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Uzo Aduba’s Orange Is the New Black character goes by two names: Suzanne and Crazy Eyes. Though for the majority of the series she has referred to her character as Suzanne, she says this season she leans more on using her given Litchfield name.
“I call her both now, at this point. Because sometimes she’s a little bit country and rock ‘n’ roll,” Aduba tells The Hollywood Reporter. The distinction, however, is an important one. “As Uzo, I am her bodyguard. She is very real to me.”
In the fifth season of the Jenji Kohan-created prison dramedy (now streaming on Netflix), Aduba had much to protect. Playing Suzanne Warren, who suffers from mental illness, has already won Aduba two Emmys and much critical acclaim, but the most heavy scene she has ever filmed came this year in the 10th episode, “The Reverse Midas Touch.” The episode, directed by her co-star Laura Prepon, saw Suzanne washing off the white face makeup that was painted onto her by fellow inmates and the monologue she delivered into the mirror once it was removed was something Aduba was grateful to be able to say, despite how hard it was for her to shake.
“I’m familiar with that story and to wear something like that, the act of having that put on, is so conscious. It felt heavy and it felt very ugly. I did not enjoy it, at all,” she says. “That’s where the person and the character sort of rubbed up against one another in a really intense way.”
Below, Aduba takes THR through the process of becoming Suzanne/Crazy Eyes during her most challenging season yet — including the one question she asks the director before each take — this season’s underlying frustration to be seen and heard, and how she interprets the finale heading into season six. But most of all, Aduba explains why it’s getting harder and harder to remove herself from the character she has played for the last five years: “She comes into my bloodstream now.”
Given how last season ended — Suzanne beat her on-and-off lover Kukudio (Emily Althaus) and incited the protest struggle that ultimately got Poussey (Samira Wiley) murdered — what were your hopes for her going into the season?
I was hoping she didn’t die! I was hoping for some kind of healing for her, in relation to the loss of Poussey, but also just her own personal healing. We had seen her so tragically having to deal with what she did to Kukudio and I was hoping for her to have a healing for herself and to come to the state of acceptance for the loss of Poussey. I want her to get to the place of knowing that she is enough, to feel solid on who she is to the best of her ability. That’s my wish and my want for her.
What is going through her head when we first see her this season, when she finds herself in the hospital wing with Humphrey (Michael Torpey) and Kukudio?
I think she’s been sedated. Last we saw her, she was definitely in a hyper-manic sort of state. So she has had time to cool and calm down and seeing her there serves as almost a palette cleanse to have the opportunity to bring the heightened level of Suzanne down. We know that she’s in a calmer state. And it’s interesting that her reaction in seeing Humps right next to her, that is cued into the audience, is very different from her reaction we later see in the cafeteria. Her head is in a different place.
You spoke about how much Poussey’s (and Samira’s) absence was felt in the Ghetto Dorm. But the scene kicks off with such chaos, it takes Suzanne returning to the bunk for people to really feel the loss. In what ways does the chaos and Poussey being gone rock her?
It’s harkening back to season two when she lost Vee (Lorraine Toussaint). Suzanne, as imaginary of a world she is able to create, she has a really hard time conceptualizing death. She does not process that information well, as is evidenced by these two losses. She’s been separated from the word of Litchfield and then when we see her reentry, it’s almost like we have been living in and tracking two timelines and suddenly we are very present. We get to watch Suzanne try and process grief in the only way she knows how. What we see is almost three of those stages very quickly: the guilt, the denial and a starting of, or maybe the potential for, acceptance, and that sort of pulls in the entire community of women. We didn’t have that breath up until that moment to really acknowledge the loss. We’ve seen the reaction to the loss but we haven’t had a chance for people to actually feel the loss. Because Suzanne has been so separated from the riot, she wasn’t swept up into the movement down the hallway and time has almost been frozen for her. Right after the death of Poussey, she was separated and almost has to catch up to what’s happening in the rest of the prison. Because of that, it slows everything down, and then we watch everything continue to progress forward for her from there.
