‘Orange Is the New Black’ Star Uzo Aduba on Her Journey From Track Phenom to Crazy Eyes

The Nigerian-American actress is given her close-up in Season 2 of the Netflix series. Uzo Aduba on Suzanne’s transformation and her own backstory. [Warning: some spoilers]

JoJo Whilden for Netflix

It’s a bit jarring to see Uzo Aduba out of character. The indelible image when it comes to the Nigerian-American actress is that of Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black—a mélange of bulging eyes, flailing limbs, and coiled balls of hair perched atop her head like the end terminals of a battery.

But the woman I greet at a tea shop in Midtown Manhattan, sporting a stunning blue dress with her hair elegantly parted to the side, resembles a news anchor. The “Aduba double-take,” a phenomenon that fans of the show often fall victim to, is truly a testament to her feral performance. “Crazy Eyes” has emerged as a fan favorite on OITNB; a character so firmly ingrained in the cultural zeitgeist it inspired one of the whitest women in Hollywood to, well, do this.

In Season 2 of OITNB, which premiered on June 6, we’re finally privy to the backstory of Suzanne—her struggle to fit in as the adopted child of white parents, and her mother’s misguided attempts to force a square peg into a round hole. We also see Suzanne fall under the spell of Vee, a terrifying new inmate played by Lorraine Toussaint, who quickly rises to become the leader of “the Ghetto”—the corner of the prison housing the black inmates. The impressionable misfit serves as Vee’s enforcer, who, during a particularly troubling episode, is ordered to administer a brutal beatdown on her pal, Poussey.

Aduba, who just wrapped her first feature film role in Pearly Gates—she plays a receptionist who teams up with a cancer specialist to develop a retirement community in a role that’s “very different from Orange,” and who just began filming Season 3 of the Netflix series last Monday, sat down with The Daily Beast to discuss all things Crazy Eyes, her own history of feeling like the outsider, and much more.

We finally get to delve into Suzanne’s backstory. When we’re first introduced to young Suzanne in the hospital with pink outfit and wings on, she seems a tad slow and emotionally volatile, but also, really, just like any other kid that age.

For me, it bred the question of what nature and nurture can really do to someone. It’s almost a reflection of the pre-ADHD days, before there was a name for it. I think of myself as a little kid and I had a wild imagination, but it was something that was encouraged and supported, which helped steer me into the arts. But yes, what happens when you have an over-hyper or over-sensitive child if people aren’t there guiding you in the right direction? For Suzanne, she was a kid—and a person now, as an adult—who was incredibly misunderstood and, because she’s been misunderstood her entire life, it’s helped unravel her.

Right. When we see her again at age 10, she seems more withdrawn and is sporting her signature “Crazy Eyes” hairdo, and her mother is trying to do right by her, but ends up imposing her on a group of 6-year-old spoiled white girls. And children at that age are terrible.

Yes, and not having a support system and also feeling that energy from the parent whom she’s not welcome, which then transfers to the daughter, gives her the idea that she’s not welcome. She knows, on a subconscious level, that “one of these things is not like the other” at age 5 when she visits her parents in the hospital. If you’re already somebody who’s feeling different, you’ll do everything in your power to fix it because children will do everything in their power to fit in, and assimilate. Whatever the “norm” is, that’s what they want to be.

As a kid, I thought my name “Marlow” was weird because it wasn’t like everyone else’s.

Absolutely. My full name is “Uzoamaka.” My family is from Nigeria—I’m Igbo—and it means, “the road is good.” They named me that when they came over to America because it was a journey that led them through a civil war, but it was worth it because my parents met and then they had me, so the road was good. When I was a little kid, I grew up in a very small town in Massachusetts’s called Medfield, and I definitely identify with Suzanne’s experience because I felt like I was an “only” at times, and you want to blend in. We were the only Nigerians there. My name was the first in roll call and the teachers didn’t know how to say my name. I’d come home and say, “Mommy, can you call me ‘Zoe?’” and she asked, “Why?” And I said, “Because nobody can say my name.” And she said, “People learned to say Tchaikovsky, Michelangelo, and Dostoevsky. They can learn to say ‘Uzoamaka.’” And that was it. But I’m glad that, with Suzanne, there’s no veiling of emotions. She’s herself, and is entirely committed to being herself—for better or worse.

We still don’t know what Suzanne did to land in prison… do you know?

