How Uzo Aduba's Mom Helped Prepare Her To Play A Therapist '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.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Uzo Aduba, stars in the HBO series "In Treatment" as a psychotherapist. This season concludes tonight. She won Emmys in both the comedy and drama categories for her performance in the Netflix women's prison series "Orange Is The New Black." She played Suzanne Warren, who was nicknamed Crazy Eyes because of how she widened her big round eyes, reflecting the intensity, instability and unpredictability caused by her mental health problems.
Aduba won a third Emmy for her performance in the FX series "Mrs. America," about the failed fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in the '70s. Aduba portrayed Shirley Chisholm, who in 1968 became the first Black woman elected to Congress, and in 1972 became the first Black person to run in a major party presidential primary. In the NBC live production of "The Wiz," Aduba played Glinda the Good Witch. Aduba is the daughter of Nigerian immigrants who came to America in the late '60s after the Biafran War.
Let's start by talking about "In Treatment." This season is a reboot of HBO's "In Treatment" that ended about a decade ago and starred Gabriel Byrne as the therapist. This season focuses on Aduba's character, Dr. Brooke Taylor. There are four episodes each week, with each of the first three episodes focusing on one session with one of her three patients that the series follows. The fourth episode typically features Dr. Taylor talking with her AA sponsor, who figured out that Taylor was drinking again after years of sobriety and is back with her old boyfriend, who's also a drinker. It's clear that although Dr. Taylor has great insight into her patients' lives and their delusions, she's having trouble seeing how she's deluding herself.
Here's a scene from her second session with her patient, Eladio, played by Anthony Ramos. He's been working as a live-in home health care aide for a wealthy family, taking care of their son Jeremy, who has a disability. Although Jeremy's parents are paying for Eladio's sessions with Dr. Taylor, hoping she can help cure his insomnia, Eladio thinks the family doesn't care about him. But he has no alternative, no place else to go. He's angry with the family and angry with himself and doesn't want to talk about it anymore.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "IN TREATMENT")
ANTHONY RAMOS: (As Eladio) If you want to talk about whatever - right? - from now on, you want to talk about whatever - you want to talk about my mom, my [expletive] ex, my - I'm down. But do me a favor, and let's just put an embargo on this particular topic, OK? With all due respect.
UZO ADUBA: (As Dr. Brooke Taylor) That's a lot of anger, Eladio, a lot of justifiable anger. You have a right to your feelings, all of them, and I hear you. Do you know that I hear you? Look. We're not going to solve white people today. We're not going to solve capitalism today. But we can talk about the situation that stirs these feelings up in you.
GROSS: Uzo Aduba, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'm really going to miss you and your character (laughter).
ADUBA: Oh (laughter). Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Did playing a therapist lead to a lot of self-reflection? Did you start asking yourself questions that she asked her patients?
ADUBA: Oh, yeah, for sure. I think the first thing is, why do people go to therapy? What are you supposed to do in therapy? I think that's a question anybody, myself included, who's ever gone to therapy wonders. You know, what am I initially supposed to be doing here with you? And you realize what you're supposed to be doing is being honest, both with the person in the room but, most important, yourself and what it is you're here to unpack.
GROSS: So you've been in therapy yourself?
GROSS: Was it helpful in playing the character of a psychotherapist?
ADUBA: Oh, definitely. I mean, I certainly was able to tap into what - well, what the room and the structure of the experience is like, having been in therapy. It was interesting, for me, being in Brooke's seat. It really made me empathic to not only my own but to therapists at large - that they do this all day. You know, the weight of that job is a heavy one because I think before, even though I knew that it was a hard job, I think I never really took full stock of what it must mean to have not just me come in for a session but the person before me, the person after me - that they are responsible for helping to hold some of whatever it is that their patient brings into the room that day, along with carrying whatever it is they're holding in their own lives.
GROSS: And it doesn't stop. It's like one person's pain after another person's pain that you have to comprehend and respond to. And that just feels like a lot. I think about that a lot. You know, I've been seeing a therapist for years and find it, like, so valuable. But I often think about, well, gee, what is this like for her to just hear all of us (laughter)?
