Time to Walk - Time to Walk with Uzo Aduba

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Uzo Aduba: I love to walk, and when I first moved to New York I didn’t always have the money for the subway fare and would walk from the city home to Queens from my waiting job. But then it really became this private, personal opportunity to talk through with myself some of the conversations I didn’t have time to have during the busy day. And so what I would find is that, at the end of my walks, I would usually have the answers to a lot of the questions or decisions that I was trying to make.


Sam Sanchez: It’s Time to Walk, where some of the world’s most interesting and inspiring people share stories, photos, and songs that have influenced their lives. Uzo Aduba found stardom as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren in the series Orange is the New Black, but not before years as a working stage actor. On this walk, Uzo speaks about keeping the faith, lifelong bonds, and the transformative power of others believing in you.


Uzo Aduba: Right now, I’m walking in Fort Greene Park, which is in Brooklyn, New York. And it’s a few blocks from my home. I’m with my dog, Fenway Bark, Mr. Fenway Bark, his full name. It’s a little bit of a hazy day today but no rain, thankfully, and it’s one of these parks that has dogs, has kids. There’s a tennis court. You usually see people having lunch, maybe first or second day dates. And it’s just a leisurely, easy place to walk and enjoy any day of the week.

To talk about faith for me and its role in my work, I have to talk about the start of my TV career. So I had been doing a show on Broadway and met a manager who I started working with. We went out for coffee, and she said to me, “Have you ever given any thought to doing film and television?” And the truth of the matter is, I had but so long ago. And at that time though, I didn’t see anybody like myself in those mediums. So when I started in this business, I think I sort of tucked those dreams away because I didn’t see any dark-skinned, non-Eurocentric women of color. With my broad nose and almond-shaped eyes. I didn’t see it. It just didn’t exist, quite frankly. And so, um, I concentrated mostly on my other love, which was the theater.

And so when she said, “Have you ever given any thought to being in film and television?” I said, “No.” And she said, “Well, I think you should think about it. You know I think this is something you could do.” So I was like, “Okay.” And she says to me, she said, “Okay. So we’re going to try for that, and we’re not going to do any theater auditions, and we’re not taking any theater offers.” I was like, “No auditions?” It was a little scary, to be honest with you, because at this point, this is 2012. I’m making my living doing theater. It’s a humble living, but that’s how I’m paying my rent. That’s how I’m taking care of myself. And so we went for it, and I started auditioning. And I would go out a lot, and I wouldn’t hear anything back, nothing. It was like, “No, no, hmm, no.” And it’s frustrating, and you’re watching the no’s go up and your bank account go down, and it starts to become really, really, really, really stressful because now it’s like, “What am I going to do?” And it’s like, “Okay, she told you to focus. You know hold on. Like just try.” But it was so, oh my goodness, anxiety-driving.

So I had this audition for a show called “Orange Is the New Black.” I remember reading the script. I remember thinking it was so vivid, so alive. I had to have read somewhere near fifty to maybe even a hundred scripts at this point. And this was the first one that I’d read that I was like, “That was really good. I’d love to be a part of something like that.” And, um, put it down, whatever, went to the audition. The casting director, she said, “That was really great,” when I was leaving. I was like, “Sure, heard that. You’re my fifty-first audition of the summer.” You know?

So anyway, a couple weeks after that, I had an audition for another show. So I go in, get to what I thought was the audition location—it wasn’t. I’d been sent the wrong address. I’m racing, racing, still hot. Hot day, early September day. And I get there. I’m like sweaty. I’m like panting. The casting director comes out and is like, “Are you ready?” I’m like, “Yes.” You know? So. And, um… So I’m twenty minutes late, which is, in actor-land, no-no when it comes to auditions.

So I go in. I read the audition, and I walked out of the room so defeated like I’d made a huge mistake, that this was not what I was supposed to be doing, that my greatest fear of not being invited to the table was happening in real time. And so I walked out of the audition room. I hit the sidewalk, and I just started crying and not the kind of cry that’s audible. It’s the kind of cry where the tears are just rolling down, and you can’t stop them, and you don’t care that you’re even in public, you know? And, if you’ve ever been to New York and seen that scene, you know the guy or the girl, and they’re just by themselves, and you can feel the weight of that loneliness. And, um, I walk to the train. I’m sitting on the train by myself. And I remember earlier that week, a friend of mine, we had you know prayed this surrender prayer. And I pulled it out on my phone. And I said to myself, and to God, I said, “I give up. You win. I’m done.”

It was the first time I’d ever quit in this business. I have questioned before. I’ve doubted. But I’ve never, in my heart, quit. And I kind of found I wasn’t happy about it. Maybe I was just at like peace, I was like, “Okay. You know what? This is a good thing. I’m going to order some wine, order some sushi. I’m going to go home, and this is a good thing because now the rest of my life is going to be on track. I’m going to be doing what I’m supposed to be doing. You know. My life is going to be lived on purpose.” And so it was a Friday. I was like, “I’m going to call my agent and my managers on Monday. It’s fine. I’ll take the weekend, invite my sister Chi-Chi over. We’ll hang out. I’ll tell her. It’ll be cool.” Get home, sitting down on the couch, I was like, “I’m going to watch one of Oprah’s Master Classes.” I have a bunch saved and I’m looking and looking. I was like, “I’m going to watch the Lorne Michaels, how he started SNL Master Class.

