How Uzo Aduba Identified With Her ‘In Treatment’ Role: “She Was Standing In This Juncture Of Pain And Loss”
“What happens when you lose track of your pain,” Uzo Aduba asks. When you shove your most painful feelings down and suppress them? How will that come back to bite you? And who will you be?
This is the idea that hooked her into her latest role as Dr. Brooke Taylor—a therapist in the grip of bereavement, with her own hidden pain—in HBO’s new incarnation of the hit show In Treatment. The original 2008-2010 series, created by Rodrigo García, had Gabriel Byrne in the chair as Dr. Paul Weston, and gathered multiple awards and massive critical acclaim. Now, after a decade-long hiatus, executive producers Joshua Allen (Empire) and Jennifer Schuur (My Brilliant Friend, Unbelievable) have brought it back with Aduba in the driving seat.
In Treatment 2.0, actually billed as the show’s Season 4, is a similar set-up to its predecessor: a half-hour format, mostly focused on two characters seated across from each other, minimal scenery, and eviscerating stories eked out by a therapist whose actual job is to keep their own personal emotions in check. Hence Aduba’s musing on what happens to a woman in pain who must always push it aside.
It’s hard to miss just how deeply Aduba must have identified with her character. Just weeks before the intense shoot began—she appears in every single scene—she had lost her mother with whom she was incredibly close. Navigating heart-wrenching narratives with deeply introspective and through-provoking dialogue, her character had also just lost a parent and was struggling with a consuming grief. “She was standing in this juncture of pain and loss,” Aduba says.
The strangeness and poignancy of this parallel feels cruelly on-the-nose, but Aduba addresses it as a cathartic experience. “I don’t know why such a story came at this point in my life,” she says. She returns to the question about buried pain that pulled her in from the beginning. And seeing the consequences of Brooke trying to suppress her feelings was useful. “I don’t know why or how healing comes, or what is meant to step into your path to bring that, but I know that being able to identify her pain and loss, and being able to see her having lost track of her pain, that was an education. Loss of any kind is intense. If you don’t know it, I hope you never feel it. If you know it, my heart breaks and stands in support of you.”
Aduba’s career and training was also thoroughly aligned with the role. Before her screen breakout in Orange is the New Black, which won her an Emmy for her role as Suzanne ‘Crazy Eyes’ Warren (she won again in 2020 for Mrs. America), Aduba spent years in New York theater. And with its distinctly theatrical, nowhere-to-hide, front-facing setup, In Treatment required an actor with the power, presence, and talent to pull that off. Aduba has all three.
Although she hadn’t seen it when the role came to her, Aduba was aware of the original series. “I was a huge fan of everybody who was on it: Gabriel Byrne, Dianne Wiest, Hope Davis, Blair Underwood and Debra Winger. All these actors I knew who are phenomenal. I had that running through the back of my mind, and as Joshua Allen and Jen Schuur were describing the story to me, I was really captured by the story of this therapist’s life. The idea that it’s a show about therapy, but it’s also a show about therapists. I started thinking, Oh, that’s interesting on two fronts. Number one, how much do any of us know about our therapists? And number two, how often do you ever get to watch a session? You never get to watch people in session, you’re either in the session as the patient, or in the session as a therapist. There isn’t an audience.”
Set in Los Angeles during the pandemic, the show explores Brooke’s experience treating patients both in the beautiful sprawling house her late architect father built, and via Zoom, having closed her office for safety. One particularly prickly patient is Colin (John Benjamin Hickey), a middle-aged, former millionaire entrepreneur-turned-white collar criminal. As Brooke expertly unspools his inner tape of resentment and rage, she pulls out entitlement, white privilege and misogyny in insidious, deeply-embedded layers, along with an inherent racism and prejudice he flashes around with horrifying ease, which is quickly followed by hollow claims of his ‘liberalism’.
