Interview: 'Orange Is The New Black' star Uzo Aduba talks Crazy Eyes and Suzanne
Scenestealer discusses Shakespeare, Season 2 possibilities and marathoning
Crazy Eyes was introduced on "Orange Is The New Black" as the somewhat scary, seemingly unhinged inmate who takes a fancy to Taylor Schilling's Piper when she first arrives at the Litchfield Prison. Soon, though, we heard her poems and her "Swirl" song and Crazy Eyes became a source of comedy, as well as fear.
As with so many of the characters on the acclaimed Netflix original, Crazy Eyes didn't stay just one thing for very long. By the middle of the first season, as we learned to call her "Suzanne" and as we began getting hints at her internal struggles, the character took a permanent place as an audience favorite, delivering one priceless and revelatory moment after another: Meeting her surprising parents. Witnessing her unexpected Christmas Pageant talent. Watching her uncomfortably raunchy dance routine with Big Boo. Exposing her vulnerabilities to Piper. And, best of all, mining a deep cut from "Coriolanus" as a way of intimidating kids in a Scared Straight program.
Now, everybody loves Crazy Eyes.
I got on the phone last week with star Uzo Aduba, who has gotten caught up in the snowballing appreciation for a series that Netflix is calling a drama for the purposes of awards. [SAG Awards voters should seriously examine their sanity if they pretend they can find five drama ensembles better than the one on "OITNB."] The stage actress, a veteran of "Godspell" on Broadway, discusses the Suzanne/Crazy Eyes dichotomy, hints at more great moments in Season 2 and picks her own favorites from amongst the Litchfield inmates.
Click through for the full interview.
HitFix: First off and entirely off-topic: Did I see that you just ran the New York Marathon?
Uzo Aduba: You did!
HitFix: How exactly did that happen and how did it go?
Uzo Aduba: Oh my gosh! It was amazing. Honestly, it was one of my greatest dreams come true. I have always wanted to run a marathon and my best friend from my hometown brought it up. I was visiting him and we were in London and he mentioned that he was going to run another marathon. He had run already four and he was gonna run New York and I said "That's amazing. I've always wanted to run a marathon. This is incredible." And he said, "Do you want to run with me?" And I said, "Yes! That sounds amazing." He was running with this group called Team Continuum, which is a non-profit that raises money for families battling cancer and helps to offset the costs from the disease. Having recent had family and friends who have been exposed to cancer, I thought, "This would be incredible. I'd love to do that." He reached out to Team Continuum and they graciously let me be part of their team and I got to run the marathon and it was really kinda incredible. It was one of the hardest and most amazing days of my life.
HitFix: Having done achieved that dream, is it out of your system now? Or are you ready for a second one?
Uzo Aduba: It's not out of my system! Initially, when I told my best friend Crowley I was gonna a marathon, my other best friend from my hometown -- three of us are really close -- we're from Massachusetts, just outside of Boston and she wants to run Boston, so she's like, "Are you gonna run Boston with me?" And I was like, "OK! Totally." And this summer when I was training, I was like, "Talk to me in November or December when we're closer. I don't know if I have another one in me." When we first did it, I thought I was gonna over it. I said, "No way. I'm not gonna do Boston." But then I don't know what happens, but two or three days later, I got this itch to run another one and I said to myself, "OK, I totally have run another. I'm gonna try to go and do Boston. I have to rep my city now." So hopefully we can make that happen.
HitFix: In the past couple weeks, there's been a lot of debate over whether "Orange Is The New Black" should be submitted for awards as a drama or a comedy. Knowing that awards people require things to be one thing or the other, where do you fall in this debate?
Uzo Aduba: You know, I fall outside of the debate. I haven't really given much thought about it and I don't know really much in terms of consideration for that. I know that we have a really great show. I love working on "Orange." I think the writing is incredible. I think the stories are great. And that's just something that I'm really proud to be a part of. I don't really have a horse in the race on the topic, as much as I just love being a part of the show.
HitFix: Well when the show was about to premiere, how did you describe it to friends and family in those terms?
Uzo Aduba: I just described the show as the story of this Brooklynite woman, this fish-out-of-water story of a woman coming into prison unexpectedly and we get taken into the story initially through her lens and meeting these characters in this funhouse mirror way. And then as she begins to settle into life at Litchfield, you learn that she is discovering that these people are deeper, richer, more full-figured characters than I think she or even we as viewers imagined them to be. Someone like Crazy Eyes, when she meets her initially, she has a very firm opinion about who that person is and I think viewers watching initially feel, "Oh, she's one way" and then as you become more and more familiar, you start to realize that she's more than just a singular label of "Crazy Eyes." She is a person and she has a name that's really Suzanne Warren and that she's more than what we might have initially established her to be.
HitFix: But no mention whatsoever of, "It's also funny, too" or anything like that?