I mean, Marlow… you’re just going to have to keep watching the show! [Laughs]

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[Laughs] Understandable. There’s also the big revelation in Episode 3 that it was Suzanne who punched out Piper during her showdown with Pennsatucky.

It was interesting—Jenji waited to shoot that scene until the weather was the same as when Taylor was punching Taryn out. We didn’t shoot those scenes together, and shot it as late as we possibly could during Season 2 to get it just right. I’d never thrown a punch on-camera before and it was intense. We shot it a couple of times and Taylor, who I love, is a genius. She wanted to walk through it like, “What is the story we’re telling here? Did she really take the punch? How strong do you think she might have been?”

And the punch occurs after Suzanne chickens out on singing her solo during the Christmas pageant. Are we ever going to see her crank out a tune?

I was in New York doing musicals in the theater and on Broadway before Orange, so people always ask, “Are you ever going to get to sing? Does she even sing?” But people who know me know I actually do sing.

So you’re one of the few actors on the show with a musical theater background and Jenji keeps cutting your solo!

[Laughs] I know! It’s so genius though. Jenji wrote that episode, and I thought it was so great that the woman who ended up singing was the one who hadn’t spoken all season. But Jenji’s changed my life. She seriously, truly has. And she’s changing television, too, in the way that we’re now getting to see this wild world of women that have come together. I’m so humbled and grateful that she’s made me a part of it, and has been brave enough to put a voice like this on television.

It’s great to see a diverse cast that’s actually representative of the current racial makeup of this country on TV dealing with actual problems. When I grew up, it was always a bunch of white people on television at a coffee shop, apartment complex, etc., struggling with first world problems.

That’s right. It’s amazing because it’s not one anything—everyone is on the show—and I think it’s an amazing study of how it can work. Jenji and Shonda Rhimes have proven that you can have a few different faces represented and people will still be invested in the story. This was my first TV show, so when I was about to do it I didn’t know what was going to happen, but while we were shooting it, I learned that good stories are good stories. So, with regards to diversity, a good story is a good story, so who the face is doesn’t matter.

Orange also does a great job of humanizing people in the penal system and shows how, if anyone—regardless of background—took a wrong step, they could be in a similar situation.

Oh, absolutely. The tagline for Season 1—“Every Sentence Has A Story”—I thought was brilliant because it’s so true. I read the pilot when I auditioned and stopped when we got to Red’s backstory and thought, “This is not a story about crime, this is a story about people who happen to commit crimes. This is a story about how good people make mistakes.”

You share most of your scenes with Lorraine Toussaint, who is terrifying as the show’s villain, Vee.

She is a force, and she is everything. She is an incredibly generous person and teacher—she’d teach us about camera movements and when it was someone else’s coverage—but as far as the acting was concerned, she made it look so easy, and was so present with you and helped you walk through the beats of a scene. I love her.

Why do you think Suzanne falls into the role of Vee’s enforcer?

It’s interesting that the women she’s able to pull together have either an absent or hard maternal backstory. There’s Suzanne with her mother; Taystee having an absent mother; Poussey losing her mother; Black Cindy’s relationship with her mother, and her own struggle to be a mother. They’re all missing that, and because that void was there in all of us, especially Suzanne, Vee was able to manipulate us and fill that void. With Suzanne, Vee saw someone who could be a pawn in her chess game. Also, prison is about power and who’s on top. The Suburbs have Red, Spanish Harlem has Gloria, and we needed someone to lead us in our tribe, and that’s the role Vee filled for us.

There’s also a very troubling scene later on in Season 2 where Vee orders Suzanne to beat up Poussey, and we see her rough her up in the bathroom. What was it like shooting that?

Marlow… it broke my heart. It literally broke my heart. I was near tears every take because I love Samira so much, and also because my heart ached for both of the characters—Poussey and Suzanne. On that day, I remember feeling just like Suzanne: “I don’t want to do this… but I have to.” Just a few episodes before we were laughing and playing Charades, and now I have to knock her out. I love that it’s Vee who cues her to do it, and then once it’s done, Suzanne has to look back at her for validation. Suzanne acts first and thinks second, and in the doing of it she’s still swept up in the adrenaline of the act, but she also knows she just committed an offense against someone of her own—a sister, in a way—and that is heartbreaking for her, and for me. Between takes, Samira and me were sitting on that bench where I have to first knock her saying, “It’s OK… it’s OK…” to each other.

