Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren (Uzo Aduba) just wants to be seen. And in the second season of Netflix's hit series Orange Is the New Black someone's eyes are finally opened to the committed, loving person she's capable of being. The only problem is that person also knows how to manipulate that devotion and adoration like no other: newcomer Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), who ends up hurting Suzanne like no one ever has either.
"This is a woman who loves deeply and will love at all costs and she will do everything in her power to defend and protect the one she loves," said Aduba, sitting in an Austin, Texas, hotel bar in a large black leather chair that envelops her. "You saw that in the cafeteria scene with the pie. You saw it with her peeing on the floor. So I already knew that that's what this person will do, how far she will go for love. Then in the second season, I was able to see the true scope of how far she would go. It's not just throwing pie, it's not just writing poems, it's not just peeing on the floor. There's another side of it: She will fight for love; she may kill for it. And she's willing to sacrifice even those people whom she has loved before."
The Massachusetts-raised actress, who had done mostly theater before she was cast on Jenji Kohan's Orange Is the New Black, has helped shape who Suzanne has become over the course of the show's 26 episodes, from her bulging eyes and childlike mannerisms to the Bantu knots that have become so closely associated with the character. Aduba wore the tightly wound hairstyle to her audition in 2012 and it inspired not only Suzanne's most recognizable feature in Season 1 (besides the territorial urination, of course), but important metaphors for her character as well.
Mere minutes after Aduba recalled the audition, Orange Is the New Black casting director Jennifer Euston, who was also attending the ATX Television Festival like Aduba, came over and hugged the actress delicately so as not to ruin her carefully coiffed curls and pressed-to-perfection dress. "She's the best. You know that, right?" Euston said. "This is my everything," Aduba added wistfully with a smile that channeled her character's lighter moments. "She changed my life by bringing me into that room." "You did it all, baby," Euston added.
It's clear Aduba and the cast and crew of Orange Is the New Black have a bond that's unique in Hollywood, depicted not only in their constant Instagram photos, but in the way that closeness and trust translate on screen. "Jenji is just one of the most generous people I've ever worked with," Aduba said, getting settled into her chair yet again. "She saw [the Bantu knots] and liked it and wanted to keep it and then used it in such a beautiful way. It just became this symbol."
Viewers first saw Suzanne's surprisingly white parents in Season 1, but in the sophomore season, more of the character's backstory is revealed in the episode titled "Hugs Can Be Deceiving." The episode includes a scene where a young Suzanne, clad in butterfly wings, goes to see her newborn sister in the hospital and a nurse offers to do her hair, something her white mother isn't capable of doing. At the end of the same episode, Vee, who becomes her prison mother, offers to give Suzanne another new look, allowing the character to feel, perhaps for only the second time in her life, like she's seen as something more than "Crazy Eyes."
"She's already said in the first season, 'Mommy, I like to wear my hair like this. I like my hair like this.' And then to see in the second season, we see why she likes it," Aduba said. "To have this figure transform her hair and that touch and soothing moment that she has in the hospital room and then again, another soothing moment in the prison and that connection… She's really always just wanting that connection and wanting to be seen and understood."
Beyond Suzanne's signature hairstyle, "Hugs Can Be Deceiving" offers deeper insight into just how badly Suzanne is seeking that bond. In a flashback, 10-year-old Suzanne accompanies her blonde 5-year-old sister to a sleepover and when they take turns telling a fairy tale, the character is reminded once again that she is inherently different from everyone else.
Aduba had the pleasure of watching Taliyah Whitaker play 5-year-old Suzanne in the hospital room and Eden Wiggins take on 10-year-old Suzanne at the sleepover. "Eden, who played Middle Crazy Eyes, that young lady, separate from her performance, is a phenomenal, phenomenal spirit. So wise beyond her years," Aduba recalled, the volume of her voice decreasing to a near whisper. "I think Eden was 12 years old maybe and she had really thought about who this girl was. So relaxed, and still a kid, but just such a centered little girl. I was just so fascinated by her. She was so centered and calm."
"There was an ease about her," she continued. "In terms of the acting, she had thought about it, she had watched some episodes, and just wanted to borrow some of the idiosyncrasies that were Suzanne. And she gave just a beautiful, open performance… She was, take after take, just unbelievable."
For Aduba, the scene expanded on the sadness that viewers witnessed in the "How come everyone calls me Crazy Eyes?" scene in Season 1. "She's been asking questions and not being understood her whole life and what was beautiful about what Eden did with that line — 'But dragons are cool' — is, even at that age, Suzanne has been metaphorically asking the question of, 'Why do people call me Crazy Eyes?' which really, for me, the subtext is, 'How come you don't see me? How come you don't understand me? I feel like what I'm saying is so clear.'"
"Also, the actor in me wants to link it in some way with her fascination with words, in addition to her parents being academics. 'If I could just figure out how to communicate with you, you would understand me better,'" added Aduba, who studied at Boston University. "And she just keeps hitting the same wall, running into it over and over again. It's something she's been living with her whole life."
