The women in this summer’s lauded Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black” are as colorful as the orange jumpsuits worn by the inmates of Litchfield Prison where the show is set.
Though they live within the confines of the same barbed wire fence, the prisoners’ backgrounds are radically different, forming a mosaic of backgrounds and personalities. “As the show goes on, they peel back the layers, and you get deeper in knowing who these people are,” says Uzo Aduba, who plays Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren, one of the series’ breakout characters.
If prison was a playground, Crazy Eyes would be the last one picked at recess. With her bulging eyes, wild hair and bizarre mannerisms, she’s both mocked and feared by the other prisoners. She carries a torch for Piper, the lead character, which she expresses in inappropriate ways, including urinating outside Piper’s bunk.
For Aduba, an actress of Nigerian descent with a stage background, creating such an outrageous yet complex role was aided by a staging direction that described Suzanne’s “child-like stare.”
“I think sometimes Suzanne can be misunderstood,” says the 32-year-old Aduba. “There’s some intensity, but it’s so pure where she is coming from. Children don’t filter, they just act and speak.”
She saw Crazy Eyes as both funny and heartfelt. “I try to play serious scenes a little funny and the comedy a little serious,” says Aduba, who made Crazy Eyes’ gestures exaggerated to reflect her child-like nature.
Created by Jenji Kohan (“Weeds”), “Orange Is the New Black” is based on a memoir by Piper Kerman, an upscale Brooklyn writer who was sentenced to 15 months in prison for her brief involvement in a drug ring. Netflix debuted the 13-episode first season on its streaming platform in July and immediately renewed it for a second season.
In an early first season episode, Crazy Eyes tries to make Piper her prison “wife,” much to the dismay of Taylor Schilling’s character. But as with many of the other prisoners, there’s more to Crazy Eyes than we initially think, though her full back story — a series plot device — has yet to be told.
“Sometimes there are people that we simply brush off,” says Schilling. “I think that not many people have taken the time to examine what’s causing her behavior and what is underneath.”
Aduba is the daughter of Nigerian parents who immigrated to the United States in the 1970s and settled in Massachusetts. Her name translates to the saying “the road is good.”
She started off singing in her church choir as a child but it wasn’t until later, when she was studying classical voice at Boston University, that she decided acting might be the better road. So she moved to New York and Broadway became her dream: “I remember when my mom dropped me off at the train station she said,’ just work hard.’”
And that’s what she did; waitressing on the side, she looked for auditions and finally landed a spot with the New York Theatre Workshop and its production of “The Seven.” She’s appeared in other productions, including the recent revival of “Godspell” on Broadway.
Television acting only became a reality when her manager suggested she give it a try.
Aduba read the pilot for “Orange Is the New Black” and was familiar with Kohan’s other series, “Weeds,” because her “Godspell” costar, Hunter Parrish, played pot-growing prodigy, Silas Botwin.
“I like the idea of someone taking what should be a serious subject matter, one that usually has a negative feeling around it, and flipping it on its head,” says Aduba of both “Weeds” and “Orange Is the New Black.” “She [Kohan] was able to really humanize both Piper and Nancy Botwin [Mary-Louise Parker’s ‘Weeds’ character] who are just doing the best they can.”
Aduba is in New York filming the second season of “Orange Is the New Black” at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens. Her role has been upgraded from a recurrent character to a series regular.
Though Netflix doesn’t release ratings, the show has clearly caught on with critics and fans. Aduba was surprised that fellow diners recognize her from the show.
“We finished shooting [Season 1] in the spring. And you have your feeling towards the project,” she says, “You just hope the feeling is the same for the world.”