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.
Q: It feels like 10 years ago at this point, but what do you remember about those early days of the pandemic?
A: 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 fiance — 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.
Q: What was the show you were working on? Do you have a sense of when production will resume?
A: 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.
Q: 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?
A: 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.”
Q: 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.
A: 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.