And that's where Vee comes in. Seeing Suzanne left out of a game of Celebrity, she makes her feel special by offering her cake, giving her a new hairstyle, and tasking her with "important" jobs to do in her cigarette and eventual drug-smuggling ring. It's not long before she has Suzanne right where she wants her: completely malleable and easily controlled to do whatever she says or needs. "When I first started the show, I asked the question, How far would somebody go for love?" Aduba said. "And now I tag on to it, What are you willing to do to fit in?" The answer, we learn as Orange Is the New Black's second season continues, is anything and everything.
With a mere glance from Vee in Episode 10, Suzanne pounces on her former ally Poussey (Samira Wiley) in the bathroom, leaving the latter crying on the floor in both physical and emotional pain and the former proud of defending her fearless leader's honor.
"Oh my gosh. That broke my heart," Aduba recalled of the scene, clutching her chest. "That really broke my heart. One, because I love Samira Wiley and I think Samira's absolutely brilliant... She's a phenomenal actor and a beautiful person and I love her. And what I thought they did that was so brilliant was the first-position person in Suzanne's life is obviously Vee. This is the person she's determined to keep and protect. But they also had these small nuances and moments where Poussey and Crazy Eyes would have little agreements, like Poussey's invention of the 'stand-and-deliver' and Crazy Eyes believing in it. This is somebody that she cares for… She really loves her. And then, for that to be the one that she now has to stomp on, that was just heartbreaking. Shooting that was very difficult. My whole being felt that and it took a lot… And we had that look exchanged between Crazy Eyes and Vee with her chin up, saying, No, it's OK." Aduba's voice trailed off, getting emotional reliving the moment.
But that was only the start of Vee exhibiting the hold she had on Suzanne. In the penultimate episode of Season 2, Vee's feud with Red (Kate Mulgrew) reaches a new extreme as she mercilessly beats her with a sock full of locks and then, convinces her blind follower Suzanne that she committed the crime. "I didn't know we were leading to that level of destruction," Aduba admitted of the season finale's turn. "They had written Vee so well — and you could see on the page, they write these lines in there that say, 'And she lifts Suzanne's head up,' and then like, just the word, 'Hope' — and you think to yourself, Oh my gosh. I know where we're going, but I hope this doesn't cost her everything."
When production began on Season 2, Aduba didn't know it nearly would. "What the writers do hold in suspense is what the cost will be, but I could see the alliance was forging. We knew this was going to be a season about alliances and allegiance and loyalties and ties and tribes. So when I started to see that the ringleader was going to be Vee, who was going to lead the ghetto dorm tribe and carry them through, and saw that she was using Suzanne and truly using her to help her own strategy, I knew that this would not end well for Suzanne, because I knew Suzanne well enough to know that love does not end well for her.
"The thing is, Suzanne is not a dumb girl. So she knows that that doesn't make perfect sense, but she also knows she needs Vee so badly… Her need for love is so strong that she is prepared even to sacrifice herself. So, the attacking of Poussey is a piece, but this is throwing herself down on the altar," said Aduba about Suzanne taking the fall for Vee. "She knows what happened is wrong, but she needs her so badly in her life that she's willing to believe she may have done this. And then, through manipulation and trickery, she really does get a little turned around about what she did or didn't know. But she has a realization when she's sitting with Mr. Healy [Michael Harney] and she knows this won't end well for her."
Even Taystee (Danielle Brooks) tries to help her see the truth, but Suzanne can only see her devotion to Vee. "She was so blind. She has that one line about Vee: 'She is not a liar. She told me so!' Because she said she's not a liar, that makes it so," Aduba said with an ironic laugh. "She just wanted to believe it so badly. And it's funny that even after everything is undone, she's still sobbing for this loss. I don't know if there was any winning for her in that moment."
Eventually, Healy helps get Suzanne off the hook, but the scene with Taystee also offers insight into what might've landed Suzanne behind bars in the first place. "I don't always know what I'm doing. Sometimes, I block stuff out," Suzanne tells Taystee, closing her eyes tightly. "Some bad stuff, like that time I did the thing to my neighbor."
As for whether or not we'd get more information on what sent Suzanne to Litchfield or that mysterious "thing" in Season 3, which is currently in pre-production, Aduba remained tight-lipped. "It's a fine dance that Jenji and the writers have managed to negotiate because when we do find out what somebody's crime is, the person has been built up so thoroughly that it almost seems unimaginable that they could've committed a crime at all," Aduba said, pushing the curls back from her face. "It almost puts you inside the mind of a mother who goes to visit her son or daughter in prison. Because mothers know their children are not just this one thing. They've known their great moments and they've known their lower moments. And I feel like that's what the show does: We become those mothers and friends to these characters so that when you hear what they did, you're like, 'They did what?!'" she imitates in a near whisper. "You can't even believe it. And in order to put the puzzle back together in your own mind, you rationalize it for them because you feel like you know them and their backstory. So, when you're hit with that blow, it informs the person, but it doesn't make the person."
With Vee potentially out of the picture in Season 3, Litchfield will likely be a very different place than it was in Season 2 and Aduba is excited about settling into a new facet of that world again. "It's almost like the end of Episode 13 is a palate cleanse. It's like this metaphor when we had the sewage rising up: Things got yucky. They got messy," Aduba said. "And they fixed themselves in part and that's a day in Litchfield."