Plus: The actress addresses season 5's real-world parallels
SPOILER ALERT: This article contains spoilers from Orange Is the New Black‘s entire fifth season.
Orange is the New Black‘s fifth season was a big one for Danielle Brooks, and the actress is already thinking about when it’ll be time for her final bow.
The 27-year-old actress moved to the center of the action as her character Taystee pursued justice not only for her friend Poussey (Samira Wiley), who was killed by a guard at the end of season 4, but for her fellow inmates in negotiations with MCC (Management & Correction Corporation). Although some progress was made, it all fell apart at the last minute when a SWAT team finally barged into Litchfield to end the three-day-long riot in the season 5 finale. The tumultuous season ended with Taystee and nine other women facing down death together as they hid in Frieda’s (Dale Soules) bunker and waited for the police to assault their temporary sanctuary.
Last Friday, EW spoke with Brooks on the phone about whether she sees herself staying on the show beyond season 7, Samira Wiley’s cameo in episode 6, and the season’s real-world parallels. (Shortly before we spoke, news broke that the Minnesota officer who shot Philando Castile last July was acquitted, which Brooks compared to the fact that everyone in power on the show is reluctant to charge Corrections Officer Bailey with murder in the wake of Poussey’s riot-sparking death.)
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The season’s been out for a week now. Have you had time to watch it? How do you feel about it?
DANIELLE BROOKS: Yes, I have gotten to see season 5. I’m very proud of the work that myself, the cast, crew, and writers have done this season, especially because it parallels the world that we live in. Actually, today I got a little pissed off, honestly—I just heard the news on the radio about the Philando Castile [case] and the officer being acquitted. I just appreciate the show speaking to the issues that we’re dealing with. Right now, my heart really goes out to the Castile family for having to feel like they’re not getting justice for this senseless death. That’s sort of where my head is right now, and it kind of sucks because you’re telling this fictional story for six or seven months, embodying what it is to lose somebody and what is it to fight. Then, this season comes out and here we are with another situation where justice is not served. So, my heart is a little heavy right now, to be honest.
It seems that the line between fiction and reality is blurred…
It’s so blurred at the moment. You know, Taystee goes on that journey this season of really fighting for justice and trying to have Bailey [Alan Aisenberg] locked up, because in her eyes he is a criminal and for that to not happen says a lot. I just find it brave of the writers to go in that direction instead of just choosing to have this patched up, happy-go-lucky, tied-in-a-nice bow ending, because that’s the thing: We’re still dealing with issues like that. It’s not over. The fight for realizing that all lives do matter — specifically, black lives mattering — is not over.
While you were filming the season, was it hard to go from reading these tragic headlines every day to performing these scenes where Taystee is fighting for justice— and at times in vain because of how rigid the system is?
Yeah, it’s wicked how the system works. It was challenging. We came back in July 2016 when the Philando Castile incident occurred, so we were going right into work dealing with that particular incident. For me, my work was sort of done. People always ask, “How did you get into character? What did you read or what did you do?” I just watched the clips of Diamond Reynolds, who was his girlfriend, speaking to reporters and talking to all of these news outlets. To me, it was so similar to that episode 5 scene with Taystee when she doesn’t let Judy King [Blair Brown] speak, because that’s the same thing I saw with her; she never let her lawyers speak for her. She was always the one on the forefront putting her voice out there and saying, “You will hear what I’m feeling and the loss that you have caused me and my daughter and his mother.”
As challenging as it was to shoot this, the work was done. That’s such an unfortunate place to be in. It actually breaks my heart that I wasn’t able to really just use my imagination as we do as artists. Instead, it felt so real. All you have to do is put your uncle, your brother — I have a brother who’s 22 — your father in [their] place. It really is devastating and it feels like we still have this noose around our necks as black people. When can we win? Not even win, but just be! When can we just be as equal as anyone else? When will justice be served for us and when can we get a moment to breathe and live in a fair world?…I’m just hurting.
It’s sort of hard to escape this reality because it just feels like a cloud that’s always hanging over us and then to have something like this, it just makes it even harder.
I want to find beauty at the end of the road. I want to have hope for America. I feel like a big part of Taystee’s motives this year is to fight for justice but also believe that the system can change. That’s a big part of it. She’s pulling out all of the stops and doing all the research and speaking up for these women in hopes that this thing can change. We see at the end of it that they stand together and now she has a group of women that are standing for justice and she doesn’t feel as alone as she did earlier in the episode. I just hope that’s what we gain with telling stories that matter in that way — we can also take from these women and say, “How can I stand with my brother and my sister? How can I be there for a family that’s lost their loved one? How can I get involved in politics or local government or [how we] choose judges?” We just have to get more involved and be more informed on a much more [local] scale that affects our communities…and will ultimately affect the greater scale. We’re all in it together.
There’s this inherent optimism in Taystee’s actions this season. Was committing to that hopefulness hard some days, or did you find it easy because it gave you a reason to keep hope alive for yourself, too?
