You may know her as Crazy Eyes. You may know her as Suzanne. You may know her as Uzo. But, her real name is Uzoamaka. It means "the road is good" in her parents' home country of Nigeria, and it's a pretty apt descriptor for a woman whose career is on the up-and-up.
Uzo Aduba is a self-proclaimed "Beantown girl" who grew up in a middle-class, immigrant family with strong Nigerian roots (she's fluent in both Igbo and French). "I remember, when she dropped me off in New York City for the first time, my mother said 'Uzo, just work hard. I have never heard of nothing coming from hard work.'" A Massachusets-born, NYC-trained theater actress and classical opera singer, Aduba's everyday style used to include the now-iconic Bantu knots that complete her character's look on Orange is the New Black. Walking down the street after the first season dropped on Netflix a year ago, she quickly realized she'd probably never be able to go out in public that way again. This is hard to believe after meeting Aduba in person; her physical presence bears very little resemblance to Suzanne, whose preference for overbearing love, public urination, and moments of striking wisdom have made her one of the most memorable characters on Jenji Kohan's much-beloved show. The real Uzo is small but strong, ridiculously beautiful, and the kind of person with whom you can get lost in conversation for hours (which is exactly what we did).
Hair Styled by Giselle Modeste for Oscar Blonde/Epiphany Artist Group; Make Up by Jessica Smalls for M.A.C. Cosmetics/Epiphany Artist Group.
Part of what makes Orange is the New Black so compelling is that viewers start out with what Aduba calls the "pinhole" perspective — that of privileged, stuffy, and ignorant Piper Kerman — and then see that view expand into something much deeper and more interesting. "I try to open it up to a more telescopic view," Aduba explains. "Piper is the de facto entry point, but [the perspective] very quickly expands out. All of these stories are valid and important, regardless of your socioeconomic background, your race, your gender, [or] your orientation."
The show's many forms of diversity have been both a point of praise and a topic of criticism. In The Nation, Aura Bogado wrote about the problem with centering a story around white characters, and she wasn't the only one who felt that way. But, Aduba doesn't agree — nor does she see the characters in the prison as stereotypes. "This is a true story," she explains. "We didn't make it up, and to negate that dishonors the story we're trying to tell. And, beyond Piper, this is the reality of the world, and the reality of prisons." Characters like Suzanne, Daya, Red, Sophia, Boo, Morello, and the rest "are authentic and real people, and they are given a loud and strong voice," adds Uzo. Piper might be the entry point, but she's nowhere near capable of — or even interested in — silencing her fellow inmates.
Some of her best pals on the show are Natasha Lyonne (who will make you "die with laughter"), Danielle Brooks ("the best"), Dascha Polanco ("naturally hilarious"), and Taylor Schilling — whose acting, Aduba says, is enough to make your jaw drop.
Like many of her coworkers, Aduba has felt the unique privilege of working for a less-traditional TV company such as Netflix. "I had no experience with television, other than a one-off part in an episode of Blue Bloods," Aduba says. She came from theater, where it was "entirely about the actor's work. It's an actor's medium. So, it was ideal to come into something like Netflix. They're in such a pioneering position, they're really willing to take the risk, and they have a hands-off approach. I couldn't ask for a better first experience."
That's the general sentiment, as we learned when talking with some other cast members at the Paley Media Center a while back. Aduba says she and the rest of the cast "always felt like the people from Netlix...were really there for the good of the piece."
Alongside Denise Huxtable and her uneven eyeliner, Oprah was a superhero of Aduba's childhood. In fact, Uzo wrote Ms. Winfrey fan mail regularly from age 13 through college. "She was so fantastic to me. She tells a story about watching Sydney Poitier at the Academy Awards, and how inspired she was, and Oprah was that same figure to me. Once, she even wrote back — I don't even care if it was standard stock stuff, it was signed in purple sharpie, with that Oprah signature."
Nowadays, Uzo's working hard and doesn't have much time for penpalling anymore. On the eve of season two, she's experiencing the same jittery mix of hesitation, excitement, fear, and thrilling anticipation that the viewers are. A year ago, though, she had no idea the show would be so big. "I was supposed to be there for two or three episodes. I watched it grow for me and for everyone — but nobody could ever have imagined what it became. That's what makes it such a blessing, and makes me even more thankful. As Oprah says, 'I should have dreamed a bigger dream.'"
Lucky for us, Aduba is confident that season two will be every bit as well-received as the first go-round. Cryptically — and temptingly — she hinted at some upcoming antics at Litchfield: "It is next-level. Things that are up go down. Forwards means backwards. Buckle up. Get ready."
Styled by Willow Lindley