Uzo Aduba: Crazy Talented
Behind the childlike stare and Bantu knots is an actress out to prove that like beauty, crazy is only skin deep.
There are some unsettling stigmas attached to the word “crazy” — mentally deranged, insane, unsound, impractical. It’s the last word any girl would list on a resume or use to describe herself in a job interview. On the other hand, sometimes crazy can be a good thing. Whether someone’s “crazy about you” or something’s “crazy good,” it’s all relative to the person using it.
Uzo Aduba and ‘cray cray’ have become synonymous in less than a year. As Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren of the Orange is the New Black lineup, she not only embodies one of the most compelling characters to command the small screen, she’s singlehandedly redefined the c-word: unpredictable, intense, and terrifyingly passionate. The cuckoo character’s allure isn’t just in her outrageous dialogue or manic antics; it’s in the woman bringing her to life (who appears to be quite the opposite—especially today.)
Despite the chaotic clamor of the lofty Brooklyn studio, Uzo retains a Zen-like quality on set of our cover shoot this sun-drenched Sunday afternoon. She patiently makes her way along the assembly-line setup of hair, make-up, and styling stations set up throughout the sprawling space, unbothered by all the primping and pawing. She’s so serene that it’s hard to imagine her hissing hysterics or pissing on the floor in a fit of rage or retaliation. Swapping her signature crop of twists for a curly frohawk and prison gear for evening wear, she’s a far cry from her fictional counterpart.
We could credit Uzo’s successful portrayal of Suzanne to many things. Perhaps it’s her extensive theater background. As part of the original revival cast of Godspell, it was her job not only to connect with a live audience, but to make it seem effortless. Nightly. Maybe it’s the genius writing of Jenji Kohan, who churned out enough one-liners to hold us over until next season. Or is it the chemistry between her and our gang of cover stars? However you justify it, Uzo has succeeded where many have failed—by becoming a focal point, not a punchline.
Do you like getting glammed up?
Absolutely, I love it. It’s so much fun. Who doesn’t like getting dressed up? I love relaxed, clean, with like a touch of funk. I always have to wear something kind of funky. Even if it’s super chic with clean lines, I love a cool hairstyle, funky piece of jewelry or really cool shoe.
Are you a fan of not wearing makeup while filming the show?
I am comfortable with it. I think in the beginning, I was like ‘Oh we’re on a TV show, we’re going to be looking fierce’ and it was like no, no makeup; we’re chopping everything down. But it’s really exciting because you don’t really see that happening on television and it’s this new way that women are getting represented. It just makes you focus on the work and the storytelling, because you can’t hide behind it.
Are you aware that Bantu knots are very “in” right now?
I know! I’ve been getting so many pictures sent to me on twitter like, ‘I got my crazy on.’ I’m like ‘oh my gosh…crazy knots!’ I wore that style for the entirety of the show and I love them. It’s easy, and quick like cool, funky halo.
Tell us about the OITNB audition process.
I read for Janay when I originally auditioned. Then I got a phone call afterwards and they were like, ‘We have some really great news. You remember that audition you went to for OITNB? Well, you didn’t get that part.’ I said, ‘And this is good news?’ [laughs] And they’re like, ‘But they’d like to offer you another part—Crazy Eyes.’ Now that I’ve learned her and been in the part, it just feels so right.
Photo Credit: Jasmine L. Gonzalez
Crazy Eyes is already an iconic character—an introvert and extrovert at the same time. Are you the same way?
I think my personality can be a bit of a blend of that. I think of myself as a center free spirit. I love art; I love thinking, and books. I like to be spontaneous. My best friend was in Amsterdam working last year and a week before he was leaving, I found out, jumped on a plane and went there. I like to live life to the fullest and that’s what I like about Suzanne. She’s full throttle and no holds barred. She goes in.
Perhaps the most memorable scene of Season One is when Suzanne defends Piper against her ex-girlfriend in the cafeteria. How much fun was it creating that moment?
