Forty-five minutes after Uzo Aduba declared she was done with acting for good, following what she perceived to be the last in a string of disastrous auditions, she landed the part that would not only make her famous, but would also win her two Emmy Awards: Suzanne on Orange Is The New Black. The New York stage actor had been struggling to find parts in Hollywood—“I hadn’t seen anybody like myself in that space,” she says—but her unforgettable portrayal of Suzanne finally opened some doors.
Coincidentally, Aduba’s next major role would be with another predominantly female cast. In the FX On Hulu miniseries Mrs. America she portrays Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress and the first Black major-party candidate to run for president. The performance earned her yet another Emmy nomination, for Best Supporting Actress In A Limited Series Or Movie (alongside castmates Cate Blanchett, Tracey Ullman, and Margo Martindale). The A.V. Club got to speak with Aduba only a few days after the announcement that Kamala Harris was chosen as the Democratic vice presidential nominee, so the conversation focused on the important political trails Chisholm blazed decades ago.
The A.V. Club: Congratulations on yet another Emmy nomination. If you win, that would make three before the age of 40.
Uzo Aduba: Wow, yeah. That just sounded crazy. That made me feel… nervous with laughter, I guess!
AVC: It’s especially exciting to talk to you this week with the Kamala Harris vice presidential nomination, since you just portrayed Shirley Chisholm. What are your thoughts on that?
UA: I think it’s great, you know? I put on my IG story early the morning after—a picture of Shirley saying, “The first,” and then swipe, and it was Kamala, and saying, “Not the last.”
It felt great. It feels like a step in the right direction, well earned. I’m just glad that the story hasn’t ended with her, meaning Shirley. That it continues. Because it’s big. Like, Mrs. Obama on her Instagram, she did a slide on her page of her with these two little brown girls, and then you swipe and you see a picture of Kamala when she’s a baby with her mom. And you just realize these little brown girls have an image of possibility. Before now, that just never existed in their life tangibly. And that’s not just for those little brown girls. That’s for the little white boys, those little white girls, those little Asian boys, little Asian girls—everybody. Little Latinx boys and girls. Everyone can see and dream differently about what is possible.
AVC: And Shirley Chisholm really started that, right? She was a nursery school teacher who wound up being the first Black woman in the presidential arena. How much research did you do going into Mrs. America?
UA: Quite a bit. I’ll start with the facts, like a little bit of trivia. I had bought a home maybe… three years before I worked on Mrs. America, and it’s actually in her district. I was a fan of hers beforehand. I had read the book—right when I first moved to New York—called The African-American Century, which chronicled 1900 to 1999 and iconic figures, monumental figures, from each of those years’ decades. There was a section that had been devoted entirely to her. I didn’t know what she did until I read that, and then I was like, “Oh, my goodness. This woman is incredible. What a force.” So that’s when the beginning of my love for her started.
Then I moved to Bed-Stuy when I bought my house, and I was so stoked because Shirley Chisholm Post Office was right there. Her name is everywhere. [Laughs]. Like, Shirley Chisholm Daycare. I was like, “Oh, my god! I can’t believe I bought this house in Shirley Chisholm’s district.” So excited.
So I already had that in my bloodstream. It started there, really. The research started with my own neighborhood in the sense of why she went from being a nursery school teacher to Congress. This is the area, this is the people that she was there every day fighting for, this community. These neighborhoods that have long-since been abandoned, looked after, cared for, people living in these areas have not received any attention or build-up. It started there.
I guess it’s helpful to contextualize, then, the books I was reading of hers, whether it was The Good Fight, her book, or the documentary I had watched of her, Unbought & Unbossed, which is an excellent capturing of her life. And it helped me to really understand the why of her getting into politics. The end of that doc really explains the why of the story I wanted to tell—when she collapses into her hands in this documentary after releasing her delegates, and she’s just weeping. And I was fascinated by that. That Shirley Chisholm—that woman right there—is who I want to know and tell, whose story I want to tell more of. Because I’m seeing the real person right now, and I’m really also seeing her put down the weight of what she’s been carrying.