Was that the hardest scene for you to shoot this season? That was one of them. The other one was with the Uno cards in the final episode where Vee’s gone, and Suzanne is crying because no one is there for her. I wanted to fill that scene with all the love lost, since all of Suzanne’s mothers or mother figures have left her, and she feels constantly betrayed.

Suzanne’s nickname for Piper is “Dandelion.” Does the cast have nicknames for each other?

[Laughs] Oh yeah! We call Taylor “Tay,” Taryn is “T,” Natasha is “Tash,” Yael is “Ya-Ya,” Dasha is “Dash,” Danielle is “D,” and I’m “Uz.” We’ve got nicknames for everybody.

How did the Orange team come up with Suzanne’s signature hairdo? I auditioned with it in that style! Jenji liked it, and she kept it. I’d been doing a musical, Godspell, just before Orange, and I’d developed that hairstyle for that show, so when I went into the audition, I thought it would be perfect for a character in prison. It’s the look now, and people really seem to be into it. I get pictures sometimes of little babies with their hair like that. It takes about 30 minutes to get my hair like that.

I heard that you were a track star?

Oh yeah. I ran track in high school very competitively, and then ran it D-1 at Boston University. I ran there on an athletic scholarship and chose BU because they had both a good track program and an arts program. Outdoors, I ran 100m and 200m, and then long-jumped on occasion. And then indoors, I ran 200m and 55m. I also figure-skated competitively for about 10 years—I got to figure-skate in the show during the pageant! But in high school, I realized that the arts was my first love. I thought I was going to be a lawyer for a really long time, but my junior year of high school, my creative writing teacher was also the drama director, and she said, “You have a really great love of the arts, and I think you should go to school for that.” I was singing and studying opera at the time, so I went to the College of Fine Arts at BU to study that, but while I was in college, the acting teachers there really encouraged me to pursue acting instead.

And then right after you graduated from BU you moved to New York to pursue acting? I moved to New York in September [2004] and I got my first job down at the Theater for the New City in the East Village three months later. I felt at home. I knew I wanted to live in New York, and to be on Broadway was my dream. I got my first Broadway show in 2007, Coram Boy, and I was so happy doing that. I was in Godspell on Broadway in 2011 and 2012, and I met a manager there who asked me, “Have you ever done a pilot season before?” And I said, “No.” And she said we should work together. That was June 2012, and then I auditioned for Orange at the end of August, and got it.

And since you were a track star in college, you’d originally auditioned to play Janae, the former track star. So did they just say, “Sorry, but we have this other part for you.”

That’s exactly how it happened, and it happened on the same day I was about to leave the business altogether. I’d been auditioning and auditioning for TV projects all summer, and I didn’t realize until I was trying for it that it was something I really wanted to do. So, it hurt a lot to hear, “No thank you,” all summer. I’d auditioned for Blue Bloods but I was 20 minutes late because my representation gave me the wrong directions, so the audition was in Brooklyn and I was sobbing from the minute I left the audition all the way home. I’m on the train crying and said, “You win, God. I quit. I hear you. This is not for me. I understand you’re telling me that this is not what I’m supposed to be doing with my life. If you will find a way for me to go to law school, I will go.” I got home, and 45 minutes later my representation called me and told me I got Orange Is the New Black.

You got Blue Bloods too, right?I got Blue Bloods a week later! I’ve never told this story before, but I went home and was watching this Oprah Master Class with Lorne Michaels, and he was talking about SNL and how when he first premiered it, it didn’t have any fans. I’d DVR’d it and had been saving it all summer, and I decided to watch it. What I saw on my TV was he said, “I decided to give it one more go and keep the faith,” and—I swear, Marlow—“Keep the Faith” scrolled across the screen. Once I saw that I thought, “Oh, I really like that. When this episode is over, I’m going to rewind it back to that part, take a picture of the ‘Keep the Faith’ scroll, and tweet it.” It was 5:43 p.m. on September 15 and my phone suddenly rang and my agency called to tell me I got Orange. Not only that, but the very next day, on the 16th of September, my friend and co-star from Godspell, Hunter Parrish, took me to the series finale party for Weeds, which was this intimate dinner with Jenji Kohan, Lisa Vinnecour, Michael Trim, and Mark Burley, who are all my bosses now on Orange Is the New Black. Hunter had invited me to the dinner weeks before.

That’s crazy.

You want to know what’s even crazier? I went back to watch that Oprah episode and that scene never happened. There was no “Keep the Faith” scrolling across the screen. True story.