ADUBA: Absolutely. And, I mean, also, it made me wonder - 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. And it's just a hard job, and it's not an easy one. I have such respect for - deeper - a deepened respect for therapists and their everyday - you know, what they're tasked with, dealing with every day.
GROSS: So my next question is going to relate to your mother. And I want to start, before I ask you the question, by saying I know you lost your mother in November, and I just want to say how sorry I am. So...
ADUBA: Thank you.
GROSS: Yeah. Your mother was from Nigeria, and she was a social worker.
GROSS: How did she feel about therapy? Did she, like, encourage therapy or feel that there was a stigma about it? I don't know what it was like in Nigeria, whether there was much psychotherapy there and how it was regarded.
ADUBA: You know, I don't know how it was regarded growing up for her as a young person before moving to the United States. My mother was a social worker, and she thought therapy was a fine resource. She supported it. She thought it was great. She believed in it. I think probably coming from her professional background, she understood it in a larger way. But my mom also came from a house of people who talked. She grew up in a very progressive home, who really did talk and communicate and engage with each other. So I'm sure that served as a bit of a launching pad for her to be also progressive about therapy for her children.
You know, my mom was a bit of a therapist herself in certain ways, you know, whether it was for her children or nieces and nephews or neighbors and friends. She had a very confiding spirit in her. You know, everybody used to call her the vault because she could - you could tell her something. She's never going to repeat it.
ADUBA: You know, she's never going to repeat it. And it wasn't uncommon to come home and see people, you know, either standing in the driveway with her talking or pulled over in a corner on a couch somewhere talking to her. And you knew they were having something intimate there discussed. And she would never break that trust ever. And, yeah, she was amazing - an amazing, -mazing (ph), -mazing, -mazing place to take solace and comfort.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Uzo Aduba, and she stars in the HBO series "In Treatment." We'll be back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF NAOMI MOON SIEGEL'S "IT'S NOT SAFE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Uzo Aduba. She stars on the reboot of the HBO series "In Treatment" in the role of psychotherapist Dr. Brooke Taylor. She won two Emmys for her performance in "Orange Is The New Black" as Suzanne Warren, aka Crazy Eyes, and won a third Emmy for her portrayal of Shirley Chisholm in the series "Mrs. America."
In your performance on "In Treatment," you have to do a lot of listening 'cause your patients are sharing what's disturbing them; they're sharing their delusions. And you're listening. And you just kind of, like, cock your head a certain way when something strikes you as particularly important that you've just heard. And you know, your eyes register what you're hearing. You said your mother was a good listener. Did you watch her listen to you and, like, think, like, this is what it looks like when someone is really listening?
ADUBA: I didn't necessarily watch her while I was preparing for the part, but what I know from my whole life is I always had her attention, and she was never missing anything. And she would - you know, I can - again, you know, as a kid can see myself going in her room. If you want to talk - Mom, can I talk to you? And immediately, she would pause or mute the television, close whatever she was reading, writing - and give you her full attention - her full attention. I don't want to be distracted. I am listening. And 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. And I think that is the responsibility of the job as a therapist. And my desire when I would be sitting in that chair was to be laser-focused on whatever it was that was being shared with me and that I was never distracted, that you - and I wanted to communicate back to each patient, you have my full attention.
GROSS: In the series, we get to see what you're like as a therapist when you're usually (laughter), like, very calm and very reflective. But we also get to see you in your private life after you...
GROSS: ...Start drinking again, when - you're kind of like a different person.
GROSS: And it's an interesting role for an actor to have 'cause it's almost as if you're playing two parts. But, you know, we can see that as a therapist, you're so perceptive about other people's rationalizations and delusions, but you've been going through a lot. Your father had recently died. The character's father had recently died. And you miss him, but you're also really still angry with him. And you don't really see the things you're hiding from yourself. You don't see your own delusions. And that's where your AA sponsor, Rita, comes in. She realizes after coming back from a trip that you've been drinking again after years of sobriety. She calls you out on it. And I want to play a scene where she's talking to you about drinking again. And Rita is played by Liza Colon-Zayas. She speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "IN TREATMENT")
LIZA COLON-ZAYAS: (As Rita) So when did it start again?
