Uzo Aduba: ‘In Treatment’

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Actress, Uzo Aduba. Photo by Robert Maxwell.

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes actress Uzo Aduba, star of the newest iteration of the HBO series “In Treatment.” Aduba is an Emmy-winner for her role as Suzanne in “Orange is The New Black,” and she is also known for her portrayal of Shirley Chisholm, the groundbreaking Black congresswoman in the Hulu miniseries “Mrs. America.” Aduba tells The Treatment that playing a therapist in “In Treatment” mirrored the acting process in that it required deep concentration and listening within each scene. She says understanding Shirley Chisholm’s clothing and hair choices was key in getting her portrayal right. And she says several of the characters she is known for share a self-awareness and an understanding that they are being observed.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity.

KCRW: Welcome to The Treatment, the home edition. I'm Elvis Mitchell. My guest today is Uzo Aduba. She's starring in the HBO reboot of "In Treatment." It's a show starring a Black woman doing health work from her home in Baldwin Hills. This feels like the beginning of a new century in television to me.

Uzo Aduba: Yeah, when have we seen that displayed? I don't know if we have, but it's exciting. It's the merger of therapy under a Black female therapist, who's running her practice out of Baldwin Hills. This is all very new for television, but also very exciting and hopefully sparks the conversation.

KCRW: I find myself struck by the quality of listening in these roles you've done, and I was thinking about the way Shirley Chisholm is aware of every word she's speaking and also the way people are paying attention to her. And it's not dissimilar from what you're doing in ["In Treatment"] because these characters are also asking themselves out loud to you why they're there.

Aduba: Yeah. Which is what brought me here, to doing the show. It really is the question why do people go to therapy that I think I was interested in finding the answer to, and I think we, as people often are exploring within ourselves while in session, if we go to therapy. I go to therapy. It's the unpacking of that question that really starts the discovery for each of us into ourselves, our authentic selves and why we are the way we are.

KCRW: There are so many different dynamics playing in the situation where everybody's in effect asking themselves in front of your character: what's wrong with me? Why am I here?

Aduba: Yeah, and I would say, with each of them, I feel like there is a different way of framing that exact question. With Eladio, it feels more like: can you help me? To Colin it's: what do you think is wrong with me? To Laila it's: why do I have to be this way? They all ultimately are hoping for answers, including Brooke, by the way.

KCRW: I was gonna say we haven't even gotten to Brooke in her own confession.

Aduba: I think that there's the searching we have out in the world, but then there's this internal search that each of these people are in pursuit of. And that's what I thought Joshua Allen and Jen Schuur, who were our showrunners and head writers on this iteration of "In Treatment" did so well is that no one was free of that search, including Brooke. Everyone was looking for answers throughout this process. Getting to the end of it, for me anyway, what I learned is that life is a process that we're in treatment, these characters, but we're also in process.

KCRW: I felt like so much of it's about process, too. Talking about Laila's first session, it's almost like watching an actor's workshop. It was like watching an acting exercise, where you're doing something to distract from the fact that there is a goal in mind for these characters.

Aduba: One-hundred percent. And I think, again, going back to the beauty of the writing and the stories, the crafting of the stories in the show, they really articulate the different ways that therapists and specifically, this therapist uses tactics to bring the patient closer to their truth, whether it's the candy and a mindless activity with Laila, to switching seats with Colin, feigning back injury, and giving him her seat and sitting on the patient's couch instead. That's what I think she does so well. She's excellent at her job. Even though we are meeting her at a really challenging point in her life, she is really, really great at identifying what it is her patients need, have come in here looking for from her, and helping to get them to that place of truth and honesty with themselves in as painless a way as possible.

KCRW: I'm so struck by you as an actor, the quality your characters give to listening, thinking about the difference between Suzanne or Shirley Chisholm, the way they listen and also their awareness of their effect on the person that they're talking to. And that really comes into play in an interesting way with Brooke, especially when we see her with her sponsor. 

Aduba: Yeah, my primary goal in the listening was to be laser focused and give my full attention both to the characters within each episode but also to my fellow cast mates that they had my full attention. That was my main aim and that everything that they were saying, but also more important sometimes, what they were not saying, I was here to be present for that experience, that expression because I think for me, a lot of it was wanting to make sure that each patient knew that they were being heard and that their pain was being seen and wanting to help them navigate their way through those feelings as best and as easily as possible. 

Brooke is not so great at doing that for herself. We're meeting her at a challenging point in her life where, instead of sharing, she's doing a lot of avoidance, which I thought was interesting, because she's able to cite some of those things in other characters, but yet we can watch her in her own life doing a lot of avoiding.

KCRW: I thought that one of the things that makes this attractive for you is: this is somebody who is paying attention and is aware of the way these patients are playing her because finally, they're all looking to not be judged. In fact, when she's with her sponsor, her face is even less expressive than it is when she's with her patient.

