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‘My Survival Nature is Very Real’: Uzo Aduba on Her Newest Roles and Lessons of the Last Year

With two new projects premiering — a revival of HBO’s ‘In Treatment’ and Amazon’s anthology series ‘Solos’ — the three-time Emmy winner reflects on lockdown, the early days of her career, and her uphill climb in Hollywood

Suzanne Tenner/HBO

It’s been more than a year since we last saw Uzo Aduba on television, but the next week is poised to fix that in a big way. On Friday, Aduba appears among the all-star cast of Amazon’s new sci-fi anthology series Solos, doing what’s essentially an episode-length monologue (with some interruption by her home assistant, voiced by Zachary Quinto) as Sasha, a woman who has been quarantining much longer than any of us have. On Sunday, she headlines the revival season of In Treatment, the HBO drama from the late 2000s where each episode is constructed as a therapy session between a psychologist and a patient. In its first three seasons, the show revolved around Gabriel Byrne as therapist Paul Weston. Now, Aduba takes over the central role as psychiatrist Brooke Taylor, who sees patients played by Anthony Ramos, John Benjamin Hickey, and Quintessa Swindell (plus Liza Colón-Zayas as Brooke’s confidante Rita).

While Solos required a lot of talking, it’s Aduba’s listening skills that are on display during In Treatment. Neither role proves too much to handle for the three-time Emmy winner, who earned her first two nods as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren on Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, and a third for her portrayal of presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm in Mrs. America, last year’s FX miniseries about the movement to pass the ERA. In fact, she might need to clear space on the shelf for one or two more statuettes by this fall. It’s a progression of roles she calls “incredible.”

“I always wanted to try and capture as many different versions of existence as possible,” Aduba says. “Never would I have imagined that I would go from playing a character named Suzanne ‘Crazy Eyes’ Warren, who is incarcerated, to playing the first black woman to run for president of the United States as my immediate television follow-up. And it’s not lost on me either to now be on the opposite side of the mental health conversation in Brooke. I’ve gone from Suzanne to this, you know what I mean?”

Aduba spoke with Rolling Stone about her new projects, her start in acting, and her transformation from someone who “felt invisible” in the entertainment industry to one of the most acclaimed performers of her generation.

Did you watch In Treatment when it was on originally?
I did not. I knew of the show, but I hadn’t watched it when it was on originally.

Did you get to it when the possibility of doing this new season came up?
Honestly, I waffled, because this is the first time I’ve ever rebooted something. So I just sat and talked to myself like, “Am I supposed to be doing Gabriel Byrne?” Because I’m not Irish. I’m not a man. But I was like, “What is it that I’m meant to be in service to here?” I eventually decided I’m just going to watch the first episode and a bit of the second to get a sense of the tone of the show and the scope of it, because I had never seen a show before where there are only two people in it. It gave me Frost/Nixon vibes, where there are two people in discussion and what we don’t know is where this conversation will lead by its end. That was exciting to me. I also watched a little of it because [Gabriel’s] character had such a huge influence on mine as a mentor. I haven’t watched beyond that. But now that we’re wrapped, I want to see how the show went.

The original show was a beast. Every showrunner quit after a year due to burnout, and it was always a question about whether Gabriel would come back. Did you have any pause about this kind of workload, and having to be in every scene of all of these episodes?
For sure. It’s my first time as a lead, so that was a big shift. But also, you’re in every scene of each episode, which I don’t think I really factored in when I said yes. Like, other shows have all these other supporting characters with their own storyline, where the daughter’s having that weird conversation with her boyfriend, the husband’s confronting his boss. And you’re not in those. But those scenes don’t exist [here]. And not only do they not exist, but it’s heavy dialogue. It’s not like there’s a scene where you’re just driving and thinking; you’re just endlessly talking. So that was a large leap, but it was an exciting challenge. It felt as close to what theater feels like in this medium, where once you start it, you’re in the thing, there is no stopping it. I was excited by the challenge, and this job is without question one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had in my life. But it’s also been one of the most satisfying and fulfilling at the same time.