ADUBA: (As Dr. Brooke Taylor) Around when my father died.
COLON-ZAYAS: (As Rita) And did Adam have anything to do with this?
ADUBA: (As Dr. Brooke Taylor) Uh-uh, uh-uh, uh-uh, uh-uh. Don't blame him. I'm a grown-ass woman.
COLON-ZAYAS: (As Rita) Well, why couldn't you call me when you had your head on straight?
ADUBA: (As Dr. Brooke Taylor) My head hasn't been on straight for a while now. And besides, I knew whatever you were going to say wouldn't change my mind.
COLON-ZAYAS: (As Rita) Now, I've talked you down before.
ADUBA: (As Dr. Brooke Taylor) Yeah, well, this isn't before.
COLON-ZAYAS: (As Rita) How are you treating patients like this?
ADUBA: (As Dr. Brooke Taylor) I would never compromise my work.
COLON-ZAYAS: (As Rita) No, I'm not saying that. It's just if it were me...
ADUBA: (As Dr. Brooke Taylor) I know how to hold my patients' pain. I show up for them. They come in here, into this house carrying their fear and despair and anxiety because they have nowhere else to turn. I am here for them.
COLON-ZAYAS: (As Rita) And who holds your pain? Where do you leave your despair - at the bottom of one of these bottles?
ADUBA: (As Dr. Brooke Taylor) I just want to forget it all sometimes. It's not that complicated to understand. Sometimes I want to silence that voice that makes me feel small. Hell, could I do some positive self-talk, some CBT, some meditation? Sure. But sometimes an old fashioned or four just gets me there a little bit faster.
GROSS: That's my guest Uzo Aduba in a scene from "In Treatment."
Do you feel like you really understand how someone can be so perceptive about other people's behavior and motivations and so blind to their own?
ADUBA: Oh, for sure. Absolutely. I mean (laughter), I think they call that life.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. The strange part about the casting is that you're probably most famous for your role as Suzanne Warren, aka Crazy Eyes, in "Orange Is The New Black," where your character had really serious mental health issues.
GROSS: And so it's like, yeah, let's get that person (laughter) to play the therapist.
ADUBA: (Laughter). That's - I thought the same thing. I was like (laughter), well, if that's not a 180, I don't know what is. (Laughter) Just kind of like - what? I was like, did you read my resume?
ADUBA: Have you read it? (Laughter). But yeah, I was - it was exciting, though. That wasn't lost on me, to tell you the honest truth. You know, I was like, wow, this is so interesting, you know, being on the polar opposite, you know, in ways of one story. You know, felt like I had played the funhouse mirror side of mental health and now being on the opposite end with Brooke, Dr. Brooke Taylor providing another set of challenges. But it was great. It was great to have had that experience with Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren, and now coming into this project.
GROSS: Your mother died during the pandemic. Were you able to be with her?
ADUBA: Oh, yes. I was with her the entire time.
GROSS: Was she at home instead of a hospital?
ADUBA: Oh, yes. Yes. She was at home. She came home. And, you know, from diagnosis to when she left us, I was with her the entire time. And when she passed away on November 4, yes, I was with her and thankful that I was.
GROSS: I know so many people who have a loved one who've died during the pandemic either from COVID or from other things. Like, your mother had cancer. I think grieving during the pandemic, when people are relatively isolated from each other, must be just, like, especially hard. Were you able to have any ceremonies, rituals, gatherings that you would have wanted to have?
ADUBA: You know, of course, you know, my mom, so many people loved her so much. So in person, we weren't able to have all the people who we would've wanted to have present, who would've wanted to have been present because of COVID protocols from churches to funeral homes. We did - you know, we are part of the Zoom story when it comes to funeral services. But let me tell you, that Zoom had, like, 200-something people on it.
ADUBA: Yes. My mother was...
GROSS: How did she know so many people?
ADUBA: People loved her. She was beloved. Let me give you an example. At the burial, word had gotten around that my mother had passed. And from a distance - and then they came over afterwards. Two women who my mother had taught as children in Nigeria - because before my mother moved to America, she was a teacher. Two little girls, who were little girls to my - you know what I mean, students of my mom who lived in Maryland drove up to come to the service. And they stood outside the church, because there was a capacity limit, followed the procession to the site and stood there as well - and watched the Zoom from outside the church, came to the burial just to tell us that.
