Danielle Brooks is blessed and highly favored

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Something about Danielle Brooks has always felt familiar to me: that deep internal glow, those high cheekbones. Whenever I saw her on TV, on Broadway, on the big screen, there was a whisper that we’d met before. Then — on a recent Zoom call — we figured out we had.

It was spring 2013 at Washington’s Arena Stage, at a reception for “The Mountaintop.” I was juggling a plastic cup of white wine and an open notebook when a young woman, with curls flowing like a river down her back, came over to say hello. She’d made me as a reporter. Brooks was there to support Joaquina Kalukango, her bestie and Juilliard classmate, who co-starred in the play. After singing her friend’s praises, the actress with the angelic face told me with a smile, “You’re going to be writing about me one day.”

About four months after that, Brooks debuted as Taystee in Netflix’s prison dramedy “Orange Is the New Black,” becoming an almost-instant fan favorite — and the rest is, well, still being written.

“See, those are the things that make me cry. Don’t do that,” Brooks told me last week after we pieced together why we recognized one another. “Now here we are,” I said, pointing to her long-ago prophecy fulfilled: We were talking, finally, following her first Oscar nomination, for performing the wheels off Sofia in the musical film adaptation of Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple.”

Looking back on the promise of those early days isn’t really what makes her cry (more on that later). But our encounter all those years ago was a clear sign that, even as a 23-year-old Black actress trying to find her way without an obvious map, Brooks knew exactly where she was headed.

As of January, Brooks has been officially EGOT-nominated. The singer and theater-trained actress won a Grammy in 2017 for the cast recording of the Broadway revival of “The Color Purple”; she also was nominated for a Tony for her role in the musical. In 2021 she earned her first Emmy nomination for playing gospel great Mahalia Jackson in the Lifetime movie “Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia.” And now the missing puzzle piece: an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress.

Brooks got the call about her nod at 3 in the morning New Zealand time. She’d been working (“a blessing”) and had finally drifted off to sleep after hours of anxious waiting. Her husband, Dennis, and 4-year-old daughter, Freeya, delivered the news.

“It’s wild because you pray for moments like these — to just have an overflow of blessings and abundance. And then what happens is sometimes your blessings kind of like …”

“They stack up?” I offered.

Brooks has been booked and busy. She’d landed in Los Angeles the day before our chat after a 13-hour flight. She’d spent the previous six weeks shooting “Minecraft” with Jason Momoa and Jack Black. When I asked how she was doing, the preacher’s kid peeked through. “I am blessed and highly favored,” she said, echoing a Sunday morning greeting, before adding, “because I have finally gotten some sleep.”

The 21-hour time difference left Brooks in a contemplative mood; she felt like she was back from the future. Because of work, she missed a lot of the perks that accrue for the awards season’s anointed. She didn’t make the Oscar nominees luncheon and had to pass on the BAFTAs. But she was back for the final leg. Or as her character announces, during an iconic “The Color Purple” scene: “Oh Sofia home now!” Present and ready for whatever comes next.

“It’s a lot,” said Brooks, echoing so many first-time Oscar nominees’ assessment of the glittery yet grueling weeks leading up to “actors’ Olympics.” And still, for some reason, she thought it might be easier. That the road to the big night would be smooth like fresh pavement.

Because hadn’t she done all the hard work already? She returned to Broadway, starring alongside Samuel L. Jackson and John David Washington in the 2022 revival of August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson.” She’s gone comic book in the delightfully weird “Suicide Squad” spinoff “Peacemaker.” And now “Minecraft,” a franchise-in-waiting based on one of the biggest video games in the world.

Right now, though, it’s interviews, ceremonies, glad-handing, red carpets, more interviews … “I don’t know why I thought this would be like that Julie Andrews song — rainbows and whiskers,” Brooks told me. “It comes with mountains because that’s how we grow. That’s how we are able to get to whatever next level that the universe or God is preparing us for.”

Her powerhouse performance in “The Color Purple” has garnered Brooks more than half a dozen nominations, including some wins, but she’s yet to pick up a trophy on the three biggest stages: the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs and the Academy Awards.

“When I reflect on all the moments in my life that have been highlights,” said Brooks — getting into Juilliard, booking “Orange Is the New Black,” landing Sofia on Broadway and in the film — “none of it’s come with ease. None of it has been smooth sailing.”