I was excited by, and exhausted by, the challenge of learning lines. Each episode is [filmed in] only two days, which is in itself also very different from a typical TV show. So we added an assistant, this amazing woman, Maydelle Clarice was her name, who basically just rehearsed me all the time. We would call “cut,” she would race in. We would be working on the lines for the next episode. We would wrap for the day. We would rehearse for 30 minutes to an hour after work to run lines for the next episode or episodes. On the weekends we rehearsed four hours on Saturday, four hours on Sunday.

Oh my God.
How else are you going to do it? That’s the only way you can learn. It would be so funny — the director would call “cut,” and I’d be talking to myself, running lines to myself, and my cast mates are like, “Are you talking to me?” I’m like, “No, I’m running these lines in my head.” But thank God for them, too, because they were so generous with their time. They also had a heavy lift in learning a lot of material as well.

For comparison’s sake, on a show like Orange Is the New Black, where you’re one in a cast of 1,000 people, how many hours would you work on average over two days?
On average, we worked a day or two every two to three weeks. Our line producer became a genius as the show went on with figuring out how to schedule everybody to do all their work in one day, two days.

When you worked on Orange, you worked all day, but when you wrapped it’d be like, “See you next month.” So this was wildly, wildly different. You put in the work, but it did not match the level of work required in this project just in terms of language alone. Inner work is obviously there, but in terms of actual dialogue to adopt to memory, that did not exist for, I think I can safely say, any of our characters on Orange.

Did you ever find yourself on set one day unable to remember anything?
Yes, of course. But I think what I learned in doing this was that my animalistic survival nature is very real. Survival is not just in the physical, body, life-and-death sense. It’s when you have to learn this by tomorrow, you just have to. I don’t know how I absorbed it. I’ve always had fairly good retention, but had never been tested to this degree ever before. And I guess fight-or-flight kicks in, where it’s like, you have to learn this. There were some episodes where I’d be so nervous going to bed like, “Uh, did we do enough rehearsal? I keep forgetting that one line. I keep forgetting this section.” I don’t know if it’s the same thing as cooking, like, a miso fish, and you marinate it overnight and then it bakes in, but it was ready by the morning. I knew it somehow.

Actors like to say that acting is reacting. The role of a therapist is an extremely reactive one. How much of a challenge is it to play a role where that’s so much a part of the profession?
I actually think acting is also listening. Even going back to your last question about the lines, part of why I think I was able to digest it is, if I’m really listening to what John is saying, or if Anthony or Q is saying something to me, I can find what it is that I’m meant to say next. Similarly, Brooke is able to find what it is that her patients are really there for, what it is that they’re actually trying to say and communicate, within every session, when listening. Listening means not only with your ears but listening to the body, their physical cues, their levels of comfort and discomfort, paying attention and holding firmly onto what has been discussed and disclosed in previous sessions. She finds herself in some cases reacting to what has been said based on her own life and her own experiences — that sometimes, the reactions that we’re witnessing aren’t wholly those of the patient, but of what she herself has been struggling with. And that was a really interesting and exciting thing to try and build into her character. Because now, going back to the reacting piece of what you’re saying, her method and practice of treatment is using self-disclosure and her own vulnerability, bringing them into the state. She keeps hearing out what her patient needs and being that for them, and reacting to them in the ways that they need to be heard and felt and understood.

If this next question is too personal we can skip it, but I’m curious if you have any experience in the world of therapy?
I do. I do. God.

How much, if at all, did you wind up drawing upon that in doing this?
I will hang closer toward the fringes of this question, but I can say that I know [Brooke] very well. It was the first time in any of my work where I felt like I was inviting a lot of myself into the room. Usually, my work is pretty distanced. A lot of it is figments of imagination. Either images or someone’s [a] real [person] already, you know what I mean. And there are connections I can make in my own life experience to connect me to a character, but this is the first time where I felt like, I don’t know how to say it any other way, like I was inviting a lot of myself into the room.