ADUBA: That's how long that history of people were showing up on that Zoom because she was - she was the best thing that ever happened to me, period.
GROSS: Were there things from traditional Nigerian funerals that she wanted you to do for her?
ADUBA: Yes. We have some of - I mean, there's still a process in our culture as far as how you pay one - one pays their respects to their loved one. And we're still in the midst of that process. By year's end, we'll have completed our traditional send-off, ancestor send-off. There's a way that we send off our loved ones to assure that they can be received and make it to the other side to meet our ancestors.
GROSS: Do you find that helpful, to have rituals and a ceremony and a process to send someone you love off, to send them off?
ADUBA: Absolutely, you know? I've never said goodbye to someone this close to me and had such a front row seat to it. I do find it helpful. Especially - you know, there's the Western send off, - which has been - you know, has - there's a catharsis to it. But there's also, you know, I'm also very Nigerian as well. And that piece of it is also very important. It's important to my mom. It's important to our extended family. It's important to each of us to make sure that those traditions, rituals are upheld that have been around longer than - well longer than any of us have. So yes, I think it's important.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Uzo Aduba. And she stars in the HBO series "In Treatment." This season concludes tonight. She also costarred in "Orange Is The New Black" and "Mrs. America." We'll talk more after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF STEFON HARRIS AND BLACKOUT'S "UNTIL")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Uzo Aduba. She stars in the HBO series "In Treatment" as psychotherapist Dr. Brooke Taylor. Aduba won two Emmys for her performance in "Orange Is The New Black" as Suzanne Warren, who was known as Crazy Eyes, and won a third Emmy for her portrayal of Shirley Chisholm in the series "Mrs. America." Aduba is the daughter of Nigerian immigrants and grew up in Medfield, Mass.
I want to ask you about "Orange Is The New Black" since that was really the role that TV viewers got to know you from. And you play Suzanne Warren, who's known by the nickname Crazy Eyes because she has mental health problems. She has no boundaries. She has no understanding of how to interact with other people. And she's impulsive and often out of control and can be scary even when she's expressing her love for you. And I want to play a scene. Your character has been infatuated with one of the other inmates, Piper Chapman. And in this scene from the first season, you're explaining how you're sometimes sent to the psych ward in prison and how you've also been in the SHU, which is the acronym for the solitary housing unit, which is basically solitary confinement. And so Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman speaks first.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK")
TAYLOR SCHILLING: (As Piper) Is psych worse than the SHU?
ADUBA: (As Suzanne) Way worse - scary, old, cold, old. It's real bad. I wouldn't wish it on the worst gremlin.
SCHILLING: (As Piper) Don't they give you a therapist?
ADUBA: (As Suzanne) No. Nope. I'm - they give me medication to make me calm. But that just makes me sleepy. Sometimes when I'm real upset, they tie me down like a balloon so I don't fly away.
SCHILLING: (As Piper) That sounds horrible.
ADUBA: (As Suzanne) Yeah. Nobody comes back from psych except me (laughter). Once you go to psych, you get lost in psych. It's like that place with the three corners in the ocean.
SCHILLING: (As Piper) The Bermuda Triangle.
ADUBA: (As Suzanne) We should play Charades sometime, Dandelion. We'd make great partners - not wives, just partners. Can I ask you one more question?
SCHILLING: (As Piper) Yeah, of course.
ADUBA: (As Suzanne) How come everyone calls me Crazy Eyes?
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Uzo Aduba, what was your take on the character? And what did you model her on?
ADUBA: My take on the character was that she was just looking for love in all the wrong places.
GROSS: And in all the wrong ways (laughter).
ADUBA: 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 in my head of, like, a kid with a sledgehammer and (laughter), like, this sort of - you know, unintentionally destructive, you know? 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.
GROSS: How much did you think about your eyes in the road, because your eyes do have to get really big and wild-looking?
