Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren is one of Orange Is the New Black's most entertaining and intriguing characters, but she wasn’t originally intended to be a regular on the Netflix prison series created by Jenji Kohan. In fact, when actress Uzo Aduba first signed on to play the role, she was only slated to appear in two episodes of season one, with an option for a third.
But the producers were so impressed with her performance and saw so much potential for her character after Aduba taped her first episode as the intense inmate eager to make fellow prisoner Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) her prison wife, they just couldn’t let her go. Aduba was asked to stick around as a recurring character through season one, and, not surprisingly, the fan favorite was hired as a series regular for season two of the show.
If you haven’t already binged your way through season two of Orange Is the New Black, which was released by Netflix on June 6, rest assured that you will finally get more of a sense of why Crazy Eyes is the way she is when you see her painful flashback episode.
Aduba, who hails from Massachusetts and studied classical voice at Boston University before making her Broadway debut in Coram Boy and appearing in a Broadway revival of Godspell, talks to Co.Create about how she landed the Orange Is the New Black gig (her previous television experience consisted only of a one-episode stint as a nurse on Blue Bloods) and the techniques she employs to play a character whose moods can swing from menacing to vulnerable.
Co.Create: Crazy Eyes is one of the most talked-about—and loved—characters on Orange Is the New Black. Are you surprised that there is so much affection for her?
Aduba: Oh my gosh, yes, Christine. I just never even thought about it, in terms of the making of this character, with any sort of expectation of affection. I just really wanted to go in and tell the best story that I could and to try as best I could to tell her story from her perspective for better or worse.
How much information did you have about the character when you auditioned? Did the casting director simply give you a scene to play, or did you get some of her backstory?
Well, actually, when I auditioned, I auditioned for a different character. I did not audition for Crazy Eyes.
What role did you audition for?
I auditioned for Janae [Watson, which ultimately went to Vicky Jeudy], the track star, when I originally read.
What was the audition like?
I had read the script—I got the pilot. It was the first time I was doing pilot season, and I remember reading a lot of scripts that summer and that script really did pop in my mind when I read it, and I thought, ‘That was really good. I would love to be a part of something like that.’
I worked on the material and went in and read, and then I would say maybe a couple weeks later my representation called me and they said, ‘We have some really great news for you.’ I said, ‘Okay.’ They said, ‘Do you know that audition you went on for Orange Is the New Black?’ ‘Totally, absolutely!’ ‘Well, you didn’t get it.’ I was like, ‘Alright. So what is the good news?’ ‘They’d like to offer you another part—Crazy Eyes.’
So when I read [the first episode Crazy Eyes appeared in], which was the second episode, it felt like a really great fit. The writer of that episode, Marco Ramirez, wrote a stage direction, describing her as, in part, someone who was innocent like a child . . . except that children aren’t scary, and I remember thinking that was just loaded with so much information.
How did you interpret that description of Crazy Eyes?
I thought she was like was an adult carrying a sledgehammer and a pacifier, showing how an innocent child could be scary, meaning her intentions would be always good and rooted in some sort of purity but her execution might be somehow mismanaged or poorly orchestrated.
Suzanne—I feel bad always calling her Crazy Eyes—does show her feelings in extreme ways like when she peed on the floor of Piper's cell. Yet as freaky and scary as she can be there is something endearing about this woman who just as easily might be found quoting Shakespeare or simulating a figure skating routine.
Yeah. I hope so. I think so. Take for example episode three [from season one], "Lesbian Request Denied"—she writes this poem for Piper that is entirely pure. She really thinks she has a handle on what she’s saying, and it’s very clear and well articulated, her love and affection for Piper, but I’ve never heard a sun described as a yellow grape before. I don’t know what that means. [She laughs.] But to her it’s very clear, or she’ll pee on the floor and think that that’s a sign of, ‘I’m marking my territory.’ Those things to me, in my brain, all come from a good and pure place, but it’s always just a hair off, just one click off. It never lands quite the way that she thinks it should with people.
You have created a physicality for the character that goes beyond her sometimes crazy eyes. Can you talk about how you came up with Suzanne’s physical way of being?
As far as the physicality, that’s very important to me, and yeah, I didn’t want to strictly lean on the name Crazy Eyes in terms of the performance. I wanted the use of the eyes to be purposeful. When she stares, there’s meaning there.
Her eyes go small and still and steady, very focused when she talks to Alex [the character played by Laura Prepon]. Whenever she talks to Alex, she’s very steady because I wanted to try and see if it could be more terrifying if there were no "crazy eyes," and she was just focused.
But then when she’s with Piper, she’s trying to wink at her, but it’s like she could never get only one eye to close. It’s like both eyes are always blinking. She can’t quite finesse the flirtation.