As Sasha in Amazon’s ‘Solos’

Jason LaVeris/Amazon Prime Video

What were your relationships like with your co-stars? They’re not individually working as much as you, but each time, it’s two intense days of the two of you together.
It sparked really great conversation for a lot of us — particularly in this time when a lot of people have had to sit down and reflect and have had a lot of down time, and the opportunity, whether invited or not, to talk to oneself, and maybe have those conversations that you wouldn’t normally have time for. We found ourselves — John, myself, Anthony, Q, too — talking about mental health and about what this time in our global history is putting on us and forcing us to think about and consider for each of us and our own wellness. And we’re right in the middle of a health discussion because we’re in the middle of a pandemic, right? So it’s like, health on all levels is up for discussion, and I think that was conversation that we were all having. Even though we’re talking about physical health a lot now as a society, I think we would be remiss to not also recognize that with this quarantine, with pandemic time, also there has been a long-overdue mental health discussion that, whether we’re having it or not, it’s happening.

Both professionally and emotionally, before you came back to do this, what had this year been like for you?
It has been beautifully exhausting, and I am not even yet at the place of being able to discuss fully what 2020 has been for me. And that lines in tandem with your other question about the therapy of it all. I can’t even touch on it other than to say that it was entirely beautiful, and entirely heartbreaking.

Early in the pandemic, you got some of the best reviews of your career for Mrs. America, and then another Emmy. You were lined up to do HBO Max’s adaptation of the Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie novel Americanah, but it got scrapped because the production shutdown made the schedule impossible. You were having what should be a great moment in your career and then no one was able to make anything. How did that feel?
That was unfortunate. It was sad, but when I think about where the world was and where life was, you really do understand in this time what matters. And not to say that work doesn’t matter, because it does, but it doesn’t at the same time. It’s so second when it comes to life and the things and people that matter in your real world.

Doing Solos, where you’re playing a person in quarantine, seems like it might have been almost as therapeutic as doing a show about a therapist, given what we’ve all been through. What was that like for you?
Oh my gosh. That was trippy as hell. They told me, “You have 12 days to learn these 32 pages. And by the way, it’s just you talking. And we’re going to shoot one of these 12 pages as a oner.” I’m like, “OK.” That was a lot. It was an exciting challenge. It was maybe my worst nightmare of what a lockdown quarantine situation could be. And I tried to tap into all the wildness of that nightmare. It was an incredible exercise. That’s actually where I met Maydelle, who helped me learn lines for In Treatment. We worked on that material for so long to prepare. It was thrilling at the same time. I thought it was cool what people were forced to create in answering [to] quarantine. I’m really excited to see what comes out of this season of our lives in terms of invention and writing and storytelling, because people had time, and there were people who were creating during it, and then there’s going to be people who weren’t creating during it but had to process this. That’s going to create new stories. Solos was wild — to be directed from afar, with our director talking to you on a mic, and you’re in this room built of glass, and everyone is way far away, nowhere near you. It was very trippy. Usually, you turn that camera 180 degrees and there’s a ton of people standing there. To really feel alone was this wild experience.

How did you first realize you were interested in acting? Did you grow up in an artistic family?
I grew up in a sports family, but everyone in my family is artistic. My mother sang, and she used to draw beautiful little drawings. [She had] a real love for the arts. Even though it was a sports family and she played tennis when she was growing up, all of my siblings were also passionate about the arts and music. My mom saw that I liked to sing and that I was very creative. So I was in figure skating and in the choir at my school and my church, stuff like that. But I didn’t act as a child in any real way beyond whatever my elementary-school recital was. Then I did drama in high school and loved it. My teacher is who really encouraged me to go to school at College of Fine Arts at Boston University.

Orange Is The New Black S4

As Suzanne ‘Crazy Eyes’ Warren

JoJo Whilden/Netflix

In the years between when you finished at BU and when you got Orange, were you working regularly or mainly having to take other jobs to subsidize your life while waiting for something to happen?
It was a mixture of both. I was mostly working in regional theater and off-Broadway or Broadway. I had been waiting tables when I first got to New York, or I would be a guest artist or a teaching artist and stuff like this to make ends meet. Then right before I got Orange, I was doing my second Broadway show.

My understanding is you went in to read for a different role, didn’t get it, and then they called you back and said we want you to play this character who was then called Crazy Eyes. Is that right?
Yes, that’s correct.

Do you remember what role you went in for?
Yes. I went in to read for the role of Janae, the track star, for that season.