Definitely the latter, because I think when someone has gone through as much as Taystee has gone through, and especially when someone is dealing with grief, you kind of have two different routes that you can take: You can choose to take the death route where you are living in misery and depression and feeling like you have no reason to live, or you can say I’m going to take life even more seriously and cherish the life that I’ve been given. I know that’s the route that she’s chosen, which is hope and faith. When it comes to the society that we live in right now, I’d rather as an actor be playing that part of it. I’d rather be putting that energy out into the world. I can’t say that I wouldn’t want to do the other route because, as an actor, I wanna play everything. I want to get to play all different moods, shapes, and colors. Sometimes I think of acting in different fabrics. I want to play all different kinds of layers of a person, which I do think I got to do. Don’t get me wrong! Taystee went left, right, up, down. This season we got to see her stand up and have her moments where she feels like she’s going to lose it and crumble. But I do think the hope part matters — especially right now.
Even though we see the girls not get what they wanted, I still am happy the writers did leave us on a hopeful journey together. But also with the reality of we don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know what’s going to happen in season 6, nor do I know the climate of the world in the rest of 2017. All we can do is be hopeful and active as we’ve seen Taystee do.
Even though the season ends with the women facing down death, do you take comfort in the fact that they’re doing it together?
Definitely. Frieda says it just right when she’s like, “We’re gonna stand together and hold our dignity just like Taystee has.” So there is comfort in that. They are able to stand together and choose to fight the next chapter.
Negotiations with MCC fell apart because Taystee wouldn’t budge on the Bailey issue. Given that, do you think she comes out with any kind of a win at the end of the season?
She definitely came out with a win. I think she learned that she’s capable of much more than she ever imagined. She found her voice. She found her salvation in not killing Piscatella [Brad William Henke]. By not killing him, she figured out what justice really means and it has to do much more with character than a tooth for a tooth, an eye for an eye. It’s choosing to sometimes — not all the time — say, “I am bigger than how you see me. I am not like you. I can rise above the wickedness, the ugliness.”
I think Taystee won in that way. I don’t think Poussey would’ve wanted her to shoot him at the end. I think she would’ve said, “He’s not worth it. He’ll get his.” Which we see him do.
One of the big surprises of the season was the moving flashback that revealed how Taystee and Poussey first met. What was your first reaction when you read that scene? Is that how you envisioned their first meeting?
My first reaction was, “Smart writing. Kudos to Lauren Morelli.” How cool is it for them to have created Amanda and McKenzie [in their] first encounter? How cool is it that they met in the library? I just felt like that showed the core of what their friendship is: These two people really trying to be there for one another and not wanting anything in return but love, a friendship, laughter, and joy. I think you find all of that in that one scene.
I never thought to think about how they met because I’ve known Samira for so long now, and because I’ve known her for so long and the way in which they’ve written these two characters, it feels like they’ve known each other for just as long. To get to come to work and act out that first scene was a lot of fun for both of us — so much fun that there were moments where I was forgetting my lines because I couldn’t wrap my head around [it]. It’s this thing of thinking you won’t have these magic moments again with these two characters. Yet, here I am. Six episodes in, I get to act with my girl again. It was so exciting and fun for me.
Litchfield was in chaos this season. What was it like to approach this prison set you’ve been on for five seasons in a different way?
It was a lot of fun. There were a few times when I felt like I was in an action movie or something because there were like bombs going off, I got to lift Uzo [Aduba]’s body with Adrienne [C. Moore], and settings were on fire. That was so much fun, and just getting to feel like a true badass and getting to do things that I hadn’t gotten to do yet as an actor in a physical way was a lot of fun for me. I look forward to many more exciting scenes like the ones that we end with in episode 13. I had a good time with that.
I know you don’t have any idea what’s coming up in season 6, but what do you hope Taystee gets to do next season?
Oh, that question… The reason I say that is because my imagination is expansive, but once I see what the writers have written, I’m always taken aback and so much more excited about what they’ve planned and what I’ve come up with in my head. I’d rather just wait and see, especially now that we’re getting closer to the end of the road than we were in the beginning.
At first, I was dying for each script and wanting to know what happens next. [It was] almost like Christmas where you want to sneak a gift the night before. Now, I’d rather wait and I’m opening the gift wrap slowly, because I’m trying to take it all in and I know that we’re getting closer to the end — or at least, I think. I don’t know. We could go beyond seven seasons. Who knows? I just want to live in the moment and digest it when it comes.
Is there a general sense in the cast that season 7 might be the end, or do you hope Netflix could renew for another season?
Who knows? We have until seven for sure. To be honest, I don’t know if I want to play an inmate past that. I don’t know if I want to do that because I have a lot in me and a lot that I want to share with the world and different characters I want to be able to bring to life. After seven, I think it might be time for me to spread my wings, but I don’t want to speak too fast on that.