When speaking about her performance as Sofia in Warner Bros.’ new big-screen musical “The Color Purple,” Danielle Brooks references Maya Angelou: “You come as one, but you stand as 10,000.”
The quote resonates with Brooks not just because it was imparted to her by Oprah Winfrey, who played Sofia in Steven Spielberg’s celebrated 1985 film, but because it confirms that she belongs in the role of the outspoken young woman who refuses to be cowed by bigotry in the Jim Crow South.
The words reminded Brooks that she represented the many different Sofias — the real-life versions of the character out there and the many actresses who have portrayed her over the years — but that she was the one playing the role in this film, directed by Blitz Bazawule.
The actress, who broke out with her role in the Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black,” is still grappling with the increased visibility that’s coming with “The Color Purple” — which opens in theaters on Dec. 25 — and the growing buzz around her layered performance.
Sofia says “hell no” to injustice, and commands scene after scene — sometimes with humor, as when she responds to the misogynist Mister (Colman Domingo), and sometimes with pure devastating emotion, as in the third act, when she’s thrown in jail. “People are writing me monologues in DMs. I’m getting voice memos that are five minutes long. I’m getting calls from people I’ve never heard from in years,” Brooks said during an interview with TheWrap.
It’s a heady change from the decades of self-doubt the actress has battled during her career. Born in Georgia and raised in South Carolina, Brooks, 34, started acting at age six, in a church nativity play. When she was eight, she saw the 1997 made-for-TV remake of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella,” and Natalie Desselle Reid’s performance as the evil stepsister Minerva made her think she might have a future in Hollywood.
“To see this full-figured woman in this Victorian dress, with this funky hair, just being so big and brash, not hiding, had vocals for days, moves for days, comedy for days — I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s me. I can do that.’” Brooks also nodded to Laura Winslow on the popular 1990s ABC sitcom “Family Matters” as an example of positive representation. But the doubts lingered. “It’s not that I didn’t see myself, but I saw myself very little,” she said. “Growing up, there was a huge lack of representation for dark skinned, plus size girls [who] were curvy.”
That continued after Brooks graduated from Juilliard in 2011. “I was waitressing, babysitting, dog walking, typist,” she said. “Whatever I could do to make $20, I was doing it — besides selling myself.” Meeting casting agents was particularly nerve-wracking. “I was so confused on how to present myself to the world,” Brooks said. “Do I do curly hair? Do I straighten my hair? I can’t lighten my skin, so we’re gonna have to stick with that. How do I fit?”
She credits a conversation with her future “The Color Purple” castmate, Colman Domingo, with giving her the push she needed. She first met him at the Signature Theatre in New York, after seeing him in “Passing Strange.”
“He was like, ‘How are you doing?’ And I said, ‘I’m really struggling. I don’t know if there is a place for me in this industry. I don’t know if I’m doing this right because Juilliard taught me how to act. It didn’t prepare me for this industry,’” she said. “He encouraged me and was like, ‘No, you can’t quit. You have to put one foot in front of the other. You can do this.’”
And then, “by the grace of God,” as Brooks put it, came Jenji Kohan’s Netflix series about women in prison, “Orange Is the New Black.” Inmate Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson proved to be Brooks’ breakout role, and she played the fan favorite character for all seven seasons of the dramedy’s run, from 2013 to 2019, picking up three NAACP Image Awards nominations along the way.
In 2015, right in the middle of those seven seasons, Brooks’ life changed again when she landed the role of Sofia in the Broadway revival of “The Color Purple.” The performance earned her a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical and a Grammy win for Best Musical Theater Album. (Later, in 2021, she scored her first Emmy nomination, for playing Mahalia Jackson in “Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia” biopic for Lifetime.)
Despite Brooks’ deep familiarity with Sofia, preparing to tell the story on the big screen presented a new challenge. She was wary of relying on (and by extension, measuring up to) Winfrey’s original Oscar-nominated performance. Still, she reached out to the powerhouse magnate, since she, along with Spielberg and Quincy Jones, are producers on the new film. “These are huge shoes to fill, not only because of Miss O’s legacy, but it is true, I am representing the 10,000,” Brooks said. “What she did [in her performance] was life-changing to so many people because of the healing that happened. I know that I have the same responsibility.”
The legacy of “The Color Purple” is far-reaching. And Brooks felt it during the new film’s production in Georgia every time she stepped on set. She thought about “being on a plantation, walking by trees and thinking about the people [who] might have been hung from those trees, feeling the dirt on your boots and actually getting dust in your face.” Shooting a scene where a white woman slaps Sofia produced a visceral reaction that took her off guard at first. “It brought up a lot of emotions for me that I used on-screen,” Brooks said. “I grew up in the South and I remember being called the N-word for the first time in third grade. There’s a lot of memories that come up, not only for myself, but the stories from my family that our land was stolen by the KKK back in the ’60s.”
My worth does not lie in any statue. I would love to have one, but that’s not where my worth lies.”Danielle Brooks
As awards season heats up, Brooks is aware that she could be in the race for an Oscar nomination. But she’s trying to block all that chatter out, even though she is a lifelong fan of the Academy Awards. “I have definitely been that teenager watching all the award shows like it’s the Super Bowl — getting that sheet out with your friends to see who’s gonna be the winner,” she said. But, she added, “I have to know that my worth does not lie in any statue. I would love to have one, but that’s not where my worth lies. My worth lies in being the best mother I can be, the best wife I can be, a representation for people [who] don’t feel seen and heard.” (Brooks and her husband Dennis Gelin are parents to a preschool-age daughter.)
What she does take seriously is her increased self-confidence. “This definitely feels different,” she said. “I’m trying to learn how to stand in my power, and it’s exciting to start becoming the person you are inside without this doubt about it. For years, I’ve had doubts about am I good enough? Can I really achieve the things that I feel in my heart are possible? I’m at that point where I believe they are.”
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