The Untold Truth Of Uzo Aduba

Uzo Aduba may be a household name now, but she wasn't always so proud of that name as a child.

At Glamour's "The Girl Project," the actor shared that she grew up in a "small New England town" where her Nigerian family stood out. Her full name "Uzoamaka," which means "the road is good" in Igbo, was always mispronounced at school. One day, she asked her mom if she could go by "Zoe" instead. "She looked at me and she said, 'If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, then they can learn to say Uzoamaka,'" she recalled. And years later, she kept her mother's advice in mind and refused to change her name for acting either.

Another childhood insecurity that Aduba now embraces is the gap in her teeth. In Cosmopolitan, the star recalled how she asked for braces when she was little. "You have an Anyaoku gap, my family's gap," her mother told her, adding that the Anyaokus were known in their village for having gap teeth. "They also revered them for it. In Nigeria, my mom explained, a gap is a sign of beauty and intelligence," Aduba continued. Although she continued to smile a tight-lipped smile in pictures for years, Aduba started to like her teeth after her senior year photographer complimented them. And after she hit worldwide fame, her gap became a crucial part of the actor's image.

Keep reading to find out more about Aduba and how her acting made her a star.

She used to be a figure skater

Before Uzo Aduba was Litchfield Penitentiary's most beloved inmate, she had very different ambitions in mind. The actor was very athletic as a child, as she told E! News, and her favorite sport was ice skating.

"I figure skated for like 10 years when I was a kid," she recalled. "And then on the show 'Orange,' I used that special skill when I auditioned for the pageant." Her character "Crazy Eyes" got to perform a beautiful routine in the show's Christmas episode, which some people assumed wasn't really Aduba. "No, that was me," she clarified. The actor also joked that any pictures of her in figure skating costumes had been "burned or locked away," but Aduba later posted a video of herself skating on Twitter. "To be a kid again," she wrote.

The actor also became a track star at Boston University, according to Bostonia. In college, she competed in various sprint categories and set some of the university's best times. Aduba also received a special award from the athletic department for "outstanding leadership on and off the field." As she told Fast Company, her physical training later helped her as an actor too. "I love movement very much. I think that's definitely a piece for me in finding who this person is," she reflected. "My family is more a sports family, and I figure skated for a very long time, so movement and how I relate to movement is very integral to my process."

She's a classically trained singer

Uzo Aduba's acting talents are well known, but some people might be surprised to find out that she's also a classically trained singer.

"I've always been a huge, huge, huge music fan and lover," she told Kelly Clarkson after the singer and TV host showed a clip of her performing at a young age. Although Aduba went to Boston University to train as an opera singer, but she soon started to prefer acting classes. "So when I went to school, I had my acting components. We'd be rolling around on the floor in the movement class, you know," she explained, laughing. "And later in the day, there would be these music history classes or music theory classes, and I was just kind of like, 'I think I like the rolling around on the floor part more.'" The star was quickly won over by the world of theater. "So I just knew I wanted to do that by the time I came out of school," she added.

Aduba hasn't forgotten her classical vocal training over the years, as she proved on "The View" soon after "Orange Is the New Black" had catapulted her to stardom. "Could you please bless us with some opera?" one of the hosts asked, before Aduba wowed the audience with Puccini's "O mio babbino caro."

Broadway is where Uzo Aduba got her start

As a trained singer, Uzo Aduba started her acting career on the stage. "I had three dreams when I moved to New York City. I wanted to do an Off-Broadway show, I wanted to do a Broadway show, and if I was lucky enough I wanted to do a show in the West End," she recalled years later in an interview with London Theatre. And she achieved one of her dreams by appearing in "Godspell" in 2011, telling DanceOn that it "moved her heart" to perform Stephen Schwarz's timeless songs.

During her early career, however, Aduba did find it hard to get lead roles in the world of theater. In a conversation with Billy Porter for Variety, the actor explained the hurdles she faced as a Black woman on the stage. "I studied classical voice," she reminded her fellow actor, describing the experience of "knowing where your voice naturally sits, but never getting the opportunity to ever sing, because what comes from your body, the package from which it comes, was not yet understood".

"It wasn't computing — fine," Aduba continued. "For me, the job is not to try to find a space for myself within the thing. I'm carving out my own space."

She almost quit acting

Sometimes, timing really is everything. Literally minutes before she was cast in "Orange Is the New Black," Uzo Aduba had decided to retire from acting.

"I thought this through," she told Entertainment Weekly, revealing that she had made up her mind after a disappointing series of rejections. One particular audition, which Aduba knew she wouldn't get after arriving 20 minutes late, pushed her to quit. "This is God, the universe, telling you, as it has been trying to tell you all summer long, this is not for you. And you need to stop trying," the actor recalled. "Because I had been hearing 'no, no,' 'thank you, but no' since trying this medium. And I sat on the train in tears."

