Are you alive?
It’s the first question I ask Danielle Brooks, who plays Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson on Orange Is the New Black, and who plays a key part in the season five-ending cliffhanger that left viewers wondering whether she and nine other inmates—all pivotal characters in a series—would survive the storming of a police riot squad with permission to kill.
But the question is just as fair to pose to the actress herself, who filmed her standout role in the most recent season of the show—her most grueling and demanding season yet, in which she was ostensibly the show’s lead—while also performing eight times a week in the Broadway revival of The Color Purple, for which she was nominated for a Tony award for her performance as the steely, resilient Sofia.
“I’m alive! I’m still going, and I’m still smiling,” Brooks tells The Daily Beast, letting out one of those life-affirming cackles that has helped her imbue Taystee with the joyous spirit that instantly made her an OITNB fan favorite character when the series debuted in 2013.
After filming all of season four on a crazy Broadway-to-Litchfield schedule in which four hours of sleep had to literally be scheduled into her day, she pulled double duty again on season five for all but the last six weeks of shooting.
“It’s kind of crazy once you get your life back,” she says, laughing again. “I actually had to go to therapy for a little bit because I had so much time on my hands I didn’t know what to do.”
Exhaustion, it turns out, serves Brooks well. Her performance in season five of OITNB undulates between inspiring and devastating, as Taystee rises as a leader of a prison riot and takes over negotiations to ensure that justice is attained for the death of her best friend, Poussey (Samira Wiley), who was senselessly killed by a prison guard in the show’s previous Black Lives Matter-themed season.
“That’s also where Taystee was,” Brooks says. “She’s exhausted mentally and physically. So it really served me well to be feeling all those things I was personally feeling.”
But it wasn’t just exhaustion she called on to pull off her performance.
To prepare for Taystee’s big episode 5 speech explaining to the media why the prisoners are rioting—“Our fight is with a system that don’t give a damn about poor people. And brown people. And poor, brown people.”—Brooks explains that she watched speeches by Trayvon Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, and Diamond Reynolds, the girlfriend of Philando Castile, the unarmed man who was shot during a traffic stop while Reynolds and her young daughter watched helplessly in the car.
And to reckon with Taystee’s role in arguably the season’s biggest tragedy—that in her tunnel-vision pursuit of justice for Poussey, she ruined everything for the rest of the inmates at Litchfield—Brooks read Just Mercy: A Story Of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer who works to exonerate prisoners on death row.
Now that any true OITNB has likely binged through the season’s 13 episodes, we chatted with Brooks about everything: becoming leader of the riot, screwing over the other prisoners, and what we should make of the season-ending cliffhanger.
Let’s talk about that speech. It comes after last season’s storyline about race and privilege and brutality, and you’re fighting for justice for Poussey and to make sure they don’t forget. What did it mean to you to deliver that speech?
It was really hard for me to get through that speech. I remember telling myself, “It’s not about you, Danielle.” That’s what you see in that moment, I made myself push through it. The emotional moment where I had to stop, I wanted to say, “Cut.” I wanted to say, “Give me a second.” But it just felt the need to continue to go. Continue to speak through the pain. Because that’s what I think we need to do as a society.
What parallels to what’s going on in the real world did you think about?
The people who are hurting, we do need to continue to speak through the pain, just as Trayvon Martin’s mother has done and my grandmother has done. The thing that stuck out to me as a parallel to the society that we live in was Diamond Reynolds. She was Philando Castile’s girlfriend. I watched a lot of her speaking to the press. I watched how she was so eloquent and did it without talking about violence and without cursing. She just got her point across. Taystee isn’t letting Judy King speak for her because of her white privilege, and Diamond is also doing the same. She didn’t allow her lawyer to speak for her. I always thought about Diamond Reynolds and how strong she was in that moment, to say, “You will hear my voice, and you will feel my pain, America.” I thought about her and her little girl who was sitting in the back of that car. Watching all of that take place, you start to think about generations.
In what way?
For me, given I was playing Sofia in The Color Purple at the same time, I’m also thinking about past generations, too. That character’s story is based in the 1910s through the 1940s. I’m thinking about her and how society always found a way to knock her down. The strongest bird of the bunch, they clipped her wings. Now Taystee in this present time feeling the same way, and how that’s the same world that we live in.
