years of living in the city, and a fast-talking, combative prisoner on TV, but she’s still just a southern girl from a religious family.
Her mother is a minister, her father a deacon. Both are fine with the fact that their daughter made her debut to the world topless on OITNB, playing a character with an impressive vocabulary of four-letter words. Her dad asked her to walk around the mall with him last time she was home because he’s so tickled when fans recognize her.
“It’s prison, it’s not peaches and cream,” Brooks says, reconciling the subject matter with the morals she was raised on. “It goes there. It was challenging for me, but at the same time, if I’m not willing to play characters that are flawed, why am I doing this?”
She was born in Augusta, Georgia, and raised in South Carolina. She sang lead on her first song, the gospel standard “I Won’t Complain,” in church when she was just 6 years old. She attended South Carolina’s Governor’s School for Arts and Humanity for her final two years of high school, a performing arts school instrumental in getting her to Julliard, pantsless in that audition room, and then into our lives as Taystee.
“I didn’t know a damn thing about Julliard,” Brooks says—you guessed it—giggling. But she knew that past alums of Governor’s, including Sleepy Hollow’s Nicole Beharie and Tony-winner Patina Miller (Pippin), had gone there. “All I knew that all the black girls were getting in! So I was like, what is it with this place?”
She auditioned with monologues from August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson and Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. She got in, and a year later was in New York, where she didn’t like how cold it got. At school, she befriended Samira Wiley, who plays OITNB Poussey Washington. Last Sunday they went to a football game together, greeted by sporadic choruses of “It’s Poussey and Taystee!” from other fans.
The recognition is nearly constant now, but it wasn’t always that way. Brooks was out of town doing press before the launch of OITNB when billboards and posters were plastered, over night, all over New York City. She schlepped to the 42nd Street subway station to see the ad featuring her own mug on it that her friend tipped her off was displayed at the stop.
“I was like, ‘Oh my god, it’s here!’” she says, finally seeing the poster for the first time. “I asked someone to take a picture of me and they didn’t know it was me. I was literally pointing at the picture of myself. I mean the show hadn’t come out yet, but if you see someone who likes the person in the poster asking for a photo in front of it, I mean c’mon!”
Such cluelessness will probably never happen again. OITNB comes back in 2014—not soon enough—with Brooks upgraded to series regular. She also booked a much-publicized role on the new season of Girls. She’ll be the show’s first female black character, a big deal as the series’ lack of such diversity ignited a firestorm of controversy during its first season.
Brooks got the part the old-fashioned way. She auditioned, and wore pants.
“I was terrified,” she says. “I was trying to center myself because I knew Lena Dunham was going to be there and I’m a huge fan of hers. She walked in and I looked up and I was like, ‘This is really happening right now.’ I took a moment. I breathed.” Then Brooks stops breathing. Her eyes start welling tears and her voice cracks, barely able to get the next few words out. “I’m so sorry,” she says, tears streaming down her face. “Sorry. I’m just so grateful. I feel like every five seconds, it’s something else that I’m just like, really, me? But then…why not me?”
She takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry. Please don’t say, ‘Danielle’s a big baby,’ ok? Because I’m such a big baby.”
And you thought you couldn’t love her more.