No matter how many times we’ve heard the old maxim about the darkness being but a prelude to new light, when we are held hostage by those fearsome, obsidian hours, remaining steadfast can feel an impossible feat. Just ask Uzo Aduba, whose rocket ride to “overnight success” as the iconic Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black was, in truth, more closely resembled a Model T’s calamitous ascent of Kilimanjaro in a blizzard. So cold the climate and blustery the landscape as an up and coming New York stage actor aiming to eek out a living on the boards, that Aduba, now a 34-year old winner of an Emmy and SAG Award, quit the business – only minutes before being offered the role that would change everything. When Orange, unspooling a third season June 12, premiered and quickly became a cultural phenomenon, audiences very quickly found itself with “feelings, love feelings” for Aduba. The actress’ performance as “Crazy Eyes” – though Aduba will only call the character “Suzanne” – is flamboyant, mercurial, and heartbreaking, giving uncommon depth and rich nuance to an incarcerated woman-child who yearns only to be loved. Her Orange alter ego may or may not ever find that love, but it’s very clear: Aduba has found her new light, and it is orange, and she’s going to dance in it any way she wants.
You’ve said that your entry to the character of Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren came quickly, that it was in the script itself, that she was described as being “innocent like a child – except children aren’t scary.”
Yes! Exactly! What I saw in that was someone whose intentions are entirely pure, who's entirely well intended with their actions, despite how those actions might be executed sometimes. That helped me realize that what we're talking about on Orange, with my character specifically is a love story, a supreme love story. In season one and season two, Suzanne loves hard, and I love hard. I know I have in my life. I love very deeply. I like to think of myself as a passionate person and someone who, if you are in my world, I will fight as hard as I can for you, for what is just and what is right. So I found that connection with this character. That was my way in. That felt like the key.
You know the old saying about the road to hell being paved with good intentions.
(Laughs) We’ll see how that goes for Suzanne.
Brick by brick, she is, oftentimes, laying a pretty terrible road for herself.
That’s part of the child in her, though. If a baby is learning to walk and they quit trying the first time they fell down, they’d never learn to walk. Like that, Suzanne just keeps going at the things she wants — over and over again, despite the obstacles, despite the challenges. She keeps thinking that if she just shows people one more time how loyal she is or how much she needs or how hard she can love that she’ll get it in return. She doesn’t realize that that’s only a child’s idea of love.
Your parents emigrated from Nigeria a few decades ago. Does that inform your life, your work as an artist?
I think it's impossible for it not to. I think we're all a product of our environments, regardless of what those environments are, and we're supremely a product of our upbringing in some shades and colors. I grew up as a Nigerian in a Christian nation. I was raised to know that I am Nigerian. I’m from a very long lineage of proud Nigerians. But there are not a lot of Nigerians in New England! (Laughs) So there was always a push-pull inside of me, and that’s something that I definitely bring to Suzanne. I understand what its like to feel different.
You come from a family and a culture of very strong women too. How does that impact your work?
I think of the women in my family – my aunts, cousins, my mother – and they take up space. I’m from a very, very female-driven home. My mom is one of 11 girls. This stock of women is very strong. They were sent to school at a time when most women didn’t go to school. But my grandfather believed that if someone was strong enough and smart enough to go to college, they should go. It didn’t matter if that person was a woman. So these are very strong, very educated, very present women. Suzanne might not have all of those qualities, but she does have a lot of presence. She takes up space.
Your grandfather would probably approve of your refusal to acknowledge the gender limitations of roles you’d like to play. A few years back, you said one of your dream roles if Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. That’s not a role typically played by a Nigerian woman!
(Laughs) It’s so funny you say that! The other role I’d really love to play is Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar!
Back to Orange, when we last left Suzanne, she was in a pretty tricky place, much trickier than she yet knows. What can you tease about the upcoming season?
You know what's interesting? The show's creator, Jenji (Kohan), from the very beginning of this show, has really been toying with this idea of faith. I find that so unique and so interesting. In the world of this show, populated with these particular women, in these specific circumstances, to hone in on the idea of faith, of all things, is profoundly interesting to me. What is faith? What is it really? Is it religion? Is it blind belief? Is it some sort of confidence or faith in one’s self? Suzanne has always been a woman looking for something to believe in, I think. She’s had a few different idols in her past, let’s put it that way. (Laughs) So what is faith for her now?
The role on Orange has genuinely “made” your career. You’ve got a fairly crowded mantel full of awards. You’ve captured the eyes of the very best storytellers in town. And yet, it’s a job you came very, very close to never getting.
That’s true. Forty-five minutes before I was offered Orange, I had quit acting.
Tell that story.
I’d been doing theater in New York, and I loved it. Just loved it. But my management really wanted me to give a shot to some film and television auditions, and I just wasn’t interested. I kept saying no. Finally, I gave in. I said okay. So the plan was to hang up all of the theater work, take no more theater auditions, no offers, and I’d just headfirst into trying to get film and TV work. I was making a living in theater, and no one knew who I was in film and television, so it was pretty terrifying. I had no prospects, but they lined up a lot of auditions, and I went at them pretty aggressively, mostly because I was terrified. I just didn’t know what was coming. And I’d do these auditions and I kept hearing, “No, no, no. Thank you – but no.” It kept getting harder and harder, and it sort of felt like starting all over as an actor, but from a harder place. It was becoming too much. It was becoming really hard to swallow. The straw that broke the camel’s back was an audition I had for an episode of Blue Bloods. Before the audition, I read the script and I was practicing how I would audition, and I was thinking, “Oh, I have these two lines. I could definitely do something interesting with this one.” So I’m feeling pretty good and I’m heading to the audition, but I was given the wrong directions, so I walked in, like, 25-minutes late.
Not a great start.
No! (Laughs) I went in. I read. I remember feeling like I’d done a really great audition, like they liked me, but I figured, “You’re never going to get that job because you were 25 minutes late.” I just knew the job wasn’t going to be mine. It wasn’t for me. And I broke into tears on the way home. I’m riding the train home – three trains – and I was just sobbing the whole time. I got home and I was boo-hooing, and I finally said to myself, “That’s it. I quit. You win. I’m giving it up.” My parents had always wanted me to be a lawyer anyway. I wouldn’t say I was happy about any of it, but I was definitely at peace with it.
It was a Friday evening, September 15, 2012. I decided I’d call my agent first thing Monday morning and let them know I was done. And then, at 5:43 pm, I got the phone call that they wanted me on Orange is the New Black.
With all of that in mind, what advice do you have for artists just now putting their feet to the path?
Belief is the first tool you need to put in your toolbox of acting. Start with belief in yourself. If no one else believes in you, and there may be those days, then you must believe in yourself. You have to believe and then take that belief and put it into everything that you do. Every single thing.