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Danielle Brooks

by devnym

by Fran Rossini
Sebastian Smith

‘Danielle Brooks is the new kid on the block, but she packs a fearless punch.  With her roots dug deep in the South Carolina soil, and a future that is bright and hopeful, this bold and beautiful young woman carries a refreshing air about her.  Dedicated beginnings and genuine convictions have her moving in a forward direction.

Danielle recognized her love of acting very early in life, and by the time she was in high school, she was ready to take the next step.  She attended a South Carolina boarding school for drama during her Junior and Senior years.  And while the school focused on acting fundamentals–an admitted step up from years of just memorizing scripts–she used it as an opportunity to find and nurture her individuality.  “It was freeing in that way, of really allowing us to be ourselves without judgment.  Unlike normal high school, it really just allowed me to be myself.”

The next step, of course, was the big one: moving to New York City to attend Julliard.  “I always knew that I was one of those kids that was different.  I knew I wasn’t a complacent kid.  I thought I was so ready to not be at home … I had a sense of independence.  So when I came here, I was like, ‘Oh, I’m so ready for New York.’”

Then her first Thanksgiving away from home hit.  “I’ll never forget going to Central Park because I was feeling a little homesick.  And I sat in front of a tree and I cried for about 30 minutes straight, by myself.  Because it was the only place that reminded me of home–like trees and being around grass, and it was quiet.  I’ll never forget that.  It is challenging being 17 here and trying to do this on your own without any family.”

New York life is very different than the Christian family upbringing she left behind.  Danielle’s mother is a minister and her father is a deacon, so she grew up amidst the ideas and influences of the church.  Her parents are religious, “but I don’t like to depict them that way because it can come off negative.  And sometimes people take religion and give it a negative connotation.  But they are very about morals and being a good person.  They’re really supportive of me.”

Playing Taystee in Orange is the New Black, Danielle has had to play some scenes with nudity and other content that could be considered questionable by parents–especially parent with high moral values.  Danielle’s family was admittedly initially concerned about a topless scene that was scripted for her character.  But, she explains, “once they realized what it was, I think, and all of the success the show has gotten and all of the love my character has received [it was okay].  My mom called me the first day Season 2 came out and just said, ‘Danielle, I’m so in awe of your work.’  And it was like, ‘you have skills, and I’m so proud of the work that you did.’  And that just really almost made me cry, because at the end of the day, so many opinions and people that you’re trying to impress to get to the next level, doesn’t matter because all that really matters is that my family’s proud [and] that I’m proud of what I do.”

Taystee is a controversial role.  But Danielle firmly believes that she’s being truthful to the character; she isn’t interested in doing things simply for shock value.  “Playing an inmate, and playing an inmate of color, I was a little nervous about it at first because I knew that some people were going to think that we were playing stereotypes or caricatures.”  But the writing on Orange is so strong, she doesn’t feel she’s selling out.  “I feel like I’m getting to tell someone’s story that hasn’t been told.  Something that’s so well-developed and shows so many layers of this person that you might consider general, like you already know.  I love playing Taystee, and [examining] the way that we get to know a person and human being.”

Particularly in comparison to how television has previously portrayed people of color.  “It’s cool to be on a show where you have women that are black, Latina, and now Asians are coming into it.  We get to show that there’s so many different personalities.  It’s really cool to be feeling like we’re breaking the mold of how people are viewed, or how people showcase people of color.  It’s exciting to feel like we’re moving things forward.”
While her character on the show is helping her break screen conventions, Danielle is also discovering she has a voice off-screen, as well.  “I never imagined myself in the position I’m in now, having the voice that I have now, where I’ll comment about beauty or loving yourself and people are inspired.”  Although deep down, like every actor, she admits it’d be nice to receive awards and accolades for her work, she’s also learning that those things aren’t as important.  “I feel like what people are drawn to is the work.  What matters is the connection.  I’ve always heard this phrase, like, ‘two things can change the world: arts and education,’ and I’m not [a] teacher.  So for me, staying focused on the work and getting to bring everything I have, all of myself, to that is important.”

Orange also allows Danielle to bring light to prisoners’ lives and the prison system, which have always intrigued her.  ‘I feel like their stores are so unique.  And you realize how easily it could be one of us, once you are introduced to their story and how they got to where they are.  I think that’s what’s so cool about our show and how it’s so relatable.  I feel like it reminds us of humanity and it definitely makes me more compassionate for people who are incarcerated.”

At one point, her character, Taystee, is released from prison but intentionally gets re-incarcerated.  She had nowhere to turn on the outside.  “I feel like the prison system really needs to focus more on rehabilitation and how people are going to function once they get out of prison. … I always imagined people wanted to get out and then, boom, they’re out.  Think about how many homeless people we have on the street.  I don’t have numbers or quotes, but I’m sure some of them have been incarcerated and have Taystee’s story.  So I’m glad we’re bringing light to this issue.”

So where is this intentional young actress headed next?  Besides playing her influential and engaging role in Orange, Danielle’s goal as an actor is to try new paths with unconventional casting.  “Like an action movie–seeing a plus-sized woman do an action movie.  Because I’m athletic, but to the world, I’m not ‘small’.”  Or, she’d like to tackle playing the love interest in a film or show.  “I have curly hair and I’m dark skinned, and that may not be everybody’s ideal of beauty, but I’m beautiful, too.  Those are the things I want to do–things people aren’t used to seeing.”

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