The first thing I notice when Uzo Aduba glides into Del Frisco’s Steakhouse in Midtown Manhattan is her lime green dress, and the way it accentuates her exquisite dark skin. We mosey over to our booth, and as soon as we sit down, she turns to me and says, “This is wild. When I first moved to the city, I worked at the City Lobster & Steak just across the street.”That year was 2004, a decade before she took home an Emmy Award for her riveting turn as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black. She’d just moved to the city from her hometown of Medfield, Massachusetts, and cut her teeth in the theater until, in June 2012, she met a manager who convinced her to try out for pilot season. She then auditioned for pilots all summer, and just when she was about to quit the industry altogether, learned she’d landed the coveted role on Jenji Kohan’s OITNB.
Now, of course, she’s a household name in the TV arena, having taken home the Emmy and a Screen Actors Guild Award to boot. It’s a sunny day in late June, just two days before the Supreme Court would pass their historic ruling legalizing gay marriage, and Aduba is in great spirits.
“We’ve already started shooting Season 4,” she says. “I don’t want to give anything away, but Suzanne is deciding who to love.”
She orders the Greek Farmers Salad and goes into a not-so-subtle spiel about her crab cake fandom. I read between the lines and suggest we split a crab cake, and she knowingly accepts. Season 3 of Orange Is the New Black sees Suzanne struggle mightily with the loss of her surrogate mother, Vee, and make amends with her pals Taystee and Poussey. She also whips up an addictive piece of erotic sci-fi fan-fiction, Time Humpers, which has the entire cellblock bugging her about oh-so-crucial plot points and inspirations.
And Aduba is as lovably volatile as ever on the show, bringing Suzanne’s delicate-yet-imposing persona to thrilling life once more.
We both take a long sip of water, and begin. Where do we see Suzanne this season? She’s clearly been traumatized by the loss of her mother figure, Vee, and is struggling to cope with it.
She’s fraught with trying to understand how someone like a mother could be gone again from her life. She had the separation and not a particularly strong bond with her adoptive mother, and to connect in such a way that felt open and validating with Vee, and then to lose that relationship, it took a lot out of her. There are these two themes Jenji is circling around for Season 3—motherhood and faith. In Suzanne’s case, she’s losing her mother, and feeling that vacancy in her life has been tough to cope with. She’s someone who has always put her faith in another human being and idol-worships people—from Piper to Vee. She puts them on a pedestal, and that becomes problematic when they aren’t the “Gods” you think they are. But by season’s end, even though she starts in a place of loss and doubt, I was really proud that she’s still a believer. She’s the first one in the water. She believes.
Where did you shoot the final “baptism” sequence where all the inmates run into the lake? We shot that in New Jersey in October! But they had figured out that it would be the one warm day for the next two weeks, so we got the shot before we’d even gotten to that part of the show. That could have been a horrible day at work. We shot it over two days—Saturday to Monday—and it was, by the grace of God, warm for October. It could have been a day where people were complaining and were angry, but it ended up being the most fun day of work. Every single actor was a great sport. Our director and writers got in the water in solidarity, and we were a real team that day. We even saw a bear there! Right as we were coming in, we saw a bear. It was so crazy. But everyone was in such good spirits that day. And I think that scene symbolized a palate cleanse, as if all the troubles from the previous season had been washed away. It was a balm. And then when you see all the new prisoners coming in, it symbolized that we were one tribe, and we’re confronted by an even newer tribe.
On a lighter note: Time Humpers. Is there an actual erotic story that you were given? This story actually exists somewhere?
Yup! There is an actual story written. I physically re-wrote it—that’s my handwriting. And they said, “If you want to add some stuff, go for it,” so a lot of those are my illustrations. I remember crossing things out and thinking, “How would Suzanne write this?” and then I thought, “Oh, my God, my castmates are going to read this!” It’s probably about 10 pages long.
Could you do your best to describe the plot of Time Humpers?
There is no describing it. It’s a combat fighter in outer space, and there’s Rodcocker…
What is the craziest part of this sci-fi erotica, in your opinion?[Laughs] It’s the push-pull that the female character has between the two men, and their various strengths—if you get my drift—and how her mind is often seduced by those strengths. I think that’s bizarre. Those are some special skills they have, and let’s leave it at that!