Aduba had a different career in mind too. "When I was little, my parents always thought I was going to be a lawyer because I talk a lot," she laughed. So while she was reconsidering her path on that train ride, the actor promised that she would go into law if it was possible. "Got home. 45 minutes later, I got the phone call to go and be a part of 'Orange Is the New Black,'" Aduba added. "5:43 p.m., I'll never forget it." As she told Essence (via E! Online), she quickly rang up her agent, who quoted "The Godfather" at her: "Just when you thought you were out, they pull you back in."

She played Crazy Eyes 'like a child'

Uzo Aduba won critical acclaim for her performance as "Crazy Eyes" on "Orange Is The New Black," becoming a breakout star for the Netflix series.

"Suzanne was described to me as innocent like a child, except children aren't scary," Aduba told Harper's Bazaar, recalling how she was introduced to the character. "Whatever she does comes from a place of curiosity." She began by thinking about the character's fundamental innocence, rather than her distinctive eyes, which Aduba "focused on last." The actor also refers to the iconic Litchfield Penitentiary resident as "Suzanne," as she explained to Entertainment Weekly. "I feel very protective," Aduba mused, admitting that she loved the character for her honesty. "I almost can't even bring myself to call her Crazy Eyes these days, unless I'm referring back to my early start, just because I think she has always been more than just crazy. You know, she's a person who has feelings."

The writers included Aduba's love of the stage in the character too, as she revealed in EW. "She thinks she's a woman of words and language, a master of it," the actor laughed, reflecting on a scene where Suzanne recited poetry to scare kids straight. "I thank goodness that we have Nick Jones on the writing staff, who's a playwright and a Juilliard grad. He knew I'm from the theater, and I was just so glad that he incorporated that into the show, which was another jaw-dropping moment."

Uzo Aduba is quite philanthropic

As an actor known all around the world, Uzo Aduba has used her fame for causes that are close to her heart.

The charity Heifer International appointed Aduba as their first-ever celebrity ambassador to Africa in 2018 after she took a trip with the organization to see how they worked. Their work to end poverty involves sustainable farming and gifting livestock to families in need, especially cows. "Being an Ambassador to Heifer International is a true honor," Aduba stated in the charity's press release. "I have tremendous faith in this organization and their desire to help change the lives of those living below the poverty line."

Heifer International's CEO Pierre Ferrari announced that he was "thrilled" to have the actor on board. "As a passionate champion of small-scale farmers, particularly women, Uzo's commitment to empowering farmers is inspiring," he continued, explaining how they would work alongside each other to "build communities and resilient farm-based businesses to lift them to living incomes."

Aduba also ran the Boston Marathon to raise money for cancer research charity Dana-Farber, which, as she said in a press release (via Self), was "a lifelong dream" of hers. "As someone who grew up outside of Boston, I've always respected Dana-Farber's groundbreaking work in cancer research," she declared. "I'm honored to be a member of their team, helping to raise money to further this work so that one day we may all live in a world without cancer."

She became 'the new Ed Asner'

Not many actors achieve universal praise for their performance, but Uzo Aduba has accomplished a record that only one other entertainer ever held.

When she started being singled out for her role on "Orange Is the New Black," award shows treated the Netflix series as a comedy, despite its more serious themes. But as The Wrap reported, the show started campaigning in dramatic categories from 2015 onwards. This change meant that Aduba's 2014 Emmy win for her performance in a comedy series was immediately followed by her taking home the trophy for Outstanding Supporting Actress In A Drama Series in 2015. 

Only one other actor has ever won both comedy and drama awards for playing the same role: Ed Asner, who starred as Lou Grant on the sitcom "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and the drama "Lou Grant." Andy Samberg referred to this at the start of the 2015 Emmys when he jokingly proclaimed that "Uzo Aduba is the new Ed Asner" (per The Wrap). Aduba accepted her award with a heartfelt speech, thanking Jenji Kohan for creating "Orange Is the New Black" and finding a role for her. "I really just want to say thank you a thousand times. If I could say thank you a thousand times, it would not be enough," she gushed.

Uzo Aduba's mom inspired one of her performances

In the revival of the HBO drama "In Treatment," Uzo Aduba played a therapist dealing with her own grief. Sadly, Aduba experienced a similar personal tragedy in November 2020 when her beloved mother died from cancer.

"I actually found it very healing and therapeutic," the actor reflected in an interview with The Guardian, noting that she'd been unsure about how her feelings would "manifest" at the time. "What I know now, with some distance, is that this project came into my life at the exact right time." Aduba insisted that she felt "lighter" at the end of filming, after processing her emotions through the role. She also based her performance on her mother's traits to an extent, especially the listening skills required to be a therapist

"I had decades observing my mom. She was a social worker and an incredible listener," the actor recalled, adding that her mother would always give "her undivided attention" to anyone. "I remember as a kid, clocking that and admiring it — the difference between listening and feeling heard," Aduba mused. She shared that she channeled her late mother's demeanor in her "In Treatment" scenes, telling the outlet that she "didn't want so much as a whistle or a pin-drop to interrupt" her character's patients.

