NEW YORK — She’s no ingénue, but the rise of Uzo Aduba has been nothing shy of meteoric. Her scene-stealing turn as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren in “Orange Is the New Black” earned her a Screen Actors Guild card and, as of last August, an Emmy Award. Aduba kicked off her high-heeled shoes (literally) and kicked back to talk about her twin passions of acting and sports, and how she came to love the terrific gap in her smile.
When you were in college, you majored in classical voice but also ran track and field. Is there a connection between those two disciplines for you?
I’ve been in both worlds my whole life. My family is big in sports and arts, and both groups are similar. You’re very focused and disciplined in what you do, and it’s a passion that’s required to do either. A lot of what I learned from my coaches I apply to my art as well.
So do you still run and sing?
I just ran the Boston Marathon for the first time. I ran 5 hours, 3 minutes. And I still do sing. But when I think “sing” these days it means more than just making music; it’s like how your spirit wants to make sound. It’s something I put down over here and am now circling back to again. Just because the leaves come off in winter doesn’t mean the tree is dead.
How have things changed for you since you won the Emmy last August?
It only just hit me. I was walking in my apartment, went to the fridge, then went back to the other room to look at it and thought, “That happened.” I don’t know if it will ever fully seep in.
You weren’t auditioning for Crazy Eyes initially, but when you landed her instead of the part you auditioned for, they said, “Keep the hair.”
It was just an idea I had; I was grateful that [show runner] Jenji [Kohan] wanted to keep it. Plus, it’s protective.
They’re called Bantu knots. It protects the hair itself, it keeps it out of the way and it’s been forever that style. I think hair can be such an interesting way of introducing yourself without saying a word, and seeing some intricate styles growing up as a kid, I love that you can say different things without speaking.
Crazy is like no one else on TV. How did you get a handle on her?
When they introduced her character, they described her as being “innocent like a child, except children aren’t scary.” This image flashed in my brain of an adult person with a pacifier in her mouth and a sledgehammer in her hand. Her intentions are pure, because children have no agenda. The thing I connected to with her is that I have loved that deeply before. I know that feeling, to love and to lose.
You’ve done quite well for yourself despite having what some might consider a flaw, that gap in your teeth. Were you ever told, “You’re not going to make it if you don’t get braces”?
Numerous times. My mom said it’s a sign of beauty in Nigeria, but I said, “We live in Massachusetts.” When I was in high school and getting my senior class picture taken, the photographer said, “I like your gap. You have a beautiful smile.” That senior year I could not stop smiling in pictures. I feel like I’m making up for lost smiles, years of not smiling. I had a flipper at one time — like the girls on “Toddlers and Tiaras” — and on my first day of “Orange,” I said, “I have a thing that I could put in to cover it; I don’t know if it’s distracting,” and they’re like, “You’re fine the way you are.” I’m fine the way I am.
‘I know that feeling, to love and to lose.’ — UZO ADUBA, on how she relates to her TV character, Crazy Eyes