In the terrific Netflix drama "Orange Is the New Black," Crazy Eyes more than lived up to her name.
In early episodes of the show's first season, her eyes often displayed an almost bewildering intensity. It wasn't always easy to figure out what she was thinking, but you always knew she was thinking those thoughts with ferocious commitment and energy.
If you haven't seen the show yet -- and trust me, you really should -- it's not giving away too much to reveal that Crazy Eyes, whose given name is Suzanne, tried hard to seduce new inmate Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) when she first arrived at the Litchfield Correctional Facility. When Piper turned her fellow inmate down, well, let's just say say Crazy Eyes didn't take it well.
In a lesser drama, Suzanne would have remained a wild card -- a comic-relief character who'd occasionally appear in Piper's orbit to display menacing or slightly clueless behavior. But as I wrote recently, the raucous, irreverent and moving "Orange Is the New Black" didn't take long to reveal that it was just as interested in at least a dozen other inmates. Piper's story was important to Season 1's narrative arc, but it was just one of many threads. One of many things that made "Orange's" debut season stand out was its commitment to showing the complexities, virtues and vulnerabilities of a whole constellation of women, Suzanne included.
Thus when Suzanne's feelings were hurt by Piper late in the season, that pain resonated. Suzanne was never just a punchline -- Uzo Aduba's assured and committed performance assured that -- and it didn't take long for the inmate to became someone you very much wanted to root for. I agree with many things Myles McNutt said in a perceptive recent essay on the show, especially this statement: "I found myself unwilling to use the name 'Crazy Eyes' in writing about the character in later episodes."
The cast for the second season of "Orange Is the New Black" may be in some flux -- there was a report that Laura Prepon is not returning as inmate Alex Vause, but Netflix has denied that. One piece of undisputed good news is that Aduba is returning as a series regular for Season 2, and I very much hope we see her character and backstory developed even more thoroughly in Season 2.
In the interview below (which has been edited and condensed), I talked to her about Suzanne's eyes, the character's flirting techniques, working with Jodie Foster and that infamous peeing scene.
Have you encountered a lot of reactions from fans since the show debuted?
It's only just started in my real life, because I was in the mountains [at the Sundance Theater Lab] when the show premiered and immediately after. I saw it on my social media at first -- I saw my Twitter changing overnight, and then my Facebook friend requests were coming much more heavily, and I was like, "Wow, I wonder what this is?" And then we were seeing that people were really responding to the show, which makes all of us feel great.
I've been home almost two weeks, and last weekend was my first time really out and about in the city, and I started to feel it then. People were stopping me on the street to say, "Oh my God, it's Crazy Eyes!" Which is kind of a funny thing to have people shout at you on the street. [laughs] But it's been amazing. People really like the show -- they get it. They're enjoying the humor, they're enjoying the harder moments.
Can you talk about getting the role and what you originally thought the potential for the character might be?
I auditioned for the show back in late July or early August of last year. [After concentrating more on theater for some time,] I had been auditioning that summer for more television and film. I'd read a lot of scripts and I remember reading "Orange Is the New Black," and it was at the head of the pack. I remember thinking, "Wow, that is really good, I would love to be a part of that."
I went in and auditioned for another part, and my representatives called me about a month later and they were like, "Hi, we have some really good news. You remember that audition you went on for 'Orange Is the New Black'? You didn't get it." I go, "So… okay, what's the good news?" They said they wanted to offer me another part, Crazy Eyes.
I was like, "What in my audition would make someone think I'd be right for a part called Crazy Eyes?" But to be honest, when I got the script for it, it felt like the right fit. I was excited by the challenge of Suzanne and what she had to accomplish and by her story throughout the progression of the show.
With Suzanne, I just wanted to tell a love story, because from her vantage point, that's the story she's trying to tell. From the outside, maybe she appears a little more eccentric than some of the others in the prison, but she is just truly trying to woo, to romance, to enamor Piper, so I focused on that.
Can I ask what other character you originally auditioned for?
You can ask [laughs], but unfortunately I feel bad talking about it.
I understand. I just think it's interesting that they sensed something from you in that audition and thought you'd be able to embody all the different qualities that Suzanne/Crazy Eyes had.
