Tue. Oct 20th, 2020

Interview: Uzo Aduba (‘Mrs. America’), from Shirley Chisholm to Kamala Harris and standing at the cornerstones of history

Actress Uzo Aduba has already carved out a place in Emmy history, sharing a unique record with legendary television actor Ed Asner, the two actors sharing the distinction of being the only ones to win an Emmy in both drama and comedy categories for playing the same character.  Aduba achieved her two Emmy wins for playing Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” on the Netflix series Orange is the New Black, which propelled her to stardom.  Now Aduba is tackling a very different kind of role in the FX limited series Mrs. America, that of real-life trailblazing politician Shirley Chisholm, who had her own distinction of being the first Black woman elected to Congress, and the first Black candidate for a major party’s nomination for President.  And she did it all in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when women were fighting just to be seen and heard, let alone to become President.  

Mrs. America is nominated for 10 Emmys, including Outstanding Limited Series.  Aduba is one of four acting nominations for the critically-acclaimed series that stars Cate Blanchett (nominated for Best Lead Actress in a Limited Series) about conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly’s successful campaign to defeat the Equal Rights Amendment at the height of the Women’s Liberation movement, led by Gloria Steinem.  Aduba’s portrayal of Chisholm as a politician attempting to navigate the complicated political waters of a major party while also fighting for both civil and women’s rights is both nuanced and fierce.

I spoke to Aduba about Chisholm’s legacy, especially in this election year, as well as what we can learn from her fight for intersectional recognition and why she wore all those big wigs and loud clothes.  No, it wasn’t just because it was the ‘70s.

Catherine Springer: We did talk before, as part of the roundtable, and I was the one who asked about the potential of having a Black woman VP pick, and now that we’re here, how do you feel?

Uzo Aduba:  It feels exciting!  It feels good, I guess, is the simple answer.  

As a Black American woman and as someone who played Shirley Chisholm, you know especially how far we’ve come.

Especially having stood on the heels of Shirley Chisholm so recently, and knowing how big that space is between then and now, and feeling like a promise kept, you know what I mean?  If you remember, when she ran, in her speeches, so much of what she talked about was possibility and her own possibility—like the original hope agent, you know?  It just feels nice that she was not the last.  I put that up on my IG the other day.  I put a picture of Shirley up and over her I wrote “the first” and then you swipe and see Senator Harris and it’s “but not the last.”  And that felt good.

Did you see Ava DuVernay’s tweet on the day of the announcement?

Remind me?

She wrote, “Tonight, I remember Shirley Chisholm. In 1972, she said: ‘I want history to remember me not as the first Black woman to run for the presidency, but as a Black woman who lived in the 20th century and dared to be herself.’  Rep. Chisholm paved the way for Senator Harris.  An icon.”

Yeah I saw that! That was very, very, very powerful, I definitely remember seeing it.  That’s the truth.   I’m just so glad people are remembering her.  Right before all of this, before the announcement of the nomination, you started to see, especially with the Gen Zers and some of my Millennial peers, you’d see these t-shirts for Shirley Chisholm.  She was starting to have this RBG moment!  You know, like, five years ago, RBG was having this “Notorious RBG” moment, with the collars and things and it was so great.  And not just because she’s this woman on the Supreme Court, but people are really starting to understand how she came to be on the Supreme Court.  And it was nice to see the sort of cultural remembrance of history pop, you know?  The history of those who came before us.   

You had mentioned about how important Shirley is as an intersectional figure.

Yes!

And the importance and relevance to history of those. Do you feel the show is a much-needed piece to right those cultural wrongs? 

Yes, absolutely. I think it’s the piece itself.  One of the things so brilliantly done in Mrs. America is it really highlights and helps us of current day reverse engineer how we got into some of these culture wars.   And I think it also does an exceptional job of not shying away from the fault lines that existed at that time, namely the blind spot that the women’s movement had to intersectionality, which was real.  It highlights the imperfections in the movement.  Maybe that’s a better way of saying it.  Activism isn’t always perfect.  It brings up those parts of the story that have been forgotten and those imperfections and those mistakes, how they led to certain people being forgotten in history.  It also has done a great job of reminding us of all the players in the story.  A lot of people think of a single figure when we think of the second wave feminist movement, and we should think of that figure, I’m not saying that we should not think of those titans, we should, but no mountain is moved alone.  You should know all of the names. You should know Shirley Chisholm, you should know Bella Abzug, you should know Betty Friedan, you should know Jill Ruckelshaus, you should know Brenda Feigen’s name, you should know Margaret Sloan’s name, you should know Flo Kennedy’s name, and you should know Phyllis Schlafley.  If you don’t know your history, right, that’s the expression, then you’re doomed to repeat it.   And you should know all the players who got us to where we are, so we know how many players it takes to get us to the next place. 

And you see how far we’ve come, but you also see sometimes how we’re stuck fighting the same fights. She was fighting for women’s rights and for civil rights and it’s almost as if one had to lose for the other.

Without question. You saw that it seemed as though she was being made to feel like she had to fight two separate fights, when it’s single fight.  The intersectional woman’s fight—or the intersectional human’s fight— is not an either or.  It’s just not. I do not exist separately from being a woman any more than I do from being a Black person. 

She felt torn, like she had to choose one or the other? Is that the way you felt it?

Yeah, in part.  It’s feeling less like she had to decide, but almost like people were trying to make her choose or decide for her what she is.  And that so often goes with intersectionality.  My womanhood alone does not inform my womanhood, my female experience.  My race informs it as well.  Similarly, my race experience is not my race alone.   I have to be able to layer into it my womanhood and you, who own neither of those two things, cannot try to dictate to me which of those things is most important because you don’t know what it’s like to exist as one being in both of those places.  You can’t break those apart and say which one is more of a challenge!  I don’t know the two separately.

