Spoilers ahead for Orange Is the New Black season five.
Uzo Aduba has won two Emmys for her portrayal of Suzanne Warren, the lovable, mentally ill inmate on Orange Is the New Black whose outburst during the tense cafeteria showdown between the inmates and guards in the season-four finale inadvertently led to the death of her good friend, Poussey (Samira Wiley). In the new season, Suzanne finds herself again grappling with death as the inmates riot and take over Litchfield Prison. Off her medications, Suzanne spirals emotionally out of control, which builds to a scary turn of events for her and her pals. Aduba spoke to Vulture about the challenges she faces getting both in and out of character, the season’s emotional roller coaster, and how the story comes full circle in the end.
Before we talk about this season, tell me what went through your mind last season when you read that Poussey’s death would be so intertwined with Suzanne’s story.
It cut deep, I guess, would be the way I would describe it. It felt like a piece of a limb or something was being taken because she and I, if viewers remember, we have a sordid past. From season two, our relationship has had to grow and find its legs. We watched our friendship and love grow onscreen. It wasn’t there to begin with because we had to overcome the bathroom fight scene in season two with Vee, and then we had to resolve that. And then we had a real tender love for one another. So then to be present for the second exchange of violence with her — not on the offending end, but rather this 180-degree moment where we’d gone from being foe to friend. And to lose somebody who was really so caring and loving to Suzanne, it hurt. It really hurt. And on a personal level, it hurt selfishly because I was sad to lose my friend in real life.
What was the experience of coming back to the show with both Samira Wiley missing from the cast and filming being so different because the story takes place over a few days?
Coming back to the show was somewhat bittersweet in the sense that in those early days, you could feel the sting of her not being there, particularly in the ghetto dorm because we’d worked together so tightly and so extensively, the five of us — myself, Samira, Danielle Brooks, Adrienne C. Moore, and Vicky Jeudy — we’re the ones who play together the most, and also Kimiko Glenn, too. We played together so much. And we’d sort of developed a machinery in the sense that we knew how the camaraderie all played together, the dynamic of the tribe worked, we had the shorthand and the vocabulary together. To lose an element of that dynamic felt off and was useful in the playing of the scenes because that is exactly what happened. We did, in fact, lose a friend. So it worked in the telling of the story. But then we started to realize we had to morph the shape of our group slightly. And actually we realized we didn’t even lose somebody at all because her presence was so alive in the way the story was being told.
This season, Suzanne herself is separated from the pack. It’s a lot of play between Taystee, Black Cindy, Janae, and Abdullah. When we do finally come back together, Poussey still feels very much alive but you can’t feel her in a physical way. It’s interesting because Suzanne has come back into the group after trying to mourn and understand and make peace with the situation in the only way she knows how. And the women have all come back into the group after releasing a lot of their frustration, pain, and anger in the only way that they know how as well.
How did it feel to perform that? Suzanne is off by herself a lot this season.
It was that feeling of feeling lost because that’s where we are. We feel lost. We’ve lost someone. You know? There is something about creating an atmosphere of not knowing in which direction to move. After you’ve lost someone close to you, when you move through the world, it’s almost like you don’t even see the world. You can’t. You have no grasp on reality to some degree because all your concentration and energy is focused in on the pain and so much is swirling around you. You’re just trying to make it through the day.
That atmosphere was created on this show this season where a lot of these characters are torn and being pulled in various directions — be it because of the system, be it because of the physical loss of a member of our community. Everybody has reached their threshold and is in a state of mourning of some kind, whether that’s a mourning of the way things used to be here or mourning of a friend, a mourning of a lover, a mourning of a tribesman. And we’re doing something no one in this prison has ever done before. None of these women have ever been empowered, and we see people who don’t sometimes know what to do with that.
I imagine Suzanne is a very tough character to play. How were you able to unlock her in the beginning? Do you find it easy to slip back into her shoes in season five, or does it still take a little bit of work for you to get into Suzanne?
