The pandemic hit working moms hard. In her new TV role, Danielle Brooks records the toll
Danielle Brooks wanted to find a way to stay creative during quarantine. So she’s starring in a TV show about it.
Set in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, “Social Distance” is an eight-part anthology series — focusing on one person or family each episode — about navigating the uncertainty and unexpected circumstances of this singular moment in history. In the third installment, the former “Orange Is the New Black” star plays Imani, a working single mom trying to figure out how to care for her daughter while also keeping her job.
Now streaming on Netflix, “Social Distance” was shot remotely under various stay-at-home orders designed to limit the spread of the coronavirus. That meant Brooks, a new mom to daughter Freeya, filmed her episode from her parents’ home in South Carolina — and shared the screen with her mother Larita Brooks, who plays a patient with ALS that Brooks cares for at a nursing home.
Now back at her home in Brooklyn, where construction was underway, Brooks chatted with The Times in her backyard via video conference about the way quarantine has helped her relationships with her family, how being a new mom has opened her eyes to the disparities mothers face, and how this year has her thinking about the work she pursues. The following has been edited for clarity and condensed.
In Freeform’s “Love in the Time of Corona,” “Good Trouble” co-creator Joanna Johnson explores relationships amid COVID-19 — real-life couples included.
It feels like 10 years ago at this point, but what do you remember about those early days of the pandemic?
I remember not believing it. I remember being like, “Oh, the government is trying to control us.” I was in Atlanta about to start a new TV show for Netflix, and we had to stop production. And I remember that day hanging out with my friends — it was like four or five of us, just hanging out one last time, knowing it was gonna be a long time before we could do it again. We knew, after this, we’re going to be stuck in the house. And because the baby was like, maybe 4 months old, I didn’t want to take her back to New York because everyone was saying New York was not the place to be during quarantine. So I decided to go to South Carolina, which was two hours away, to my parents’ house. I thought that I was only gonna be there for two weeks. I ended up being there for a little under four months.
Imagine moving back in with your parents, with a baby, without your fiancé — because he has to work and figure out our house stuff back in New York. But I had a great time. I got to know my parents as an adult and a mother. I got to understand them as grandparents. And my brother was there. Growing up, we didn’t get to spend that much time together, so we’re getting to hang out, with him as an adult. And just watch Freeya grow at a slower pace. At the time, they weren’t closing down the parks. So I would get up every morning and walk two, three miles around the park, in the neighborhood, just get to be in nature and get Freeya to enjoy fresh air. It’s been cool to not have that pressure of being a new mom, of the bounce back, and trying to be everything that society tells you you’re supposed to be.
What was the show you were working on? Do you have a sense of when production will resume?
I can’t talk about it. It’s a new show. It’s still in limbo, but we’re hoping for the spring. This show is a little different from the norm. Especially during quarantine, you never know what’s going to happen. Hopefully the show will continue. But you just never know what’s going to take place.
Did you learn anything about yourself through this time?
Once you have a child like, yes, you’re a mom, but who you become as a person really shifts. And so I feel like I’ve been able to take the time to slowly get to know myself, this new Danielle, and really define who I am and what’s important to me. And who I want to present to the world when we come back; how I want to inspire women now, which is very different from who I was pre-quarantine.
I’m super-jealous of everybody getting to home-edit their houses and stuff because I was at my parents’ house, so getting to do the whole spring-cleaning thing happened really late for me — it didn’t happen until the end of summer. I came back to my space with a very clear mind [about] what I wanted to do. Part of what I wanted to do was find routine. As an actor you don’t really have much of that. That’s what I love about my job, the fact that I get to float and be a free bird. But there has to be some consistency that leads to peace and happiness. I’ve really been able to nail down a skin care routine and get my baby on a sleep routine. Those little things that we take for granted, I’ve really been able to do.
Did you bake any sourdough bread or banana bread?
No. I’ve done diets! I’ve been paleo; I thought I was going to do keto. Did intermittent fasting — everything you can imagine to just make sure I don’t gain the quarantine 15. I gained the pregnant 60, so.... But I have come up with some really great dishes. I’ve done this spinach artichoke Parmesan baked chicken. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cooked it. Sweet potato fries. Arugula and mushroom salad — all kinds of healthy stuff I’ve been trying to get into.
In those early days of the pandemic, it became something of a joke guessing how long before this time would be the basis of a TV show or movie. “Social Distance” was the first to be announced back in April. Why was this project appealing to you?
Part of the sanity is getting to continue to do things that you love. And keeping creative, for me, is a part of what keeps me out of spiraling into depression and sadness. I actually did a little Instagram show, or Instagram short film, with my friend Jordan E. Cooper. We did “Mama Got a Cough.” We did that just out of purely wanting to get our creative juices flowing because we’re artists, we can’t stop. And so, when Jenji [Kohan] and Tara [Herrmann, who are executive producers on the series] hit me up about “Social Distance,” I was completely into it because I love to learn. I was like: This is a cool way for me to be exposed to the other side of the table, and see how things work with the lighting, the sound, picking locations — even if they are in your mom’s house.