Were you trying to make this series in a vacuum or were you letting the current political landscape sort of effect the way you approached the story and the characters?

For me, or for the show as a whole?

Well, both.  Did you feel any sort of tendency or desire to be a part of…

…the political conversation?

Yes.  Coming out at such a pivotal time, did you want to show how far we’ve come or how far we haven’t come, or did you want to be a part of history?

I don’t think so.  I mean, obviously, I’m a woman of the world, right, and I live in America, so obviously, 2016 had already happened at this point.  We’re shooting and politicians had started like throwing their hats in the ring for their presidential bids.  I’m aware of those things and the show, obviously, we are aware of those things, but I think we were really focused on that time and story.  You didn’t really need to try and bend or lean into anything because the story in and of itself, unfortunately or fortunately,  depending on where you stand, mirrors the current history.  You don’t actually have to do anything, it’s going to take that shape automatically, just because of the climate, you know what I’m saying?  So it’s like it’s almost stronger to just like hold true to history and see how much of that rings louder, feels even more relevant today instead of trying to angle it into anything. You don’t need to angle it into anything because it’s like history lays itself on it so closely already.

Do you think it affected the tone coming right after Hillary losing?  When she was clearly the most qualified?

The fact is, again, no woman has ever been President, so I don’t need 2016 to inform me of the sexism in America [laughs]  It’s not like we’d had one and then I’m watching this very sexist, misogynistic tactic being used in this particular election.  It’s obvious.  It stood long before.  It was no surprise.  That would have been my thought to that question previous to a 2008 election of a Black man as President, so, no is my answer.  

How do you think Shirley would do in a virtual convention?

Brilliantly! Yes, I think so!   I think especially now, having watched quite a few days of some really exceptional orators do it.  If you’ve ever listened to some of her speeches or read some of the transcripts of her book, she is an incredibly captivating orator, has an incredibly smart, preacher way of conducting herself.  She’s a great communicator.  So I think she would have been exceptional.  She’s a woman ahead of her time!  If you look now at her policies then again remember we’re talking about a woman who joined Congress in 1968, ran for President in ’72.  This is a woman who was talking about higher education costs, universal health care, a woman who was talking in support of LGBT community, Head Start….  These are all programs and platforms that—how many of the candidates have we heard talk about those very things today?

And what a great character to play.  How was it playing the person of such an iconic historical figure? As an actress, how do you approach her demons and weaknesses while staying true to her historical import?

I think a part of it is the heavy is the head of it all.  There is, of course, the version we know, we can picture in our mind Shirley Chisholm, right.  And we have however many countless clips and pictures that can show us who that woman is.  There was this documentary I watched called Unbought and Unbossed about her presidential bid, and when she’s releasing her delegates at the end of the documentary, she collapses into her hands and starts crying.  And that was the spark for me— where I was like, that cry, it is so much bigger than just “I, Shirley Chisholm, don’t get to be President.”  Or even the nominee.  She knows the weight that she carries, the hope that she carries, it was so much bigger.  

I don’t know what it feels like to run for President, but I do know what it feels like to feel like you’re entirely capable of something. You have a definition for yourself of what is possible for yourself, and what it feels like to feel the limited view other people have for you.  And how that limited view of you can stop your dreams and possibilities from coming true. That’s what I was interested in mining in that story.  Those were the scenes, the private, behind-doors scenes, that I was interested in.  Because she has to go out on that stage and she can’t bring that woman with her, who’s crying.  She has to bring the Shirley Chisholm we all see and know, right?  She goes home every night knowing her phone is being tapped, or thinking her phone is being tapped— which was proven in the end was happening— she had to go home with the weight of all of everyone telling her that she’s ridiculous.  They would never say this to a man, certainly would never say this to a white person at this time.  And I know what that feels like.  I know that not as someone running for President, but I do know what that feels like to have one’s limited view of you placed on you and to carry that hope for an entire two groups of people.  So, for me, that was the real in.  That is the story I want to tell— that woman who has to carry all of that with her.   It started to piece together to me, the woman who held public office versus the private Shirley Chisholm, and you realize, looking at these pictures with the big hair and the very loud clothes.  And when she retired, you know she wasn’t dressed that way.  And I said, oh yeah, you need it.  Remember, she’s a very small woman.  It’s like you realize all of a sudden oh, your hair had to be that big, your clothes had to be that loud because if you didn’t, no one would see you, literally. You are invisible to people at this time. 

Do you feel the pressure to find roles that continue to further representation?  Are they out there?

Well, not equally, but they are starting to come, which is helpful. I do not say that as applause or a standing ovation so that we stop, I just say that to say that there has been an increase.  I’m very passionate about there being more roles, more interesting roles, more in-depth roles as a means of creating space.  Our art is our activism.  I don’t mean that from a political position, I mean that from just the very act of existing in a space and being seen. An opportunity for people before me, beside me, and behind me to think differently.

Do you have any desire to direct or produce? 

Yes.

Do you feel like these movements such as Black Lives Matter have moved their way into your industry as much as they should?

They have moved in, but the mission is not complete.  And, by the way, I include in that women, I include in that not just Black people, but all BiPOC people, I include in that trans people, I include in that LGBTQIA.  The umbrella is wide that needs to be met.  I am one who believes it’s not alone the LatinX story, or the Asian story.  I am not one who believes that it’s just so long as I have my group.  Your fight is my fight.  

Interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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