Television
9:53 am
Thu July 31, 2014

Playing 'Crazy Eyes' Taught Actress 'It's OK To Be Just You'

Originally published on Thu July 31, 2014 4:47 pm

Uzo Aduba channels many conflicting emotions as Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren on Netflix's original hit series Orange Is the New Black. The character is at once aggressive, tender, terrifying and vulnerable. That balancing act recently earned Aduba an Emmy nomination.

So it seems fitting that her full name, Uzoamaka, means "the road is good."

But she tells NPR's Michel Martin that she hasn't always been so comfortable with that name.

"I grew up in a very small town in Massachusetts, and it goes without saying that there weren't many Nigerian families in that town, and a lot of people couldn't say Uzoamaka," she explains. "I came home from school one day, and I said to my mother ... 'Mommy, can you call me Zoe?' " Aduba thought it was close enough to her real name but wouldn't make people tongue-tied. Her mother wasn't having it. "Without skipping a beat, she said, 'If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky, and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, then they can learn to say Uzoamaka.' And we never discussed it again."

Aduba says that being a first-generation American made her think twice about continuing her acting career after she was rejected from a slew of roles.

"You know, they came here with the American dream. My mom, she really just wanted the best life for us, and I was wondering if I was just wasting that life," she says. "I'd gone to this audition for Blue Bloods, and I got lost, and I thought it was a sign that I wasn't supposed to be doing this."

That day, she decided to quit acting. But "about an hour or so later, I got the phone call that I had gotten Orange."


Interview Highlights

On how Orange Is the New Black re-established her faith in acting

It gave me an opportunity and a voice to speak and let my art live, which is all I've ever wanted to do. And somebody like Suzanne, who could easily be voiceless, I think I became even more passionate to make sure that her point of view and her voice be heard when I was working on the part.

On what the character "Crazy Eyes" taught her

The thing that she's taught me more than anything is, it's OK to be just you. You know, she — as different and as off the wall, and some of her choices might be so different from the ones that any of us might make in our life — she is 100 percent and authentically herself, always, at all times. And she's not afraid to love hard, no matter what the cost. And that opening, and openness of spirit, is something that I'll carry with me for the rest of my life.

On lessons in hard work from her mother

When I moved to New York City, my mom dropped me off at the train station, and she stopped the car, and she just said to me, "Uzo, just work hard. I don't know what will come. I don't know when it will come. But if you work hard, I know something will come." And that stayed on my spirit. It's like seeped into the marrow of my soul, that if I can just work hard, I don't know what the thing will be, something will come. And the other part of it that she said, "I've never heard of nothing coming from hard work." And for me, that would be the thing that I would pass on. I've never heard of nothing coming from hard work. I've heard of nothing coming from nothing, but I've never heard of absolutely nothing coming from hard work.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now if you are a fan of Netflix's original series "Orange Is The New Black," you are probably aware of how much actress Uzo Aduba brings to the program. She plays Litchfield inmate Suzanne Warren known as Crazy Eyes. And her performance is tender, terrifying, aggressive, and vulnerable. Here she is talking about love.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK")

UZO ADUBA: (As Suzanne Warren) It's like you become more you, which normally is like (choking sounds), but now it's OK because the person, like whoever, they chose to take all that weird stuff, whatever is wrong or bad or hiding in you. Suddenly, it's all right. You don't feel like such a freak anymore.

MARTIN: Critics have noticed her, too. She recently received her first Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series. So you know we had to catch up with her. Uzo Aduba is with us now. Welcome. Congratulations on everything.

ADUBA: Thank you very much. And thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: I'm going to ask you to tell us your full name if you don't mind.

ADUBA: No problem. My full name is Uzoamaka Aduba. My first name means the road is good.

MARTIN: The road is good. All right. And you were born in Massachusetts, but your family's from Nigeria. I read a story that at one point when you were in school, you wanted to change it because you said none of your classmates could pronounce it, and said your mother had a different perspective on that. Tell us what she said.

