Don't Put Uzo Aduba In A Box

Prepare to fall in love with the woman behind Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren.

Uzo Aduba smiles as she walks into Cafe Mogador in Manhattan, revealing the gap between her two front Crest-commercial-white teeth. She now affectionately refers to the space as "my gap," but that wasn't always the case. In sixth grade, Aduba begged her mother for braces in vain. "It's a symbol of beauty in Nigeria," her mother had said, confused why her daughter would ever want to change it.

Years later, faced with a potential agent who wanted Aduba to close her gap, she balked in the same way her mother had during her requisite middle-school-era awkward phase.

"She was like, 'The gap, is that something worth keeping?' As if she and I both have gaps and were deciding whether we were going to keep them," she snorted, raising her eyebrows. "I said, 'Yeah, we're keeping it.' And I didn't go with her." 

One of the most difficult things about this industry was getting people to understand that I'm okay with me, that I don't see anything that needs fixing or changing.

That was just one of the times Aduba refused to make alterations in exchange for Hollywood prospects. She was asked to fix her nose, to wear lighter makeup. As she put it, "the list goes on and on." But Aduba's gap, and her pride in it, endures as a symbol of her staunch decision that she is who she is, and that's damn well good enough.

"One of the most difficult things about this industry was getting people to understand that I'm okay with me, that I don't see anything that needs fixing or changing," she said. "I'm just fine the way I am." 

It's the kind of interview-ready statement that might sound rehearsed coming from another actor. But Aduba locks me in her gaze when she says it. Staring out from beneath the silvery blue eye shadow left over from her Glamour photoshoot before lunch, it's clear she feels the weight of every word she says -- for herself and all the young women who look up to her.

To be clear though, Aduba's being herself includes lots of very hard work. That's the second part of her philosophy.

When Aduba's mother dropped her off in New York at the end of September 2004, she took her by the shoulders and said, "Uzo, all I ask is that you work hard. I never heard of nothing coming from hard work. I don't know what will come for you, but something will come if you just work hard."

Aduba holds back a giggle doing an impression of her mother, the thick Nigerian accent stretching over vowels, dropping consonants into pointy staccato.

"My mom said that to me my entire life, really," she admitted. "I don't know why, but in that moment, I finally believed her."

For one thing, she already had the proof that hard work pays off. Aduba's mother and father were both Nigerian immigrants who earned the kind of income -- with jobs in finance and social work -- to raise five kids with enough financial stability that they could confidently send their middle daughter off to art school.

The more typical scenario is something closer to the theater kid nagging parents who are reluctant to invest in something that doesn't end in a "real job." That was never a struggle for Aduba. Her parents, along with many of the adults who touched her life growing up, seemed to know there was something special about her.

"I think my mom just knew I could sing," she said. "Out of five kids, she sent me to the church choir. Only me." That was the first time Aduba performed at an adult's insistence, and it launched a pattern that continued through college.

Aduba's second grade teacher volunteered her for the one student part in a Theater For Young Audiences play when the troupe performed at her school. (The character was a dog in a dramatization of "Rip Van Winkle.") Aduba's middle school music teacher held her after class and convinced her to perform in the talent show (with Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You").

I never heard of nothing coming from hard work. I don't know what will come for you, but something will come, if you just work hard.

By high school she was confident in her singing, though she never considered it a potential career. "I just thought I'd be a lawyer," Aduba explained, her eyes widening, as she laughed at the idea of law as a "back-up" career. "Like there's no LSATS or law school or bar exam. 'Oh yes, I'll just be a lawyer!'" she said, tossing her hair.

She was preparing to apply to colleges when she got her final push toward show business. Aduba's creative writing teacher asked about her plans after senior year and urged her to think about art school. It hadn't been something Aduba had even considered an option.

"It was something I had never even given pause to," she said, almost still surprised by her former self's lack of foresight. "But the second -- and I do mean the second she asked me that  -- a lightbulb went off in my head and I was like, 'That’s what I’m going to do with my life.'"

"I wish I could say I had done everything single-handedly, entirely by myself. I really wish I could say that, but that just really is not the truth," she continued. "I feel like I am a living example of what a village raising a child looks like. Teachers, family members and neighbors have convinced me I could find my passion and my direction."

Aduba eventually went to Boston University's College of Fine Arts, running track to help cover the cost. She fell in love with her voice as an instrument of expression and began to more seriously explore acting through the core classes in her program. Over her four years at BU, Aduba began to think of herself not so much as a singer or actor, but a storyteller, who used singing and acting as her tools.

"What I knew for sure was that I didn't like to do one thing," Aduba said remembering  her senior recital. The assignment required a minimum of 60 minutes. Hers ended up running an hour and 45.

"There was just so much music that I loved. I love musical theater, I love to write music and I love music on the radio," she explained. "I was like, 'That is all of me, so this box of 60 minutes feels too small. That's not who I am as an artist. That's not who I am as a musician.'"