The other part of her that became really fascinating to me was seeing, when you’re reading about her policies, she comes in her freshman year to Congress, and is assigned to the agricultural committee. Puts up a whole fight and stink of “What business do I have being at the agricultural committee, as a congresswoman from Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. How do I serve here?” In 1968, the same year in which Martin Luther King has been assassinated. We’re talking standing on the heels of the Civil Rights Movement, Jim Crow South, Civil Rights Voting Act, all this stuff—this woman goes and runs for Congress, and then four years later, runs for president. It was clear to me that the view she held of herself, the definition she had for herself, was not in line with the limited definition that the world had for her. And that became interesting to me to explore and tell that story because I know what that feels like. I know what that feels like for people to have a definition or an idea of who you are that is nowhere near the idea you have for yourself. And that takes a pretty, pretty big amount of strength, you know what I mean? Especially when you’re talking about someone doing this 50-plus years ago.
AVC: That moment with the delegates is such a heartbreaking moment in the series. She wasn’t going to win the nomination, but it still killed her to give those delegates up, especially when the other women like Bella Abzug were encouraging her to give up her campaign and get behind McGovern. What is that line between results and compromise?
UA: What is that line between the work and compromise? And I think she believed she had, at the very least, as equal qualification and experience and ability to lead as McGovern. And she should have been supported by those people—by her tribe. The time, I think, maybe blinded those women from seeing her—the fullness of that being possible within a woman. But I actually don’t think that’s necessarily time, because we’ve had the same conversation during this past primary. Electability—the past election, even. The electability of a woman, and then to layer that with being a Black woman.
It provoked a lot of conversation, Mrs. America—the conversation of intersectionality. And when it came down to the time to make choices, unfortunately—even if if the best choice was Shirley, who was aligned with the Women’s Caucus’, Black Caucus’ values, wants, and needs—they were blindspotting there, in terms of intersectionality. The ability to hold the confidence in believing that a woman of color could achieve those things, ultimately tripped them up in going all the way. And it’s not like it bred the results—it’s not like we bet on McGovern and then McGovern won. He still didn’t even win. Not only did you escape your values, compromise your values, you didn’t even bet on a winning horse. You didn’t get the thing that you wanted in the end.
AVC: It’s so frustrating that we’ve had so few women on that ballot, and we still have so much progress left ahead of us.
UA: In the history of this country, the full history, not one time has a woman held either position. It’s not like we haven’t had it in 100 years. We haven’t had it in 50. Never. It has never occurred in this country that considers itself the most great, the most equal, the leader of the free world. Whatever superlative we’ve attached to ourselves. So what does that say about us? That are we who we say we are?
AVC: You have done a lot of theater work, and you were so memorable as Suzanne on Orange Is The New Black. For Shirley Chisholm, though, to portray a person who actually existed, like the scene where you’re doing her speech, and it’s so moving, were you watching video of that speech? Or was that a lot of your own interpretation? How does that work when you’re creating that kind of character?
UA: I listened to a lot of her speeches. And the thing that seemed common in her delivery were two things. She very much borrowed from the preacher—the pulpit. She was comfortable at the pulpit. And the way, when you go to church, and you see that slow build. It starts slow, it starts quieter, and it finds that momentum. And then when it finds that voice, it takes off. So that was something I knew for sure that was trademark Shirley.
Another thing that she was really adept at was she had really long phrasing. Like she would start a sentence, and this sentence would be the longest winding thought that she would take all the way up to the mountaintop and find the top notes without ever taking a breath, and would bring you back down from the summit all the way to base camp. In a single breath. Long, long phrases were a thing. And then when she would get to the top, it would always follow with, like, a very direct, pointed emphasis on something. That was how she delivered messages.
But she was raised in the church. She was a huge debater. She was on the debate team as a child, and was very, very well recognized in debate. So she has that fire. And also, I think she needed to have that fire, because again, I don’t think she was not aware of the time and who she was in the time. And I think she understood—I don’t know the story is fact, but what was inspiring about her, from the hair to the clothes to the way she campaigned, was big. The hair had to be big. Not just because, you know, afros and bouffants were big at the time—the hair had to be big. She was a very small woman in height and slim size. She wore very loud, patterned clothes. She didn’t wear loud, patterned clothes just because of the time. She didn’t wear big hair just because of the time. She didn’t give big speeches and say big things just because of the time. She had to because she knew that if she didn’t she’d be invisible otherwise.
AVC: She had to fill the space.
UA: She had to fill the space. You would not see her if she was not that big. You would not see her.
AVC: You had that great Instagram post of you in costume. It must have been incredible to see yourself as her, the first time.
