Uzo Aduba Talks ‘Orange is the New Black’s’ Two New Characters, ‘the System and the Audience’

“I think the time we’re living in right now is different and this art speaks beyond just entertainment,” the actress said

“Orange is the New Black” sees significant changes going into season 5 with a single significant major dominating the story and a dramatically compressed timeline compared to previous seasons. But as Uzo Aduba, who plays fan-favorite Suzanne Warren, sees it, as different as things are for the characters on the show, things are just as different for the audience, who are now watching OITNB in a new political age.

“I think art has always had a history of affecting social change, holding a mirror up to its audience to see itself,” Aduba told TheWrap in a phone interview. “I think the time we’re living in right now is different and this art speaks beyond just entertainment.

As a result, she says, the show has two new characters this season: the system and the audience.

“Just in reading the script…  it felt like no longer could we just watch this and enjoy, but actually this is how the system works and we’re a part of it,” she said.

Aduba spoke to TheWrap about the show in the current climate, along with Suzanne’s growth over five seasons, how she dealt with the show’s new structure, and the pressure of portraying a character with mental illness.

TheWrap: Your character started off as comic relief and has grown overtime. Can you talk about what that journey has been like?

Aduba: It’s been I think all we ever really hope for In a role, with every step to learn more and more about someone and not really knowing which direction concretely she’s going to go in, I think that’s really satisfying. I think it’s satisfying to have the chance to watch her develop and grow and I think it also… I don’t want to say it’s teachable. It’s not like a teachable moment like an after school special, but It’s definitely this opportunity to really underline who these characters are that they’re more. The logline of Season 1 was “every sentence has a story” and I feel like that’s true of Suzanne. She’s more than just your idea of who she is, because your idea is not always on point or at the center of who she is. It might be a piece of who she is, but that doesn’t necessarily encapsulate everything about her. And that’s exciting.

Was there a moment that really surprised you?

I would say her having to deal with the meth heads putting on whiteface on her. That was pretty challenging, what comes out of her in that. They cover her with face paint and what that sort of brings up in her about her experience of being adopted into a white family. And again that’s what I find so interesting about Suzanne. We’ve only had one backstory but they’ve found these really intricate, interesting ways of bringing in information about her, of bringing life into the story. That was so surprising to me, how deep the colorism issue is for her.

Another surprising episode, I don’t know the number, is when she’s trying to find heaven. It was surprising to me mostly because we’ve already seen Suzanne try and conceptualize death before in the loss of Vee and really get an understanding of where do people go. We see it this time around ratcheted up to a place I wasn’t expecting it to go for her because I guess I thought she had come to grips with it in some capacity. To learn that she hadn’t, her response was even more intense this go around.

Thinking about this season and how the structure is so different than seasons past, what was it like on set for you or for other actors realizing the way the structure changed?

The emotional difference is that there was no relief this season. Normally you have the event that occurs and when you pick it back up we’re starting anywhere between a month out of that major event, be it the lake, be it Pennsatucky [played by Taryn Manning] getting beaten up, be it the death of Vee. We don’t pick up post mourning, so it’s like right on the heels of that. The season is in some parts an extension of the previous season and we’ve never had that before. What had occurred previously was still relevant to today, to the current season. That was a new thing we hadn’t yet experienced. So that would be the trademark difference.

As far as time was concerned, we just felt the intensity of what was occurring. You have the realization that all of this is minute by minute. You still play and you act and you work through it the same I think (I did), but you have that buzz going on in the back of your head that this is all occurring in 72 hours.

Now I have a slightly different experience because Suzanne is not operating on the speed up of time as the rest of the prison. She’s not in the riot so it’s almost like time is slow for her.

When she’s in the cafeteria up until that moment, we’re watching two timelines happen. You’re watching the very tense time and you’re watching somebody who has not caught up to the world upstairs. It’s not until we’re in the cafeteria when two worlds meet and things slow down for a second and then they go back into freefall of space. So some of my castmates might have a different response to that question than I do.

Do you feel pressure from outside groups about playing Suzzane?

I don’t get pressure from anyone. I get a lot of love from people battling mental illnesses. I’d be lying if i said that I, Uzo, don’t feel a social responsibility of some kind when doing this role. I don’t mean that to sound like self righteous or something, but as I would want my history and my culture portrayed accurately, I hope to do my best to do the same. Especially since — let’s just call a spade a spade — we don’t really get to see many depictions of this kind on television. We have the benefit of a show like “Homeland” on television that tackles the issue of bipolarity, but there aren’t many shows that are having that conversation. And so, because we have someone like Suzanne, I want first and foremost as an actor to get to the truth of who this character is but I, Uzo the person always want to make sure I get it right.

“Orange is the New Black” has always tackled issues of race and the prison industrial complex, and other hot button issues, but is there anything different about it now that it’s airing in the current political climate?

It’s always the same. The show’s has always done that. Jenji [showrunner Jenji Kohan] has always had an honest voice and honest seat at the table in this conversation. I think what has changed is our culture and it’ll be interesting to see how our show is received in this heightened time. People were tapping into these political and social issues, economic issues, but still it was set aside next to the entertainment value, so it’ll be interesting to know how people consume the show now knowing that times aren’t necessarily altogether as light as they once were.

What do you want to say to the audience who’s going to be watching “Orange is the New Black” Season 5?

I’m interested to know how people consume the show now. I think art has always had a history of affecting social change, holding a mirror up to its audience to see itself. I think the time we’re living in right now is different and this art speaks beyond just entertainment. Every season I believe our show has introduced a new character. In Season 1 we had Piper; Season 2 we had Vee; Season 3 we had Stella; Season 4 we had Judy King. This season we have two new characters: the system and the audience, simultaneously. The system is the new character this year and I think the audience as well because there’s a response. Just in reading the script…  it felt like no longer could we just watch this and enjoy, but actually this is how the system works and we’re a part of it and so what are we doing to fix it as individuals?

This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed. “Orange is the New Black” is now available to stream on Netflix.