"Don't make me cry!" implores Danielle Brooks.
She's been doing a lot of that lately. There have been tears of joy, tears of gratitude, tears of someone who recognizes that she persevered and is stronger for it. Not one minute later, while discussing the trajectory that has taken her to The Color Purple and back again, she's reaching for a tissue. "It's the journey," Brooks says as she wipes her eyes. "It is the journey that makes me emotional. It's the fact that I didn't give up, you know what I mean?"
Brooks has been acting since she was six years old; raised in small town South Carolina, she made her stage debut in a nativity play at her church. After graduating from Juilliard, she got her big break playing Tasha "Taystee" Jefferson, the smartest and funniest inmate on Orange Is the New Black, a role that was initially supposed to only be a couple of episodes but which lasted for seven seasons. While shooting that series, she debuted on Broadway playing Sofia in the 2015 revival of The Color Purple, for which Brooks was Tony-nominated for Best Featured Actress in a Musical and won the Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album.
"I've had some beautiful moments in this career, and you've watched me grow. I think that's the biggest thing— the growth," Brooks reflects. "But with growth, as we know, comes rain, comes wind, comes some hot sun, you know what I mean? I've experienced all of that. There's been a lot of valleys that people haven't seen. There's been a lot of rejection that people haven't seen."
Now, the actress is starring in the second film adaptation of The Color Purple and is finally receiving her flowers in the way she's always deserved. "To have this moment, it makes me so overwhelmed in the best way, because you just can't give up. You can't. You can't let your ego get in the way. You just got to keep going. I feel like I'm a testament of that — I'm trying not to cry."
The movie musical iteration of The Color Purple, directed by Ghanaian filmmaker Blitz Bazawule, takes inspiration from Alice Walker's masterpiece of a novel, Steven Spielberg's 1985 film, and of course, the Broadway musical. Brooks once again stars as Sofia, opposite Fantasia Barrino as Celie and Taraji P. Henson as Shug Avery. Oprah Winfrey, who received an Oscar nomination for playing Sofia in Spielberg's film and serves as a producer on this iteration, asked to be the one to share the news with Brooks that she'd gotten the role.
Like Winfrey before her, Brooks became a first-time Oscar nominee for her performance as Sofia. At the 96th Oscars, she nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. "It's one thing to dream of this occasion but to have it actually happen is mind blowing," she says of the recognition.
"I'm not somebody that just happened to land this movie and here we are. No, it's the journey," Brooks tells A.frame. "It's discovering my love for this and finding a path to getting to it through watching [the original Broadway production of The Color Purple] in 2005, to starring in it in my first Broadway show in 2015, to now my first studio film and having this experience. I could have never planned it better."
A.frame: I read that when you found out you'd have to audition for Sofia, you almost didn't do it. Is that true?
No, that is not true. I think in that interview that you're speaking of, that's more so Fantasia and Taraji's story. They said, "Hell no." I always said, "Hell yes!" Always. But there were moments, going back to that ego thing, where you're like, "Why do I have to prove myself so hard when I did this show for a year of my life, eight shows a week, while doing Orange Is the New Black, while being someone who is easy to work with?" Like, I'm not a problem child! [Laughs] I just didn't understand it, because I was Tony nominated, I had won a Grammy from doing this. I was just very confused. But I knew that this was bigger than myself, and I needed to remove ego and stay the course, because I would hate to have said "no" to the audition process and let that get in the way of this humongous experience and blessing that I'm receiving now. So, there was never a "hell no" from me.
We all saw the video of Oprah surprising you to tell you that you got the part, but did the two of you have conversations about this character, the way she'd approached her and you would be approaching her?
Not when I played it in 2015, because I was afraid to talk to her. She was a producer, but I didn't want her to feel like I wanted anything from her, so I just hid in a corner and, if she waved at me, I waved back. And that was it. When she called me to pass the baton, it felt like an opportunity to be open and ask and see if she would be willing to talk character. I hit up Scott Sanders, her producing partner, and said, "Do you think she'd mind talking with me?" He was like, "Let me work some things out," and maybe an hour later, we were on the phone. We talked for like an hour and a half, and she was so generous in her storytelling, telling me about her process coming to Sofia, and what it meant to her, and stories from set. I asked her questions like, "Was there anything that she would've done differently?" Any actor question I wanted to ask, she was there.
But I remember, at the end of our conversation, I asked, "Do you mind praying for me?" Without hesitation, she did. But the reason I did that is because I know that Miss Oprah has to have a direct line to God! [Laughs] Like, she just has to! So, I was like, "You're just going to have to pray for me, ma'am," and she did. She blessed this project, and to this day, I feel like, yes, her and God must've had a really good conversation, because things are panning out very well!
In terms of the actorly questions you asked and what she would have done differently, was there anything you took from that conversation that informed how you played Sofia this time?
It was really about the ancestors, and not being afraid to say their names and bring them into the space. That was a really poignant and prominent part of this process, and remembering those that came before was necessary. I thought about Fannie Lou Hamer. There's a woman named Eliza Woods, who was lynched back in that time, and I did research on her. Because I felt like that's the headspace that Sofia was in. She was such a radical woman. So, I did that research and made sure that I called on the ancestors. And a lot of times, it felt like being in a graveyard full of Black women, and just having to hear all of their cries and woes and experiences of oppression, I carried that with me. Especially through the jail scene and through the dinner scene, that really, I think, helped bring the character to life.
Did this feel like a continuation of what you'd done on the stage? Or in certain ways, did you have to start over with her?