ADUBA: I didn't think about that, to be honest with you. I just let - I knew that - 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, you know? I thought to myself, what - how does she move through life? And what I was really focused on was, there is no filter with this person, you know? This woman has zero filter. She does not hide her reaction. She does not, you know, filter her emotions. What you see is what she - exactly she is feeling and thinking. She has no poker face, you know? And even if she thinks she has a poker face, that poker face tells on her every time, you know? That was where I really concentrated my energy. And whatever came out of that is what came out of it.
GROSS: So the series was set in a women's prison. And you told Stephen Colbert that you didn't go to a women's prison to do the research. But you had been to a Scared Straight program (laughter)...
GROSS: ...When you were in school. And what did they teach you in that?
ADUBA: When we...
GROSS: How did they scare you? What did they do to make you really terrified, like, oh, no, if I do this, they're going to take me to prison? And...
ADUBA: Yeah. When I was in middle school, high school, we went to a county jail. And it - I mean, Scared Straight worked on me, DARE worked on me. All these programs worked on me. (Laughter) Like, they were like - I was the audience they were speaking to. These things worked for me. I just remember the - it was the coldness of the - not necessarily temperature wise, but the energy and feeling and the rigidity of it all. And I just remember that you could smell the lack of freedom in there from the yellow line that you have to follow to the - you know, the prison jumpsuits you have to wear, to the being shackled, seeing people shackled. And then, honestly, it was the testimonies of the inmates there, you know, that really spoke to me more than anything, listening to them speak about their lives and how a moment such as this was having such a huge impact on it based on one choice. It worked. It worked for me.
GROSS: Yeah. I mean, you say it worked for you. But do you think you were a kid who was ever on the verge of getting into trouble?
ADUBA: No. I wasn't. No. That was the thing that was so funny about the whole thing. I didn't - I wasn't in the program because I was part of, like, a troubled core of children or anything like this - not that that makes it any better. I thought it was so interesting because our whole school went to Scared Straight (laughter). You just have to Google my hometown to know that it was an odd thing that we were all going to but, nonetheless, important just the same. But no, I didn't need to be. I was definitely - you know, I had an imagination. I was a precocious child when I was really, really little. But by the time I got to the age of this, no. I was not that kid.
GROSS: So you got the part in "Orange Is The New Black" about 45 minutes after you decided to quit acting because things weren't going well. So what was your Plan B when you were going to quit?
ADUBA: Yeah. My plan B was to become a lawyer. (Laughter) That was my plan B.
GROSS: That was going to take a long time.
ADUBA: I had time, you know? It was something that I thought I was going to do before I even got to - got into the arts. Originally, when I started, you know, thinking about college and the future, I thought I was going to go to school and study IR - international relations - and go into - or political science - and go into law, because I loved those things as well. And when I decided that I was going to quit acting that day, that was what I defaulted to. I think my brain went to, you made the wrong choice all the way back then in high school. You should've gone - you were supposed to be a lawyer and not chase this, you know, silly pipe dream. And so since I knew that was something else that I loved and was passionate about, I said, that's where I'm going to steer the - reroute the ship and go back to what I was meant to do, or what I thought I was meant to do.
GROSS: Well, that must have been a big switch to realize, no, I was right (laughter). I made the right choice. I got a part.
ADUBA: Definitely. I mean, definitely. It was definitely mind-blowing to - you know, it made me think - I remember when I got the job - think of that line, you know, "The Sopranos" - excuse me, "The Godfather." It's like, just when I thought I was out, (laughter) they pull me back in.
GROSS: Had you already told people that you were quitting and then have to call them and say, changed my mind (laughter)?
ADUBA: No. But I had - you know what? Let me tell you, I had invited my sister over for sushi and wine that night because I was having a little - I was going to have a little sushi and wine, you know, pity party for myself. And I told my sister, Chi-Chi (ph), to come over. And she was going to be the first person I was going to tell. It was a Friday. And I said, I'm going to wait to tell my agent and manager until that Monday. And she said, OK. Yes. I'll come over. And between the time of that conversation and her coming over, I found out that I got the job. And it wound up being a celebration instead.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Uzo Aduba. She stars in the HBO series "In Treatment." The final episode of this season is tonight. We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JAY-Z SONG, "DECEMBER 4TH")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Uzo Aduba. She stars in the reboot of the HBO series "In Treatment" in the role of psychotherapist Dr. Brooke Taylor. She won two Emmys for her performance in "Orange Is The New Black" as Suzanne Warren - aka Crazy Eyes - and won a third Emmy for her portrayal of Shirley Chisholm in the series "Mrs. America."