Those stages play out in many different scenarios that are emotional to watch — from her time with the guards to being tied up and abused by her fellow inmates. How do you get into the mindset of Suzanne for those heavy scenes?
If it’s physically emotional, like towards the end when Suzanne is trying to find heaven, for example, I usually ask our director, “How far do you want this to go? Do you want to take it all the way there? I have an idea in my head, but how far do you want this to go?” The answer depends on the director. When Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) and Suzanne met in the visiting room, the director Uta Briesewitz was so great and fantastic and said, “We just want to feel a little bit of her pain.” For me, that didn’t feel like that needed to be everything she had. I felt like in that moment, the pain is not Poussey and dealing with all of the world of the prison, the pain for her there is dealing with the frustration of being constantly misunderstood. That just requires a single outburst of frustration. It doesn’t have to be loud, it just needed to feel a little bit of that. In the case of when she’s trying to find heaven, our director on that said, “Can we take it all the way?” And I said, “Ok, this is what taking it all the way will look like.” It’s a different kind of experience than say, when she realizes Vee is gone. This season, Suzanne is constantly wrestling with mourning and wrestling with frustration and feeling unheard, unheard and unseen. And trying to find an avenue to express those two things.
The scene that felt most emotional to watch was in the 10th episode, when you deliver the monologue after washing your face off in the mirror. Where did that scene rate on your scale?
That one rated fairly high. As Uzo the person, I physically felt ill with that makeup on and everything that she was experiencing and what I know many young women are experiencing out in the world. That felt heavy and caked on and frustrating, annoying and sickening to have that [makeup on]. And then it also felt so essential to play. Especially when we talked about it, in talking with Jenji about it and the discomfort — that’s where her brilliance really comes in. She’s not afraid to have the uncomfortable conversation. Having those uncomfortable conversations is what makes her brilliant, she really holds up a mirror to our society of how people are made to feel.
Even introducing the conversation of colorism into racial adoption and what that can produce in the child. The subtlety of it — it’s nuanced and super layered — but it’s very, very real. That was hard. That was one of those days where it’s in general easier to step into her now, but it’s harder to take her off because she comes into my bloodstream now. Before I knew her in a different way, I knew how to put her on and I could take her off. Now, she so easily fits inside of me that to take her off feels slightly more challenging. That’s the challenge now.
How important is it to you, even personally now, to shine a light on mental illness through Suzanne?
It’s important to shed a light on Suzanne because we’re still living in a time where we’re still not having the fair and just conversation about mental illness in this country. It’s still one of the last taboo hurdles that exists where it still remains stigmatized, it’s still a silent issue that goes undiscussed and it’s still something that’s ok to make fun of — and we see that in our own show. Suzanne is not someone who does not understand that she is hard to understand and she is also not someone who is daft. She might not get the joke that you made about her that moment, but believe you me, she got it. She understands when you’re making fun of her, she understands when you’ve been kind to her. I always say with some of the things that are said about her in passing or under their breath, “You’re not slick.” For that reason, she remains relevant and important because we see that constantly in our society echoed back to us with regards to the conversation of mental illness. We are still not a society that treats people battling with mental illness fairly, justly or kindly.
Have you seen a shift in the social conversation in the five years you’ve been doing this show?
To some degree. On a personal note, I’ve had people write me from various facilities who are battling mental illness in particular. I get a lot of e-mails, notes and messages from people battling various illnesses who are thankful to have seen a character portrayed on television. We’ve seen just as recent as this year, both Prince Harry and Prince William doing interviews discussing mental illness. A lot of people are stepping up and provoking the conversation in way we haven’t seen in the past, and are giving in the dignity it deserves. It’s not as taboo a thing to discuss, in some capacity. So that’s a good thing. I think we still have miles to go, though. We just saw most recently with the healthcare bill being presented on the Senate floor, how elements of pre-existing conditions are eliminating people from receiving coverage. So the inequality still exists.