By graduation, she had decided to move to New York to pursue some fusion of acting and singing. After three months of auditioning (and waiting tables at City Lobster in Rockefeller Center) Aduba got her first role as "some kind of bar wench" in "Pyrates! The CourtShip Chronicles" at the Theater for the New City.

"It's so funny we're eating at Cafe Mogador," she said, talking about her bond with the cast and crew. They promised they would meet at the East Village staple once each fall, every year after the show ended. That was in 2005.

Aduba appeared in a few more New York theater productions, working with Danielle Brooks (Taystee) and Lea DeLaria (Big Boo) long before they met behind the scenes of "Orange Is the New Black." After a series of stage roles, she got an an agent who pushed her to pursue film and TV. She landed a part as a nameless nurse on "Blue Bloods," along with roles in several short films, but she soon grew frustrated with the demands of Hollywood. After one too many awful auditions, she decided it was time to quit.

Aduba was on the train back to her apartment in tears when she decided to give up. There had been moments when she'd questioned or doubted the profession she chose for herself. This was the first time that she'd really quit.

"I hadn't seen any images in the medium reflected back to me to know there was a place for me," she said. "I started to feel like this was a journey that wasn't even worth the try, because where was I going to fit in? I was trying and being told, 'No.'"

It was a Friday. So, she picked up a bottle of wine and went home, planning to call her agent and manager after the weekend to tell them she was done. As is now the stuff of legend, 45 minutes later, Aduba got the phone call that she had gotten the part of Suzanne on "Orange Is The New Black."

"I didn't know when I said, 'I'm giving it up,' [that] what I meant was, 'I'm giving it up,'" she said, looking up to the ceiling, holding her hands high with the kind of reverent theatricality she might have incorporated into her role in the church choir. 

Of course, everything changed with "Orange Is the New Black."

I hadn't seen any images in the medium reflected back to me to know there was a place for me.

Aduba describes the process behind crafting the character of Suzanne with an excitement that makes it clear how she stands out even amongst such a talented ensemble cast.

"Suzanne was first described to me as being 'innocent as a child, except children aren't scary.' What I cooked into that, once she started her infatuation with Piper, was the motivation of love," Aduba said.

"It made me ask the question, how far, then, would she go for love? In Season 2, I got my answer, as we saw with Vee, another more maternal kind of love evolved," she continued. "It really has nothing to do with the object of desire. It has everything to do with how Suzanne expresses love, and that's through loyalty."

She moves through the shifts in her reasoning behind Suzanne like a beat poet, connecting each thought rhythmically, a certain emphasis automatically endowed by her deep, reverberating voice. 

It's especially interesting to hear Aduba's process, since we know so little about her character. She's shifted from the other-ed "Crazy Eyes" to the nuanced and complex Suzanne so gradually over the past three seasons, while remaining one of the few core women at Litchfield Correctional Facility without a concrete backstory. 

Asked what Suzanne might have done to land herself in prison, Aduba clamps a hand over her mouth.  

"I can't say," she gasps, and, for a second, it's unclear if she's afraid of spoiling the narrative or finding it out herself.

Aduba understands the importance of her role specifically on "OITNB," but also holistically as a woman of color in an industry with blatant race and gender issues. 

"Growing up, there were not many images of women of color," she said. "The only two I had were Claire Huxtable and Oprah Winfrey, and only one of them was real."

With that understanding of what it's like to watch television searching for an image of yourself, Aduba takes the part of Suzanne very seriously. 

"My wish, my hope is that I’m dealing with it with a level of sensitivity and care," she said. "I never want anyone to feel they’ve been misrepresented or that their community has been done a disservice."

If you’re choosing to create something and be an artist, you should want to take pause to see, ‘What am I doing for the cause, for the human cause, as an artist?’

As she understands it, art and activism are not mutually exclusive. What's important is telling stories -- real, authentic stories -- that are true to the people they represent.

"If you’re choosing to create something and be an artist, you should want to take pause to see, ‘What am I doing for the cause, for the human cause, as an artist?’ There is some responsibility there."

Now, in terms of diversity, TV is better than ever. Aduba sits down with her niece and sees things she couldn't have dreamed of watching as a young girl; a lineup of shows which makes her feel more and more like she is deserving of this career. She references "How to Get Away with Murder," "Empire," "Scandal" and "Blackish," thrilled that they are all on the air at the same time as "OITNB." But what's really important to Aduba is that this wider range of voices is getting to share good stories.

"A good story is a good story is a good story," she said. "I think audiences are smarter than we give them credit for! If a story is good, then we will follow the protagonist, regardless of her or his makeup."

There's a pleading in her eyes. She makes the statement with such clarity and confidence, it's hard not to wish a straight, white, male representative of Hollywood was there to listen, to figure it out already.

Aduba places her hands on the table and sighs, her tone softening a bit. "Just tell me the truth of who I am, as a woman, a black person, a gay, straight or transgender person, whatever the thing," she says. "Just tell the truth. That's what people latch on to. That's what we need."

And then she smiles, offering up another glimpse at her beautiful gap.

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