[Warning: The following contains spoilers from Orange Is the New Black Season 2, Episode 2. Read at your own risk.]
After becoming a fan favorite in Season 1, Danielle Brooks was upped to series regular on Orange Is the New Black and finally given her own flashback episode this year. The heartbreaking first glimpse at Taystee's (nee Tasha Jefferson) past set the entire second season in motion and added some depth to Litchfield's class clown.
Brooks spoke to TVGuide.com about Taystee's history with Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), her character's hopes for the future and the struggles of being mean to Samira Wiley (Poussey).
The story behind the nickname Taystee was a little bittersweet. How did you feel when you learned its origins?
Brooks: It's totally not where I thought it was coming from! I thought it had something to do with what Taystee raps about in Season 1. ... [Vee] gives her that name and to me it seems sort of forced in a way, someone always calling you something and you not really accepting it. And it's very interesting when she does accept the name when she decides to join Vee's team because of whatever situation she was going through at the time. It's very interesting to me. It's not what I thought it was going to be prior, but as an actor I love the choice that it comes from her as a child.
Do you think there is a part of Taystee that misses being Tasha?
Brooks: I feel like she still hasn't figured out who Tasha is and I feel like for her, she's comfortable in staying in the Taystee place and Vee referring to her as Taystee because that's really become a part of who she is. But I do feel like she's starting to grow into Tasha and I feel that as we keep watching the season, we'll see her really start to transform into a woman. And I feel like what will possibly, hopefully be revealed in seasons to come is Taystee possibly transforming into Tasha Jefferson.
The girl who played young Taystee was so cute! What was it like watching someone else take on this character?
Brooks: For me it was so flattering. I brought this character to life and to see a young child do the same from the work that I brought to her, it's so flattering. I think she did a lovely job and it's cool to me because when I was that age, there were women of color actors that really inspired me and to see some other young girl step into the shoes of my character really warms my heart because I used to be that little girl who used to really want to pursue acting.
It was great to see how ambitious and clever Taystee was even as a child. Where does that drive come from?
Brooks: Some kids are so instinctive and they watch their environment and I think that's what Taystee's done. She's watched her environment, she's watched the adults that she's been around in foster care and she's observed what these people like and what these adoptive families like and the children that they're not getting and why she's not getting adopted. So I think she's very smart and savvy and observant, and I think that's why Taystee's so incredible as a child. I feel like that's something you just have to be born with. Everyone at that age isn't going to be that way. But for her, she's driven to find her family and a home so that's her natural instinct to do that, to watch and learn from what she sees.
It was so great to see Taystee put those skills to use at the job fair.
Brooks: It was a lot of fun to film and so exciting for me because people get to see that Taystee really took to heart the conversation she had with Poussey in Season 1 in the library. She's so hopeful. She really believes that this is going to be her opportunity to make something of herself and she takes every step possible to do that. She studies for it and she educates herself on the program and the job that she could possible take, so she does everything in her power. But once again in her life, the system is not helping her to achieve that goal. So it was a lot of fun to play and show that side of Taystee that day. And it was also fun to play with Flaca — Jackie Cruz. You see their beef in Season 1 when they fight over a King Cone and now you see them battle it out mentally and intelligently, so that was a lot of fun to do this time.
She's so focused on her future now. Do you think Taystee ever regrets returning to Litchfield?
Brooks: Oh, wow. I don't know if it's regret. I think the minute that she sees Vee is a moment when she's like, "I didn't think I'd ever see you here on this side of the table." And I think when she has a moment where she is so optimistic and she is so hopeful and then to turn around and be defeated at the end of the day — she was defeated in prison, yes, but she still has a place to rest her head, she still has a friend in Poussey, she still has breakfast lunch and dinner every day. So I don't think she regrets that part. So I don't know if she has regret, but I think she's hopeful to find all these beautiful things she's found in prison on the outside.
Vee's appearance in Litchfield really changes everything for Taystee.
Brooks: Vee is such a powerful force in Taystee's life ... She's really trying to figure out if Vee has her best interests at heart. She really wants to believe that, but as she's starting to become Tasha in my mind, she's learning what Vee's true motives are. So I think for Taystee, Vee is the one person who can throw her off of her game and the one person who Taystee cannot use her normal tactics of dealing with things. She has to confront her issues when she's there. She just can't laugh and make a joke when she's feeling something ultimately with Vee. She rocks her world. She's like a storm and storms can be calm and then sometimes they can really shake up stuff.
Vee's return to Taystee's life has major consequences on her relationship with Poussey later this season. Are you nervous about how fans will react?
Brooks: I'm excited to see the comments. I have to say it scares me a little bit because they are such a good pair and Taystee starts to be mean to Poussey to please Vee because Vee has really gotten under her core. So that was difficult to play for me, being mean to Poussey, Samira's character, because I, as Danielle, wanted to, you know, not do that. It was so difficult to play! But at the end of the day, Taystee does the right thing. So I'm glad to know the audience is left with Taystee doing the right thing for her friend.
Even though Taystee always stays so positive, it was really heartbreaking when Vee crushed Taystee's ambitions, saying, "you don't get a career, you get a job." Then later, Taystee jokes about being "a child of the system." Do you think Taystee can break this cycle?
Brooks: I hope that there is room for Taystee to get out of this system and I think that she can do it. It's just a matter of the universe helping her get to where she needs to get to and Taystee loving herself enough. I'm worth getting out of here. I'm worth more than my circumstance. I think it's very interesting in that scene we were talking about earlier, with her being street savvy and smart at such a young age, but then you see her as a teenage and you see such childlike innocence about her and just being so happy getting pipe cleaners and those things she didn't have a chance to get as a child. And I think that's what's so interesting as a character. You see her even in prison as an adult, but then you find those moments where she's so innocent and has so much to learn about the basics to life and love and friendship.
What did you think of Taystee's backstory? Catch up on Orange Is the New Black here.