It wasn't necessarily starting over, but there was a lot of new discoveries. A lot of new discoveries. One, because I'm now in a different place. I'm a mom, so I get that on a different level. I'm married, so the relationship with Harpo and Sofia has deepened. But also, there was certain things in the script that Marcus Gardley, our beautiful writer, added that really informed a lot of things for me. For example, when Celie tells Harpo to beat Sofia, and Sofia comes and confronts Celie, she asks Celie, "Why did you tell him that?" And Celie says, "Because I'm jealous of you," and that just hit different. That wasn't in the play. Before, I was having the objective to put her in her place, and now the objective is to teach her, to be a mentor of some sort of how to be a woman who can say, "Hell no."
There were so many little details that had changed. But then I also took some stuff from Miss Oprah, too. Like, her fist in "Hell No," I felt like that's such a Sofia moment. And her walk, I really wanted to nail that Sofia walk. There's some things that are so dear to us from the original movie that I didn't want to lose. Regardless of if I say a line the same way or not, it's about the spirit of that, keeping that spirit of Sofia that people love so much, but also adding to it as well.
Having done the musical on stage, what was the most challenging prep work you had to do in order to be ready for the film?
It's all new. First of all, we're dancin'! I don't know if you caught it in "Miss Celie's Pants," but Sofia got lifted in the air by this brother who was probably 150 pounds, picking my 200-pound butt up. [Laughs] That alone was a big challenge. The music was different. "Hell No" is actually much different from the original. So, I understand why Blitz decided to do such a long audition process, so that he really chose the people that would be open to his idea. Because at first, you do hear these changes and you're like, "Why are we getting the 'Hell No' with an upbeat tempo? It's not supposed to be that fast." And then I'm like, Nope. I'm going to go with the flow, and I'm going to see what I can find that can be valuable to supporting this character, versus saying no to it and rejecting it.
It's just so much greater, because when you're in theater, what people don't realize is, once you finish that preview, you lock the show. It's done. You can have all the new discoveries you want to, it don't matter. That stage manager is going to pull you to the side and say, "You need to go back to what we originally did," right? So, getting to do this where I could do a take, and then I could go to Blitz and say, "Yo, Blitz. I know you want me to come through this door, but I really think Sofia would bust it open with her foot. Can we try it?" And he goes, "Yes, I will get them to rig it, so that you can do it however many times." There was a lot of new discoveries, and the freedom that I had to tell this story and live in the specificity, it was limitless. I didn't have anyone holding me back, and I think all of us, as a cast, felt that way.
Anyone familiar with The Color Purple knows the arc Sofia goes on. As the actor playing her, there will be joyous days and grueling days. Are you doing different things on the day to get you where you need to be?
One hundred percent. Like, when I do the first scene with Colman [Domingo], meeting him in the male lounge with Corey [Hawkins], it requires a different thing, which is, "How are we going to keep that ball in the air with one another?" Which is so much fun, because Colman and Corey are such a dream to work with. They're the people you could pass them anything, and they're going to run with it, right? I love that. Those days are lighter too. You can relax a little bit more.
But those jail scenes and that dinner scene? My God. Even the scene with the white mob, I had to do that scene over and over. Sofia hits the mayor and then she gets attacked, and it was so bad, I had to go to the chiropractor for a few weeks. I had to start physical therapy, because my back had went out. Because your body, as an actor, doesn't know you're going through trauma. I have to say, this is one of those moments that playing Sofia in the deeper parts, the painful parts of her, I actually do give a lot of credit to Juilliard for teaching us how to come out of character, to not live in that all the time, because it can be hard. Even with the dinner scene, I ended up doing that speech when I thank Miss Celie and I start laughing and go into that cry over the course of three days, because members of the cast kept catching COVID. Finally, the producers were like, "We've got everybody here, we're going to do this for the third time," and I'm depleted! I don't have anything else to give to the point. For the first time, I did say, "Hell no." I said, "Blitz, I can't do this anymore, I can't!" And then Miss Oprah called me and that's when she told me about calling on the ancestors. So, I did. I put my headphones in until Blitz called action, and the ancestors did show up. They showed up for me.
Do you remember what music you listened to?
I listened to gospel music and I remember specifically listening to Tamela Mann, who actually plays the preacher's wife in the movie. It was a song about giving it to God and letting Him lead the way.
What did it feel like to leave Sofia behind again at the end of this production? To step away knowing this might be the last time you play her?
Nobody's asked me that. It was really when I finished "Hell No" and Blitz said, "That's a wrap on 'Hell No,'" I remember crying in my dressing room, because where the heck am I going to sing that song again?! That was an end of a chapter and a heavy chapter for me. I knew how much that song has been healing in my artistic journey, in my personal life, to say hell no to a lot of fears and doubt I've had within myself. It felt like ending that chapter, and I couldn't believe we were here on that day. I know Sofia will always be with me, though, so that's a beautiful thing. And that's so crazy, because she's a fictional character, and you are getting emotional about a fake person!
But you have had a longer and deeper relationship with her than most actors do with their characters!
I really have. In so many ways too, because a lot of people might not know my full story. My first Broadway play was seeing The Color Purple in 2005. That's where that first spark happened for me of saying, "I can do this." And today, it's like we say: Look what God has done. That's how I feel, look what God has done. It's just a celebration, and this character has led me to this moment, not just through playing her but the conversations with her have led me, Danielle, to this moment. It's amazing. I need more tissue, Lord have mercy!
By John Boone
This article was originally published on Dec. 20, 2023 and has been updated throughout.
A.frame, the digital magazine of the Academy, is excited to celebrate and honor the nominees of the 96th Oscars across several branches by spotlighting their nominated films, craftsmanship, and personal stories. For more on this year's nominees, take a look at our Oscars hub.
Editor's Note: For parity, A.frame reached out to every nominee in the Best Actress in a Supporting Role category for an interview.