'Orange is the New Black': Uzo Aduba on becoming Crazy Eyes
Trying to choose your favorite Orange Is the New Black character is like trying to choose your favorite Olivia Pope ensemble — nearly impossible. Yet even though the show is stacked with unforgettable creations — Red! Taystee! Pennsatucky! Miss Claudette! Nicky! Pornstache, even! — one stands out from the pack: Suzanne Warren, best known among Litchfield’s inmates as Crazy Eyes.
At this point, however, it’s tough for any fan of the show to use Suzanne’s unkind nickname in good conscience. Sure, she tends to come on just a little too strong — but she’s also a kind, delightfully unfiltered presence with a generous heart (she’ll throw her pie for you) and the soul of a poet. Oh, and she happens to be pretty hilarious as well.
How does a normal actress get into the headspace of Piper Chapman’s would-be prison wife? To find out, we turned to Uzo Aduba, the Broadway vet who counts Suzanne as her very first big TV role. Read on to learn how Aduba got the part (fun fact: she didn’t even audition for it originally), what went through her mind when she read episode 3’s notorious floor-peeing scene, and what she can say about season 2. (Hint: Unfortunately, it’s not much.)
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As Told By: Uzo Aduba
When I was first introduced to the character, I called her Crazy Eyes. And then, probably by I think the second episode, I started calling her Suzanne. I feel very protective of the character. I almost can’t even bring myself to call her Crazy Eyes these days, unless I’m referring back to my early start, just because I think she has always been more than just crazy. You know, she’s a person who has feelings.
Initially, I auditioned for the role of Janae, the track star. And then I got a call from my agents: “We have really good news for you,” They were like, “Remember this audition you went on for Orange is the New Black? Well, you didn’t get it.” [laughs] I was like, “Okay, the good news comes in when?” And they were like, “Though you didn’t get it, they’d like to offer you another part.” I was initially like “oookay” when I heard that it was Crazy Eyes – like, what in my audition made it feel like, “she’s not right for the track star, but she’s totally right for the crazy person.” But when I got the part, it just felt like the right fit.
I did read the original book once I got the part. I didn’t base [her] off of the character in the book — much like what Jenji says, I wanted to use my imagination and invention, not to mention the words that the [show’s] writers created. But there was a piece that I remember: [Piper Kerman is] talking about the stare, the way she described [Crazy Eyes] when she first met her — there was just a stare that she had, very intense, which I thought was informative. But what really grabbed me was in the first episode I was in, one of our writers, Marco Ramirez, wrote this really beautiful stage direction. It was so simple but totally helped me figure out who this woman is. He had written something to the effect of, “She is innocent like a child, except children aren’t scary.” And that totally made sense to me. I just kept seeing these visions of a grown adult with a pacifier and a sledgehammer or something. She’s just like, juuust a hair off, but her intentions are pure, and her heart is good. You know what I mean? Like, “you write the poem, great idea, but the way you deliver it –” [laughs] You know, the finish is never there. “You ran a great race, Suzanne, and then you tripped at the finish line.”
The thing I love about Suzanne — there’s nothing unclear about her. You know exactly where she stands, what she’s for and against. And at the end of the day, she has no problem asserting herself. Like at the end of the first season, where she just says [to Piper] “You’re not a nice person.” She’s really clear, always. So when she does something like pee on the floor or have that confrontation with Alex or confront Piper in the bathroom, there’s no mincing ever. You might not know how far she might go with it, but you always know that she is very clear, very, very honest
Sian Heder, she wrote the episode [“Lesbian Request Denied”] — and it was like, “Pees on floor, smash to Orange Black.” That was it. It’s just that fast. And my jaw was just dropped. “So I’m going to pee on a floor, my mom is going to see this…” But what we learned [is] in prison, that actually happens. People do that — like, territorial marking. Which I couldn’t believe. And so when I learned that that’s like, a practice sometimes. I thought “well, okay, absolutely then she would do that.” Because do you know how much work I put into this relationship? I wrote you poetry! I threw my pie for you! You know how hard that is to come by? We are in jail. I have gone to hell and back for you. Of course I’m going to mark this territory, and let everybody know that you’re mine. I was never going for like, the laugh. I just remember, I thought to myself, “this is so straight.” If we thought the stakes were high with throwing of the pie, this is actually the highest point, to me.
When [Suzanne’s love of Shakespeare] came up, I was like, “oh, that totally makes sense.” Of course she thinks she’s an orator. She thinks she’s a woman of words and language, a master of it. I thank goodness that we have Nick Jones on the writing staff, who’s a playwright and a Julliard grad. He knew I’m from the theater, and I was just so glad that he incorporated that into the show, which was another jaw-dropping moment. I could not believe that he wrote — I’m laughing about it right now – [Suzanne] trying to scare children straight with The Bard. I was like, “Suzanne really thinks she’s cooking right now. She’s killing right now. This audience of one is loving her performance.”
We come into the prison, and we’re brought in through the lens of Piper, right? And then we meet these people as she does. And so we kind of see this fun house mirror version of these people. Then suddenly she starts settling in and assimilating, and actually starts to listen to what’s being said, and really starting to see them. And we [viewers] start to see them, and it’s like, “Oh, you aren’t just a number. You are actually a person who comes from somewhere else.” So I thought that was really cool: We’ve met Suzanne in this way, and then it was like, “Wait a sec, wait a sec. Her parents are white?!” I definitely felt excited [when I read that script] because I was glad we were continuing this thread, as a team and as a company, of not making her this sort of flat line, one-dimensional thing.
You know, I can’t really talk about season 2. [laughs] I’m chomping at the bit to, but I can’t. It’s so exciting. We have some new characters brought in, we have some exciting stories happening, and of course we get deeper and deeper into the stories of all the characters in Litchfield, including Crazy Eyes. As far as backstory goes, we’re still shooting, so hopefully an episode [that focuses on Suzanne] will come out — but who knows. I know people will be excited to learn more and more about her, and who she is.
Orange Is the New Black
Jenji Kohan’s absorbing ensemble dramedy, based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, takes viewers inside the walls of Litchfield, a minimum security women’s prison where nothing’s as simple as it seems—especially the inmates.