For years, Uzo Aduba was known mainly as a Broadway actress — she starred in the revival of the musical “Godspell” a few years back. But these days she’s known for her deeply sympathetic portrayal of Suzanne, a.k.a. “Crazy Eyes,” on the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black.” The role earned Uzo an Emmy last year, and she’s up for another next month.
“Crazy Eyes” is an inmate at a women’s prison, and she’s funny, imaginative… and also, clearly mentally disturbed. When Rico met with Uzo, he asked if she’d diagnosed her character.
Uzo Aduba: You know, well, I mean… she says she’s not crazy, she’s unique. Specifically, I think it’s emotional expression that is where she’s been stunted developmentally. And we see that when we see her back story. That she’s —
Rico Gagliano: She’s adopted by a white family, actually.
Uzo Aduba: Absolutely, she’s been adopted by a white family, and has always felt other. And as far as her imagination is concerned she’s always been other as well.
Rico Gagliano: She’s overly imaginative, I’d say.
Uzo Aduba: Overly imaginative! Or has imagination “of a different sort,” as I like to think of it. You know, I think it provokes a conversation about how, if you have never been a part of the fold or felt like you belong, how that might directly impact how you grow.
Rico Gagliano: Actually, we have a clip here that I think illustrates this very well. There’s a character in the prison named Vee who has actually made Suzanne, Crazy Eyes, feel like she is part of the fold for maybe the first time in her life. And she is so enthralled to Vee that she actually allows Vee to convince her that she attacked a fellow inmate… when in fact, it was Vee who did it. And this is a scene where she’s talking about this with her prison counselor. [Ed note: clip from season 2 plays. The clip featured below is from season 3, and features Suzanne and the counselor referenced above.]
She is an outrageous character. And when you talk about the way she expresses herself, she’s pretty over-the-top almost all of the time. But this character exists in a world that’s pretty gritty and realistic, this prison world.
Uzo Aduba: That’s right.
Rico Gagliano: So I imagine there are challenges in trying to portray an over-the-top character in a way that doesn’t become cartoonish.
Uzo Aduba: Well, I think that starts with our show creator, Jenji Kohan, and her team of writers, who have done a very elegant job keeping her rooted in something. So then, for me the actor, I can understand her pursuits, and her pursuits are love-based: She’s always in the pursuit of love. And they always have that inside the body of who she is.
For me, I just try to keep her grounded in that absolute truth. You know, if there are moments where she needs to be broader or bigger, then starting from the place of this truth, where she-
Rico Gagliano: She’s doing it because wants love.
Uzo Aduba: Yes, she has absolute reason and she has justified every single step of what’s she’s doing.
Rico Gagliano: Speaking of writers and your relationship with them as an actor, usually on a TV show you don’t know what your character’s going to do until the script arrives that day and you do the first reading of it.
Uzo Aduba: Yeah.
Rico Gagliano: What’s the moment that you were like, “Oh my God! Crazy Eyes is gonna do that?!”
Uzo Aduba: [Laughs] I mean, I have had a couple of those moments! I think the first was when I first met her parents. When I opened the script and learned who her parents were, and what her background was…
Rico Gagliano: This upscale white family.
Uzo Aduba: …Exactly, these academics, it was incredibly informative to me. “Oh, this is where the Shakespeare comes from.”
Rico Gagliano: Yeah, she can recite Shakespeare.
Uzo Aduba: Absolutely. Where this twist with language comes from. She has these very, you know, settled academics.
Rico Gagliano: But you didn’t know that? They didn’t give you that back story when you first came in? Had you painted a back story for yourself and then found out it was totally different?
Uzo Aduba: I had ideas in terms of who she was. I did not have that story, I’ll be honest, I did not know that those were her parents.
Rico Gagliano: Did it change the way that you portrayed her thereafter?
Uzo Aduba: Absolutely. Well, it just added a different color — because now you realize there are a host of reasons why this person might be pursuing love so desperately.
She is adopted. She has a sibling who might be biological to those people, or may also not be, and what is that dynamic like? How old was she when she was adopted? How long as she been without parents? You know, there are so many tiers that it changed for the rest of season one, just from that one flicker.
Rico Gagliano: There’s a huge fan culture around the show. You have a very popular, but also very — as you said — “unique” character. I can imagine that you might have a story or two about fan interactions.
Uzo Aduba: I mean, I was just saying the other day, I had a– when I ran the marathon is probably the funniest interaction, or unique interaction.
Rico Gagliano: What was it, what happened?
Uzo Aduba: I was running the New York City Marathon. And we’re on mile 17, so, you know, we’re not like mile two or three — we’re more than halfway done. And so you’re exhausted, we’re coming into the city. And then all of a sudden this man from my right side comes running up beside me. And I hear him… he’s like [breathing heavily], “I know you, and I ain’t gonna bother you, but I am gonna take a selfie.”
And before I could even say anything like the camera was in front of me, the picture was happening, he’s cheesing, I look like I’m about to pass out.You know, it’s like [laughs]… My eyes are closed, my tongue is out…
Rico Gagliano: You’re looking really glamorous…
Uzo Aduba: …Yeah, I’m looking fabulous. And then before I know it he’s gone. He was just gone.
Rico Gagliano: This was another competitor, by the way?
Uzo Aduba: Yes, he was out there. I was like, “Have a good race! See you at the finish line!”
Rico Gagliano: We have two questions that we ask everyone on the show.
Uzo Adu ba: Sure.
Rico Gagliano: And the first one is: if we were to meet you at a dinner party what question should we not ask you?
Uzo Aduba: Oh, “Would you throw your pie for me?”
Rico Gagliano: For those who don’t know, that’s a line from season one when Piper, the object of Crazy Eyes’ affection, is in a fight with her own girlfriend and-
Uzo Aduba: Yes, it’s season one. I throw my pie at her and she says, “I’m not your prison wife.” And I say, “I threw my pie for you!” And people ask me if I’ll throw my pie for them. So, I guess at a dinner party my answer would probably be “no,” because I would want to eat it!
Rico Gagliano: Let Uzo keep her pie.
Uzo Aduba: Yes!
Rico Gagliano: I’m 100 percent behind your decision. The second question is more of an order really: Tell us something we don’t know. And this can be about anything.
Uzo Aduba: OK. Something that some of our audience might not know: “Kèdú,” in Igbo, means “Hello” and “How are you?”
Rico Gagliano: What language is that?
Uzo Aduba: That’s Igbo. I’m Nigerian. My family’s from Nigeria. And our names– how about this, I’ll give you another one: Our names are sentences. Like my [full] name is “Uzoamaka,” and it means “The road is good.” So if you were to come to my house and I was like, “Ke maka uzo?” How was the trip here? You would say, “Uzoamaka” — The road is good.