Interview: ‘Orange Is The New Black’ star Uzo Aduba talks Crazy Eyes and Suzanne

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.]

HitFix: And for you as a stage-trained actress, does that moment let you lock into something specific and personal with the character?
Uzo Aduba: Oh, totally. I just got excited, I was so thankful. Nick Jones, who wrote that episode, he had a couple things in there for me to use and I was so thankful. He’s also a playwright here from New York, a Julliard grad, and I was so thankful that he put that on me to do. It just made me want to play with it. Who doesn’t want to play with language and use language in that way and be able to go to that highest height with something from The Bard. That was just nice to do something and have it tie into television as well.
HitFix: And I think everyone is sort of waiting and anticipating. In Season 2, are we going a Suzanne backstory episode?
Uzo Aduba: Ohhhhhh. I don’t know! [She laughs.] I think we have to watch and wait and see. We’re still shooting. I think we can look forward to definitely learning more about Suzanne, for sure. Whether that’s backstory or not, I don’t know. We still have to see as the season progresses.
HitFix: You talked about the things in the first season that you were surprised to learn about Suzanne. Without giving specifics, I guess, in the second season, have you continued to be surprised? And have the things that you’ve learned about her lined up with the things that you thought you knew about her?
Uzo Aduba: I think that… Hmmm… 
HitFix: I’m trying to get you to tell me everything you know about her backstory and spoil everything.
Uzo Aduba: I know, right? I’m trying to really take that question in, that one. It makes me think about this line from Season 1 that Piper says. I think it’s actually in the Scared Straight episode and she says, “I’m scared that who I am in here is who I really am and I’m afraid of who I’m gonna become and who I might not be.” You know? This idea that when you’re in Litchfield, you wind up living up to the truth of who you are. So that’s why I’m trying to meditate on that question. I think that it may show us some sides of ourselves that we on the outside might keep locked away, sides of ourselves for better or worse. I think that’s true for all of these characters and also true for Suzanne this season.
HitFix: Does that mean we get a sense of who she was outside of Litchfield?
Uzo Aduba: Outside of the prison? I can’t say on that. As I said, we’re still shooting right now, so stories are still being written. But certainly we’re learning more about who she is, along with other characters inside of prison.
HitFix: In the first season, the show had a fairly quiet roll-out and then it snowballed and more and more people were talking about it, almost every day. How did you become aware of that building and growing audience?
Uzo Aduba: It was twofold. One, I became aware of it on my Twitter when I went from no followers to crazy followers in hours and crazy numbers just every day. I’d sign onto to Twitter and it’s like “You have 200 new followers” or “You have 1000 new followers” to “You have 5000 new followers.” So that became the barometer for, “Oh, I think this show is starting to catch fire,” no pun intended. So that was one and then I think where I really, in my  personal life, became aware of it was that I used to go to the grocery store and that was that, but now I go to the grocery store and people’ll be like, “I love you on the show!” or “Oh my gosh, I watch ‘Orange Is The New Black,'” or you can hear somebody whispering about it. That’s where I started to become aware that, “Oh, people are watching our show” and, most important to me, they’re watching it and enjoying it, which I think is pretty cool.
HitFix: But you don’t look all that much like Suzanne when you’re out and about. Does that protect you to some degree?
Uzo Aduba: You know, it’s weird. I call it the double-take. I can see people looking at me like, “I think… How do I know that person?” like they’re not sure. And then it’s usually as we’re passing by each other that I can see them clock in like, “I think that was Uzo Aduba from ‘Orange Is The New Black.'” What I was surprised by is that I guess maybe when I was running the marathon, I looked a lot more haggard. Then people were recognizing me! They were like, “Go Suzanne! Go Uzo.” So I was like, “OK, I guess when I’m running crazy, I look like Crazy Eyes.”
HitFix: I’ve gotta ask about this in terms of audience response. When something like the Julianne Hough Halloween thing happens, do you view it as a compliment or a teachable moment or a little of each?
Uzo Aduba: [Long pause.] Well, you know, I don’t really think about it at all. I have no real thoughts on that, to be honest. Yeah.
HitFix: Moving along, then. Last season was your first extended TV work. How has it been settling in for a second season with a greater comfort for the medium and its grind?
Uzo Aduba: This time around it’s really awesome because we all, as a company, know each other. The first time out, two things were new, both the show and the people. We were unfamiliar with both entities, but now we are so familiar with not only these characters, but with each other as actors and people and friends and family that we enjoy. That sort of symbiosis  happening in the space is really exciting and the ease with which we work is even great and that’s really thrilling. That’s my only thought as far as the difference between Season 1 and Season 2. It’s just that I love working on that show. I love everyone on crew, our cast, our creatives, everybody is just so cool and so awesome and we just have a good time. You know when you just are hanging out with friends and it’s effortless and it’s just easy and everybody’s just enjoying the mix and you can talk for hours? That’s what it feels like to go to work everyday on “Orange” and I’m so thankful to be having that experience, not only the first time, but now watching it repeat itself the second time.
HitFix: During the first season, everyone was picking favorites when it came to the gang at Litchfield. Team Crazy Eyes! Team Pennsyltucky! Etc. Other than Suzanne, who’s your favorite character on the show?
Uzo Aduba: OK. I have like three favorites. Is that OK?
HitFix: Absolutely. 
Uzo Aduba: OK. I love Team Taystee, Danielle. I love Team Dayanara, Dascha Polanco. And I love Team Piper, Taylor Schilling. I love Team Piper! I shot most of my season with Taylor and it was just so cool to work with someone who was just so open and and so available and, frankly, just such an incredible team leader on the show. So I’ve gotta give love to my dandelion! 
“Orange Is The New Black” will be back next spring.