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Photos by Pari Dukovic/FX.
There’s no shame in being a couch potato. Quite the opposite: These days, there’s honor in going absolutely nowhere. Between social distancing and stay-at-home orders, the only safe way to welcome several guests into your space is to flip on the television. (They’re two-dimensional visitors, but we must take what we can get.)
Fictional shows are a world of fun, but it’s always nice to learn a thing or two. “Mrs. America,” a new FX miniseries that premiered Wednesday on Hulu, charts the movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, spotlighting the feminist activists fighting for equality and the anti-feminist opposition helmed by staunch conservative Phyllis Schlafly. The stellar ensemble cast breathes new life into historical figures, their political efforts and their interior lives. Cate Blanchett stars as Schlafly, Rose Byrne is Gloria Steinem and Uzo Aduba portrays Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to be elected to Congress who went on to become the first woman and African American to seek the presidential nomination of a major political party in 1972. Betty Friedan, author of “The Feminine Mystique,” and New York congresswoman Bella Abzug also play significant roles in the series — they’re portrayed by Tracey Ullman and Margo Martindale, respectively.
We spoke with Aduba, best known for her unforgettable turn as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren in “Orange Is the New Black,” about what surprised her most in the nine-part series and how “Mrs. America” can help us think through our current political context.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Nneka McGuire: What were your initial reactions coming to this project, when you read the scripts?
Uzo Aduba: I was excited, because when we were in our last season of “Orange,” I was trying to take in the amount of time I was getting to spend with these exceptionally talented actresses, and I was telling myself to really enjoy it, because you may never get to work on another project again with this many talented women telling an important story. Flash forward four, five months, and it’s like, “Oh, here’s this other show that’s going to be with all these talented women telling an important story.”
It was pretty cool that these Second Wave feminists — who, at least in my upbringing in watching TV or film, haven’t been part of America’s historical cinematic narrative — were going to get their own space, uninterrupted. It was exciting to me that all these women — real people, not made-up characters — were getting to have their stories heard. And it was especially exciting to know that Shirley Chisholm was a part of that as well, a figure who I think is often, quite frankly, erased.
NM: How did you prepare for the role, and what surprised you about Chisholm?
UA: In my preparation, I usually like to read the material and come up with a question. For this project, the question that I had about Shirley Chisholm was, how does she define herself in the world, versus how the world tries to define her? This wasn’t a woman running for president today. This is a woman pursuing the highest office in the land not long after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Not long after the Voting Rights Act was enacted. This is a woman who grew up and was living when the march on Selma is happening, when we are burying Emmett Till. This is the America she lived in. This is not the same America you and I live in today. All those things happened pretty, pretty close to her bid for the presidency.
I was curious about what kind of a woman, what kind of a person, does that? Because no one else dared to do it before her, and it was decades before anybody dared to do it after. So it tells you the mettle she’s made of. She’s made of something different. I was interested in that examination, really finding both the strength of that and the weight.
I was watching this documentary on Shirley Chisholm, “Unbought and Unbossed,” and there was this moment toward the end where I got to witness a truth that I knew, which is that strong women have feelings, too.
Near the end of the documentary, when she’s decided to concede, you see her fold into her arms and just cry. We never really get to see that moment from women like her. We might see the mettle and the grace and the pride and the stature and the strength. We might see all of those shadings, but we never get to see the full complexity of that person, the hurt and the weight of going out into the world carrying that power and the expectation that that’s who you are at all times.
Another thing I learned, from a history standpoint, is that it wasn’t just the opposing party political that resulted in her concession. It was her own party and her own women’s caucus that had a healthy hand in that concession.
NM: We’ve come a long way, in terms of the rights and accomplishments of women and people of color, since Shirley Chisholm ran for president. How do you think this series, which is coming out during a presidential election, can help us think about our current political climate?
UA: I’m no expert in politics by any stretch of the imagination, but I think that this certainly holds the mirror up and begs the question of how much progress we’ve made. We had six women this year who ran for the Democratic Party nomination, up from one in 2016. So, yeah, the possibility is greater than it has been before. But I think there were sharp echoes in our limited series in terms of conversations of electability. In the series, you are watching real stock footage of men and women thinking that a woman couldn’t be elected into office, and some of her colleagues didn’t think it was possible. Those are some of the same discussions being had today. I think it would be wonderful if people were able to see those moments in the series and ask themselves a really honest question of whether we have gotten as far as we think we have.
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