As an athletic kid growing up in bucolic Medfield, it’s unlikely that Uzo Aduba imagined that she’d one day make an Emmy-award winning splash for her portrayal of a frighteningly intense inmate in a women’s prison. Yet her role as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren on the Netflix smash Orange is the New Black has won the former BU track star critical acclaim.
With the third season debuting on June 12, we caught up with Aduba prior to her first time running the Boston Marathon to chat about OITNB, the value of sports-instilled discipline in the acting world, and more.
I have an idea of what the answer is going to be here, but I’d be drummed out of the journalism game if I didn’t ask—are there any OITNB spoilers you can share with us?
Everybody dies! No, just kidding. You know, I’ve been puzzled at the season this year. Jenji [Kohan, show creator] is really toying with this idea of faith. What do we believe? Do we believe or do we put our faith in love, or someone else? With regards to Suzanne, she’s been a bit of an idol worshipper in the past, so it’s interesting this season to see where she puts her faith.
Is it true that you had an unsuccessful audition for a part in Blue Bloods, lost on the same day that you got the role in Orange Is the New Black?
No…I went to an audition for Blue Bloods the same day that I got Orange is the New Black. I was 25 minutes late and I was so sure that—even though I had a great audition—I didn’t get the job because I was late. That was a really trying time for me, trying to find a job and so much of the television world saying, “Thank you, but no.” So I thought that was the universe telling me you need to quit, and I did, I really did quit that day. I gave up and I quit in my heart and about 45 minutes later I found out that I got Orange.
Wow, that’s pretty incredible timing.
Yeah. And incidentally about a week later I found out that I booked that Blue Bloods job too.
Is it also true that you didn’t initially audition for the role of Suzanne?
Yes—that is correct! I auditioned for the role of Janae, the track star, because I ran track in high school and college and my agent thought that would be a good fit for me. I went in and I read, and a few weeks later, my agent called and she said I have some really good news for you. And I said, “OK, what?” And she said, “Do you remember the part you went in for?” I said, “Yeah,” and she was like, “Well, you didn’t get it.” I was like, “OK, so now we’re in the business of telling actors that it’s good news when we don’t get parts? What is happening?” And she said, “They’d like to offer you another part,” and it was Suzanne.
There is so much more to this character just beyond those “crazy eyes” and her physical fearlessness, and you mentioned the idea that at the base she’s sort of an idol worshipper.
I was less focused on the crazy. I really wanted to fit in this idea of her as just being so pure, because there was this description of her being innocent like a child, rather than being so scary. And I was like, Oh, that means that she has no agenda. So this is a love story that we’re telling. This is just somebody who just loves really deeply, and I wanted to play more of that openness, that purity, that vulnerability that she has.
When you mention the childlike quality, there also seems to be, as a result of that, a lack of familiarity with established boundaries that adults would have.
Absolutely! Well, because children are boundless in my mind. They don’t know, they haven’t learned the rules that we adults have placed on them. They are just pure animals; they are so primal in their wants and needs that I didn’t want to put that on her. I think she just acts, and then thinks. And that’s what I mean by no agenda. Like the way she does her hair—there’s no conforming.
These are really interesting motivations for an actress.
Absolutely. It’s nice to get the opportunity to play a role realizing that there really is no bad choice.
You mentioned that very distinctive hairstyle—what is the process for that?
Well, our stylist on the show is amazing. It used to take a longer time, like 45 minutes to do, but now she has it down to where she can tackle that in 30 or 35 minutes. I went in with my hair like that for an audition initially, and I had to box it up, and I was really glad that they wanted me to keep it for the first season.
Ever take that look off the lot and out in public now?
Oh, no! I do not wear my hair like that at all anymore. I used to, but now it’s too much of a giveaway.
It’s interesting that now people can get so familiar with a character like Suzanne so fast. It speaks to the new way in which people watch television.
That’s right. We feel so grateful to Netflix. Season three hasn’t come out and they have been so gracious as to order a fourth season, which has been very touching—I know that everybody on our show has worked so hard. Everybody comes with their best game and their strongest stuff. And yes, it is definitely a new way of watching TV and realizing that you can take it in as quickly or as slowly as you want. We are really grateful that people were watching it with as much enthusiasm as they were when the show initially came out so that it gave encouragement to Netflix.
You mentioned that you had auditioned for the track star role, and I know that you had participated in track and field at BU. Tell me about your career there—what were your events?
I ran the 100, 200, I ran the 55 meters and started to creep up to the 400 a bit my final year of track, but primarily I was a 100-, 200-meter runner.
I assume being a middle distance runner that you were on the track most of the time, but any favorite running routes that you still have in Boston?
Yeah, we were primarily on the track, we very rarely went outside, but if [we went out,] we went down Storrow Drive, and then came onto the Mass. Ave. Bridge, and then crossed over into Cambridge, and came back down by Memorial Drive and over the BU Bridge. Well, I always remember the bridges. We would sometimes go on a long run down Mass. Ave.
You come from an athletic family—is there a discipline from sports that you take over to acting?
Absolutely. The first thing is, I just want to go on record as saying that having been part of the sports world and part of the arts world, I’ve seen the two worlds exist simultaneously while I was in college, and I think that both the jock and the theater geeks are the same people. From the sports side, there is a level of focus, and especially in sprinting my coach would always talk about staying in your lane. “Just focus on your lane—like there is nothing else that you need to be distracted by.” I carry that over to the work. And when I’m doing the work, I am focused and I want to get to the finish line of who this person is. That’s been a great fortifier for me in terms of the business of acting. Whatever your dreams are, whatever you pursue in this life, just keep going. People say it’s a marathon, not a sprint, and it really is.
And now you’re running your first Boston Marathon.
Yes! I’m running the Boston Marathon for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. I’m very excited to come back, and I grew up here, and I’m from there and the only reason I know what a marathon is, is because of the Boston Marathon. To run Boston and be a part of that tradition, because it is a tradition in our beautiful state of Massachusetts, I’m excited. To be a part of that is awesome—it’s exciting! It’s wicked awesome! Even though I never say, “wicked” anymore.
Are there any spots you absolutely have to get to when you’re in Boston?
Well, there are things in my hometown that I must go to. But I have been known to make a stop at T. Anthony’s on Comm. Ave., and they make a great slice. But in my hometown, the Casabella pizzeria or the Royal—I just have to go to those places. I have to go to Blue Moon, or Isabella’s—those are the must-go-to places around Medfield. I am just more inclined to go to the places in my hometown than just in Boston. I also like the Sunset Grill, but I haven’t been there in forever. T. Anthony’s, though, I definitely am known to stop by.
You are really painting yourself as a BU alum with a couple of those references! Coming from this area, and being an athletic person, is there a Boston sports team that you keep track of?
All of them: the Red Sox, absolutely, and the Patriots. I was shooting down in Louisiana during the Super Bowl and they had a massive Super Bowl party, and I was one of three people in that room who were happy to see how those last four minutes played out.
Season three of Orange Is the New Black premieres June 12. Aduba will run the Boston Marathon on April 20, 2015, with the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
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