And so I’m watching, and he’s talking about the early days, starting the show. And I think it’s like the pilot or something. He’s talking about how you know critics did not care for it at all. He said, “I’m going to give it one more chance, and I thought if I could just keep the faith,” and the screen dissolved in that very Master Class way, and there was this really big, old tree, with a tree swing with those purples and oranges and reds sky like one of those Country Time Lemonade commercials. And from left to right on the bottom of the screen while the voiceover of Lorne Michaels talking, it said, “If I could just keep the faith.” And the words “Keep the Faith” scrolled across the bottom of the screen. And I said, “Oh, wow. I really like that. When this is over, I’m going to rewind back to that part, pause the TV, take a picture of it, and tweet it.” And I finished thinking the thought when my phone rang.

It was 5:43 p.m. and it was my agency calling. And I said, “Oh, man. They’re probably calling because I was twenty minutes late for this audition today,” and I said, “You know what? It’s fine. I was going to tell them on Monday I’m quitting. I’m just going to tell them today. Why wait?” Pick up the phone, and it was silent for a minute. And she said, “You know that audition you went on a few weeks ago for that show called Orange Is the New Black?” I said, “Yeah.” She said, “Well, you didn’t get it.” And I was like, in my head, “Oh, so we’re calling actors to tell them the jobs they don’t get now, great.” She says, “You didn’t get it, but they would like to offer you another part.” And my head, if it had not been connected to my body, I promise you it would’ve spun off. And I started screaming, and then I got quiet as I’m listening to her tell me about the part. She said, “It’s the part called Crazy Eyes.”

And then, you know, unlike earlier that late afternoon, evening, where it’s the silent, sad tears, I’m listening, and it’s the silent, unbelievable, oh my god tears. And I said… I was like, “You don’t know that I had just quit all of this.” My sister comes over, and now our wine and sushi party is like gone from like an I Quit Party to an I Got a Job Party.

About a week later, I am at home, and I’m like, “Oh, my goodness, I never took that picture that I wanted to take.” I was like, “Let me go, let me do it now because it’s perfect. Keep the faith. That was the lesson.” So I go back to my DVR. I find my Master Class. I’m you know two times fast-forwarding, looking for it. Can’t see it. I was like, “Oh,” or four times fast-forwarding, I can’t see it. Maybe I’m going too fast. I was like, “It must be so quick I can’t see it.” So I was like, “Let me just watch the episode. It’s fine.” I’m watching. I watch the whole episode, and it’s not there. True story. True story.

And nobody can tell me that it wasn’t there when I watched it the first time because I know it was. And isn’t that what faith is, really? It’s believing in something you can’t see or touch. I can’t see it now, but I know what I saw, how my heart and life were changed from that moment. And it is something even since then, if things become hard or challenging, the impossible can sometimes be made possible. You just always have to believe, like just leave like the smallest room for hope in anything, you know. Not just work, in life, with family, all of it. Things may feel trying and hard. But there is always good. There is always… Things will always work out and will always be okay. Right, Fenway? Right.

I know, boo-boo. Come on. I know. Four years old and still a puppy.

I’m first-generation Nigerian American, and my parents had thought I was going to be a lawyer my whole life because I can talk a lot. And you know, it wasn’t like they were necessarily pushing for it. I think coming to this country, you have certain job options that you’re familiar with and understand as being steady. And so I thought I was going to be a lawyer my whole life.

And one day, I’m in my creative writing class, this was junior year of high school, and Ms. Mehlies, who also happened to be the Drama Club teacher, which I was a part of, she came to my desk, and she said, “I’d like to see you after class.” And my mind, for the rest of class, was like wracking its brain like, “I’ve never done anything. So I don’t even know what I could possibly be in trouble for.” And so I come to her desk, and she says to me, “Have you given any thought to what you’re going to do next year in terms of applying for college and so forth?” And I said, “Yeah, actually,” I said, I was like, “I think I want to do something maybe in like history, political science, something like this. And then I think I want to be a lawyer after that.” She said, “Really?” I said, “Yeah.” She said, “Have you ever given any thought to going to art school? You know, you seem to have a real love for this when I see you at rehearsal. You know you can go to school for this, right?”

My eyes must’ve become blank and as big as saucers because I had no idea what she was even talking about. Because my parents loved the arts, and we would go to see concerts and things like that. But I think that’s where you see the gap in the bridge of the immigrant story. It’s just not something that exists in Nigeria, quite frankly. And I went home, and I told my mom because first I thought I wanted to direct. She’s like, “Okay.” And I was like… Later that day, night, whatever, I was like, “No, that’s not what I want to do. That’s not what I want to do.” I said, “No, no, no, Mom.” I was like, “I want to go to to a performing arts college." And she was like, “No.” I said again, later, I was like, “I do. I want to go to a performing arts college.” She was like, “No.” I like, left it alone, and then she was in the kitchen. I was like, “Mom, I want to go to a performing arts college. That’s what I want to do.” She was like, “Okay.” It made me think, because I was like, “Why did you tell me no?” She was like, “I wanted to be sure you were serious.” And, um, and then they supported me all the way through.

