From Weeds creator Jenji Kohan, Orange is the New Black tells the heartbreaking and hilarious stories of the women at Litchfield Prison. In Season 1, Piper Chapman’s (Taylor Schilling) wild past came back to haunt her, resulting in her arrest and detention in a federal penitentiary where she finds unexpected conflict and camaraderie amidst an eccentric group of inmates. In Season 2 of the popular Netflix original series, shocking revelations and new arrivals shake up the lives and relationships of the prisoners, in ways they never could have imagined.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, actress Uzo Aduba (who gives a memorable stand-out performance as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren) talked about having no expectations for what this show would become, when she realized the show was getting the hugely positive response it’s received, having President Obama reference the show, how the success of Season 1 changed the vibe on set for Season 2, her reaction to her character’s backstory, what it was like to have Lorraine Toussaint this season, and how comforting it is to put on the prison jumpsuit. Check out what she had to say after the jump.
UZO ADUBA: Thank you very much. I was very humbled by that, to say the least. And I was also super proud that the show was acknowledged, and Kate Mulgrew and Laverne Cox, as well. I just feel very proud of my castmates and the show. I don’t have any other words, other than humble and grateful.
When you signed on for this show, did you have any expectations for what it might become or that it would be as talked about as it has been?
ADUBA: Honestly, no, I did not. First of all, I didn’t have any expectations because, when I started the show, I was told, “You’re going to do these two episodes, maybe a third, and perhaps a fourth.” My only want and wish, really, was to tell a good story. I wanted to do good work, tell a good story, and give the character a voice. Those were my only expectations. And then, when they said, “You’re gonna do more,” I said, “Oh, great!” I thought that meant I was going to get to do a third episode. When the show was going on and we were still all working on it, there was no way to know. We were just making it. It wasn’t like it was being released and we were able to hear feedback. We were making it all at once, so we just were trying to do the story as well as we thought the story could go. That was it. I’m just really happy, and I know my castmates are really happy. It was received with as much love as we had making it. I knew that when I was watching their castmates do their work, I thought, “Wow, that was really cool. That was awesome. She really did a great job there.” Or when I was reading it, I would think, “That was really cool.” But, I had no expectations.
When did you start to realize the show was getting the reaction that it got? Were you keeping up with the comments on social media?
ADUBA: No, I wasn’t. I wasn’t in the city when the show came out. I was up in Utah, literally living on a mountain, and we had no phone service there. My castmates and friends would try to call me, but it just kept cutting out. I accepted that, for a month, I just didn’t have a phone. All I had was the internet, when I would get back to the cabin. I was doing a theater thing there, so during the day, I was in rehearsal and I didn’t have my connection. But then, at night, we would get home and I would look on my Twitter. After the show came out, I started seeing on my Twitter, “You have 300 new followers.” I was like, “I wonder what happened. That tweet I put out must have been really sassy.” And then, I remembered that Orange came out. I then saw the fan reaction and had the people who watched the show hitting me on my Twitter and saying really, really positive things about the show. They, themselves, had been incarcerated and they knew a Crazy Eyes or a Taystee, or they were feeling refreshed that they had seen a new show. That was when I started to really know it. So, I left that show in Utah in late July, and I flew to Los Angeles to do a photo shoot and happened to be staying at the Beverly Hilton. That same day, NBC was having something there. I was in the lobby and an actress who were on an NBC show came over and said, “I love Orange is the New Black, and you have to come to this party. Your castmate, Pablo [Schreiber] is going to be there.” So, I went to the party and all of these people were like, “I watch Orange is the New Black!” That was when I started realizing that our show was out there. I had no connection to it because I wasn’t around it until then.
ADUBA: I know! Taylor [Schilling] and I went to the White House correspondents’ dinner this year, and somebody took a picture when that happened. When I look at that picture, that’s exactly how we felt. Our jaws just dropped. I literally could not believe it. I don’t think we thought about anything else, after that. We just could not even believe that the President of these United States had said Orange is the New Black. From the steps of Litchfield to the front of the White House. I couldn’t even believe it.
Did the success of Season 1 change the vibe on set for Season 2, knowing that you have an audience that will be there watching and there’s a certain expectation level now?
ADUBA: Good question. When we first got there, it was like, “Okay, people watch our show.” Everybody is very aware of that. But then, it settled in. Our show isn’t released while we’re filming. All you do is go to work and make this thing with the same people. It’s almost like going to a retreat. We just make it, and we have to just settle in. Especially as they began to reveal themselves even more thoroughly this season, you begin to realize, “Okay, I have to just settle in and do the job and deal with the task at hand.” I can’t really put my energy into thinking about expectations because then I’m not honoring the person whose story I’m supposed to tell. My job is that I feel a responsibility for Suzanne. My purpose in doing Orange is to give a voice to some of the voiceless people. And I don’t mean that in a righteous way. I mean that in the sense of really honoring and holding true to what it is she has to say and what she represents.
What did you think when you learned about her background and her parents and how she grew up? Did it change your perception of her, or how you felt about her?
ADUBA: Yeah, definitely. When I learned about her parents, I was like, “What?! I wasn’t expecting that. Okay.” But then, I learned that her parents were these academics who existed in a particular neighborhood. Why she feels like she’s so well-read made sense to me now. She likes to wield words, left and right. It helped to answer a lot of questions about her and the things that she loves, like her love for Shakespeare and her knowledge of it. That helped open my imagination for her even wider.
What was it like to have the addition of Lorraine Toussaint, this season?
ADUBA: O. M. G. Buckle up. It was amazing! It was an education. It was a lesson in dancing. She is a force, and a beauty of a human being and an actor. It was a match made in Heaven. It was really incredible. I love Lorraine, both as a person and an actor. As a castmate, she’s phenomenal because she will go all the way with you. She won’t even question the fall from the cliff, if you say, “We’re jumping off.” But then, even more delicious is her spirit. I just love her. She is just such a beautiful person. She is wonderfully smart and incredibly wise, and just so maternal, in her way. It was a great journey, this season, to take with her. In Season 1, I was asking myself, “How far would somebody go for love?” In Season 2, I feel like I get some scope of my answer.
ADUBA: It’s funny because never did I ever imagine a jumpsuit to feel almost like a blanket. When I get into that costume and I step into hair and make-up and we start going through the whole look, it’s soothing, warm and comforting, in some way. The costume itself is very informative of the character and the world of the show that we’re doing, so it’s very helpful in that way. It’s also helpful in the way that it’s freeing. Because the concentration does not become about the look, outside of the small nuances you can put on yourself to individualize yourself from the group, it’s freeing. All you really have are the words and the performance. It becomes entire about the performance. There’s really nothing to hide behind, which is scary, as an actor, but it’s also exciting because you’re so exposed. We all feel like we’re together in there.
Orange is the New Black is now available on Netflix.