Aduba: Because she doesn't want to hear what Rita has to say. She's not listening. And that wasn't by accident because if she really was hearing what she was saying to Rita, she would have a lot more expression and more reactions than what she has shown. She's trying to figure out her life and where she is today, how she got here. When we meet Brooke, at this moment, she'd been in pain before the death of her father that took her over the line. But that well already had water in it. Before that, that levee was just barely holding on, waiting to break. The thing about Brooke is she has lived a great part of her life without addressing a lot of things that have happened in her life, that she has been part of in her life. And we're meeting her when she has to confront all of those things.

KCRW: These characters you have played are aware of their presence and aware of their impact on the people in a room. It's interesting to me to watch a woman of color play these people, all these pioneering roles, because they're all people who step into situations, and immediately the temperature of the room changes. We certainly saw it in Suzanne, but for Shirley Chisholm, and again, now for Brooke, these are people who, when they interact with others, they know the weight of their words; they know what their presence in the room means. 

Aduba: I think it's fantastic. I've enjoyed it and been grateful to tell these stories, highlight these examples of strong, capable, qualified Black women, who have, by the way, always been there, but are just now being seen. I think it's great. I think it helps to round out the fullness of our story as Black women, the fullness of our stories, as Black people, and the fullness of our story as people in the world who are effecting change and impacting lives. 

Both of those women that you've highlighted: Representative Shirley Chisholm, and Dr. Brooke Taylor: these aren't women who set out to necessarily pioneer, I don't think, or teach. I think these are women who knew their abilities. They knew what they were capable of, and they knew what they were up against and did it anyway. And I think these were also women who had a deep desire to serve, and let their own lives be an offering of some kind. And I think that's why they were-Shirley Chisholm as a real person-so impactful, historically and Dr. Brooke Taylor-so effective in the lives of her patients.

KCRW: With Shirley Chisholm, we see her stillness in that when she moves her hands, when she makes a gesture, she understands that people are watching it, so she wants to make sure that it lands in the way that it needs to.  

Aduba: I don't think she set out to be the first. I think she knew she was as qualified and capable as anyone who had come before her and stood beside her. And I think she also knew she was someone who really wanted to make a difference, particularly for her people and community. I think she also was a smart enough and astute enough woman to know that her words matter, and how they are heard and received coming out of her mouth is important. And she was extremely intentional because her goal, her dream, was also intentional in terms of the service work. 

Playing that part, I knew that she was a woman who wasn't a big person physically. She was a tiny lady, but packed a big punch. And she was so quick witted; she was a brilliant orator. She had a genius for word-smithing. And she knew all of those things mattered. And she was so deliberate and specific with all of those things, and how she presented herself out into the world and wanted to be seen because of that. 

KCRW: You brought this different kind of physicality to each of the characters you playt. There's this glee in Suzanne's smile, and, as you mentioned, Shirley Chisholm was a small woman, but by concentrating on the character's physicality so much, she took up a different kind of space in your portrayal. And Brooke, stepping into her office/living room dressed the way that she wouldn't normally be dressed at home, and seeing that she feels slightly uncomfortable being dressed like that in her house. 

Aduba: All of these women have their own soft spots. They're not perfect women. But I think what is clear about each of them, or the characters that I guess I'm drawn to is, if they don't know it at the beginning, then they learn their value. At some point, they discover who they are in the story. Or they come in knowing who they are in the story. 

I love that Dr. Brooke is fighting for who she knows herself to be in the story, or who she has been made to believe she is. When we meet her, she's standing on less firm ground. And we're watching her dig her way back to who she is or who she wants to be  or knows herself to be. I love that these women all have frailties, but they also have incredible strength. And isn't that just living? Isn't that just human?

KCRW: These characters are all self aware in ways profoundly different. Were there moments or scenes or episodes in which you felt, Okay, now, I got it?

Aduba: I think I had a keen awareness of their self awareness. Starting first with Shirley, it started for me with the costumes. Why this hair? Why these clothes? Why does she present this way? I realized for myself, I said, Oh, she needs to wear her hair this big and the clothes this loud, because otherwise no one would see her. She would be invisible in this room because she's a slight woman. She's a small woman, and she's a Black woman in the ‘60s and ‘70s. You wouldn't even see her, so she needs to stand out even more. And then the other thing was when I was watching a documentary on her and the very end when she was giving up her delegates, and she just folded into her hands and started crying, and we had never seen that side of her before. I remember seeing and feeling such a youthfulness from her. And I thought that is the real Shirley Chisholm right there. That made me aware then of how aware she was of how she not only was viewed, but that there were eyeballs on her all the time when she stepped into this presidential run, even as senator. 

With Brooke, I think therapists all have a keen awareness that as they are listening and watching their patients, they're also aware that they are also being observed as well to some degree. Because you have patients looking for answers. Literally, people have come in this room looking for something, and you are the source of that thing that they're looking for, so I think she is also aware of the fact that she is one of the less than 5% of people who look like her in her profession. She says in that first episode day in and day out, these people come to me looking for answers, and I don't know what to tell them, so she is aware that people are searching for answers in her. And she is doing everything in her power to not give anything away as far as her own troubles are concerned.



Rebecca Mooney