Listen: Uzo Aduba on Playing Political Pioneer Shirley Chisholm in ‘Mrs. America’

Uzo Aduba Variety Big Ticket Podcast
Robert Maxwell for Variety

Uzo Aduba knows about transformation.

She was practically unrecognizable as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren, her breakout role on “Orange Is the New Black” that earned her two Emmys. Now the 39-year-old actor might be headed back to the awards circuit with “Mrs. America” for portraying the late Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman to be elected to Congress (in 1968) as well as the first woman to run for the Democratic presidential nomination (in 1972). The FX ensemble series, about the fight in the ’70s and ’80s to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, co-stars Cate Blanchett as conservative firebrand Phyllis Schlafly and Rose Byrne as liberal icon Gloria Steinem.

“Shirley was a woman who had an entirely different definition for herself than the definition the world tried to impose on her,” Aduba says on Tuesday’s episode of the Variety and iHeart podcast The Big Ticket. “When you listen to her speeches, they are all about possibility. She was the original hope agent.”

Variety caught up with Aduba via Zoom from her home in New York City.

Long time no see. How are you doing?

I am doing OK. The days are ever changing. I will say the top feeling I have is hopeful. But then, the feeling that went right under that is the question: Why? Why to all of it? Why another death? Why are we not wearing masks? Why do the cases continue to go up? Why are we digging our heels in the sand to make a point? Why are we not leading as a leader should? Why? That is my underlying underlying symptom to me being OK.

What makes you hopeful if there are all these whys with no answers?

What makes me hopeful is that it’s more than a hashtag. It’s more than a post. That it hasn’t stopped, in terms of the insistence and the persistence, coming out of everybody. Perhaps COVID was necessary for all of these awakenings to be happening. When we started COVID, and we were talking about how the planet was changing just from everybody being inside. I don’t know about you, but here in New York, let’s say a week, two weeks in, I felt like I was back in my hometown. All the birds I was hearing every morning.

You would see all these news stories about the planet, I don’t know if cleansing itself is the word, but that feels like, miles ago. Now we’re watching this next cleansing that’s happening. That also feels important. That gives me hope. I feel hopeful because of the disturbance and the disruption feels advancing and progressive in the end. My friend said, “It just feels like the world is turning upside down.” And I said, “I don’t know if the world is turning upside down, or if the world is turning right side up.”

What did you know about Shirley Chisholm before filming “Mrs. America”?

I had to read about her politics and the things she had enacted and her work as an actual political figure, a congresswoman. But the first time I’d ever heard her name was from my mom. All I knew as a kid was her talking about her when [my mom] came to America [from Nigeria] and being like, “My fighting Shirley Chisholm.” I was like, “She’s mine too.” I don’t know what that means, and I don’t even know who that is, but “My fighting Shirley Chisholm!”

When I moved to New York, I had bought this book called “The African-American Century” [by Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates]. It chronicles monumental figures throughout time. She had a chapter, and that was when I learned why she was such a historical figure and significant individual. I did not know that she had run for president. I’m talking, we’re standing maybe right on the heels of an Obama campaign bid. And so I was like, “There was a Black woman who ran for president? And she did it in the ’70s?” That even sounded crazier. And then I did more of a dive. I read a lot of her speeches, and I watched her documentary, “[Chisholm ’72:] Unbought & Unbossed.”

What was it like putting on that wig, the clothes, the glasses, the bag, the little heels?

Our wig supervisor, Anne Morgan, she was so great. She gave me a practice wig like two months before we started. That was my practice in the morning, putting it on, making sure it doesn’t fall off or slip back, all of this. When you’re taking it off and realizing like, “Oh, this is her armor. No wonder why she had so much stuff on. She had to wear these bold clothes or else she would not be seen. She needed to wear this big hair or people probably would not see her.” Because if you even track women her age of the time, that was not what they were wearing. She was bold. She was big. While still being graceful and gracious, she was strong. But she also was aware of the world in which she operated. She knew she needed to be not only heard but seen. It’s important to be seen.

If you could ask her one question, what would it be?

“Do you think you did it all? Did you do all that you came here to do?” I think she did. I would ask her that: “Do you think you did it all?”

I wanted to talk to you about “Orange Is the New Black.” When Poussey [Samira Wiley’s character] was murdered by a corrections officer with his knee on her back in Season 4, there was an uprising and protest in the prison. And now look at where we are today.

That’s the power of art, isn’t it? It can inspire, and it tells the truth. When done well, it tells the truth and holds that mirror up. That’s what excites me of this time. I don’t know if everybody’s sitting down and creating in this moment. Some people — myself included — are feeling inspired. Some people are not. I actually don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but I’m so excited. I don’t mean the day after we get out of here, but I mean, in the years to follow. Because we are all forever shifted. What is going to be born out of that? What ideas, what stories? It’s going to be cool. I think it’s going to be really, really great. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. Hear it in its entirety above. You can also listen to “The Big Ticket” podcast on iHeartRadio or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.