TV

Orange Is The New Black star Danielle Brooks reveals how her life changed in the course of 13 hours

Going to prison proved to be a game changer

By Scott Ellis

Both on and off screen, Danielle Brooks is known for telling it like it is. And she's not exaggerating when she says going to prison is the best thing that has ever happened to her. Fictional prison, that is.

In the Netflix drama Orange Is The New Black, Danielle plays Tasha "Taystee" Jefferson, a prisoner who was just supposed to be in the background waiting for star Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) when she arrived at Litchfield Penitentiary to serve her time.

The role was originally planned to last for two or three episodes back in 2013, with Taystee just one of many characters who would help introduce Piper to the reality of life inside.

But then something happened.

The young actress – who had recently graduated from New York's prestigious Julliard School, one of the world's leading performing arts academies – was recognised by the series creators as having potential. Taystee was quickly written into more episodes and, by the end of season one – 13 hours of TV later – she was a series regular.

Danielle as Tasha 'Taystee' Jefferson.
Danielle as Tasha 'Taystee' Jefferson.

And for Danielle, who turns 29 this month, nothing has been the same since.

"I really thought I was only going to be on this for two or three episodes, and so for [Taystee] to turn into a series regular for season two and now be going into season seven… it's been quite an experience," Danielle tells TV WEEK Close Up.

"It's my dream, you know. For this to be my first major show and to get to explore a character so in-depth in the course of six years, I've learnt so much about myself and what I'm capable of doing. I feel like I've conquered so many fears."

And not just as an actor.

Danielle says the empowerment of working with, and being accepted by, some of the world's best performers and entertainment makers has changed the way she thinks about herself.

"For me, it's really shaped what kind of projects I want to do from here in out; what projects I'm capable of, what I will accept and what I won't," she explains.

"I think if I were on any other show, I would've had so many insecurities about my weight or my hair or all of these things that come up for women when they're on shows that are so centred around their appearance versus the choices they're making as an actor… So I will forever be grateful to Orange for giving me that gift."

Danielle says she's playing her "dream" role as a highly intelligent prisoner.
Danielle says she's playing her "dream" role as a highly intelligent prisoner.

The continual evolution of both Taystee and Orange Is The New Black is key to why Danielle is in no rush to explore other acting options right now and why she believes the series' audience has remained so strong.

This year, for example, the rules of the series were rewritten when the inmates were relocated in the wake of season five's riot.

Moving to maximum security meant new guards and a very different culture to what had been established. Even the trademark orange uniforms that make up the show's title were joined by pink, blue and brown ones.

"What tribes are going to be formed from this new prison?" Danielle asks.

"Who's going to be in solitary confinement? Who's going to be in the crazy house? It'll be interesting to see where they end up, and you know what comes with a new prison is new conflict, new fights, new families."

That constant change is genuine, Danielle adds. She's had it confirmed by viewers who have been through the prison system as either inmates or guards.

"Some people who have actually been incarcerated tell me how parallel it is to their experiences," she explains.

"I've had guards come up to me who have been wardens in prisons for 15 years and say how honest the show is. And that's a good feeling, because these are fictional characters, but they're based on real people or people's experience."

This may be why, when the time comes for Danielle to spread her wings and try a role beyond the Orange Is The New Black universe, she has something very different in mind.

And, of course, it's something that would once again give her plenty of scope to show off her acting skills: she'd like to play a superhero!

"Yeah, why not?" she says. "I think that would be a lot of fun.

"I'm a very active plus-size girl and I think it would be fun to kick some arse!"

To read more interviews with your favourite TV stars, pick up a copy of this month's issue of TV WEEK Close Up. On sale now!

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