“I was really glad that it was a part of the show,” Aduba says. “I thought what was really interesting was examining privilege from someone who, for all intents and purposes, in our public conversation, has all of it, but who has lost it, and how that plays itself out. And what that looks like, and for his safe space to talk about that being in my home. He’s being treated by someone who looks like me, and I think that was really powerful. I also thought there was something really interesting and powerful in why all these stories are important, because what I realized in occupying this seat of a therapist—a Black female therapist—is she’s still a human being out in the world. How she’s had to live as a woman, and as a Black woman in the world, affects how she hears words and language. Her ears are tuned as a woman in certain ways. Her ears are tuned as a Black woman in specific ways.”
Another therapist might possibly have perceived Colin differently, she says, “which then provokes a whole series of other questions that perhaps a different therapist may not ask because of how she views the world.”
There is also Quintessa Swindell as Laila, Brooke’s teenage client, who engages in a magnetic cat-and-mouse game of evasion with the therapist, before finally opening up about the microaggressions she experiences as a woman of color, and the nightmares she has of being shot at in the street with her grandmother beside her.
During HBO’s virtual press tour earlier this year, Allen and Schuur said that showing therapy in the context of a diverse cast was a driving force in this new envisioning of the show. “There’s such a stigma attached to it, particularly with [people of] color so it felt important to me personally to put that on television, to show that we all need this.”
That destigmatization “wasn’t a singular reason for doing it”, Aduba says of taking on the role, “but it certainly was part of it. There have been a lot of films and TV shows that have addressed, or tried to tackle, the conversation of mental health. I don’t know of any them have been done with someone like myself in this particular chair. And, I guess, a partial motivator was that I’ve played a role, and been involved in TV shows and roles, where I’m a character that’s dealing with something having to do with mental health, and it was interesting to now be in this project where I’m sitting in the opposite chair. But yes, I think, historically, seeking treatment within communities of color has been lower than other groups, particularly in the Black and Latin community. We’ve seen some increase over the years, moving in the direction of seeking treatment, but I think, for me, another part was wanting to help support and buoy that. To help stoke a conversation that might normalize mental health, destigmatize mental health discussions, or seeking therapy out. It’s something that has a lot of super-ugly words attached to it within the community.” There is, she says, still very much a need to normalize mental health treatment in every community. “Our numbers within the Black community, or people of color community, might be less, but that’s not to somehow suggest then that other communities are just talking about it easily, because no one is. That’s actually the truth. No one’s talking about it. And I hope that, with a show like In Treatment, it might get us, finally, over that last hump.”
And Aduba is using her star power in other ways, too. She recently inked a multi-year producing deal with CBS Studios, the first fruits of that being Low Country, in which she plays Shirley Johnson, an openly gay deputy sheriff in South Carolina who takes on a white crime family. Aduba will exec produce, along with Michelle and Robert King.
What else does she want to do with that deal going forward? “The driving force is space creation,” she says. “The stories that have gone unseen. And that doesn’t necessarily mean always reinventing the wheel, and it doesn’t necessarily mean period pieces. It means the voices, faces, bodies, experiences, that are real and authentic, finding space—equal space—to be captured. That’s what that means to me. It means standing in support of those stories, and storytellers whose voices have gone unheard, and doing it in a way that remains entertaining, and that still has a universality to it. That people who aren’t even of that voice can hear their voice in it.”
Only the day before our interview, Aduba was stopped by a young Black woman, who told her how much seeing her on screen has meant to her. “I almost started crying,” Aduba says. “She was a dark-skinned, Black woman with no proximity to Euro-centric beauty, like myself, and she said, ‘You make me feel beautiful.’ That’s what she said.”
She pauses, and collects herself. “I do know existing means something, but because I’m just Uzo living in my body, you forget. Until somebody—a real person—says it, and then you understand. It’s like suddenly it motivates you all over again, in a wholly different way. It’s the raison d’être; why I’m doing this. It hits different, as they say.”
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