Uzo Aduba: Honestly, I come from the world of, "In order for there to be drama, there has to be comedy and in order for comedy to exist, there has to be drama." I think there's something really thrilling to having to get people laughing about something and then when you have them in that comfort space, you can drop the weight into the texture of the story.
HitFix: When reporters and fans discuss your character, she's always "Crazy Eyes," but I assume that to you, she's always been and always had to be "Suzanne" in your head?
Uzo Aduba: She's always been Suzanne in my mind. The way I use "crazy" is she's crazy-good, crazy-fun, crazy-fun-to-play, for sure. But she's definitely been "Suzanne" to me because I didn't want to get trapped in the one layer of just playing "crazy." When I was approaching the material, I thought of her as somebody who just feels deeply. This is someone who loves passionately. Every side of her life is a "10." She gets mad at a 10, she loves at a 10 and she's gonna pee at a 10. That's how I approach Suzanne.
HitFix: A lot of shows would have been perfectly happy to introduce a character like this as either comic relief or just as a nemesis. Do you think you would have been happy to play this character if she'd always just been "Crazy Eyes" and she'd never really become "Suzanne"?
Uzo Aduba: That's an interesting question. Would I have just been happy to play that? I don't know. I'm trying to imagine that scenario. I don't think anything is really as exciting as playing something that's deeper and more interesting. If you play any one thing, I think maybe that could always just get kind of old and I'm really glad that our writers didn't take that route with Suzanne. We could have done the one note and that's not as thrilling and as exciting. I was just so glad very early on that they had a very strong idea of enriching this character with more than just one thing, be it that her parents get introduced in a certain way or be it that you learn that she actually has some history with language and art and Shakespeare and all of that. Yeah, I thought that was really exciting and I'm glad that that's what it became. I could have been happy, absolutely, just because we're part of such a great story, but I'm thankful that that was not the story that they chose to tell.
HitFix: But, as you say, this is still a character who's introduced as one thing and that one thing is "Crazy Eyes," so what is the process of getting the eyes right before you started doing it on-set, of making sure that you were actually playing a character who people could point at and identify immediately as "Crazy Eyes"?
Uzo Aduba: I think what I really locked into for myself is there was in line in my first script that I thought informed so much of who she is. There was a stage direction that said -- and I'm paraphrasing it now -- but it said, "She's innocent like a child, except children aren't scary." And I thought that said everything about who this woman was. "Innocent like a child" says something about who she believes herself to be, but then also then how she's perceived. So everything I just realized, it was pure, everything she was doing was coming from a pure place, was coming from an honest place, as children often are. But she's always just a click off. The poem goes just a little too far in the wrong direction and the delivery's never quite right. Or she just gets angry a little too fast. It's always just a click off. That's where Suzanne lives and that's where the "Crazy Eyes" comes from. And that fire inside? I think she's just fully of passion and just gets it out and she acts first, thinks second. And depending on the moment or the thing that's happening, that gets received or pushed away and rejected and looked at as crazy.
HitFix: You mentioned the introduction of Suzanne's parents. Had you known about them? Had the writers told you about that relationship before we met those characters?
Uzo Aduba: Yes. Well, they didn't tell me the full story right away, but they had mentioned that there were going to be parents introduced and that it was going to be a bit more interesting and when I read the script and I saw, I didn't realize that the "interesting" was going to be that they were white. And when I saw it, I thought, "Oh my gosh!" Again, I just felt so thankful that we could have baselined her and kept her playing from that position, but instead we -- Or "they," I should say... Not "me"... I'm not writing in the writers' room -- they layered her with something that was so unexpected, but then made sense as we tracked the story.
HitFix: And you mentioned this earlier also, but my favorite scene of the entire first season was the Scared Straight scene with Suzanne quoting Shakespeare. What did seeing that scene on the page give you about the character that you hadn't known before and were able to fold in afterwards?
Uzo Aduba: I think it really nicely connected from the third episode where Suzanne is reciting poetry to Piper when Crazy Eyes is out on the track and she's written this poem, that she is a lover of the arts, through-and-through. So that thread felt even more clear to me. OK, she writes poetry and she recites it, just as she's in this Scared Straight program reciting prose. She considers herself an actor in all of these things and it made me realize that this is a reader. This is somebody who considers herself to be an intellectual. And then, as a person, it just cemented in me this idea that I had, because I wasn't trying to play this "crazy." Just as I said that this is someone who's just a click off, it just cemented in me the idea that this is someone who makes sense to themselves. Everything that she is saying and doing, it makes perfect sense. From the outside we might look at it and think, "Why are you choosing this?" but to her, when she's reciting Shakespeare to these kids, she's choosing this very specific speech and delivering it in a very particular way and she thinks this is way that she can get through to them with this language, that it has touched her, that maybe they might make a different choice.
[More on Page 2, including the possibility of a a Suzanne flashback episode in Season 2.]