And then the other layer of it was when they asked if my mom would be involved. First of all, my mom is a fantastic actress. Unfortunately, they didn’t give her any lines because she would have slayed them. She played a woman with ALS, and she has a lot of ‘tude. I just wanted to make memories with her. And my brother is in it as well, he has a very small cameo. I just wanted to create things that we can look back on and say, “We did that together during a pandemic.” And because it’s on television and on Netflix, it’s something that we would tell Freeya about when she is old enough to understand what was happening during this time. She’ll get to say: “Oh, look at what mama and grandma and uncle created together.” And my mom opened her home for this, which was very generous of her because it can feel very invasive. It was cool because my family was able to understand a little bit more about what I do. I remember my mom saying, like, “I [have] a lot more respect for you, Danielle, and what you do because this is not easy.”
You play Imani, a single mom trying to figure out how to keep her job while making sure her child is taken care of — a situation so many parents find themselves in.
I think Imani is a number of women who are single mothers, or even not single mothers, and trying to support their children as best they can in a pandemic. And are trying to do it in the most safe way possible. I say that because we watch her watch her child through video on her phone. There’s no one physically there to be there for her child. There’s a lot of people trying to make ends meet. I definitely know a few Imanis, for sure, trying to make things work during this time when there’s just, financially, no support. And there are a lot of people who have to live paycheck to paycheck. I’m glad they allowed room for this woman’s story to be told.
The same with the character Marsha [that] Stephanie Blake plays. She’s trying to figure things out as well — teaching and trying to figure out how to maneuver and make lesson plans online. It’s just a whole new world that people are having to step into and navigate. What I think we find through this episode is that we’re all in it together. And how can we really look out for our neighbors and be there for each other during this time. It takes a village to stay afloat.
Like most scripted TV series, CBS legal drama “All Rise” was on hold for the coronavirus outbreak — until producers hatched a plan for a virtual season finale.
There’s been some research showing that more women are leaving the workforce because they are carrying the childcare load during the pandemic. Do you think the childcare issues get enough attention?
This is a new topic for me. It’s not something that was even on my radar until I had a baby. I didn’t even think about why we haven’t spent time talking about it more. But now that I am in it, I definitely think it’s worth people talking about it and sharing their stories. Art reflects life and life reflects art and the more we see it, the more we talk about it. Even with “Orange Is the New Black,” it started conversations about ICE, police brutality, and incarceration — the list goes on.
I’ve been blessed to be financially stable, but it’s not cheap, to have someone look after your child and to continue trying to reach for the dreams that you have; trying to continue to work at the level that you want to work at. I think that’s why women start to lose themselves, is because you might not have the resources to help you continue to be yourself. I think the part that is left out of the conversation is the sacrifice that women make being mothers, and a part of that is giving up the things that you enjoy and love and that bring you happiness. Some of that comes from not being able to afford childcare. That’s something that, when we first had Freeya, we were definitely debating on, like, “What do we do?” And I knew I wasn’t not going to work. But that light bulb does kind of flicker. Do I just sit out for a year? Do I sit out until she can go to preschool, just to save money? And I’m not willing to sacrifice that. So she is coming with me everywhere I go. Everyone has different situations. But speaking for myself, it’s taught me to advocate more for myself, and to advocate for what I need. So I definitely try to add that into contracts: “You want me, I come with a baby and a nanny.”
And I would assume it puts things in perspective, in terms of even have the ability to make a choice, because a lot of people can’t make the choice.
That is the crazy thing. A lot of people don’t have the choice. That is why we have to continue to talk about it. It’s hard to even encourage women to tell your boss what you need, because every situation is different. Some people can’t. They don’t have the luxury to say that.
Between the coronavirus, the racial injustice protests, the upcoming election, this year has caused a lot of people to reflect about their life, their work, and what changes they want to make. How has it got you thinking about the projects you want to pursue?
I remember everybody saying in 2019: 2020 will be the year of clarity! 20/20 vision. We have manifested that as a world. I think that’s the biggest thing it’s given me: to get clear on who I am, what I believe, what I stand for, and what I want to add to this world, how I want to support America. I think I’ve always had a bit of that mind-set when it comes to work, as soon as I was part of something like “Orange” and was exposed to the brilliant minds that worked on that show and how they really were all about pushing the needle forward and making this place better. I knew from that point on, like from the first press junket, what we do as artists is way bigger than collecting a check.
I’ve kind of always led with that mentality: What you’re doing is bigger than you, so be careful what you put out there or be aware of what you’re putting out there. So with everything that I do, who I am, the uniqueness of how I’ve been created, I will always be pushing the needle in a way — just being a plus-size Black woman, dark skin, natural hair. That alone will always kind of change the game. Everything that I do in my career has to be light years away from the box I am supposed to be put in. That’s my goal.
When: Any time, starting Thursday
Rating: Not Rated
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