Actress in the Netflix original series Orange is the New Black Danielle Brooks spoke in the Imagination Interview at the OWN It Summit in Gaston Hall Saturday morning. Co-Executive Editor of Re/Code Kara Swisher moderated the panel.
Brooks spoke about the role of Orange is the New Black in shifting the way women are depicted on television.
“Everyone’s story is valid and finally people saw themselves represented on television, whether that’s being of color, age, transgender, whatever your religious take is,” Brooks said. “You saw your mom, you saw your aunt, you saw yourself in these characters. … We were telling true stories.”
Brooks became emotional while speaking about the support of her mother, who was in the crowd.
“My mother was a huge influence on where I am,” Brooks said. “It was my mom who was like ‘You have a talent here is a door and we are going to open it.’”
Brooks began acting in church plays as a child, and at the age of 17, she auditioned for and earned a spot at The Juilliard School.
“You have to have drive, you have to want it. You have to just go for your dream,” Brooks said.
Brooks has just finished filming season three of Orange is the New Black, which will be released on Netflix June 12. However, Brooks is not yet sure what her future holds.
“I want to do my own thing and I don’t know what it is yet,” Brooks said. “More than winning awards, which are dreams of mine, don’t get me wrong, but more than that I feel like the main goal is to inspire people to follow their own path and their dreams, and that’s really what I want to do.”
Brooks reflected on the relation between herself and her character, Taystee, as well as how the audience relates to the other characters on the show.
“Taystee, she’s really trying to find herself,” Brooks said. “To stay true to who I am is something I’m learning from her, and I think every character you play should give you a gift.”
The women on Orange is the New Black are criminals, but Brooks understands why audiences find their stories so compelling.
“We’re all flawed. We might not have all been to prison and done things like that but we are all capable of it,” Brooks said. “A lot of these women are operating out of a place of love that they did these things.”
When asked about how being a woman of color has impacted her career, Brooks spoke about the pressure she feels and the way she wants to inspire people.
“I feel like there is not too many people that look like me on television: dark skin, natural hair, that’s a size ‘mm,’” Brooks said. “I feel this pressure sometimes of being perfect, but I’m not. … All I can do is be the best I can be and hope that it influences someone to be the best that they can be and that people see me and they want to follow their dreams.”
Jerrod MacFarlane (SFS ’15) was impressed with Brooks’ honesty.
“I thought her perspective on a myriad of issues was really interesting just because she was so aware of her place in the world and how her body, being a black large woman, informs how people see her and how that informs the struggles she’s dealt with,” MacFarlane said. “I just loved her frankness; I love when people can be open and vulnerable to you.”
Michaela Lewis (COL ’18) was disturbed by Swisher’s questions that implied Brooks should compare herself to other women of color in the entertainment industry, specifically Kerry Washington and Viola Davis.
“[Danielle Brooks] talked very honestly and candidly about the experience of being a woman of color in an industry where there is a lot of privilege and where your race can get you places when you are of a majority” Lewis said. “I wondered why the interviewer had to liken Danielle Brooks to other black women in the entertainment industry. … Why we can’t have people who are of a certain demographic aspire to be like women of another demographic?”