That’s a testament to our writers. We have incredible writers. Sian Header wrote that episode and did that continuation where Marco had written—the episode where we meet Suzanne. It makes sense that they call her Crazy Eyes because of the stuff that happens behind the eyes, but without any warning. That’s a great scene.
How much direction did you get for developing your signature stare?
That was something I worked on. In the first episode I did, there was a liner note in the stage directions that said something like ‘she has a childlike innocence or childlike stare, because children aren’t scary;’ something to that effect. I thought that was such a great nugget and key into who Suzanne is as a person because it made me realize who she believes herself to be and not how she reads. Everything came out a purity, but it’s just a click off. So I thought about her eyes being a little bit wider but with more infatuation.
Especially when she sees Piper.
Oh, that’s crazy [laughs] like dandelions. That’s my everything; I live for dandelions, so that was the best thing that could’ve happened.
What is your relationship like with Taylor Schilling?
Oh my gosh, I love Taylor. We just went out last night and we’re going to be hanging out again this week. She’s amazing. We have an incredible set because it starts with everybody working towards a cause. I never met a better lead. She is our leader and door is always open. I did a lot of my scenes with her and it didn’t matter what we were doing. She’s always right there with you; always open and always ready to go. If you wanted to jump left, she’d jump left—you want to jump right, she’d jump right. She’s a good egg; I love that girl.
Photo Credit: Jasmine L. Gonzalez
What is your definition of crazy?
A false understanding of your life or an unwillingness to change the things about yourself and to blame others for them.
What’s the show like in comparison to acting for the stage?
They feel the same in that the love is still the same. I think that good parts are good parts regardless of the medium. I happen to have met the fortune to be on a TV show with a great story and great talent and a great part. That’s really exciting to be a part of. I love the theatre and always will and I’m realizing that I love the camera, too. They’re just two different animals, but I feel satisfied in both outlets. Even more satisfied as a creator and artist.
Do you feel like part of the success of the show is because it’s on Netflix and not on regular TV?
I don’t know. I do know that good writing is good writing. So if it’s on a laptop, TV, or streamed through your apple TV; people are going to get in touch with a great story. I think what’s exciting about OITNB is that the word of mouth has always been about the story. Netflix put out and took a chance on a great story and I think that makes them amazing and pioneers, especially in this outlet. People want to watch a good story and I feel lucky to be a part of it.
What are you watching on TV?
Orange is the New Black. [laughs]
Do you like watching yourself?
I do now. In the beginning, I didn’t know if I wanted to watch. But now I enjoy it because I watch it with a different eye. I watch it because I remember the conversation we were having that day or where we went for dinner that night. Of course I’m watching Breaking Bad and Scandal. We’re fans of that on the show. House of Cards was my everything and Real Housewives anything [laughs]
You like reality TV?
Bravo has a great set up.
Would you ever do reality TV?
I don’t think so right now. I have not really thought about it.
Photo Credit: Jasmine L. Gonzalez
How does it feel to be on a show where it’s all women, colors, shapes, and sizes?
Incredible and exciting; it feels that way because to be part of anything that feels singular- like you’re watching something you’ve never seen before- always is exciting. I think the best thing about this opportunity is we get to watch a one of a kind thing. It’s because we have such diversity with race, size, color, height, our orientation; everybody is represented. I’ve never seen anything like it on TV and then for it to be celebrated is just incredible.
What are you doing when you’re not at work?
I spend a lot of time writing. Yale has an arts company and I did a reading of part of my play last night and some of my Orange girls came out to support. I do a lot of music writing and I love to sing. I love to do anything creative. Right now I’m reading a book called Got To Go Home. I have another one I just picked up called Little Bee. I love to go to the theatre and see something really exciting and new. I’m an artist first.
How do you like living in NY?
I love it. I can do the “I Love NY” commercial. It’s such a cool city and to be working on a TV show that shoots in NY is such a dream come true.