ADUBA: Yeah, you know, I grew up in a very small town in Massachusetts. And it goes without saying that there weren't many Nigerian families in that town. And a lot of people couldn't say Uzoamaka. And so I came home from school one day and, you know, I said to my mother - she was busy cooking - I said, Mommy, can you call me Zoe? And she stopped. And she turned, and she looked to me, and in her Igbo accent she said, why? And I said, because no one can say Uzoamaka. And I thought Zoe was, like, a close switch-up from Uzoamaka - Uzo for short. Uzo, Zoe - it was - kind of sounded a little bit in the family at least. And without skipping a beat, my mother - she said, if they can learn to say Czajkowski and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky then they can learn to say Uzoamaka. And we never discussed it again.

MARTIN: Never discussed it again. You know, there's a theme here. I understand that, actually, on the day that you got this role, you were actually thinking of quitting acting. Is that true?

ADUBA: Yes, I actually did quit acting the day I got "Orange Is The New Black." You know, I had been auditioning for film and television and was taking a step away from the theater and was really aggressively pursuing it. And all I kept hearing over and over and over again was no at every audition. And I'm first generation. My family's from Nigeria, and I was feeling like my parents always wanted something. You know, they came here with American Dream. My mom - she really just wanted the best life for us. And I was wondering if I was just kind of wasting that life. And I'd gone to this audition for "Blue Bloods," and I got lost. And I thought it was a sign that I wasn't supposed to be doing this, that the universe - God was telling me, this is not for you. You need to find something else, and do that, and live your life with purpose there. And so I really moved on in my heart. And about an hour or so later, I got the phone call that I had gotten "Orange," which I had auditioned for about a month earlier.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Wow.

ADUBA: Yeah.

MARTIN: Do you think that all of that informs the work now?

ADUBA: Absolutely. I think first and foremost for me, it reestablished my faith. It gave me an opportunity and a voice to speak and let my art live, which is all I have ever wanted to do. And somebody like Suzanne, who could easily be voiceless, I think it became even more passionate to make sure that her point of view and her voice be heard when I was working on the part.

MARTIN: In season two, we've really gotten to know a lot more about Suzanne and her story. Fascinating back story. I hope I'm not spoiling anything for anybody.

ADUBA: (Laughing).

MARTIN: You find out that she was adopted by a white family and really struggled to fit in. Is there anything that you think you've learned from her that you want to pass on to us in playing this character?

ADUBA: Absolutely. I think the thing that she's taught me more than anything is it's OK to be just you. You know, she, as different and as, you know, off-the-wall and some of her choices might be so different from the ones that any of us might make in our life, she is 100 percent and authentically herself, always, at all times. And she's not afraid to love hard no matter what the cost. And that opening and openness of spirit I think is something that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

MARTIN: So, you know, we were talking about global stories this hour. And we've been meeting people throughout this hour - people who have touched the diaspora in many different ways and who live in the diaspora in many different ways. As I mentioned, you know, born here, roots there, now you're at this very interesting place and kind of American celebrity and dealing with that whole piece. Do you think you have some wisdom or guidance to share about whatever led you to this place at this time that you might want to pass on to other people?

ADUBA: Absolutely. When I moved to New York City, my mom - she dropped me off at the train station, and she stopped the car. And she just said to me - she said, Uzo, just work hard. I don't know what will come. I don't know when it will come. But if you work hard, I know something will come. And that stayed on my spirit. It like seeped into the marrow of my soul that if I can just work hard - I don't know what the thing will be - something will come. And the other part of it that she said, I've never heard of nothing coming from hard work. And for me, that would be the thing that I would pass on. I have never heard of nothing coming from hard work. I've heard of nothing coming from nothing, but I've never heard absolutely nothing coming from hard work. So regardless the industry you're going into, but if you can put your whole self into it, and do the best job that you can do, and try with all of your might, something will come.

MARTIN: Uzo Aduba plays Suzanne Crazy Eyes Warren on the Netflix original series "Orange Is The New Black." And she was kind enough to join us from our studios in New York City. Uzo Aduba, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ADUBA: Oh, my goodness. Thank you so much. And congratulations on your show. And I wish you all the best. I'm so thankful to be here in these last days. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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