It depends on the moment. I try to unlock her in different ways. As far as dealing with loss, we’re seeing her have to wrestle with that for the second time in this show. And she didn’t really get it the first time. She was really having a hard time understanding, if you remember, with Vee, when she was trying to make peace with this idea of heaven and afterlife, is there such a thing, which I think most people wonder about or certainly question at various points in their life. We’re watching that same attempt at trying to get a grasp of understanding happening with Suzanne. So from that standpoint, it’s no different, the approach. I just know that her lens is set to a different setting than most people traditionally look through. But I still approach it with the same intentions and obstacles and questions and needs and wants in any scene.
As far as the getting into her, there are days that are easier to slip into her just because I am familiar with her. I know her so well. Suzanne is a person, a full-fledged person to me. It would not be shocking to me if I saw her on the street. I’d be like, There she is. I knew I’d meet you someday. You know? She is very real to me. There are still times when getting into certain parts and moments in the show that can be challenging and take some extra work —the séance or when she is really at the end of her rope towards the end of season five. As familiar as I am with some of those experiences she’s had, they are still different and new experiences and they take the work of getting into them. I will say, though, what I find more challenging now is getting out of her because I know her so well. She seeps into me so easily, into my bloodstream.
I was going ask you if it’s hard leaving her at the end of the day. Are you totally exhausted? How do you get her out of your system?
Sometimes it’s hard to. I would say if I have to do a lot of the work, physical work, journaling work, like cooling-down work, really, of leaving her there in Litchfield and not bringing her experiences, her world, her traumas home with me ’cause they are not mine.
You mentioned the séance — what was challenging about that? I thought that scene was so beautiful. Suzanne really wanted to get in touch with her friend.
It’s this delicate balance. I find this show is something that for me dances on a razor’s edge of simplicity and complication. And making the comedy subtle when you need to and finding how not to overly complicate or take some of the complications of the dramatic tones and nuance them in some way. When we get into the séance, it’s this game that everybody knows and plays, but she is taking very seriously. And the actor in me, knowing what I’m reading on the page, could go one of two ways. Either this could be played very seriously or this could have a little bit of something else in it. Finding the space where it doesn’t tilt so far into being overly broad but just lands somewhere where the audience can take from it what they want to.
I think things like that are hard because you gotta really work out the math of it. Comedy is math, like how do you play … what portion are you gonna pour into the cup of your castmates for them to give to you the thing that you need to make the next line work. How long are we gonna do this ohm for, you know what I mean? You really have to think about it and then at the same time be very, very ready to let it go.
That’s what I admire about your work. Comedy on its own is very hard. But in this case, it’s even harder because it’s funny to us but it’s not funny to Suzanne. You have to balance that.
That’s the balance of it. It can never be funny to her because she absolutely means what she is saying.
Then you get to episode seven, which is when Suzanne starts to lose it. There’s that scene with Pennsatucky where she’s talking to herself and her imaginary family. Are those scenes easier for you, now that you know her so well?
I guess I would say it’s easier to find but it’s not any easier to experience the putting down of her pain. Because what I started to understand about Suzanne even more is that she is such a lover, and then there is this other complicated psychological end to her where it’s someone who is very aware they are being misunderstood and really connecting to that, what that frustration must be like. Have ever read or seen The Miracle Worker, that play about Helen Keller?
And how frustrated she was and how she acted out against Anne Sullivan because she couldn’t communicate her feelings and that’s why she was behaving the way she was behaving. She is aware that people are making fun of her. She may not understand the joke to the finish line every time in that moment but she might think about it three days later and then she gets it. Or she knows what she said was not kind and that’s a hard world to live in.
Things go south so fast for Suzanne when the guards are brought over to her cellblock to be her bunkmates.
Oh, I know.