And when they say, “All right, we want you to play someone named Crazy Eyes,” did that give you any pause?
Of course, yes, because it’s not like I went in to read for Crazy Hair or something. I read for this super-straitlaced character, athlete, runner, and then they’re like, “We actually want you to play this crazy character.” And for the longest time I had no idea why, and then the last year of filming Orange, we got to see our auditions, and I saw my audition and I was like, “Oh, absolutely. You were giving full Crazy Eyes. They absolutely should’ve cast you in this part.”

When we first meet Suzanne we’re seeing almost entirely from Piper’s perspective, and we don’t learn who she really is until much later. In those early episodes, when you were a day player, how much were you told about who she really was? When did you even find out that her name was Suzanne?
I was not told much at all in the beginning. I learned her name was Suzanne I think in the episode when her parents come to visit. And obviously they are not calling her Crazy Eyes. And not only did we get to see them and they were white, which gave so much information to this woman for me, but also learning her name and that she has an identity. But early days, we didn’t have any information. And so it was really just building out from what I saw and read in the material. Again, going back to a question I was answering earlier, a lot of it was imagination. Just, “This is how I see and hear this person in my mind’s eye.” And I think that language in the script seemed like she’s seeking love from somewhere, from someone, and I think as intense as she might be, there’s a heart there. It felt like there was a heart there to me.

What do you remember from the day you were at the ceremony and won that first Emmy?
My older sister and my mom came with me to the ceremony. My mom was seated next to me. I remember Morgan Freeman coming onstage to present it. I remember he said my name right. They said my name, and I can hear my mom on my left side. She was like, “My Uzo,” and was applauding. And a state of shock. And I remember being like, “Shit, I should’ve prepared something,” and walking up the stage and trying to think of what to say. And I don’t know why this came to me, but as I was walking towards Morgan Freeman, I started in my head doing a rundown of his résumé and was like, “Shawshank Redemption, Bruce Almighty, Million Dollar Baby, Driving Miss Daisy, every National Geographic doc, March of the Penguins,” all of his stuff. And I was like, “Oh my gosh, that’s Morgan Freeman.”

You won again the next year. What does having two Emmys for a popular Netflix series do for your career and life? How much did things change as a result of that?
Oh, it changed the game. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t. It did. Firstly, I don’t wait tables anymore right now. Secondly, it made me visible, I guess. I was invisible — or felt invisible, anyway — before that, and went to feeling seen. I felt really grateful to have my work seen and recognized in a role that I hadn’t seen a lot of people like myself get to play. And the opportunity to do more stuff like that was paved because of that. It popped my mom’s eyes out of her head, like couldn’t believe it. It just did a lot.

I’m wondering if you could expand on what you mean when you say that before this you felt invisible. This is not a business that’s always great in terms of opportunities for performers of color. Was it just that, or was there more to your feeling that way?
It’s a combination of things. I think it’s visible as a woman, visible as a black woman, visible as a dark-skinned black woman, and visible as a dark-skinned black woman who is not at all Eurocentric, has no proximity to imperialistic ideals which are often upheld. Or at least that’s what it looks like to me from little baby who’s watching TV on up. I just didn’t see my invitation to the party from what I was watching. Even just my style. My voice, my carriage, all of it. You’ve just never seen that celebrated. Or if you see it, it’s always in a way that seems like a footnote or a comma in the sentence versus a period. So to be wholly given the opportunity, first and foremost by Jenji [Kohan], and Netflix for all of those characters on the show, all of those faces and women and talent who have always existed but just never had a space to exist… To get that opportunity to stand fully in my space, I think that’s it. To wholly be encouraged to stand in my space.

