Uzo Aduba on ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Season 4, the Big Death and Mental Health

Uzo Aduba On 'Orange Is the New Black' Season 4, Death and Mental Health

[Spoiler alert: The following interview discusses major plot points from the final three episodes of “Orange Is the New Black” season 4. Do not read until you’ve finished the season.]

In many ways Uzo Aduba’s Suzanne “Crazy-Eyes” Warren has become the heart of Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black.” And in season four, that heart is shattered into pieces. The season’s final three episodes put Suzanne through one ordeal after another — whether it’s an unwelcome physical confrontation with her estranged girlfriend Maureen Kukudio (Emily Althaus), the breakdown during a peaceful protest that results in a chaotic scene and the death of friend and fellow inmate Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), or the tragic backstory that finally explains what sent Suzanne to prison.

Variety spoke with two-time Emmy winner Uzo Aduba about filming these “intense” episodes back-to-back, working with “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner for the first time, how the show handles the serious issue of mental illness, and her memories of an intimate send-off dinner with Wiley and co-stars Taylor Schilling and Kate Mulgrew.

How did you find out about Poussey’s death in episode 12? I understand a lot of cast members didn’t know until they read the script.

I found out because Samira told me. She had texted me that week or the day before, “Do you mind if I come over? I have to tell you something.” I got nervous, thinking something was actually wrong with her. She said [Danielle Brooks] is coming over as well. I could tell she was nervous about something. My heart went to a very scared place. She said, “Everything’s great, it’s not a bad thing.”

She came over and said, “Do you have any wine?” I was like, “Something’s wrong, what’s going on?” She said, “Maybe I should go get some.” All I could think was she was nervous to tell me what she’s about to say and she needed a glass of wine to say it. She got some wine, poured a glass, and came out to talk to us. By that time Danielle and I were sitting down. Then she said it. It was almost like a movie, our jaws dropped simultaneously. We were just aghast and agape and couldn’t believe it.

She said she’d known for a long time, since the beginning of the season. She was very calm about it. I was very glad the creative team, and Jenji in particular, had taken that personal care with her. We are a family at our show, and we take it so seriously and are so in love with working on that show, something like that could be devastating if not handled with care. The fact they did handle that with care, thought and consideration — I had much respect for that. It felt like it continued the consistent way Jenji treats all of us and the characters. [Samira] had the time I think is necessary to mourn and to grieve and process, and to live out the character fully.

And when did you find out about Suzanne’s role in that sequence?

They gave us the script — myself and Alan [Aisenberg, who plays the young guard, Bayley], those of us involved in that part of the story. Samira had said, “They’re going to tell you all tomorrow,” but she wanted to be the one to tell us. They sent us the script because we needed to know this piece of the story we were embarking on. That’s how we learned how [Poussey’s death] happened, and it took on another scope of significance. It wasn’t just losing the character, but how and why this person is no longer with us became even more paramount.

What was it like to shoot? Matthew Weiner was directing on the show for the first time.

It was fantastic. Especially with someone who has such an experience in television and storytelling, we couldn’t have had a better person behind the lens working side by side with Jenji. They have a shorthand with one another. And Lauren Morelli who wrote the episode — they were all there. It was a great opportunity to have that conversation and have that time with [Matthew] because he was so familiar with Jenji’s vocabulary, and Lauren as well was really able to articulate herself.

I think he also knew the importance of the scene without over-dramatizing it. And when I say that, I mean over-dramatizing our own personal loss of this actor, and [instead] really honing in and focusing on the storytelling that is happening and making sure that is what’s being translated — this character who we’ve come to know and love, what that loss of life looks like, what it looks like to watch potential be extinguished. He was able to really hone in on those things and do the tough work of remaining professional throughout the piece. He knows how to do that, he’s had to write some pretty intense stuff himself.

When we were shooting it, I had never lost my voice before, and my voice was gone. We worked a 22- 23-hour shoot that day for just that scene. It was incredible. A lot of us were taxed and tried and exhausted and extinguished. But honestly, it was worth every minute of it.

I also understand the entire cast was on set. Many of the key characters are directly involved in the scene, but everyone wanted to be there.

Yeah, it was the longest call sheet we’ve had. I’m not even joking, like 70 names — you couldn’t even read the names, they had to make the font size like 5, it was so small. Those scenes are always so significant when everyone is brought together. Jenji does that with purpose, so we’re all really paying attention and we’re no longer splintered in terms of storytelling when we all come together for a singular event — whether it’s joyous, or in this case something more upsetting. She did a triumphant job of highlighting [the scene] by bringing every single person into it. The entire storyline we’d been tracking throughout the season stopped completely for this moment. Everyone walks away impacted by this day. Whatever trajectory you follow after that, it is directly affected by this moment emotionally.

I want to back up to episode 11, and the reveal of more of Suzanne’s backstory. What was it like reading that script and discovering Suzanne’s role in the death of a young boy?

That was intense, to say the least. We’ve been in this space where we have as a society neglected the health and wellbeing of people battling mental illnesses and behavioral issues. I was so moved to see Suzanne’s story because what we were watching was the consequences of that neglect — and how until we really take these things seriously, what can result.

I was really happy and grateful that Nick Jones, who wrote that episode, didn’t pass judgment on her or stigmatize her in a way that felt obtuse or careless. He laid out the facts of the matter. Suzanne’s intentions are always good. Her heart is always in the right place. Her intention was not for that to happen to Dylan, but unfortunately that was the result. You saw her try to course correct the best way she knew how, try to reprimand a child the best way she knew how — it’s like watching little kids try to role play parenting. She needed an adult in that moment to tell her to stop and she didn’t have that.

