The world might call them Crazy Eyes and Taystee, but for the women playing them, it’s not that simple.
In fact, over lunch at a Manhattan café, Uzo Aduba and Danielle Brooks, two breakout stars of Netflix’s prison dramedy “Orange Is the New Black,” cop to some very strong ideas about their characters’ names.
Take Brooks, who plays the free-spirited inmate Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson. From the very first scene in the pilot—when she compliments a fellow prisoner’s perky breasts for “standing up on their own”—her sunny self-confidence and salty humor made her a lady you wanted to discuss with your friends. And the fact that her name was Taystee only made her more fabulous.
However, thanks to Brooks’ subtle performance, we eventually saw the darkness beneath that cheery disposition, particularly when Taystee intentionally got herself sent back to prison after facing the grim reality of life on the outside. According to Brooks, Season 2—which Netflix made available for streaming on June 6—pushes the character even further down that troubled road. Though she won’t give specifics, she says we learn more about Taystee’s past and the things she’s running from.
And that’s why Brooks has begun referring to her character as Tasha. “She still is Taystee in a lot of ways, but watching her journey from the first episode of Season 2 to the end makes me feel like she’s coming back to Tasha’s identity,” she explains. “Out of respect for her growth, I feel like I should call her Tasha.”
Brooks gets passionate when she talks about this, and that’s the norm for this show. When it arrived last summer, you could almost see the light bulbs going on as people realized what it was. In a culture that often limits female actors to paper-thin supporting roles, this show, created by Jenji Kohan as her follow-up to “Weeds,” put women at the center of the story. Even better, it featured women of all shapes, ages, colors, and sexualities. Honest and diverse and refreshing, it was a show you could love—really love—whether you were creating it or watching it at home.
“There’s an incredibly deep sense of connection,” says Aduba, whose magnetic performance makes it easy to adore Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren, a mentally unbalanced misfit who fancies herself a ladykiller.
But unlike Brooks, who only recently added “Tasha” to her vocabulary, Aduba has never used her character’s nickname. “Personally, I feel protective of her, and that name doesn’t bear anything good or positive,” she says. “She is Suzanne to me because she doesn’t look at herself as crazy. There’s no reason for her to call herself Crazy Eyes.”
As they adjust to their evolving characters, both actors are also acclimating to the camera. Though they’ve both done guest spots, “Orange” is their first major TV project after careers in the theater. Aduba earned a Lucille Lortel Award nomination for last season’s Off-Broadway musical “Venice,” for instance, while Brooks is a recent graduate of Juilliard’s Drama Division, and they’re still navigating the differences between stage and screen.
Photo Credit: Chad Griffith
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Kimberly Foster is the founder and editor of For Harriet. Email or Follow @KimberlyNFoster