Danielle Brooks on her Oscar nomination: 'Look What God Has Done'

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Danielle Brooks on her Oscar nomination: 'Look What God Has Done'
The actress Danielle Brooks in New York, May 30, 2019. The “Color Purple” supporting actress was nominated for a Tony for the role on Broadway. Still, she spent six months auditioning for the part in the movie..(Celeste Sloman/The New York Times)

by Alexis Soloski



NEW YORK, NY.- It was 3:30 a.m. in New Zealand, where actress Danielle Brooks was filming a Minecraft movie. But she was wide awake.

“I’m alive and I am an Oscar nominee today,” she said on a video call minutes after the nominations were announced. “I don’t think I’ll be able to go back to sleep.”

Brooks, a past Emmy nominee, Tony nominee and Grammy winner who broke out in “Orange Is the New Black,” is nominated for her supporting actress work in the movie musical “The Color Purple.” Hers is the film’s sole nomination. She plays Sofia, an outspoken woman who knows her own worth and insists on her own autonomy, qualities that make her a target of racialized violence. She first played the part on Broadway in 2015, in a defiant, exuberant turn that The New York Times likened to a “homemade steamroller.” Her film work is perhaps even more irresistible.

Swathed in zebra-print sleepwear, Brooks, 34, discussed, with occasional tears, the joy of the nomination, the differences between theater and film and how she learned to say “Hell, No,” in her own life. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Q: How does it feel to be an Oscar nominee?

A: It’s like getting the MVP at the Super Bowl. Crazy. It’s what I always just hoped and dreamed would happen, but for it to actually happen, I’m in shock! It’s like what it says in “The Color Purple”: “Look what God has done.”

Q: What did you learn from playing Sofia on Broadway?

A: There was such an electricity in the theater, people just had to come see the show. I felt so much pressure. It was playing Sofia, this strong woman who was so sure of herself, that gave me the confidence, every night when I sang “Hell, No,” to say hell, no to my fears. She taught me how to live in my power. Getting to do it on the screen, that’s when I learned how to own my power. People assume that actors have all this confidence and are just brave people, which we are, but we get to hide behind characters. Now I can stand 10 toes down and believe in my heart that I’m worthy of moments like this.

Q: You were a Tony nominee for that Broadway performance. You won a Grammy. But I’ve read that your audition process for the film took six months. Did you have to fight for the role?

A: I did. But I came in with no ego, because as much as I wanted to scream from the rooftops, scream all those accolades, there was no reason for that. Because part of our job is to audition. I didn’t want anyone to say that I was handed a role. I wasn’t handed anything. I worked my butt off for that role for six months doing chemistry reads, recording songs, having meetings. I did whatever they asked me to do. And it didn’t miss me. The blessing didn’t miss me. I’m grateful that I did remove ego. Because here we are today.

Q: How did making the film feel different?

A: When I was doing it in theater, all we had were wooden chairs and a wooden stage. So I used my imagination. But with this I got all the elements I could ever want. I’m actually in the Georgian sun on a plantation. That sets me right where I need to be. It was the biggest gift as an actor. And now today, to be standing in this position, the only one from this movie to get nominated, I’m very humbled. I just feel like there are so many people I’m standing in for who are so deserving and have worked so hard, every cast and crew member who was out there in the beating 90-degree weather, this is for them.

Q: Since you played Sofia in 2015, there’s been a greater cultural focus on racialized violence. Did that influence your work?

A: Sofia’s a radical woman; she’s trying to break generational curses. She’s trying to build her family. She’s trying to build a home and get out of these norms we set for gender roles. That, to me, is a woman ahead of her time. To have so much gumption to say, I’m not going to take no mess from anybody, no matter what shape, size, color, creed you are, I’m going to walk how I want to walk. That is so powerful. And that’s what we need as women. We need examples of that in our storytelling, for people to lean on.

Q: Since you first played the role, you’ve become a mother, a wife. Did that inform this Sofia?

A: It deepens the work. I now know truly what sacrifices it takes to be married and hold on to a relationship when the world is just fighting against Black love. I also know the sacrifice of bringing a child in this world. It takes a lot of work! When I played Beatrice (in “Much Ado About Nothing,” 2019) at Shakespeare in the Park, I was five months pregnant with my child, and that was the most freedom I’ve ever had. Having her in my womb reminded me that I’m not alone. And I can do this because now I have someone to do this for. When she was on (“The Color Purple”) set with me, it was the same: I’m not alone and I have someone to do this for.

Q: Your big number is “Hell, No.” Speaking as a woman who apologizes preemptively for everything, I loved it so much. I should apply its lesson more. Do you apply it in your own life?

A: Hell, yeah! It’s the greatest gift to honor what you want as a human being. As women, we apologize for everything. We walk by somebody in the elevator, and we’re like, Oops, sorry. And we have no reason to say sorry! We are trained to be apologetic, to shrink ourselves, to say, oh, my presence shouldn’t be in the room. That’s so not true. We should be strutting around just like Sofia and her sisters, speak up for ourselves and stop apologizing. That’s why I’m so grateful for Sofia. Every character gives you a gift when you play them. And that’s what she taught me. All I need is to validate myself. I don’t need validation from anyone else. I am so grateful for that. But it has to come from me first.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.










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