It was so upsetting when they tied her up and Suzanne is screaming, “Don’t do this, please!” Do you ever fight with the writers and say, “No, I don’t want to do that?”
Sure! But you know what? Here’s the thing: That was a tough thing because from a socially conscious level it’s, ya know, what does this mean and what are we saying? And when you listen to her, when she has the makeup all over her face, it’s tough. I’m a person of the world, I have a very strong belief and opinion of what that can represent and feel like, ya know?
And the thing that I thought was most powerful about that was, and what I respect more than anything and appreciate, is getting on the phone with [Jenji Kohan] and having that conversation. She’s not afraid of the tough conversation. And she says, this is making us all uncomfortable, so we should be talking about this. Why do we want to sweep it under the rug or not have that experience?
And then that does beg for me, the artist, to say, yeah, that is intense. And what if we all sat in these feelings for a while and maybe that’ll help us to think differently about when we portray moments like these, when we choose to walk out of our home dressed in the outfit that is not the most respectful to whichever ethnic group. Or perhaps we should think twice about whether we wear this makeup or not because of the historical implications, and this might be offensive to an entire group of people, ya know? I think she is not afraid of stepping into those uncharted waters and calling a spade a spade and asking our society to really look at itself and ask itself whether we are who we say we are.
The writing in the scene when Suzanne goes to the bathroom and she’s looking at herself saying, “My face is wrong, my face is under,” was incredible. That was the episode directed by Laura Prepon (who plays Alex).
Yes, it was. And that speech was written by Jenji.
That speech and your performance were so moving. How did you work with Laura on that scene? What kinds of things did you discuss?
Laura was just across-the-board incredible. First of all, I was so proud of her just because she knows what she’s doing. She was really interested in hearing what we as actors feel and are thinking. Because one, that’s our fellow castmate, ya know? She knows that we know these characters very well and she wanted to get in there and hear our insights. For me, I knew there was so much in there to harvest just as far as the conversation of colorism, the conversation of race, the conversation of interracial adoption, all of these things are embedded in that, right? And it requires a safe place to perform that out. Laura was always nearby, always generous with her work, calming. She is so calm anyway. She was a steady hand in moments throughout that entire episode. I really, really enjoyed working with her and was impressed with her ability, her professionalism, her kindness. She is genuinely warm. She’s been doing this a long time, she knows how to treat actors.
Would you say that was your toughest scene?
That was one of the tougher scenes, certainly. That was one where I felt like Uzo and Suzanne are meeting in a tough space. I was conflicted, and I knew that. For Uzo, the person, it didn’t feel good to wear that makeup. It did not feel good. I can only imagine what Suzanne must have felt like growing up her entire life with these feelings. It felt heavy, ya know? That was one of the tougher days of work, certainly.
And in the next episode you also have a very intense one where she’s looking for heaven, and she is really, really losing it before Cindy gives her the lithium.
That was also an equally hard day of work as well. My want at this point for Suzanne is to take her and to hold her and to tell her everything is going to be okay. Yeah, those would be the days when I felt I really needed to do the work of releasing Suzanne and her life experience and what she is facing day to day in that prison and not carry it home with me.
Everyone’s panicked while Suzanne is out and when she wakes up she’s so Suzanne.
She didn’t even know she was out. As far as she was concerned she just took a nap and is back to the peanut butter.
Then in the last scene, everyone is going different places. It doesn’t seem like it’s going to be the show we know.
I can neither confirm nor deny.
But how did you feel about the note it ends on?
It was so funny because it felt like a full-circle moment. We hadn’t seen a lot of these characters together since season one. And there was something about that that felt incredibly powerful — seeing all these women we were introduced to in the beginning, who all were a part of separate tribes now being bonded together as one. It was very interesting how Jenji was able to bring that circle back around in such a different way. And being down there in the bunker was exciting and thrilling and left a door open for so much adventure to come flowing in. That’s all I’m going to say.
This interview has been edited and condensed.