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How Uzo Aduba's Mom Helped Prepare Her To Play A Therapist 'In Treatment'

Uzo Aduba plays the therapist in the new season of the HBO series <em>In Treatment. </em>
Uzo Aduba plays the therapist in the new season of the HBO series In Treatment.

After winning two Emmys for playing Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren on Orange Is the New Black, Uzo Aduba says her current role as a psychotherapist in HBO's reboot of its In Treatment series is an exciting change.

"If that's not a 180, I don't know what is!" Aduba says of the new role. Playing "Crazy Eyes" felt like "the funhouse mirror side of mental health," she explains. And Dr. Brooke Taylor is "on the opposite end."

Aduba says that her depiction of Dr. Taylor is inspired in part by her late mother, who was a great listener.

"She would pause or mute the television, close whatever she was reading, writing and give you her full attention," Aduba says. "It's such a powerful thing, because you know that someone has zeroed in on you and is giving you all of themselves in what you're wanting to share."

Aduba also drew on her own experiences in therapy for the role. She says playing Dr. Taylor made her more empathetic toward her own therapist — and toward therapists in general.

"The weight of that job is a heavy one," she says. "We don't know what they're going through in their own lives and how much of whatever it is that you're bringing into the room echoes what they're going through. ... I have such a deepened respect for therapists, and their every day, what they're tasked with dealing with every day."

Interview highlights

On how she envisioned Suzanne on Orange Is the New Black

My take on the character was that she was just looking for love in all the wrong places and in all the wrong ways. She actually was born of my imagination. It was a line in the script that described her as something like "innocent, like a child, except children aren't scary." And I remember it just popped an image [into] my head of like a kid with a sledgehammer, like this sort of unintentionally destructive [person]. But I thought she was just so honest, so loving, and she just saw the world differently than we did. That was always how I just approached her.

On why she didn't think about her eyes when she's played "Crazy Eyes"

I didn't think about it because I knew already it's built into her name. Her character's name is "Crazy Eyes," so I don't need to do anything to make them more crazy. I thought to myself: How does she move through life? What I was really focused on was there is no filter with this person. This woman has zero filter. She does not hide her reaction. She does not filter her emotions. What you see is what exactly she is feeling and thinking. She has no poker face and even if she thinks she has a poker face, that poker face tells on her every time.

On learning to accept and love the gap in her teeth

I used to hate my gap as a kid, in front teeth ... and I would beg, beg, beg for braces because everybody had braces. Everybody was fixing their "horrible teeth," whatever that means. And my mom, she was just like, "No, absolutely not." ... She said, "Don't you know that in Nigeria and throughout Africa, a gap is a sign of beauty? Why would you want to close it?" And I was like, "Sure, but we live in America." ...

She was really insistent, my mom, in making sure that we saw ourselves for who we actually are versus what the world might want to tell us we are. And it was hugely powerful and had a great deal of effect on my life. And I think, maybe not as strongly in my younger years, but I think it has absolutely cemented in me my identity, what I will and will not allow as the definition for who I am, and has certainly made me feel very strongly in just myself, in my feet, [to] walk in my body — it's not perfect, but [to] walk in with a confidence of, "No, no, no. I know who I am."

On facing colorism in Hollywood

I think it felt challenging because I was a Black woman and also because I was a dark-skinned Black woman, because those roles didn't exist in a wide range, or they kind of felt always relegated to the background, almost like an afterthought. And so I knew that it was going to be very difficult. I think I knew for a fact that it was going to be more noes than yeses. I think I knew that for whatever reason, things beyond my control, meaning how I look, were going to determine what I was going to be allowed to do.

On the importance of her name in Nigerian culture

My full name is Uzoamaka Nwanneka Aduba, but the first name Uzoamaka, it means 'the road is good.'

Naming in my culture will tell you more about the parent of the child than the child themself and also what is being spoken onto the child. So my full name is Uzoamaka Nwanneka Aduba, but the first name Uzoamaka, it means "the road is good." My second name, my middle name, it means "nothing is more important than your sisters," and my last name means "the mediator."

On facing a new chapter since her mother's death last year

I feel like I'm emerging into a new chapter of my life. When my mother left me — if we believe in these sort of things — she came to me in my dream a week later and she said to me, just like this, "Uzo, you are settled." And it gave me such a peace and a calm that I could continue without her, because I never had [been without her]. She was always in my corner. I talked to my mom every day, whether [by] email, text, phone. And I know that those lessons, those teachings that she placed inside of me have readied me for this next phase of my life.

Lauren Krenzel and Joel Wolfram produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.