Uzo Aduba on 'Mrs. America': "These Are Real Women, and It Was a Real Fight"

The 'Orange Is the New Black' veteran plays Shirley Chisholm in the FX on Hulu limited series.
Courtesy of FX

Uzo Aduba was finishing up the seventh season of Orange Is the New Black when she got the call about FX's Mrs. America, its new limited series about the movement to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. Going from one politically minded, women-led ensemble series to another wasn't a dramatic change for the Emmy winner, but it did make her new job much easier to adjust to.

Aduba plays Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress and the first woman to run for the Democratic nomination for president. "The story felt so present and it didn't feel like ancient history. Some of the issues that are discussed on the show and in that time in history [have] a lot of sharp echoes to today," Aduba tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Because of the importance of the story and its parallels to today, it was that much more important for Aduba and creator Dahvi Waller to make sure the story they were telling was as authentic as possible.

"Anything anybody said that was a fact or direct quote, or sounded like it could be a direct quote, [Waller] wanted to be sure that those words were actually the words. She was really particular about that sort of stuff because the history is still alive. You want to make sure that it's really rooted in something and not surface and not too many liberties were taken," says Aduba. "These are real women, and it was a real fight."

While an ensemble series, each episode shines a light on one of the real-life political figures at the heart of the story. The third episode, released April 15, focuses on Chisholm's failed bid for president at the 1972 Democratic National Convention, and the ways in which she and her feminist counterparts at the time clashed. Below, Aduba discusses the importance of doing justice to such a groundbreaking person, working on another woman-centric series and what she thinks conservative viewers might take from the show.

Not only are these real women you're all playing in the show, they're iconic historical figures. What kind of pressure did you feel in taking that on?

As a woman of color in this world, I think that pressure exists in various orbits of life, not just if you're the only one feeling the pressure of representing your race or your gender. If you're the only woman in the room, you're like, "I now speak for every woman in the building." So you feel that weight in various ways in life. There was no difference here because whether you agree with their politics or not, there are very few historical female icons that exist. Therefore, you want to be sure that you tell that story well, and play that character well, so you feel that. But after a certain point you have to put it down. Shirley felt the weight of being Shirley in the time in whatever way she felt it. I don't want to speak for her, but it didn't stop her from being Shirley. You can't let the weight of Shirley take over to a point where now you become a disservice to Shirley. So I think that's where you just have to let it go, because then you lose some of the buoyancy of who she was, the strength of who she was, the quick-thinking woman, because now she suddenly feels bogged down. I'm sure that is in there somewhere, but that's not the essence and truth of who she is.

In the show, Shirley represents not only her own accomplishments, but she highlights the ways in which second-wave feminism was really lacking when it comes to intersectionality.

She does represent intersectionality; she represents the idea of what is black identity? What is womanhood? How do we define womanhood and the role of women the role of a black woman within politics? Even if she has a place there, what that role is and how it differs from a white woman in politics, I think that's highlighted. All of those things get highlighted in that episode with her, whether it's Shirley underground discussing "Do I not look black enough to you?" or when she and Bella are going at it right before the convention and Bella was telling her she couldn't believe that she just announced, that she needed to ask her for permission. Because who is Bella? It's like Bella is above Shirley in some way even though they are direct colleagues. Or the abandonment she felt from the women's caucus.

She covered all the bases, and that does put a spotlight on the many blind spots, particularly within the feminist movement. It highlights blind spots that existed then and it becomes important to tell that story accurately, so that when we look at ourselves today — whether it's the Women's March or women in politics now or this past Democratic primary and the 2016 presidential election cycle — when we hear echoes that resemble the previous [generation], this second-wave feminism of the '70s, it becomes even more important to tell the story accurately so you can really gauge whether you have progressed as far as you believe yourself to have. It just helps to put, I guess, a starting point on a lot of conversations we're having today.

This isn't a far-flung era of history, but like any historical project, it reflects present-day issues. But the day of this TCA panel in January was the day the Virginia State Legislature voted to ratify the ERA. Did you realize that it would be so literally tied to today?

It's a conversation you thought had already been put to bed. My sister and I were talking about this and we were having this surface conversation on the ERA. She was saying, "I really can't believe that people voted against anything that had the word equality in it, and that today it's still not ratified." I guess I just thought that was something that had been formally addressed, but to learn that it had not been was still [surprising]. Like, "Oh, we're still there. I didn't realize we were still in the incubating stage on this stuff."

This was a very heavily researched show. Is there anything you learned about Shirley that surprised you or stuck with you?