So the eyes were a part of it for me with her, and then I wanted everything else in terms of her physical being to just be a 10 because everything about her exists at a 10. She gets angry at a 10. She loves at a 10. She feels like she’s fallen ill at a 10. She takes her medication at a 10. Everything is 10 with her—her nail biting, how she’s always steadily going with her hands.
I love physicality. I love movement very much. I think that’s definitely a piece for me in finding who this person is. My family is more a sports family, and I figure skated for a very long time, so movement and how I relate to movement is very integral to my process.
And how did you come to understand what it might be like for Suzanne to be incarcerated and how that would affect her, especially given her mental state? Did you meet with women in prison, or did you just imagine what it would be like to be in her shoes?
I think it’s an amalgamation of all those things. I used to be a huge fan of Lockup on MSNBC and that certainly has helped with my understanding of the world. I also read Piper Kerman’s book on which the show is based. She was really great at describing some of these people in the prison world and how all these souls sort of come together.
But in terms of the creation of this role, Suzanne, this Crazy Eyes is different from the real-life Crazy Eyes [from the book].
I did use the language in the script to help inform the beginnings of who she is, but my imagination, I let that run wild, and I anchored myself onto her fearlessness. Because this woman was so passionate and lived at a place of 10 always, I felt I couldn’t be afraid to meet her in that space.
I have interviewed actors who have used everything from motorcycle rides to music to get into the right frame of mind for scenes. Do you use music or other means?
I’ve only used music twice. Once in season one, it was the Patsy Cline song "Crazy." It was episode four, and we were outside. It was the screwdriver episode, I believe. I run into Piper out in the yard, and I’m saying, ‘Hey Dandelion, don’t be mad at me because you don’t want to make me angry. It wouldn’t be good if you make me angry.’ I’m forgetting the exact line, but I remember I kept listening to that song before the scene because I was like, ‘This is crazy!’
But, normally, when I’m going to work, I actually will walk for a little bit before and after work, and that usually helps me to, number one, relax my body and put me into a state of rest and also to get meditative. On the walk in, it’s to invite in Suzanne and to just get my body to move, to just open up into that free place where she lives, and then I think, more importantly for me, depending on the weight of the scene, afterwards I usually walk about 20 minutes after work to just put her away. It’s almost like a treasure chest of toys, just to put everything back in the chest and make sure everything’s back in there. I’ll put her away like a doll almost. I finish using my imagination, and I put her back on the shelf.
Do you spend time thinking about scenes and how you are going to play them during some of these walks?
I’ve done my homework already. I know my lines. The walks help with how I want to color and craft the work. During season one, there was the radio broadcast, and Suzanne was listening to Larry say all these things that Piper had said about her. I walked that out and had a conversation with myself about what the cost really was to her and what it would be to me to go all the way there. Then I was ready to do it.
How about rehearsing with others? Do you like to rehearse given your theater background where it is such an important part of the process?
This is the first time I’ve ever been asked that question, and thank you for asking it because I love this question. I live for rehearsal, and I don’t know how TV typically goes for people because this is my first TV show, but we have a rehearsal before we shoot, and we’ll usually go through a scene maybe one or two times, maybe a third depending on how technically difficult it is or how much of it we figured out.
Our cast is a big rehearsal cast. We will take it upon ourselves to walk through scenes on our own in the makeup chair, in the hair chair. After we’ve gotten out of hair and makeup, and we’re in our dressing room, we’ll sit down and do our own little read of the script. We did a lot of that first season as well.
Taylor likes to rehearse, too, and she wants to run a scene and work through it and figure out what’s the story and how are we telling it. We do a lot of that.
In season two, a lot of us were in a lot more group scenes in the ghetto dorm where I live. Myself, Danielle Brooks [Tasha "Taystee" Jefferson] and Samira Wiley [Poussey Washington], both Juilliard girls, and Adrienne Moore [Black Cindy], a New School girl, we would often be in the dressing room, working through scenes to make them as tight as possible.
I cannot say enough how much I love that because I am from the theater, and rehearsal is my favorite part because I feel like that’s when we find the world, and so I just love being a part of a show where it’s encouraged to rehearse.
You play a larger-than-life character, but you fit into the ensemble quite well. Can you talk about how you balance your bigger moments with supporting moments? You have such a large cast, but everyone gets a chance to shine.
I feel like that’s the only way to make a piece successful or strong. Strong, maybe that’s the better word. We recognize as a company that there is a larger story at play, and I personally believe that the show itself does not work without everybody working together towards that thing.
I love ensemble work. I love making pieces and building things together. When the focus is over on Taystee or Nicky [Natasha Lyonne], that’s where we’re supposed to focus, and my job in that moment is to support and listen and be available as they are when it’s my time to speak.
We need to essentially serve the greater good of the piece, and given that this is a piece that has so many stories going, a Charles Dickens way of storytelling, as long as we hold to that ideal, the ideal of the ensemble, our show will continue to be satisfying.