Truly, every day I thank ["Orange Is the New Black" creator Jenji Kohan] for it. She is a phenomenon, just in terms of her ability to write and gather people together to tell great stories. I'm just so grateful that in watching my tape, she was able to see something in me and made me part of this experience.
I realized as the season developed that I didn't quite realize how ambitious it was going to be. Some people started out a little more broadly sketched, but almost everyone got developed as a human being with a complicated backstory. But did it ever concern you in the early going that your character might be limited in some way?
You know, it never really was a fear of mine. I knew I was in good hands. I remember walking away from the second episode thinking, "We are in the hands of writers who are about to turn our ideas of what we think about this culture, this world, on its head."
Without being preachy, because it's not a preachy show, there's a discussion people can have about the show. When it comes to inmates, we have boiled them down to just the few things we know about them -- their crime, their current life situation, their identification number. But the reality is they were something before they were their crime. I was never worried, because whatever label there was -- whether we call this person Crazy Eyes or we call this person a thief -- [the show wanted to reveal that] these people are more than just the label we place on them.
Was it interesting or enjoyable to be in a production that is predominantly female?
It was. I've been in smaller productions with a lot of women, but I had never been in a project with so many women, and I've never been in a project with so many different women. Shape, race, style of acting -- it was, across the board, such a beautiful thing to be a part of. I'd never had the experience of being a part of a project with so many women and so many different human stories. Yes, they happen to be women's stories, some of them, but they're really just human stories. They were so rich and diverse, [these weren't] stock characters. They were so complicated.
What was it like to work with the show's directors, including Jodie Foster?
All of our directors were fantastic, they really were amazing human beings to work with and they all had very different styles. Michael Trim, who was our most frequent director, I cannot say enough good things about him, in terms of creating a set that was so comfortable and his ability to get the best work out of actors. We also had [Constantine Makris], he was the coolest, awesomest director, just so passionate and always giving you so much energy.
Jodie Foster probably gave me one of the best acting notes that I still carry with me. We were doing a scene on the track, and she said, "Try to find the camera." We finished that take, and she said, "Sometimes you have to find the camera, and then sometimes you let the camera find you." I felt like that was such a window into how the telling of the story is done. She was so kind and very generous from her heart.
Can you talk a little bit about the process of becoming Crazy Eyes, or how you would approach those scenes in which she was so intense? Was it difficult to tap into?
[In the second episode, in which she first appears,] there was this really lovely footnote in the script. Marco Ramirez had written this stage direction about Crazy Eyes, something like, "She has a childlike stare, except children aren't scary." [laughs] That was such an informative statement. I feel like it was saying so much about the two polarities that exist within Suzanne: There's an innocence and a vulnerability, but also there's this intensity.
I thought, "Well, what if it wasn't so much that she's angry or kind of this base-level person? What if she thinks she's a really great flirt?" She thinks she's really good at picking up women. Obviously she's not that good at it, but you can kind of go from there. She's just off, just a little bit off.
I think that describes it perfectly, because there's this gap between her perception of what she's doing and other people's perception of what she's doing. In her mind, she's like, "I'm really hitting it off with this woman!"
Absolutely. She's just a click off. From her end, she thinks she's winning. She's getting closer to Piper. She's writing poems, she thinks she's doing everything right to woo someone. But she's just a click off.
She also seems to have this impulse control issue, which is also kind of childlike. The scene where she pees on the floor -- I kind of read that, in some ways, as a similar situation to a child not being able to control an intense emotion and trying to find a way to express it. Is that how you read the scene?
I can see that layer in there. I was also thinking, "We're in a system where everything is so primal." [The writer] Sian Heder had done her research, and this actually does happen in prison culture. It made sense to me because we're living in this primal environment, and these women have been stripped of so much that they can't be anything, to a certain degree, but sort of animalistic. When you've been reduced to that animalistic state, you will do what animals do -- they mark their territory.
She just had a confrontation in the kitchen with someone who tried to step on her territory [in a culture where everyone's constantly defending their territory]. Everybody has their place. There's so little that you have, that you want to hold on to it. She wasn't about to allow either Alex to step into what [Suzanne] had claimed as her own or to let Piper step out of what she had claimed.