Playing a person with mental illness in Orange Is the New Black, Uzo Aduba brought an emotional depth to the role that was both groundbreaking and unforgettable. Now, taking on the other side of the couch as a therapist in HBO’s In Treatment, we can expect nothing less. Here, she talks about the importance of casting Black women, the role that made her mother proud, and why she’s always wanted to be 40.
Eight years ago, Uzo Aduba debuted her career-making performance as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren in Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black. An immediate fan favorite, her tender portrayal of a Litchfield Prison inmate who was both incredibly loving and dangerously unpredictable won Aduba many accolades during the show’s seven seasons, including two Emmys and five SAG awards. In the years since, Aduba has tackled high-pressure roles like trailblazer Shirley Chisholm and The Wiz’s Glinda the Good Witch, a role immortalized on screen four decades ago by the legendary Lena Horne. And even in the shittiest of years—2020—a lot continued to go right for Aduba. In the last several months, she’s won her third Emmy, signed a multi-year production deal with CBS Studios, became a founding investor in Los Angeles’ first women’s soccer team, and completed two projects, which she says were the most challenging and rewarding of her career—In Treatment and Solos. But there was one other very special thing she did, something she’d been looking forward to for well over a decade, and all she had to do to achieve it was wake up.
“I’ve wanted to be 40 since I was 25,” says Aduba. She celebrated her milestone birthday in February, and she’s telling me all about it via Zoom from the N.Y.C. hotel room she and her dog, Fenway, are calling home while she’s between apartments. “I’ve been looking forward to it. I always felt like the people I met who were 40 seemed solid, like it was an arrival of some kind. My 20-something self imagined it as the time when my life would come into focus.”
It may be too early to tell if this new life stage lives up to her expectations, but so far, the prognosis is good. “You know how when you open a bottle of wine, you’re supposed to let it sit for a minute and breathe? I feel like I’m just in the breathing,” she says. “But I know that this is a really good bottle. I feel fearless and open and ready.”
That mental space seems to be reflected in Aduba’s recent choices. As many of us struggle to find some semblance of “normal” as the ruinous COVID-19 pandemic begins to wane, Aduba has already gifted us with two projects which, due to their focus on isolation, human connection, and mental health, couldn’t possibly be more timely. Both projects, she says, “were like being shot out of a cannon.”
Leaving the comfort and safety of her Brooklyn apartment, Aduba traveled for work for the first time in months in October to shoot Solos in L.A. In Solos—an Amazon Studios limited anthology series—Aduba plays Sasha, a woman who, after 20 years of quarantining due to a deadly virus, is being urged to venture back out into the world by her Siri-like virtual assistant. Aduba is the only featured actor in the episode, which made it an ideal project to tackle during a pandemic. “Solos was the first thing I’ve ever done by myself entirely on television or otherwise,” she says, adding that she learned more than 30 pages of solo dialogue in less than two weeks for the role.
“The assistant is trying to convince [Sasha] that it’s safe to go back out and she can’t be convinced because all this time locked away has blurred her reality. It’s about having to create a new reality for your life and purpose for your existence after being inside all these years and the fear and terror that sort of gets built up inside of that home that keeps you from being able to go out. I just thought it was interesting because she went inside to keep from getting sick and she was made sick, in a different way, by being inside.” Relatable.
“I’m not sure I know a Black woman therapist, so to see this Black woman, who is excellent at her job, living in her community and helping a cross-section of people—that was really exciting."
Following Solos, Aduba had only a couple of weeks off before jumping into filming In Treatment, a series that also presented a unique set of acting challenges. Most episodes of the HBO series portray therapy sessions between therapist and patient—just two people sitting and talking. Gabriel Byrne starred as Dr. Paul Weston in the first three seasons, from 2008 through 2010. For this reboot, which made its premiere on May 23, the show has been reimagined, with Aduba starring as Dr. Brooke Taylor, a therapist whose personal life is upended after the loss of her father.
Unfamiliar with the series’ format, Aduba says she was confused when she first saw the script. “When you pick up a TV or film script, so much of it is made up of stage direction and action,” she explains about her surprise at the amount of pure dialogue in the show. “I had to [watch] the old episodes because I was like, ‘They are still talking…what is this?’ That does not happen. That’s what I understand a play to read like.” Aduba would know—among many other stage credits, she’s starred in Godspell on Broadway and The Maids in London’s West End. “It changes the way you engage,” she says. “I realized how rare it is to stream complete thought or experience exclusively through words in film or television.”
Aduba also saw great significance in HBO casting a Black woman in the role. “What an incredible moment of expression and invitation for our community to have a fresh look at what mental health means—what mental health looks like,” she says. “I’m not sure I know a Black woman therapist, so to see this Black woman, who is excellent at her job, living in her community and helping a cross-section of people—that was really exciting. I hope all people can see themselves in these stories, but I also hope one takeaway could be reconsidering who you go to for help,” says Aduba, who stresses the importance of representation. “Sometimes you have to see it to know it.”
“I had experience with therapy, but I guess I had never really considered the job of the therapist,” explains Aduba. “I know my therapist has other patients, obviously, but I think it just never occurred to me that there’s a before and after, and an after, and an after. Before you sat there, someone else came in, and, after you leave, another person’s coming in. Each one [carries] whatever it is that they’ve come with—good or bad—and the therapist stands in support of their patients, for hours a day, every day.”
