Tell a fan of Orange Is the New Black that you are going to interview Uzo Aduba, better known as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren, the pie-throwing, Shakespeare-reciting, erotica-writing emotional heart of the groundbreaking ensemble show, and you will get a strong, immediate reaction: “I love her!” Of course, this fan is not alone in loving Aduba, whose nuanced portrayal of a complicated character veers from straight comedy to emotionally wrenching drama and back again. This type of emotional expansiveness is surprising for the audience, but it’s something the actress has come to understand. Over brunch last month at James, a restaurant not far from her Brooklyn home, Aduba tells me that Suzanne is “the only person who doesn’t underestimate themselves in Litchfield [Prison, where the show is set]. She thinks of herself as limitless. Suzanne, somewhere in her mind, I think she thinks that she can fly.”
Suzanne is not the only one flying high: In the last couple of years, Aduba has won back-to-back Emmys (one for Best Guest Actress in a Comedy, and one for Best Supporting Actress in a Drama, a categorical quirk that puts her in the record books), a SAG Supporting Actress award, and other kudos and nominations. This puts the actress on a small list of performers who could actually win an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony) one day. What other actress can you think of who can play the boards in London, has multiple Broadway shows under her belt before the age of thirty, and appeared onstage with Taylor Swift in New York and Los Angeles, dueting on “White Horse” for the latter and bringing the house down?
Aduba, 34, has traveled a long path as an artist. Her family emigrated from Nigeria to the small Boston suburb of Medfield, Massachusetts, where she was born; her name, Uzoamaka, means “the road is good.” She moved to Brooklyn soon after graduating from Boston University, where she trained in opera and classical theater, and she’s lived here for eleven years, telling me, charmingly, “I love a Fort Greene situation.”
On the day we meet, Aduba was celebrating an anniversary of sorts. Four years ago to the day was the Broadway opening of the 2011 Godspell revival, in which she sang a soulful lead on a version of “By Your Side” that inspired (and still inspires, via the original soundtrack) goosebumps and shivers. Four years is a blip in someone’s life; it’s high school. But such a small time in the span of a life can often augur a period of growth and change. For Aduba these last four years have felt “like an incredible transition, into a new space. It’s one that I’m acquainting myself with as best as one can without having any real sense of what it is at the other side.”
After all, four years ago, Aduba was a well-received theater actress, but certainly not a well-known name. She was trying to get more roles in television and movies, putting it all on the line, and facing rejection and frustration. She got to a point, after a fruitless audtion for a two-line role on the CBS show Blue Bloods, where she quit acting.
“I’d had doubts,” she says. “But I’d never quit in my heart. That day I did.” Incredibly enough, the very day she quit was the day that she got the phone call that changed her life: the offer to play Suzanne on Orange Is the New Black.
One of Netflix’s first forays into original streaming content back in the olden days of 2013, Orange Is the New Black seemed awfully hoary at first glance. Based on Piper Kerman’s terribly titled nonfiction book about a middle class Smith graduate’s year in a women’s prison in Connecticut, the first preview for the show was uninspiring. Rilo Kiley played on the soundtrack and Piper (Taylor Schilling) was just another skinny blonde star, surrounded by a wacky cast of supporting characters of various ethnicities and identities, all of whom seemed like props for a yuppie’s emotional journey through the harsh realities of today’s prison system.
But it turned out that Orange Is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan—best known at that point for the Showtime series Weeds, about a hot suburban mom selling marijuana—was playing us all. Orange Is the New Black might have initially come on like a series of Women in Prison stereotypes—complete with femme and butch lesbians, gang-banging bitches and anything else you could imagine—only to upend the audience’s expectations at every turn. The pleasure of the first season felt like falling in love with a wide array of women who we saw at their most vulnerable and at their most boisterous, and who existed in a world mostly without men. Names like Suzanne, Taystee, Poussey, Nicky, Red, Alex, Big Boo, and Jackie started to mean something.
Played by mostly unfamiliar, wildly talented, highly-trained actresses, who only had Law and Order and The Good Wife guest spots on their resumes, these characters ended up feeling like women we already knew, women with whom we interacted, women we walked by on the streets of Brooklyn, women who—in their varying sizes, ages, ethnic and class backgrounds—could be you or me.