To explain how she was feeling, Brooks reached back to her roots in the Black church. Her father was a deacon and her mother a minister in their hometown of Simpsonville, S.C. So she turned to the Good Book, Luke 12:48: “To whom much is given, much is definitely required,” she said. Being a successful mainstream actor — one with shiny hardware, critical praise and a loyal fandom — is “tricky.” She is balancing selflessness with being a little selfish. Competitiveness with being supportive. Gratefulness with honesty.

“That’s what’s hard for me to navigate,” she admitted. “How can I not be performative? How can I really show up as myself?”

“How do you do it?” I asked.

“How do you do it?” she repeated, confirming what a big question that is.

“No, I’m really asking. I don’t know.”

It starts with a lot of grounding. With knowing that she is not her work. Acting is her passion, part of her purpose, yet it doesn’t define Danielle, the very real woman who is now playfully complaining about the way her wig is flipping to the right. Separating the who from the what can be nearly impossible in an industry that “blows a lot of smoke up your butt,” she said.

So there’s a place she goes for clarity: the Quiet Zone. After a firestorm of you’re greats and you’re amazings, Brooks heads to the QZ to clear her head.

“That’s my work. That’s my daughter. That’s my family. Quiet Zone. So that I can perceive myself as who I know I am versus what people tell me I am,” Brooks said.

And who is she? That took the 34-year-old a little time to figure out. The industry doesn’t wait for its stars to build their own Quiet Zones before it comes knocking. You’re simply expected to be ready to answer.

“So once I entered into Hollywood, it was a shock to the system,” said Brooks. “I became famous in 13 hours.”

She’s talking about “Orange Is the New Black.” The 23-year-old I’d met in D.C. had just started filming the series and had no idea what it would become, a hit that helped usher in the era of big streaming.

The year before, she could barely make her $600 rent in New York. Her closest friends and Juilliard classmates — Kalukango, Corey Hawkins — had hit the ground running, while Brooks was left struggling to find her lane.

The actress recalled a time when she could hear Kalukango, then her roommate, rehearsing lines to a part Brooks had also auditioned for. Now she can laugh about it, but then? She had to have a come to Danielle moment — several of them. Like the time she was hired to braid hair for a show she’d auditioned for but didn’t get. The money she made ($25 per session) helped pay for the monthly MetroCard to keep putting herself out there. Brooks had to redefine what it meant to win.

“Success was being able to keep my head up and to be a cheerleader for my friends too,” she said. “To genuinely celebrate the way that their success looked without dimming the success that I had as well.” She held on to the lesson.

Brooks has had to clap politely as other actresses have gone home with trophies that could have been hers. You get the award or you don’t, you get the job or you don’t, you get to tell a story or you don’t. Hollywood is a zero-sum game. Or at least that’s what they’d have you believe. For Brooks to thrive, it required some internal reconstructing. Thankfully, she did that hard work years ago in the apartment she shared with Kalukango, listening her friend go over the lines she wanted to do — a wall away from a win.

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The best supporting actress category at the Oscars is stacked. Thus far, “The Holdovers” co-star Da’Vine Joy Randolph has picked up both the Golden Globe and the BAFTA. The two stars, who’ve known one another since the beginning of their careers, tied for the African-American Film Critics Association’s best supporting actress trophy. During her speech, Brooks said of those early days: “At the time it felt like there could only be one of us, and that is not true.”

“So I’m going to be transparent and vulnerable with you,” Brooks said as she began to well up. “But that’s the same with Da’Vine, you know. I cannot measure my success by hers. And I am continuously reminding myself to be that same young woman that I was 11 years ago. To celebrate her wins and know that doesn’t take anything from me. I’m still winning in my own way. My success is still success, but it will always look different from anyone else’s.”

Brooks called that perspective a “beautiful gift,” but heavy nonetheless. It wasn’t an easy lesson to learn the first time around, either. But once again Brooks may have to redefine what winning looks like.

In the meantime, the actress is not only reckoning with the release of ego but also letting go of Sofia, a character who defined the first chapter of her career. Sofia inspired her to act. Playing Sofia on Broadway showed her range. Playing her again on the big screen got her an Oscar nomination. Whatever happens at the Oscars on March 10, Brooks is moving on from the character who gave her so much and making room for more.

“I’m excited to see what else I can bring to truly break the box of what women that look like me have been able to play,” said Brooks. “So sci-fi, some romantic comedies, some western. I’m excited to enter into these worlds that we just ain’t been in.”

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