A large part of Aduba’s relatability and believability in every role may stem from the fact that she could’ve taken so many different paths in life. Born Uzoamaka Aduba, the child of Nigerian immigrants and one of five siblings, she excelled in sports, academics, and the arts. She earned a track scholarship to Boston University where she studied classical music and was on her way to a career in opera when she realized she was enjoying the theater training aspect of her curriculum more than the singing. (She was, however, able to show off her pipes in 2015’s The Wiz Live!) In the days between auditioning for Orange is the New Black, and learning she got the part, she’d decided to quit acting and become a lawyer.
“My family was raised very proudly existing in, and displaying, our culture,” she says of growing up Nigerian American in Medfield, MA, a Boston suburb. When Aduba graduated from her majority-white high school, she asked that her family wear traditional Nigerian clothing to the ceremony. “That was something that was important to me,” explains Aduba. “I didn’t want us to blend in.” Instead, Aduba wanted to make a point to push back on the notion that her achievements were made possible only by the fact that she was born in the United States. “I wanted to express that it’s not all about leaving a place and settling here—that it wasn’t just about the gifts found here. There were a lot of foundational bricks that were taken from that home and used to build the life here that made it possible for me to graduate. Even in my career, I recognize the blessing in that. The work ethic and focus I have, and the encouragement and support I’ve received, came out of two places and two experiences.”
Being part of a large family was another formative aspect of Aduba’s childhood. “Being one of five, the number one thing you learn is sharing. You also learn to bicker, then make up and reconcile quickly,” she explains. “I grew up in a house where I was told constantly, ‘This is who you have in this life, these people right here, each of you, all you have is each other.’ And that’s 1,001 percent true in the way we exist as a family. It only feels more true the older we all get. I was talking to my older sister this morning for two hours while I was walking Fenway. That’s who I lean on. I need them and they need me. I can’t, couldn’t, wouldn’t want to, and won’t do life without them. They’re my best friends.”
“My mom is the biggest Shirley Chisholm fan. It doesn’t matter what else I do in life. I won in her mind."
In September, Aduba won her third Emmy for her portrayal of Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm in FX’s Mrs. America, the limited series about the war between conservatives and second-wave feminists. Chisholm was the first Black woman in Congress and the first to campaign for the top spot on the Democratic ticket, and her campaign for the presidency in 1972 is depicted in the series. Accepting her Emmy during the video-conference awards show, Aduba thanked her family, but gave a special shout-out to her mother, who she says was “over the moon” when she was cast as the Brooklyn-based congresswoman, the child of immigrants from Barbados and Guyana.
“My mom is the biggest Shirley Chisholm fan,” Aduba explains. “It doesn’t matter what else I do in life. I won in her mind. She’s like, ‘My daughter got to play Shirley Chisholm!’” But the decision to accept the part wasn’t one Aduba took lightly. “I was very nervous—to not be nervous would be foolish. I had such admiration and respect and love for her already—for all she managed to conquer, forge, trailblaze, pioneer, create, stand up for, and represent. What made me consider it was just thinking of what she’d done for all of us. When you consider the blood, sweat, and tears that were laid down for you, you try to step into whatever the next calling is for your life. Not doing that, not trying, doesn’t sound like what the ancestors want for us!”
Aduba also had to interrogate the need for Chisholm’s portrayal in a TV series and ask what, if anything, could be added to her story. “When playing a real-life person, you have to get to the ‘why’ of it,” she says. “Why play someone who is real when people can read a book about them, watch a documentary, or listen to their speeches? She’s so well documented already. I had to find what I was able to bring that was new.”
As part of her research, Aduba watched the documentary Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed. “There were two moments in the doc that really captured me—in one, she was dancing. She had this lightness and brightness about her that you never saw in any other archival footage. And the second was at the very end, when she’s releasing her delegates and she’s backstage. I can’t remember what was said to her, or what she says, but I remember she just, like, collapsed into her hands, and burst into tears. I remember thinking, that is Shirley Chisholm. That is the woman we don’t know. That’s the woman who has not shown us the weight of what it took to get here. And that was the side of this woman that I became interested in playing and discovering. Because this is a woman who’s been in opposition with systems her entire life—systems that tried to limit the definition of who she is. I know what those tears are about because I have cried those tears. So, I was like, ‘Yes! I want to share in that story.’”
From playing a literal feminist icon like Chisholm, to a member of an oft-overlooked population like women in prison, Aduba is intentional about the roles she takes on. “I think about how realistic a character is. I’m open to playing characters 180 degrees removed from myself to shine light on that experience if it feels truthful and honest. I’m mostly drawn to the ‘why.’ ‘Why does this person need to exist beyond the page?’ For me, it’s been very personal. I’m trying to tell the stories of the missing—the missing voices, faces, bodies, and places we’ve never experienced and never seen. Or maybe we’ve seen them, but not through a vessel like mine. That’s what drives me. There was too much road carved out by those who came before to not step into all of those crevices and all of that space. I want to create in that space and hold space until the next person comes behind me.”
Interview by Sabrina Ford
PHOTOGRAPHED BY THE TYLER TWINS
STYLING BY CRISTINA EHRLICH // MAKEUP BY Renee Garnes for Exclusive Artists using Pat McGrath
HAIR BY NEAL FARINAH // Manicure by Mar y Soul using CHANEL Le Vernis
TAILORING: KAREN CHINCHILLA; ASSISTANT STYLIST and MARKET EDITOR: JARED DEPRIEST GILBERT.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2021 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
More from BUST