So you were an athlete when you were growing up. You were a figure skater, competitive figure skater. You ran track. What was your relationship to your body then? Did you feel like it was - that it was really strong and capable and could do things other bodies couldn't?
ADUBA: I think it was a mix. I knew and felt that my body was strong and capable. And I thought it was beautiful and all of this. But remembering, also, the time that we're talking about, I don't think those were always things that were celebrated, necessarily, for girls. And so what you think is beautiful often - and is strong and is an attribute - you know, a strong, beautiful characteristic, I should say - it starts to become challenged when that's not something that's being - when something different is being lifted up. Let me say it that way.
GROSS: So we're talking about the '80s and '90s here. And so people did think, like, you're not feminine enough?
ADUBA: Oh, yeah. Not feminine enough. Not slim enough, fair enough. Not - too muscular. Not beautiful enough. I mean, you name it (laughter).
GROSS: And how did being Black figure into the not beautiful enough?
ADUBA: Oh, my goodness. Well, I think, certainly, you know, I don't hold any proximity whatsoever to Eurocentric beauty at all. So...
GROSS: But did you grow up in a community with a lot of white people?
ADUBA: Yes. I grew up - yes, very much so. My family was, maybe, like, one - I think maybe, like, one of three Black families by the time I started school in our hometown. I think, you know, there were five Black kids in my school. I was related to three of them, you know? Like, very small. And, yeah, you know, the idea - and ideal beauty, not just, you know, what I'm observing, but told - spoken on was blond hair, blue eyes or brown hair, brown eyes. And I have neither. So then you start to think, oh, OK. Then I guess the antithesis of that must be ugly.
GROSS: Did you feel ugly?
ADUBA: At times, yeah. I did. I did not think I was. But I started to feel like I must be.
GROSS: Was your mother helpful in helping you overcome that?
ADUBA: Yes, later down the road. I think, you know, things that - like, for example, I used to hate my gap as a kid.
GROSS: In your front teeth?
ADUBA: Yes, in my front teeth. I have a gap. And I would beg, beg, beg for braces because everybody had braces. Everybody was fixing their horrible teeth, you know, whatever that means. And my mom would - she was just like, no. Absolutely not. Absolutely not. And, you know, finally, she sat me down. I was begging, begging. She said, what you have there is Anyaoku gap, Uzo. 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. It's like - we don't live in like...
ADUBA: You know? And she would impress those kind of things on me. And I - 'cause I wouldn't smile in pictures, you know? I would - just like, I'd be laughing. But then, like, as soon as we would take a picture, I'd close - smile with my mouth closed. And my mom would be like, open your mouth - smile, smile. You have such a beautiful smile. And I never would. And it wasn't until my senior year of high school - I was doing my yearbook pictures the summer before senior year, you know, when you get your senior yearbook pictures. They're, like, the fancy ones, you know, like special.
So we're in the library taking our pictures, and the photographer's talking to me and, you know, he's chatting me up. And we're talking, and I'm laughing. And then as soon as he points the camera, I close my mouth, and I'm not smiling. And he says to me, finally, he's like, how come you're not smiling in pictures? And I was like, I don't know. I don't like my smile. And he was like, why not? And I was like, I don't like my gap. And then he paused for a minute. And he says, you know, I think you have a beautiful smile. And I remember thinking to myself, like, what? You know, like, I was just, like, kind of blown away. And I - you know, even though my mom has said this for thousands of years at this point - and by the way, she always hates when I tell - hated when I tell this story because she was like, so you listen to that man, but you do listen to me? You know, like...
