The Eyes Have It
The actress sounds off on comedy, her convict character and why she’d never change her name.
Uzo Aduba, who plays Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren on the hit Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, was born in Boston and raised in Medfield. After graduating from Medfield High, she studied classical voice at Boston University. She immediately found work in theater, with roles at the Huntington Theatre Company and the American Repertory Theater, where she won an Elliot Norton Award for Outstanding Musical Performance. She was also nominated for a Helen Hayes Award for the Kennedy Center production of Translations of Xhosa. Her Broadway debut came in 2007, in Coram Boy, followed by the hit revival of Godspell in 2011. She made her television debut in 2012 on the CBS series Blue Bloods, and her film credits include the independent shorts Over There and Notes. She lives in New York.
Not necessarily of being in prison, but I’ve had a dream of waking up to someone peeing in my room.
Well, first let me say, I definitely need to shake her out after I’m done, because she stays with me, and I walk a lot afterward. I need to put her back on the shelf, and that’s becoming easier. But when I first started, there was this one line that really helped me to capture her. It said, “She’s innocent, like a child, except children aren’t scary.” And that made me think of an adult-sized kid with, like, a pacifier and a sledgehammer.
No. I didn’t even audition for it when I auditioned, which I guess is really the scary thing, because it makes me wonder what they saw in me. [Laughs]
I’m a lover. I don’t go to the extremes she does, but I love love. I’m in love with love. I’m all in. That, I connect to.
No applause. [Laughs] It’s not live, obviously, so that’s huge. It’s taken me time to learn to play into the space of the camera, but I think I’m getting it.
The only time I ever visited a prison was in eighth grade. They did a “Scared Straight” kind of thing, and that was enough for me. I was like, “OK. You got me. Not pursuing a life of crime.”
[Laughs] Thank you, next. I would’ve said, “Have several seats. Not just one.”
People knowing who you are, or thinking they know you, before you know them. People expect me to be Crazy Eyes on the subway, with the knotted hair and the jumpsuit, and they seem really surprised to find out what I really look like. You can see when people realize it’s you. I was skiing a few months ago, and this girl recognized me and wanted to take a picture. She started talking about my work and my acting resume, and she knew all this stuff about me, and I didn’t know anything about her. So that’s sort of odd.
Yes, because there’s no way to predict what’s going to catch fire. I knew it was a great show all along, but no one can dream of something like this, and I’m just happy that people love it as much as we love making it.
When I started as an actor? No, and I’ll tell you why. I had already gone through that. My family is from Nigeria, and my full name is Uzoamaka, which means “The road is good.” Quick lesson: My tribe is Igbo, and you name your kid something that tells your history and hopefully predicts your future. So anyway, in grade school, because my last name started with an A, I was the first in roll call, and nobody ever knew how to pronounce it. So I went home and asked my mother if I could be called Zoe. I remember she was cooking, and in her Nigerian accent she said, “Why?” I said, “Nobody can pronounce it.” Without missing a beat, she said, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.”
I really loved working at Circle in the Square, and for the exact same reason I loved working at Club Oberon at the A.R.T. Both spaces have such versatility, and I love being a part of that kind of kinetic, shape-shifting theater.
I have two. “All Good Gifts,” as sung by my cast mate Telly Leung. I love the lyrics, and the way he sings it is absolutely stunning. And I really love the version my friend Hunter Parrish sang of “Beautiful City.” It’s a new version that Stephen Schwartz wrote for our show, and it’s absolutely breathtaking.
Yeah. It was a lot of work. I loved that part and that show, but it was definitely a challenge becoming an enslaved British boy of seven. [Laughs] There’s no part of me in that. It was a workout, and very physical as well.
Well, my training was classical voice, and I thought that was what I would pursue. It was a great lesson in how one thing can lead you down the path to your true calling. My singing voice is a very dramatic soprano, and although I didn’t pursue an opera career, that was what led me to my passion, which is theater and acting.
That’s easy. I had an audition for a show in upstate New York, and the song that I was going to sing was “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar. I couldn’t remember the opening line. And it’s the name of the song. I was like, “I…don’t know…the lyrics…” Needless to say, I didn’t get the job.
Meryl Streep, Daniel Day-Lewis and Jeffrey Wright. The reason, besides their talent, is that everyone who works with them says their work ethic is incredible—the work behind the work. And I would like to see how they do that.
That’s sort of a chicken and egg thing. If the line’s not funny, an actor can still get a laugh at it from the delivery, or the stuff they do before or after delivering it. But if it’s well-written, you can do it with a sock puppet. So I guess it’s a marriage. Comedy is a dance.
[Laughs] Never. And I just tried it for the first time two years ago. I was doing Godspell, and we had a ton of Greek ushers. They were the sweetest, and for Christmas, one of them gave me a bottle because she couldn’t believe I’d never had it. And I was like, “Whoa. So that’s what I taste like, huh?” I didn’t love it.