That’s what started the ball rolling, the first pebble in the water, I guess and if it had not been for Ms. Mehlies seeing me. You know? And that’s the thing that’s, I think, most important, is feeling and being seen, right? Because for me, the hallmark of a good teacher is not just being able to smartly execute your curriculum. The hallmark of a good teacher is being able to see something in a student and being able to pull that out of them successfully, help them to recognize that ability, and help guide them in the direction of that thing. She didn’t have to do that. Her job was not to stop my life and point it in the right direction, but she did it anyway.

Fenway, sit. Sit. Sit. Good boy. Ready to walk? Come on, let’s walk.

My sister and I, my sister Chi-Chi, because I have two of them, are, I think because of our age difference, because we’re super close in age, we’re a year and a half apart, have a different type of closeness.

We say like we’re almost twins because my mom, I think you know having two girls so close in age, she would buy us the same outfits, same dresses, or like one in purple, one in blue, and it would be the exact same.

And we would always be dressed like that for the longest… I mean, I feel like my entire childhood. And so when I was getting ready to go to college, I was so excited to go to college. And I would say to my sister and my younger brother, who was at home at the time, “You know you guys, I’m going to college." I would always say it like that, too. “I’m going to college,” but my sister, Chi-Chi, she would always fire back. She’d be like, “Uzo, who cares? You’re only forty-five minutes away, Uzo, and it’s not that big a deal. I can come and visit you whenever I want.”

And then the day came, for me to go to school, get dropped off. And my sister, who was playing field hockey, it turned out the field hockey tryouts that week landed at the same time, when I was leaving for school. And so she wasn’t going to be able to come with me. And so you know that afternoon or whatever, her friend picked her up to come take them both to field hockey tryouts. And I was in the kitchen washing some dishes, and she’s like, “Okay, bye.” You know, like, I was like, “Kill it.” You know. “Have a good tryout." I was like, “Chi-Chi, I’m leaving for college today.” She’s like, “Oh, right, sorry.” She comes back, and she gives me like a quick pat like, “Mmm have a good time. Like enjoy yourself. Have fun.”

I said, “Thank you,” you know and I went back to washing the dishes. And my back was turned to the door, and I suddenly hear like the screen door open and close and bang. And I turn around, and it’s Chi-Chi walking towards me fully bawling, in tears, and she gives me like the biggest hug. She’s like, “I’m going to miss you so much.” And I was like, “Chi-Chi, it’s okay.” I was like, “I’m only going forty-five minutes away. You can visit me anytime. It’s not that big a deal.”

What had never occurred to me was, every time I said I was leaving, how hard that was for her, that when she was saying, “It’s only forty-five minutes away. I can come whenever I want,” she wasn’t saying it that way because she really didn’t care that I was leaving. It was because she cared so much. I was crying after she left because the truth of the matter is, it’s like I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life without Chi-Chi either. And when you realize you have somebody like that in your life who you’re each other’s twenty-four seven. You never want to lose that.

I hope everybody in this world gets to have a Chi-Chi, you know what I mean? Have somebody who you would do everything for and who would do everything for you, but who also gets your humor, your faults, your strengths, and loves you for it unconditionally.

We’re at the top of the hill, standing in front of the stairs of Fort Greene Park, in front of the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument.

Catching a breath. There are folks stretching, relaxing on park benches, getting workouts in with their trainers. This is a great place to just take a breath surrounded by the trees, surrounded by the rare peace found in New York.

This song, I live for because it makes me think of driving to school in high school in the morning. My sister and I, me in the driver’s seat.


Her in the front passenger seat, blasting this song, full voice singing, like probably causing vocal damage you know, and each of us just singing in harmony, rocking out to these words, a concert in the car. And even now, when we hear it, my sister and I you know, we still rock out to it. This is “Galileo" by the Indigo Girls.


This song. Ugh. I love this song so much. This is a song you can listen to in your room. This is a song you can listen to at the park. It hits on every level. It’s fun. It has sparkle. It makes you wanna dance. It makes you wanna think. It makes you wanna be a better woman. It makes you want to just exist with the same fire with which it’s sung and spit. It really is powerful how the artist is able to blend pop and fun but if you’re really listening to what she’s saying there’s a message. This is “Doo Wop” by Lauryn Hill.


I don’t know why I love this song so much. Anytime I… Well first of all, I love Whitney, and I just feel, like, the energy. I like how the voice comes in slowly and then gets really loud. And it feels like you want to rock out. My hands are up in the air. It feels like good, positive energy, feels like light. It’s “Higher Love” by Kygo and Whitney Houston. It’s great. Pure joy.


It’s funny, I didn’t expect to have this experience on this walk because I was talking out loud, but I can feel that some of the conversations that I’ve been meaning to have with myself, I’ve had with you all, made peace with certain things, have found the answers to some things. It’s been a real, real treat. A real treat. Thank you for taking the time to walk with me. Come on, boo-boo.