ADUBA: And - but it stuck with me. And I didn't necessarily smile that day, Terry, in the picture. But I did end up smiling the rest of that year and so - and have since in photographs, you know, all my - I made a point. I was like - every time I would take a picture senior year, I'd say I have a beautiful smile and do a big cheese smile. And yeah, it made an impact. And she impacted my life in ways because she had been reinforced. 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 it - 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 of - for who I am and has certainly made me feel very strongly in just myself and my feet, walk in my body. You know, it's not perfect, but walk in with a confidence of no, no, no, I know who I am.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Uzo Aduba. She stars in the HBO series "In Treatment." The final episode of this season is tonight. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF GABRIEL MERVINE'S "PEOPLE")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Uzo Aduba. She stars in the reboot of the HBO series "In Treatment" in the role of psychotherapist Dr. Brooke Taylor. She won two Emmys for her performance in "Orange Is The New Black" as Suzanne Warren, who was nicknamed Crazy Eyes, and won a third Emmy for her portrayal of Shirley Chisholm in the series "Mrs. America."
How much more challenging did it seem an acting career was going to be because you were a Black woman?
ADUBA: I think it felt challenging because I was a Black woman and also because I was a dark-skinned Black woman, because it just - I - 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.
GROSS: What about your name? Do you think that created preconceptions?
ADUBA: Sure. I'm (laughter) - probably, probably. I think my name probably did. But it's my name. I'm very proud of that name. I was...
GROSS: Did anyone ever tell you to change it?
GROSS: Anyone in show business?
ADUBA: Nobody in show - no one in show business ever told me to change it. I was told or asked more than once to close my gap. Nobody ever asked...
GROSS: Did you say, talk to my mother? (Laughter).
ADUBA: Yeah, exactly (laughter). Exactly. I said, that's not going anywhere. But yeah, my name - I think at that point in my life when I - I had wrestling with my name when I was young, like in primary age. But by the time I got to - it never even occurred to me. And this is what I mean foundation-building because the beautiful thing about the lessons we're taught as children, they can either set in as children, or they can set in in adulthood. And a lot - a good measure of them had set in without my knowing in my adulthood that - to the point it had never even occurred to me in a real way to consider changing my name.
GROSS: Do names have a special significance in Nigerian culture?
ADUBA: Yes, absolutely. So naming in my culture will tell you more almost about the parent of the child than the child themselves 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 means - my middle name, it means nothing is more important than your sisters. And my last name means the mediator.
GROSS: Huh. Is that a role you feel like you've ever played?
ADUBA: A mediator?
ADUBA: Absolutely. As a middle child, absolutely.
GROSS: The road is good - did your parents name you that because they found a road, so to speak, to safety after the war?
ADUBA: Yeah. So my actual father's name is also similar, so there's that in the family. But my mom loved it and put that name on me because she had had polio as a child. She had been through the Biafran civil war. She had been married once before, and her first husband had passed away when she was still a very young woman with two children. And then she - sometime later, she met my father. They got married, and they had me. And the name Uzoamaka, or the road is good, it's a name that means, you know, that someone has been through something, but it was worth it.
GROSS: That has wonderful meaning.
ADUBA: Right? Yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. So do you feel like you're entering a new stage of life now? I mean, things are starting to open up again. And I know you're still grieving for your mother, but that's also a new chapter of your life that you've just begun - life without your mother. So do you feel like you're kind of emerging into a new chapter of your life?
ADUBA: I do. I feel like I'm emerging into a new chapter of my life, you know? What my mother left me, if we believe in these sort of things, is 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. She was always in my corner. I talked to my mom every day in - whether 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.
GROSS: Well, I wish you all good things, and it's been such a pleasure to talk with you. I really want to thank you.
ADUBA: Thank you. It's been wonderful.
GROSS: Uzo Aduba stars in the HBO series "In Treatment." The final episode is tonight.
(SOUNDBITE OF TODD GARFINKLE'S "GARDEN")
GROSS: Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, an inside look at the Nixon White House in a critical period of the Watergate scandal. Our guest will be historian Michael Dobbs, who relies on the most recently released tape recordings to chronicle the drama as Nixon aides turned on each other and eventually the president. Dobbs is the author of the new book "King Richard." I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Kayla Lattimore and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF TODD GARFINKLE'S "GARDEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.