Her mother also inspired her throughout her life, as the actor told InStyle. "She's the strongest person I know," the actor declared. "She survived polio and a war, and when she moved to America, she encouraged me to always keep reaching."

She got to play Shirley Chisholm

In the FX series "Mrs. America," Uzo Aduba was cast as the first Black woman to ever run for president, Shirley Chisholm. And as she told the AV Club, Aduba was already a fan of the groundbreaking congresswoman long before she got to put on that impeccable '70s costume.

"I had bought a home maybe... three years before I worked on Mrs. America, and it's actually in her district," the actor revealed. Although she had already become a fan of Chisholm by reading about her "incredible" life, living in New York hammered home the politician's impact. "I moved to Bed-Stuy when I bought my house, and I was so stoked because Shirley Chisholm Post Office was right there. Her name is everywhere," Aduba emphasized, laughing. "Like, Shirley Chisholm Daycare. I was like, 'Oh, my god! I can't believe I bought this house in Shirley Chisholm's district.' So excited."

The actor also spoke to Variety about her love for Chisholm, who got a spotlight next to feminist figures like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan in the FX series. "She was bold. She was big. While still being graceful and gracious, she was strong," Aduba said, adding that the politician still had to be "aware of the world in which she operated" and savvy about representation. "She knew she needed to be not only heard but seen. It's important to be seen."

She kept her wedding under wraps

Uzo Aduba has kept her love life out of the limelight over the years, but in 2021 she made headlines by revealing that she had secretly gotten hitched the year before.

According to People, her husband Robert Sweeting is a filmmaker and the pair got married in New York in 2020. Aduba celebrated by posting a sweet selfie from their wedding day on Instagram, showing the happy couple "When you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible," she wrote in the caption, quoting the film "When Harry Met Sally." Calling Sweeting "the best thing that ever happened to me," the actor gushed that she was "so happy my life started last year with you."

Sweeting also wrote his own tribute on Instagram, revealing that their wedding took place one year ago. "This past year has made me appreciate the fragile nature of life and the importance of living it," he shared, calling Aduba his "gorgeous, talented and incredible" wife. "At a time where the world is upside down, we learned to find joy and peace in each other. You are the greatest person I've ever known, and I'm proud to be your husband."

She paid tribute to Breonna Taylor at the Emmys

Uzo Aduba hasn't been shy about her beliefs, particularly when it comes to the Black Lives Matter movement. In 2015, she appeared on "The Nightly Show" (via Bustle) and spoke about the backlash to protests, explaining that the term was being misunderstood. "I think what happens is that people think when saying Black Lives Matter they think of it as being exclusionary somehow, when it's not really meant to be that. It's not excluding people," Aduba insisted, defending her cause. "On Earth Day we don't include Jupiter we just have Earth, we just celebrate Earth on that day."

She also stood up for the Black Lives Matter movement at the 2020 Grammy Awards by paying tribute to Breonna Taylor, a young Black woman who had been tragically killed by police officers in her own home. When Aduba won for Outstanding Supporting Actress, she wanted to, as she told Vogue, "carry the spirit of Shirley [Chisholm] into the space" and bring attention to injustice through a black shirt with Taylor's name emblazoned in gold. "I wanted to choose something emblematic of the movement and could say everything without saying anything at all," the actor shared with Vogue. "Most people know her name at this point and know what we're talking about, and for those who don't know her name, hopefully, they saw my shirt and googled it."

Aduba continued, "Fashion can spark curiosity, and I hope for the people who don't know Breonna Taylor, it will make them want to know."

She's a millionaire

Uzo Aduba's impressive work in TV and film hasn't just led to multiple awards. Thanks to her various projects, Aduba now has a net worth of $1 million, according to Celebrity Net Worth.

In an interview with Refinery 29, she spoke about the importance of remembering where you come from and giving back to the communities that raised you. "We have now had enough people rise to the status of billionaire, multi-millionaire, studio head, executive, decision-maker, tastemaker," the actor stated. "Where we can take that power, real actual power, and we can bring that back to our own communities." She also reflected that Black artists now had enough influence that they could be "active" in their own careers.

Aduba refers to this change in her Instagram bio, promising to be a leader. "Growing up, I never thought there was a seat for me. So I've decided to build my own table. Come. Pull up a chair," the star's social media profile reads. She's used her wealth to provide a "seat at the table" in various ways: for example, alongside celebrities like Natalie Portman and Jennifer Garner, she co-owns an all-female soccer club called Angel City. Per ESPN, the club was started to raise the profile of women's soccer in America and is based in Los Angeles. How's that for goals?