Last summer, many, many TV lovers were fixating on Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black,” at least when they weren’t fixating on “Breaking Bad.”
The women’s-prison series beguiled, largely because it was so unlike the rest of TV, with its predominantly female and extremely diverse cast. Creator Jenji Kohan of “Weeds,” who adapted the series from Piper Kerman’s book, had put together a sprawling ensemble of the kinds of TV characters not typically featured and explored. By the end of the year, the drama-with-laughs had become Netflix’s most-watched original series, with more viewers than “House of Cards.”
The jewels in this Netflix crown were the distinctly drawn characters, all of them beautifully faceted and layered with unexpected qualities. As the season progressed, we got to see them as so much more than their crimes and their bright orange uniforms. With Netflix set to drop season 2 in its entirety on June 6, fans are eager to learn even more about each one of them — the WASPy Piper (Taylor Schilling), the wry Nicky (Natasha Lyonne), the compassionate Sophia (Laverne Cox), and the former kitchen overseer and queen bee, Red (Kate Mulgrew).
Among the most interesting and complex characters on “Orange” is Suzanne, also known as Crazy Eyes, also known as the prisoner with the crush on Piper who famously marked her territory by peeing on Piper’s floor. Played by Uzo Aduba, who is originally from Massachusetts, Crazy Eyes is a fascinating enigma. She’s threatening and persistent, with her aggressive pursuit of Piper, but then she’s shy and childlike, writing poetry and reciting Shakespeare and hitting herself on the head when she’s ruffled. Ultimately, like many of the characters, she is so much more than she might have seemed at the start.
On the phone from New York, Aduba says she is delighted to be talking to her former hometown paper; her first words are “Go Boston, go Sox!” She grew up in Medfield, which she calls “a very quiet and sleepy town where you know all of your neighbors,” and she recalls being involved in high school theater and the New England Conservatory’s Youth Chorale as a kid. She and Schilling, who grew up in West Roxbury and Wayland, didn’t cross paths when they were young, but they’ve discovered they have friends in common. “Now we hang out with these two friends of ours who we know from separate worlds,” she says.
Naturally, with the success of “Orange,” Aduba’s life has changed, even while much of it hasn’t. Before “Orange Is the New Black,” she’d mostly done theater work, notably in the ensemble of the 2011 Broadway revival of “Godspell.” “I’d never had the experience of people knowing who you are before you know who they are, walking down the street or in a restaurant,” she says. “My life has changed in terms of now telling a story through a lens that is on someone’s television in someone’s home.”
But her personal life remains the same, she says. “To my family and my friends, I’m just Uzo. I love that. I still have to wash the dishes when it’s my turn.” She says she is not in a relationship right now — “I’m single and looking to mingle,” as she puts it.
‘We really get into the trenches of what this prison world is, now that everyone, viewers included, has become acquainted with it.’
Aduba says that working on such a female-centric series has been a “magnificent” experience. “The narrative that women cannot coexist or work together,” she says, “I no longer buy it, because I’m presently working in an environment where women do work well together. Also, it has been really awesome being exposed to women who are calling the shots and doing an excellent job with their talents.”
Viewers will discover new sides of Crazy Eyes this season, including some of her history via the show’s regular flashbacks. “The season gets even deeper into the belly of the beast,” she says. “We go further, not just with Suzanne but with every character and with the story itself. We really get into the trenches of what this prison world is, now that everyone, viewers included, has become acquainted with it. This season feels next-level to me.”
Aduba isn’t sharing spoilers, but says she sees the overall theme of the season’s 13 episodes as “relationships.”
For viewers, one of the great surprises about Crazy Eyes last season was the discovery that her parents were an older white couple. “I was surprised, too,” Aduba says, “not that they were white but that they were these academic-type personalities with this suburban kind of color to them. But then I thought it all made sense of why Suzanne might be attracted to someone like Piper, why she goes from Shakespeare to her own poetry, always waxing philosophically.”
The secret to Crazy Eyes, from Aduba’s perspective, is love. “That’s really all she’s searching for, for me. She wants to love, to give it, to get it, and will do anything for it.”