We know Suzanne has a very fertile mind. And she’s a virgin. It’s a very childlike view of sexuality, this grand erotic space opera.
It’s like when little kids hear what sex is for the first time, and they have no idea. I heard someone tell me that they heard sex for the first time is when a man goes inside the woman and pees in her. Of course that’s how a child would think of it, and she’s someone who’s never done it, so all she has is her imagination of how it is, and Suzanne has a wild imagination. So, of course she’s going to be like, “Rodcocker has two penises.” I love it so much. [Laughs]
Did Jenji write Time Humpers? And are there plans to actually release it? She did! But I have no idea. That would be kind of amazing if it actually came to life! I have no doubt that that might be a consideration. But yes, there is a copy somewhere out there in the world.
I feel people understate the importance of cultural reference points, and Orange is such an important thing when it comes to championing diversity, body acceptance, trans acceptance, etc., on television. This is a highly influential show that is changing the cultural conversation.
Marlow, what I think is amazing, and why it speaks and resonates in that sort of way, is Jenji’s unwillingness to back down from the truth. She is unwilling. She is easily one of the smartest people I’ve met in my life, but she’s not interested in pacifying, placating, suggesting or commenting on a life or lifestyle—she’s only interested in telling it authentically as it is, no matter how uncomfortable the statement, position, or story is. The thing about the truth is, when you tell it, there’s no arguing it. I love it because I think that’s what people are drawn to with watching our show: when you’re confronted with the truth, you’re forced to address the truth. There are people of color in this world, so let’s address why we never see them on television. There are trans people in this world, so let’s address why we never see them on television. There are gay people in this world, so let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about gender fluidity, mental illness, sexuality. Jenji doesn’t do it in protest; she does it with a subtlety and nuance that’s inviting, instead of pushing you away from the conversation.
And the conversation, of late, has been centered on the Charleston tragedy. In the wake of it, there is at least this cultural backlash against the Confederate flag.
In my home state, there was a restaurant called The Rebels that had a Confederate flag—not far from my home. It wasn’t as flagrant as some other areas, but it’s been everywhere in this country. What I’m excited about seeing in its coming down is that everybody in this world wants to feel heard, right? What’s been nice in seeing it come down is that the pain associated with the flag, the history stolen from over one million African-Americans in this country, and the tragedy of that unfortunateness, because that’s their history, to feel like that pain and anguish has been heard and not ignored, that’s what feels exciting to me. Once someone feels like they’ve been heard, then you can hear them on all the issues. Symbols do have power, and I don’t see why we should continue to give those symbols power.
And Obama said it in his speech post-Charleston, but this is not happening in other countries to the degree that it is in America. And it’s 2015.
When I heard the news, heartbreak didn’t go far enough. Heart shattered didn’t feel full enough. My whole body felt crushed. It just felt heavy. So heavy. The weight of it all is becoming more and more. We’re at a place where we’re sitting underneath piles of bodies, and piles of stories, that are making all of our chests heavy. When I saw Charleston, I echoed the president, and I think I retweeted something he said about how—and I’m paraphrasing—we’re past the point of empathizing and praying for everybody. Action needs to be taken in terms of doing something about this. What are we doing? You would never look at someone who has a stomachache and start checking what’s in their eyes. You would never do that. You would treat the source. You wouldn’t go to a heart surgeon, say, “My heart is bothering me,” and then have him scope your throat. He would treat the symptoms. And if you don’t treat the symptoms, you’re going to become more and more symptomatic, and become sicker and sicker until you’re rotten to the core. My greatest wish, more than anything—and going back to Jenji—is if we’re willing to have the honest conversation, progress can be made. But only if we’re willing.
Orange, like you said, challenges us to have that conversation. We look at it, and then we look at the rest of the cultural landscape, and think, “OK, what makes this show so singular? And why?”
When Orange came along, it was sort of a barren landscape in terms of diversity and representation. Scandal was there. And then American Crime, Empire, all these other shows came along. Even Girls, which represents young women and what it’s done for body image, it’s changed the idea of what is sexy because Lena Dunham is just as beautiful as anyone else in the world. And by having shows like that on television, if you don’t know someone, you can watch a show and see someone fairly and accurately represented, and then think differently about that person.