I would say two things, one that I learned about her as I was doing a deep dive into her political platform: I think it's interesting that a lot of the stuff she actually ran on are either things that have since become common law or are platforms that we're seeing in today's politics, whether that's the conversation around universal health care, whether that's affordable higher education for all, whether that's the decriminalizing of marijuana, whether that's Head Start, whether that's being an out-front public advocate for LGBT rights, her conversation about the poverty in America. These were things that she was talking about then and I feel like there are many candidates today that reflect a lot of those policies and positions.

And then the thing that I knew as a woman and as a human being, as a black person: That strong women can feel things. I was happy to see in her that they have their own pain and their own hurt, and they're not strong all the time, which is I think an overly simplified way in which we are presented often, black women and many intersectional groups — this never-broken spirit. Even previous to this, researching her I was like, Shirley Chisholm — what a force! So strong. And then when I was watching her documentary, there's a moment toward the end where she's giving up her delegates and is going to concede, and she let out this cry. Once she's conceding, you just see her break, and she weeps into her hands. You just so rarely get to see that on camera from any candidate, frankly. You don't really get to see that from any politician. But there was just that sparkle of her humanity and that moment humanized her in an entirely different way for me. Here's a strong woman and it wasn't something that rolled off when she left [the race]. She felt that, the end of her and who she was and what she represented, the end of that bid. It was a reminder that strong women feel pain, too.

As someone who spent many years on another show with a strong female ensemble and a lot of women running the show behind the scenes, what was it like to be a part of this show, which definitely shares a lot with Orange Is the New Black in that regard?

Awesome. When I was finishing Orange, as we were early into the seventh season, I would say, "Uzo, make sure you really enjoy this because you are probably never going to get to do this again." I meant I probably wouldn't get to work with as many women who are all so talented, telling a poignant story, something of substance that has something to say. You might get to work with a bunch of women but that may not have anything to say, or you get to work with not a lot of women but it has something to say — just some version of it but not all of those categories ticked off at once. And then while I'm working on Orange, I get the call for this. I was like, "Oh, looks like you're going to get to do this again."

It was awesome, and for it to be the first show after Orange was I think definitely a comfort zone that I appreciated. And it also felt nice in terms of that familiarity — when you're in the hair and makeup chair and everybody's just kind of talking and waking up in the morning; or finishing their day and you're coming in the afternoon and you just have some time to chill and kick it in the chair; or going out on days off or having time to be with each other. It was a very familiar, comforting, welcoming and warm feeling. It was just a nice feeling to be with those women. Their energy was nice and helpful and funny and fun, going to the movies with people you love and have respected and loved their work for years.

The first time doing it with Orange, all of us were new for the most part. We hadn't done this or people didn't really know us. It was awesome to see from my castmates in Orange that energy and love of craft and the work and work ethic going into it. And I guess on this, it was really nice to be in an environment where all these women were seasoned, and probably had every reason where they could phone it in, and they didn't. All of them were really disciplined about the work and lovers of it, and also still passionate about it. They still love what they do. That was nice.

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Orange Is the New Black tackled a lot of political issues. But Mrs. America is very explicitly about feminism, which is a lightning rod of a subject in general. Have you thought about what both sides of the political spectrum will think about the show?

Oh, absolutely. I think that's what makes the work from Cate [Blanchett] or Sarah [Paulson] or Kayli [Carter] or Melanie [Lynskey] or Jeanne [Tripplehorn], who are our anti-ERA-ers — and a host of other women. I don't want to leave anyone out. But what makes their work beautiful, and what makes them all — obviously led by Cate — brilliant in what they do, is you can feel the honesty and the humanity of those women. It doesn't come with judgment. There's no critiquing of it. It's not our job as artists to critique it. That's literally what you do! That's not my job. My job is to put it up there and create the space for you to ask questions or find the answer, even.

What I think Dahvi has done beautifully, and our producers Stacey [Sher] and Coco [Francini] were insistent on pursuing, is the truth. And I think when you pursue the truth, you will find the truth of these women, the hearts of these women. What you will inevitably find will be things that you take comfort in, and things that stir things up in you. You can feel the complexity of that human being's experience, that character's experience. It would be amazing for people to watch and see how complex that issue was, how complex you may even find it within yourself if you're being honest. The wrestling that every human being feels and finds themselves in, in various scenarios, that's true for the characters on the right and the left. Not everything was placid, not everything was easy, not everything felt great, as is true for the left. Not everything was done tip top on either side, going back to your question about the blindside within our own movement on the pro-ERA side. So I would love for everyone to be able to watch and to really understand the complexity of the issue and those characters all around, and see that things aren't always as cut and dry, black and white as you like to make them out to be, when we are in pursuit of the truth.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

New episodes of Mrs. America are released Wednesdays on FX on Hulu.