Netflix’s prison dramedy Orange Is the New Black has no shortage of breakout characters – but first among fans’ runaway favorites is Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren, a budding poet and wannabe prison wife to Orange protagonist Piper (Taylor Schilling).
Crazy Eyes’ popularity is thanks largely to the actress portraying her: Uzo Aduba, a theater veteran making her major series debut with Orange. Ever since viewers first connected with her character, Aduba has been on the ride of her life handling the attention – and the constant questions fans ask about what’s coming next.
As part of this week’s OITNB cover story, EW sat down with Aduba on the show’s Queens, NY set to discuss everything coming up in season two (due on Netflix on June 6) for Crazy Eyes. Including, yes, her literally crazy eyes.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you find Suzanne last season? What went into figuring out this character?
UZO ADUBA: Well, the hair…I actually auditioned with my hair in the knots. Jenji liked it and wanted to keep it. But as far as Suzanne, I felt like in the writing, she just felt so real to me. The first script that I read where I was introduced to her, there was a liner note – Mark O’Meara wrote this episode and he had this stage direction that said something to the effect of “she has the feel of a child except children aren’t scary.” And I remember thinking in my mind, I got this very, very clear and painted idea who that was. This sort of infantilized woman with a sledgehammer. But out of that sentence, what I latched onto was the innocence that children possess.
There are so many moments in the show that demonstrate her innocence.
Her intention is always from a good place, and that’s what I latched onto when I first met her – I said, “oh, this is very much a love story.” She loves this woman and she’s really trying to see through all the steps of courting someone. She winks, but instead of one eye, it’s two. Her social cues are slightly off, but always, always coming from that place of purity and innocence that I think children possess.
Tell me about your audition.
I actually read for another part initially. I read for Janae. I remember getting the script that summer because it was the first time I’d ever auditioned for film and television. I had just gotten a manager, and she said, “I think you should start trying film and television and take a step back from theater and try another medium.” I remember getting the script and reading it and not with any extra flair, but I remember reading it and thinking, “Wow, that was really good, I’d love to be a part of something like that.” And I went in, and I didn’t hear anything after that for a few weeks and then as luck or God or the universe or energy would have it, the very day that I was thinking, “You know what? I think I’m not gonna do this anymore,” my representation called me and said I got the job. I had auditioned for Blue Bloods and the directions that they gave me for the audition were wrong and I was 20 minutes late and crying, and all of a sudden I found out I got Orange, and five days later found out I actually got the Blue Bloods job, too.
How do you nail the crazy eyes of Crazy Eyes?
It’s so funny when people ask me about the eyes…and I remember thinking, “okay, I don’t want to make it so ridiculous”…or I didn’t want to focus on it as the main focus. I was just thinking of, “what happens if she gets really upset, or what happens if she really wants to sell something?” I started thinking, “If Crazy Eyes is trying to lure Piper, she wants to get that woman. If she tries winking at her, that’s not going to work.” I needed it to be a wink times 10. Anything she does needs to be a little bit bigger or more modified or a little more laser-focused. So the first time I had to do something with her was when she first sees me at the kitchen table in season 1. I remember I was like, raising my eyebrows because I was trying to wink at her. I was like, “Let’s do the exact opposite of really coming onto her. Let’s make it as inappropriate and questionable as possible.”
And the director was like, “That’s it.”
“Those eyes are it,” yes. And people are like, in real life, “Your eyes are so much smaller!”
You knew your co-star Danielle Brooks before [the show]?
I knew Danielle before because her best friend’s roommate and classmate from Julliard and I were doing Godspell [on Broadway] right before I started Orange. So Danielle would come to the show and hang out. And also I knew Lea [DeLaria] before because we did a play at A.R.T. in Cambridge together.
The camaraderie between the actors in real life really seems to translate onto the screen. Are you learning from each other?
You have people on various levels of experience. Some coming in have done movies and TV shows for decades. Kate Mulgrew is such a seasoned veteran. Or people who are new, fresh out of school, like Danielle Brooks. But all of us were new – maybe not to this medium, but we were new to this kind of storytelling of women, and the way the show is built and crafted that it puts you into survival mode like you have in prison. In prison you gotta find a tribe. And I think all of us have been put into, though not a prison, definitely a circumstance in which we needed to be a whole in order to make this thing work.
We saw a little bit of next season…is that Crazy Eyes’ new clique that we spy in the trailer?
What’s interesting is we get to watch this season how stories change, alliances form. As we saw in season 1…we saw teams and groups being aligned, and I think that this season, what we do is kind of delve a little bit deeper into who some of these people are, and what these groups mean to each other, and how they relate to each other and within those groups how these relationships relate to each other. So it’ll be interesting.
Do you do a lot of ad libbing?
In terms of the line, for me, it’s style, depending on the person. Everyone has a respect for the writers, and we try very much the first few takes to hold to what is written. And then the writers are also very, very generous and open spirits, and they’re not so precious from an ego place about what they’re worth. They are very open to their words being expanded in some way. I myself like to try to challenge myself to hold to what is written as much as I can, and then play with the phrasing within that. I can write it myself, but the challenge is really what’s on the page.
Was there any sense of a punch in the gut when there were no nominations?
I’m so new to this. First of all, most of it I don’t remember. But I was really happy when I heard Taylor got acknowledged for the show [with a Golden Globe nomination], and I know it’s something that’s starting to catch on more so now. But no, I wasn’t [upset]. We made this show last year with love. We did not make it with awards in mind as an aim, so I’ve already gotten my reward. I already got it. I love making this role come to life. I love going home and doing the work for it. Jenji will never know the things she did for my life…no thing I could put on a shelf could ever match it.
Take me into your head. What does it feel like when you’re on set?
It’s horrifying, terrifying. It’s crazy because you know when you walk around…you’re minding your own business and you see your own room and there’s this stock of mannequins that are naked. It’s creepy! But good for getting you out of that place, or putting you in that place of the world of what you’re in. It’s kind of this weird balance of light and dark, of white and black. It’s intense.
This show eschews all types of vanity. Is it a relief not to have to think about that?
Absolutely. I don’t think I was aware of it when I first came in. It takes off that layer because you just do the acting, you can come to work and have fun, and really just focus on the story that we’re telling.
How much more of Suzanne will we get to see beyond the glimpses that we saw of her parents? There’s so much there that’s not been unearthed.
We got to know so many snippets of Suzanne during season 1 that I didn’t realize we [were] going to make people want to know so much more about her. I think it’s really exciting that people wanted to know more about her, and I think this season is exciting. On that, I would default to, you just gotta watch. You just gotta watch and see. Because the world of Litchfield that they created is really awesome. I feel really proud to be a part of it. The stories get deeper, the stakes are higher – but then the joy is there. The humor side of it this season is even greater, this balance of the world they’re creating is awesome.
Have you and Jenji sat down and said, “Here is everything you need to know so you can play this character”?
We’ve not had a sit down conversation. In that way, though, the story is painted so clearly. Jenji gives you such a clear roadmap in the material that when you analyze it you can see where, how to play it in terms of story and in terms of character. And I feel it’s so vivid when I read it, I just know who that woman is. And any place where there’s ever a question, you can always talk to her, and she’s always fast with an answer. And it’s never cavernous. It’s always maybe, like, a small thing, but it’s very clear. It’s so vivid. I can see it in my mind.
Reporting by Jessica Shaw