What Danielle Brooks Learned From Gay Boys Dressed as Pop Divas

The “Orange Is the New Black” star wants drag queens lip syncing to her new music.

She stole our hearts in Orange Is the New Black. She killed it on Broadway in The Color Purple. But Danielle Brooks has only just begun to show the world her true colors.

At 29, Brooks recently released her soulful debut EP, Four. Her upcoming film Clemency won the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, but her next role might be her grandest yet: First-time mom.

Free from playing inmate Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson after the seventh and final season of OINTB, Brooks talks to NewNowNext about the Netflix show’s LGBTQ legacy and why you can always find her on a Pride float.

OITNB/Netflix

You went to some dark places for the final season of Orange Is the New Black. How did you shake that off?

Oh, man. It was hard. I wish we would’ve had some sort of psychology expert on set to walk us through it. But I was lucky to have some phenomenal women around me, because my character wasn’t the only one going through some deep stuff. Sometimes, like after the scene where Taystee tries to commit suicide, I had to walk around the set and literally shake it out of my body. But when you take off those clothes and that wig, that helps a lot.

That was a wig? I thought they were just putting your hair through hell.

They used to! [Laughs] But by the third season, I was like, “No more. Can’t do it.” So we got a wig.

The Poussey Washington Fund, an initiative that your character created on the show, has become a reality to support criminal justice reform and women affected by incarceration. Has playing Taystee made you more socially aware and politically active?

Yeah, for sure. I’ve always been taught that this job goes beyond the praise and applause, because there’s important work to be done. But until doing the show, I didn’t realize the influence and power we could use for change. From here on out, whatever projects I associate myself with, I’m going to find ways to give back. It can be little things—like, every Christmas working on Orange, I would ask all the girls to bring warm clothes to give to shelters, to the WPA, to help women getting out of prison. But it’s also cool to work with people like [OITNB creator] Jenji Kohan who do things in a big way.

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Turner

Orange Is the New Black educated mainstream audiences about LGBTQ people and issues. Did it educate you as well?

Definitely. I think a lot of us on the show went through a learning process with LGBTQ issues. I’ve always been open-minded, but I was raised in a very conservative Christian household. The coolest thing for me is that the diversity on Orange taught my parents and the community I grew up in to love and embrace this other community that they had been taught were living incorrectly. It showed them that people should be who they are, love who they love, and be respected for that.

While you were growing up, your father was a deacon and your mother was a minister. Was the LGBTQ community discussed in your household?

There were gay people around, but it wasn’t really talked about. I guess it was just assumed that everybody in the house was straight? That subject didn’t come up until Orange, and I got a little pushback in the beginning. My mother thought maybe I shouldn’t have done the show, but her opinion has totally changed. The fact that my family can love and accept people like Laverne Cox, Lea DeLaria, and Samira Wiley, be in a room with them and praise them for who they are, is really powerful to me. I can’t say that would’ve happened a few years before the show started.

I’m sure it opened a lot of minds over seven seasons.

I know still it’s tough out there to express yourself. I know people are still afraid of being ostracized by their families, and I know it’s easy for them to feel unwanted and unworthy of living. So yeah, it means a lot to me that our show celebrated differences and reminded people that we’re all beautiful just the way we are.

John Lamparski/WireImage

What was your introduction to the LGBTQ community?

I went to a normal high school for a while, but then I switched over to the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts & Humanities, which was my introduction to people who had been raised differently than I’d been raised. I’ll never forget when I was a junior, we had a Halloween party outside at the school, and there were three gay boys who dressed up as Madonna, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera, having a good time and just being so free, and they did the kisses like on the VMAs. I was like, “Oh, my god!” It really opened my eyes that it’s okay to be yourself, and there should never be any shame in that.

Your baby will get an earlier LGBTQ education from their Orange aunties.

I know! That’s so exciting. Honestly, that’s one reason I was so hungry to get out of my hometown. I love Greenville, South Carolina, but it’s a place where, for the most part, everybody has the same lifestyle, and it’s easy to follow what everybody else is doing. It’s a place to be complacent. People there are starting to open their eyes and move forward, but it’s a slow process. So it’s exciting to be bringing a child into this world in New York, one of the most diverse cities in the world, where they’ll be encouraged to think for themselves and be whoever they want to be. The next generation of my family will be better for it.

The Color Purple, which earned you a Tony nomination and a Grammy, was also educational. Your co-star Cynthia Erivo told me that some Broadway audiences, even fans of the movie, seemed shocked to learn Celie was a lesbian.

The movie played it safe when it came to that relationship, but I think the black community still knew and understood what was going on. It’s just not something they necessarily talk about. A healthy amount of the black community, especially the Southern black community, still believes it’s wrong to be gay, so I think they ignore that part of the story because they love the movie so much. But they know!

The Color Purple/Matthew Murphy

Are you aware of your LGBTQ following?

I make a point to go to a lot of Pride parades, whether they’re in New York, Australia, Brazil, San Francisco—I’ve been all over. The LGBTQ community is one of the most loyal communities ever. They hold us down and lift us up. It’s beautiful. Yeah, I’ve felt an outpouring of love from them—on social media, at stage doors, when I’m up on a Pride float—and I’m in awe of it. I’m always going to love and celebrate that community in return. Regardless of how I was raised, what other people may believe, whatever people think I’m supposed to say or do, I will forever step up to defend and support the LGBTQ community.

Congrats on your new EP. Have you always wanted to be a pop star?

No. [Laughs] I’ve never dreamed of being Beyoncé or Janet Jackson or anything like that. I just feel like if you’ve been given a gift, you have to use it. When it comes to music, I know I’ve been given a gift, but it’s always been a fearful place for me. But anytime I’m fearful of something, I know it’s something I need to go for, so I decided to make an EP. My music comes from an honest place. It’s about what I’ve gone through, what I’m going through, my healing. It’s about past struggles that don’t define who I am now, because I get to define what makes me so dope and unique.

Your song “Seasons,” inspired by your Orange castmates, was featured in the series finale.

Hearing my song at the end of Orange Is the New Black brought me to—not even to tears but to a very emotional, embarrassing, sobbing, ugly-cry kind of place. It would really make my heart sing to hear more of my music in movies and on television.

Santiago Felipe/Getty Images

I’m a white gay man, but I sing along loud and proud to your single “Black Woman.” Is that okay?

Yeah! [Laughs] I hope people are moved by my music and that it makes them feel phenomenal, whether they’re a black woman or not. That something I want to leave behind in this world, especially now that I’m having a child. So I love that you sing “Black Woman.” And if any drag queens out there want to sing it or lip sync it, please invite me to the show.

Are you a RuPaul’s Drag Race fan?

Hell yeah. They’ve asked me twice to be a guest judge but I couldn’t get out to L.A. from New York. I’d love to do it. Now I‘m having a baby, of course, so I don’t know when I’ll be able to, but I’m sure we’ll work it out eventually.

Have you ever seen any Taystee drag queens?

I’ve definitely seen a lot of people dress up as Taystee for Halloween. But I don’t know if she’s fabulous enough for a drag queen.

What advice would you give a queen who wants to do drag Danielle?

Well, if you’re going to lip sync, do “Hell No!” from The Color Purple. A Danielle drag queen has to be strong and fierce, but there’s still a softness. There’s also a little pinch of ratchet.

The final season of Orange Is the New Black is streaming on Netflix. Four is out now.
 

Celebrity interviewer. Foodie and Broadway buff in Manhattan. Hates writing bios.
@brandonvoss