There’s a certainly a nobility in what Taystee’s doing, stopping at nothing to get justice for Poussey. But in the end she sort of ruins everything for everyone because of that tunnel vision. How did that sit with you?
She fucked it up.
She did! But it was still a noble thing she was doing.
That’s a good question. You’re right, Taystee does have a noble pursuit. She has great intentions. She’s trying to do anything she can to get justice and get these demands, and she loses that. To some it might seem like a loss but I personally feel that Taystee won in the end. I think she realized and learned how to step into power and use her voice, and I think she learned what the true meaning of justice really is.
Interesting. So you think it wasn’t a loss, necessarily.
It goes beyond her not getting the demands. The reason I feel that way is because I’m reading this book called Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, who is a lawyer who helps people on death row. He says in this book—and I’m quoting it—“The true measure of one’s commitment to justice is how we treat the condemned, the accused, the disfavored, and the incarcerated.” For me, she had to practice what she preached by not shooting Piscatella. That was the true victory, saying, “You know what? I know you want me to stoop to your level but I’m not.” I’m not going to take an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. That’s not really what justice is. It’s our character, at the end of the day.
You also get to shoot a flashback scene with Samira Wiley. What was it like to, in the middle of a season spent living in so much pain over the loss of Poussey, have this brief reunion with the character you’ve been mourning this whole time?
For Danielle it was that great reminder. This is why you’re doing this, for Poussey. Actually being back with Samira was so much fun. I think it was so much fun that it kind of distracted me a little bit. There were moments when I felt like I might forget my lines. I couldn’t believe that we were going back to the beginning. Literally the beginning. It’s been so long since that event would have happened and since me and Samira first worked with each other in 2012. I was just so excited to have her back.
That was a big episode for you, in general. We see more of Taystee’s backstory, her encounter with her birth mother, her first days in jail…
Taystee’s backstory was so informative for why she was the way she is. They were so cool with me having a voice in that, too. I actually asked the casting director and Jenji Kohan if it would be OK if I sat in on the auditions for Taystee’s biological mother. They let me read with the women who were in the callbacks. I got to basically choose—obviously I didn’t have final word—but I got to put my opinion into the conversation, and they ended up choosing the woman I wanted to work with, Tiffany Mann.
I want to make sure we talk about the last scene. I hope this doesn’t sound crazy, but it sort of reminded of me the end of Toy Story 3 when the toys all think they’re going to be burned alive and join hands to face it bravely together.
(Laughs.) I have seen that. That’s so cute.
What was shooting that scene like? Taystee is facing death.
It’s sort of a mirror to the world that we’re living. Maybe a month before shooting that, a few of us had just gone down to Washington to march in the Women’s March. I remember it vividly. Millions—it felt like millions to me—of women marching for what they wanted, which was justice and equal rights and all of that. For me it was such a reflection of the world we’re living in and how these women are saying that we can do this. We will fight. That’s what I felt like it was. That’s where all these women are at that point. They really don’t have anything to lose but their lives, and they’re going to stand and band together. Who is to say what will happen next?
But really: WHAT HAPPENS NEXT!?
It’s a big ole mystery. Who knows what will happen next? But we do know that they have each other and are in this together. I do love what Frida says to Cindy. Cindy is like, “What are we going to do now?” And Frida looks at Taystee and says, “We’re going to hold our dignity just like this young lady did.” So there it is again, where Taystee is being the leader and being that example of what it means to go for justice and fight.
The last few minutes of the season changes everything for the show. Characters are being split up and bused away. We don’t know who, if anyone, will die of the 10 women in the pool. What does this cliffhanger feel like for you? Do you know anything?
I have no idea. I really don’t know! The girls that you see at the end, most of us have been there since day one. As we’re about to enter season six, it’s just a beautiful feeling to have each other, to still be working with each other. That I’m grateful for. I’m not looking forward to the day when this comes to an end. So right now I’m just living in this middle area.
Do you know if you’re back for season six?
I hope so! They can’t get rid of me that fast! C’mon now, you can’t get rid of Taystee right after you get rid of Poussey!