Uzo Aduba, 34, had given up on acting before — literally minutes before — getting a phone call from her agent and finding out she'd landed her part on Orange Is the New Black. Now an Emmy winner for her portrayal of an emotionally challenged inmate, the actress and longtime social activist who plays the show's resident cracked poet and philosopher Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren has found a role that combines her passions. "I think sometimes the most effective activism can be when the people don't even know they're being transformed. When you're able to blanket in change and artistic expression in one breath — that's the art I'm interested in."
Talking to Rolling Stone for our new cover story, Aduba tells us about the OITNB part she originally auditioned for, her opera-singing skills, and what she'd be doing if that phone call hadn't changed her life.
Is Crazy Eyes a tough character for you to get into?
Not as much anymore as it used to. When I started, she was more challenging to unpack — just stepping into her boots, trying to be really clear in assessing her. I think now that I've had some time to sit in that character, I'm familiar with her voice and her point of view on things that I can access those things a little more readily; the leaping point is easier to find. There are days, though, that are still harder than others. It depends on the scene.
I somehow have become able to decode her logic, and in decoding it, it's helped me to understand where she's coming from. I know what it's like to have loved that much, that deeply. [But] I mean, I'm not, like, peeing on floors and throwing pie at people.
Your character is presented as the one with the most obvious emotional challenges. Do you feel a great responsibility in depicting that, because it's such a stigmatized thing?
In terms of mental health? Absolutely. Because here's the thing: It's such a closed-door subject, a closeted subject. People aren't walking around and saying, "I suffer from mental illness," or "I have depression," or "I'm fucked up." We kind of bury it, cover it up, guard it with our life. [So] to have someone who is wrestling with their emotions or struggling with being understood when her point of view isn't always as clear as everyone else's — yeah, I feel a huge responsibility to just take care of her and the people who can relate to her. 'Cause it's not easy.
"I know what it's like to have loved that much. [But] I'm not, like, peeing on floors or throwing pie at people."
Which part did you originally read for?
I read for the role of Janae [played by Vicky Jeudy], the track star, because I ran track in high school and college — but clearly, those skill sets were not useful in this experience whatsoever [laughs]. I went in and only read once. Then I got a phone call a month later, from my agent calling and my manager: "Do you remember that audition you went on? Remember the part you read for? Well, you didn't get it. . .but they'd like to offer you another part." And I was like, "OK, what's the other part?" And they're like, "Crazy Eyes." [Laughs] "What?!? I went in for this athlete girl. What in my audition felt like Crazy Eyes is the right thing I should be playing?"
Did you ever ask?
No, I have never asked Jenji straight up. And it's funny because I've told the story and we both know. But I've never asked directly, and you know why? Because I'm not bogged by the question. I actually don't even need to know because the truth of the matter is the day I got that job was the day I quit acting. There were so many other things that came before that have been so miraculous that lead to me doing this job that I don't think I even need to know the answer.
This is what I'm supposed to be doing. I don't know if the word is a "creator" or a "maker" or just an "artist" — because I was a singer before this. I went to school to study opera.
Are you a good opera singer?
I do all right. I feel like an asshole to say, "Yes."
If you had quit acting, what would you be doing right now?
I'd be a lawyer. Or in law school. My family's from Nigeria and we were very traditional in that way, first-generation immigrants coming over like, [doing Nigerian accent] "Our daughter will be a lawyer or doctor or an engineer — something in finance or something like that." It wasn't a reinforced, crazy thing. When I was going to art school, they were totally interested and supportive. But growing up — probably because I talked a lot — they were like, "She'd make a good lawyer" [laughs].
Do you think that you'll end up becoming a lawyer one day?
No. Maybe I'll play one.