UA: Oh, my gosh, it was next-level. Our hair and makeup team, Anne Morgan, who designed the wig, and Bina [Daigeler], our costume designer, they were just amazing. They were amazing people, firstly. And then, secondly, they were super talented and invested. And when we had our camera test, I was like, “Wow!” Such a treat and an honor. It was awesome.
AVC: Now that Mrs. America has received so much acclaim, what has that response been like for you?
UA: The response has been wonderful. It’s been really great to see people talking about it. A lot of my friends are people on social who are Gen Z-ers or millennials—that’s where I’ve been most excited, I have to say. I’m glad everybody has been into it, but I’ve also been especially glad to see people who are maybe less familiar with all of these women discovering these stories. We should know that there were many women who were part of this movement. And I’m glad we have the one story, Gloria [Steinem]’s, we’re all familiar with. Rose [Byrne] played brilliantly, beautifully, and did such a phenomenal job. But we should also know Bella Abzug’s name. We should also know Betty Friedan’s name. We should know Jill Ruckelshaus. We should know Margaret Sloan. We should know all of these characters. And then we should also know Phyllis Schlafly. We should know all the players and the parts that were involved in this happening/not happening. And we should know Shirley Chisholm’s name. So I’ve been really glad to see that energy come alive.
AVC: That was one of the things that made it kind of hard to watch, especially in this current political landscape. Schlafly is an example of an effective grassroots movement. As much as you may not agree with her, it was astounding to see, like, the power of a mailing list. And that’s something we especially have to keep in mind right now, right?
UA: Without question. If you don’t know your history—it’s like that cliché—you are doomed to repeat it. But it is the absolute truth. We have to know it wasn’t this mighty army who started it. It started as this very small organized group of women—these eagles in the Midwest—women with a fierce and ambitious and smart leader who had a very strategic and deliberate agenda.
AVC: I’ve seen this in a couple of places, that you were going to quit acting right before you were cast in Orange. What was going on before that?
UA: I had gone on, it felt like or was like, 100 auditions for film and television. It was my first time stepping into that arena. I had met a manager who came and saw a show I was doing before, Godspell, and she was from L.A., and was like, “I think you should give film and television a chance.” And I had honestly been, up until that point, too afraid to try for film and television. I hadn’t seen anybody like myself in that space. And I did not feel like those mediums had space for me, or more frankly, wanted someone like me. And that’s what’s going back to the first part we were talking about. The definitions of self. I didn’t see myself there, so therefore I did not think that I was welcome or wanted.
And so then here came this—sounds silly now a little bit probably, but this manager from L.A., Hollywood—it gave me a spark of hope. Like, maybe she knows something, you know? So I said, “Okay, let me try.” And so I went on these auditions, and it was just so disheartening and heartbreaking to be told no, no, no, no, no a million times, because it was like everything that I thought was true was true. It was happening. I was like, “See?” That was why I quit. It became too much. I had dared to dream, and my worst nightmare was coming true. So that’s why I quit that day. I had just reached my breaking point, I guess.
AVC: What part had you auditioned for?
UA: I had read for the role of Janae, the track star, that Vicky Jeudy wound up playing. That was who I had originally read for.
AVC: And then you get cast in these two amazing shows that are primarily working with women, which must be so empowering.
UA: That was awesome. It was the best. When I was finishing Orange, I was saying to myself a lot, “Uzo, make sure you enjoy this. This is probably not going to happen again.” [Laughs.] Like, “You’re probably not going to get to work with so many women in front of and behind the scenes again, so really enjoy it.” And then, we were maybe halfway through Orange when I got the call for Mrs. America. That was like, “Okay, I guess it’s going to happen.”
AVC: One last question: How did you happen to join Steven Universe as Bismuth? That character was such a great late addition to the show.
UA: My manager called me—the show had called asking if they had a new character, if I would voice that character. And I was like, “Yeah! That’s cool. Sure.” Then they sent me all the artwork and the pitch or whatever for it. And I just thought it was a cool concept, and I was like, “Yeah, I’d totally do it.” And it was so much fun. I’d always wanted to do an animated voice for a character, so I was definitely into it. It’s been a long-standing dream for me. So I was like, “Yes, absolutely. This would be amazing.”
I told my sister that I had done it, and they were fans of the show, too. My sister taped whatever my first episode was. My niece and nephews watched it later. And they were in the play room next to the family room when she turned it on, and they came running in. I wasn’t there, but she showed me the video. They were like, “Auntie!” They looked at the TV. They were like, “That’s Auntie!”