And the guilt she feels from that and the pain that lives inside of her and her inability to manage her emotions fully — you see the other side of that play out with Maureen. She is not in full possession always of herself. It asks a lot of questions: How is it that someone who isn’t in full possession of herself winds up in this form of rehabilitation? Is it rehabilitating? Is this the form of treatment she should be receiving? From Suzanne to Lolly (Lori Petty) to Healy (Michael J. Harney) — we are being called through watching these characters to answer for ourselves and how we treat people in society.

Those larger themes really resonate this season because of how much we’ve come to care about the characters.

That is my hope and my wish. I think that’s the power of Jenji’s show. She doesn’t accuse anyone, audience or character. She’s laying out the fact of the matter and how complicated the situation can be. But at the same time knowledge is power, and if you have the knowledge of how certain systems work… I think what she’s done brilliantly this season is that the new character is the system. When she brings that character into the mix, we as an audience have to decide if we like that character. I feel like the system is the villain here. You start to see the actions of that character and how those actions matriculate down into the world of Litchfield.

You mentioned Suzanne’s relationship with Maureen Kukudio, which takes a turn for the worse this season. How did you prepare for that shocking physical showdown?

Those three episodes back to back, it was unrelenting. But that’s what I like about Jenji and the writers, they’re not going to back off, they lean in. For Suzanne and Kukudio, firstly my mind went to the song “It’s a Thin Line Between Love and Hate.” I kept hearing that in my mind. I love Emily Althaus, she’s an amazing human being, a phenomenal and generous actor. We got on immediately. Preparing for that fight was hard. I’ve said before, I have experienced the cost of love, I know what it’s like to love as deeply as Suzanne has loved. What I wanted to do was to physicalize what a broken heart looks like. I know what it feels like to be crushed to pieces.

Suzanne battles with her behavior and her mental state, she has moments of feeling lucid and is very clear — like she says, she’s not crazy, she’s unique. I think that’s even more clear this season. Crazy is such an unfair description of someone. She has a different way of thinking. Her pain is so deep, it would be unfair or oversimplified to think she doesn’t understand — she’s very much aware.

And then the feeling of being misunderstood and being teased. We saw in season two, when she’s in that circle and being pushed around, we saw her being picked on. This is something consistent in her life. I think everyone in their life at some point feels they want to stand up and defend themselves. I’m not defending violence but I think we all have a threshold and hers was met on that day. That’s how she enacted that heartbreak. It hurt her even more to be teased, mocked by Maureen Kukudio than if any of the other ladies did that. Kukudio has her heart.

And there’s the line directly from that to what happens to Poussey, because people aren’t paying attention to what’s happening to Suzanne.

Exactly, if you don’t pay attention and you let the marbles turn as they want to and you’re not managing it or treating it, there’s no telling what direction it can go in. When we were shooting the fight I had to take a lot of breaks because I knew I didn’t want it to be a half step. I know when Suzanne feels broken or beaten or trapped she goes full throttle.

I haven’t watched it yet, I’ve only seen the first episode, I don’t know how it looks. I can only go off the experience of the making of it, I can tell you what it felt like. It was very emotional. I remember it almost felt like a conjuring that day. Something else was coming into me that needed releasing. I just wanted to give it all to Suzanne, I feel a deep responsibility to her, but also the Suzannes of the world.

I can’t say it enough. I feel like the stigmatization that’s so present right now globally in regards to mental health is something that’s gone on for too long. I was just in London for six months, and whether I was at home watching the news or in conversations with people, people want to talk about mental health and how we treat mental health and how we look at people battling mental health issues. I’m loving that this is a conversation that feels open and not from a voyeuristic place. People are really interested in starting a real conversation that leads to the work. When we were shooting [season four] last fall, I felt this is for the Suzannes who just aren’t being heard.

The show walks the line between comedy and drama, and both Suzanne and Lolly can be very funny characters. How do you find that humor without looking like you’re mocking these very important issues about mental health?

That was a concern of mine starting back in season one. When I say I feel protective of Suzanne, it starts from there first. When I started the show I knew, “I can not play to the crazy.” How does someone play crazy? When you see people who are battling mentally, it’s not like there’s one version. This idea of trying to play crazy, I’ve already lost if I do that.

What [Suzanne] is doing doesn’t sound crazy to her. She thinks this all makes sense. We’re going to focus on that. That way no matter what she says or does, there’s a base. It’s like doing comedic plays, you don’t want to play to the laugh, you want to say it as sincerely as that person means it. However that is responded to is not my responsibility as an actor. My responsibility is to the character and making sure the life she’s living is authentic.

I think where both she and Lolly stop from being the punchline, is because Jenji is also aware of that. She and the writers know the show they’re writing, and how easily it could be handled irresponsibly. Jenji is a genius. She knows the story she wants to tell, it becomes more and more clear for viewers every season.

There’s a delicate balance with the fun inside the characters — Lolly and Suzanne and Morello (Yael Stone) — and then putting something very heavy into the hands of characters as well. That balances out the comedy. For me it keeps the fire inside of me burning to know this character has something to say.

Going back to Samira’s last episodes, I read that Kate Mulgrew organized a dinner for you, Samira and Taylor Schilling. What was that like? I know Kate loves to cook.

She’s a legit phenomenal cook. It was amazing. We are a family, a tribe. I love those women — I’m not going to cry because I’m about to go to an event and I have my makeup on — but I love them. Their talent, their spirits, everything. We sat and we talked and we laughed. Kate and Samira live literally right across the street from each other. It was awesome, that’s our crew. We had a magical night and it felt like one of the last times while we’re still working to have one of those dinners where we’re all together. Samira is going to be in my life forever. If she wasn’t in my life, I’d kill her. She has no choice. She’s stuck with me. But I was just really thankful that Kate organized that for us. It was emotional, a very emotional night. One I won’t soon forget.