When we first meet Aduba’s Suzanne, she is called “Crazy Eyes,” and she’s a poetry-spouting loon determined to make Piper her prison wife, crooning “chocolate and vanilla… swirl, swiiiiiirl,” and stressing her “dandelion” out with the possibility of prison sex. But by the time we watch Suzanne humiliated and crying alone in her bunk, we ‘re recalibrating what we feel about this character, realizing that the name “Crazy Eyes” is a cruel and undeserved nickname. The reason our feelings twist and turn is thanks to Aduba’s portrayal of Suzanne; she explains: “I’m the most responsible for the possession of her dignity… There is great care and responsibility in how I approach her. She is such a lovely person, and such a loving person that I become really invested in just playing that side of her, and playing as much of her organically. She’s not perfect, and she doesn’t profess to be, and I try to let as much of her light in as I possibly can.”
In a phone interview, Aduba’s OItNB co-star Danielle Brooks, who plays Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson, says, “She completely removes Uzo Aduba and allows her entire being to be taken over by the character. She gives her whole being over to the character and it’s so admirable to see an actor do that.” Not every actor has this skill, she says. “We hope to do that. When you act with Uzo, your acting is only going to get better because she’s at a certain place.” It’s an uncanny thing to see in the audience, and for Brooks, “it feels so electric.”
In fact, Aduba’s ability to disappear on screen is so complete that it’s a genuine shock after having brunch with her—where she’s warm and generous, with a hearty laugh and a tendency to punctuate her points by putting her hand on your arm—to turn on OItNB and see her vanish into Suzanne. If you want to recreate this feeling at home, watch one of Aduba’s Emmy acceptance speeches, and then watch a particularly emotional Suzanne-centered OItNB episode. You will get whiplash. Many actors coast on persona, but Aduba’s particular portrayal is more like possession.
And now that OItNB has raised her profile, with two Emmys, magazine covers, and a much-loved social media presence, Aduba is busy. In November, she finished a role in Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut, an adaptation of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. In December 2015, she’ll be stepping into the shoes of Lena Horne, singing live on NBC in The Wiz as Glinda the Good Witch, during which she’ll get to sing the show-stopping “Believe In Yourself (Reprise).” And in February 2016, she’ll be in London, playing Solange in the Jamie Lloyd Company’s adaptation of Jean Genet’s classic The Maids.
Savvy about what makes this version of The Maids provocative—namely, that it will be a contemporary version, set in America, with two African-American women playing the maids—Aduba explains, “It forces the play to be infused with a different energy and color, pun intended. When I read this play, I was looking for the answer, the bottom of something, and I wanted to get to the bottom of Solange’s smirk. She has something she’s saying, but she’s not saying it, and I wanted to get to the bottom of what she’s choosing not to say.” When she announced the play on her Twitter feed, she got a sense of OItNB’s global reach: Fans were freaking out all over the world, ready to pick up tickets to a West End show. Remember? They love her.
The same holds true, though, for the people who know her and work with her; Brooks, who’s also juggling the now-filming fourth season of OItNB and The Color Purple on Broadway, tells me that Aduba “can be the busiest person alive and if you need her, she will talk to you past midnight through whatever you need… I’m truly grateful to call her a ‘sister friend,’ as we say, because I don’t have any sisters so she’s definitely become that for me.”
Indeed, it makes sense that the themes of compassion and care come up again and again when thinking about Aduba, because at the core of Aduba’s artistry, there’s a strong sense of love and empathy—and gratitude. “I want to tell the stories I’ve been missing,” Aduba says. “I’m interested in portraying and representing people that are missing from the portrait of our lives. I meet and see people from all walks of life, and I wonder why they’re missing from the framework of storytelling and the framework of our narratives.”
Aduba describes the experience of performing with Taylor Swift, as feeling like “a wall of love coming at you.” She speaks about performing as a moment of connection and understanding, of an intimacy that’s born and renewed, night after night. Aduba explains: “I am on stage saying thank you. Thank you.” And all her fans are in the audience, saying it back. ♦
photos by Jessica Yatrofsky
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hair by Vanessa Heshima Sims
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make up by Janice Kinjo
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