NEW YORK — Growing up in South Carolina, the daughter of a minister and a deacon, Danielle Brooks never planned on a stint in federal prison.
In middle school, she visited a juvenile justice complex. "They gave us a tour of the jail," Brooks recalled. "The handcuffs, the walking in a straight line, the smell. I was like: This is totally not a place for me."
But fresh from Juilliard, she landed the role of the brash, swaggering Tasha Jefferson, known as "Taystee," on the new Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, based on Piper Kerman's memoir about her stint in the pen for money laundering and drug trafficking. While other inmates struggle with life in prison, Taystee struts down the hallways, sings in the shower and dominates the prison library, where she offers an astute critique of Joyce's rambling Ulysses: "Ain't nobody got time for that."
Taystee even seems to embrace the beige prison-issue jumpsuit.
But on a recent morning at Corner Social, a lively café near her Harlem apartment, Brooks, 23, wore a more exuberant outfit: burgundy dress, orange heels and colossal earrings woven from brightly colored African cloth. With her huge smile and throaty laugh, she spoke about playlists and hair care on the inside. These are excerpts from the conversation.
Question: What was your first role?
Answer: I started acting when I was 6 years old in a church play, a Christmas pageant. I played Baby Girl. And my mother played my grandmother, though I promise you she doesn't look that old. Everybody was like: She's so good. So my mama started sending me to acting programs.
Q: How did you research the role of Taystee?
A: I have always been fascinated with women in prison and I'd watched a lot of TV shows and reality shows, like Beyond Scared Straight. So I was already prepared. Taystee's the light of the prison. She finds the joy in that place.
Q: Do Shakespeare and Chekhov prepare you to roll on the ground in a hair-pulling catfight?
A: No. All of the voice training, all of the Alexander training, at some point that gets thrown out the window, because that's not what this character needs. But Juilliard has trained me to stay truthful in the moment.
Q: Most of Taystee's lines are very profane. Was it ever hard to say them?
A: There were times I was nervous about what my family back home would say. But I want to play characters rooted in truth. And it's exciting to be someone else, to say all these crazy things, to do all these crazy things. My dad came for the premiere. I kind of prepared him for it. He loved it. He had respect for what I did. My family understands that I still have my morals.
Q: Did you get tired of that same beige jumpsuit?
A: It was cool not to have to think about it. You come to work and you know what you're going to wear, how it's going to fit. All of us want to be in Chanel or Michael Kors, but this was refreshing.
Q: Hair care clearly matters to Taystee. How would you manage your hair inside?
A: It would probably be braided up a lot or in big poof balls. I would find ways to be creative, to spice it up. I'd need Miss Jessie's, Kinky-Curly, some shea butter and water. You always need water.
'Orange Is the New Black'
Streaming on Netflix.com and its apps