Did the writers killing off Poussey make you more aware of the possibilities for Suzanne’s fate on the show?
Sure. I’m like, “Am I dying too? Where we going with this?” (Laughs.) Having that happen, definitely. I get nervous. I read this show like people watch this show, that’s what I always say. I am genuinely a fan of Orange, so when I’m reading the scripts I’m thinking, “What’s happening? What’s going on?” I feel that nervousness. So I was turning the pages just as quickly as the minutes tick for audience members through this season.
When you were reading the scripts and seeing what was ahead for Suzanne this season, which scenes impacted you the most?
I guess there were two scenes. Definitely the white face scene. From a social issue and Uzo, I could relate to the demoralizing feeling of having something like that done by someone on another human being and I was glad to see that come to life. I hope that it might impact our society and have people think twice or start the conversation about colorism, which is something that is very real and also goes wildly undiscussed. It’s something that I’m passionate about as far as the issues happening in our society in regards to cultural appropriation. I’m familiar with that story and to wear something like that, the act of having that put on, is so conscious. It felt heavy and it felt very ugly. I did not enjoy it, at all.
Did that make it all the more personal having to do multiple takes?
Not only did I have to wear it for those takes, but I had to look at myself in the mirror. It’s very conscious, so this idea of accidentally putting something on? I don’t know if that’s possible because the strokes that it takes to make something like that happen is very specific. And to look at one’s self in the mirror also felt very specific. As Uzo, I am her bodyguard at this point. She is very real to me. I just felt like I wanted to protect her through that because of what she had to say about herself and her feelings was pretty intense. I know that there are many people on this planet who have the same feeling. So that’s where the person and the character sort of rubbed up against one another in a really intense way.
What was the second scene you were thinking of?
I guess there are technically three, but the second was getting upstairs into the cafeteria for the first time [since Poussey’s death]. There weren’t lines there, but I just started talking. Just conjuring this spirit that was gone, lost and trying to sort of make sense of something that she doesn’t know how to make sense of.
Do the writers give you room to do your own thing for certain scenes?
Yeah, they give you room to a degree. Certainly, the show is written. But we like to do a take that is very much so to the script, which personally is good. I don’t find it particularly interesting to write a show! If I’m tailoring something to my own comfort, there is no challenge in the acting of that, for me. It’s more interesting and exciting to take something that is not mine and try to find a way to make it mine. In a moment like this, I don’t think it’s necessarily lines as much as Suzanne just mumbling to herself and trying to parse through the thoughts in her head and as they come out, they come out. It’s letting something kind of sing. So they will let us play on moments like that, and say, “Go with how you would feel in this moment.” We try those takes and if it’s working, we see what kind of meal we can make out of it.
What was the third scene?
The scene I mentioned earlier, the finding of heaven. I felt for her because as the seasons go on, we’re watching her have repeat experiences and they continue to become more and more heightened. We saw her reach her heaven the first time with Vee and it was like a dream, and now we’re watching her try and find heaven. And I don’t know what a third time looks like.
In the final moment of the season, what is going through your head and what are your hopes for next season?
We know that Jenji has kind of done this amazing thing where we haven’t seen these characters together since season one. And when we saw these women together, we saw them together divided into separate tribes. This is the first time we’re getting to see these women come together from their select tribes as one tribe, essentially, stepping into an unknown together, united. So that’s exciting to know about this group, this random, motley crew. It’s an amazing, pretty rad group. Jenji is stepping us into a world we have yet to see in this land of Litchfield moving forward and I’m interested to see how Suzanne survives in the new world. It almost feels like were setting sail.
What do you hope to see from Aduba’s Suzanne in season six? Tell THR in the comments below and keep up with Live Feed for cast interviews and full Orange Is the New Black coverage.
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