I will never forget Episode Three of Season One, Jodie Foster directed this episode, and Sian Heder wrote it. We were out on the track. There was a poem that my character does. And I had read it, and it’s not written as a poem. It’s just written like, I wrote you something and you’re just supposed to say it, whatever. But in my head I was like, “Oh, I think this is a poem, like performance art. What if she fancies herself this performance artist?” We’re standing on the track, and they’re like, “OK, let’s rehearse it.” And we were about to start, and I was about to jump in, and then we stopped for some reason. And when we got to start back up again, Sian was like, “Wait, wait, wait. Uzo, what were you about to do?” And I was like, “Oh, I had this idea for this. I don’t know if it works or not, but I saw this as this poem. Should I just tell you about it or should I do it?” And she was like, “Do it.” And I was like, “OK.” And I did it, and she was like, “Yes, keep it.” Then, however many days later, we get to the cafeteria scene where it’s the “I will cut you” section of the same episode, and we’re talking with Jodie and she’s like, “What do you think? What do you see here?” And I said, “Well, I have this idea,” and she’s like, “Show it to me. Let’s see it.” And we did a rehearsal, and she was like, “Keep it. That’s it. That’s what we’re doing. Do that.” And it was such a lesson for me, feeling encouraged to occupy space and hold space. Jodie Foster’s a big deal, and she was giving permission. That was the stuff that I noticed and appreciated and valued, because you don’t always get it.

MRS. AMERICA -- "Shirley" --Episode 3 (Airs April 15) Pictured: Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm. CR: Sabrina Lantos/FX

As Shirley Chisholm in FX’s ‘Mrs. America’

Sabrina Lantos/FX

How satisfying does it feel to go from not seeing women who looked like you on television to be able to play Shirley Chisholm, and then to be able to play a character like Brooke, who has all the credentials in the world and this just amazing wardrobe and amazing house and is accomplished in all these ways?
Oh, incredible. I always wanted to do different things. Tell different stories, try and capture as many different versions of existence as possible. I’ve been really, really grateful and it’s not lost on me that the opportunity has existed to tell so many different stories and occupy so many different worlds and lives and spaces. Never would I have imagined that I would go from playing a character named Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren who is incarcerated to playing the first black woman to run for president of the United States as my immediate television follow-up. And to then leapfrog. It’s not lost on me either to now be on the opposite side of the mental health conversation in Brooke. I’ve gone from Suzanne to this, you know what I mean?

Have you given any thought to how Brooke would deal with Suzanne as a patient?
I think kindly, patiently. I’m being really honest. I’ve given more thought to how she would treat her parents. I don’t know if Suzanne would be who would’ve come in her door, but I think [Suzanne’s] parents would have.

They would have stories to tell.
And I think [Brooke] would have a lot of questions for them.

You talked about this earlier, but there’s been a lot more going on in the past year beyond Covid — the Black Lives Matter movement especially. In the midst of that focus on justice there’s also been talk about representation within the entertainment industry and whether the business can do better. Are you getting any kind of sense that anything might really be changing, might be getting better?
I think efforts are being made. We were in a dialogue of this type when we were watching the television landscape shifting back when Orange first came out, which was the beginning of that moment. We have the Shondas [Rhimes] of the world and many more who started that facelift. What I would say now is, it needs to be style, not a trend. And I will use the example of a great Chanel suit — never goes out of style, is always in style. A fabulous redwood stick is always in style. A crisp, white, button-down shirt every year will be in style. Birkenstocks are a trend. Acid-wash jeans are a trend. Mom jeans are a trend. These are things that have seasons, and even though you can see everybody doing it, they all come to an end. So let’s not waste this moment of self-reflection and wokeness on making something trendy, but make it something here to stay. And it’s been wonderful. In Treatment has been incredible. I’ve never seen an inclusive set like it in my life, period. In all facets. We were shooting at one point, and the director was Jessica Yu, and the first person on the stage that day was another Asian woman, Lisa. I took a picture of it because I had never seen such a thing. We had a [production assistant], Luna, working that day who’s also Asian and I said to them, “Whether you know it or not” — and I’m sure they do, I don’t want to speak for them — “you are not only having an effect on her dreams and possibilities, but so many others who aren’t even of your makeup are also recognizing that something else is possible.” Because just as I remember walking by video village on Netflix one day and seeing Jenji, Lauren Morelli, Cindy Holland, Tara Duncan, Jodie [Foster], Neri Tannenbaum, Lisa Venacor, it made me think differently of my own possibilities. I had never thought of myself sitting in that seat before, and I was like, “Oh, I could do that too.”

From Rolling Stone US