TORONTO — Uzo Aduba was all set to have a career singing classical music, studying voice performance at Boston University, when the theater beckoned. A move to New York led to stage roles ranging from “Translations of Xhosa” to a revival of “Godspell.” Parlaying that into television and film work proved difficult, but one day she got a phone call offering her the part of Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren on the then-new show “Orange Is the New Black,” for which she’s since won two Emmys. Last year another phone call, from actor and first-time director Ewan McGregor, resulted in her first major film role, as Vicky, in the screen adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Philip Roth novel “American Pastoral,” which opens on Friday.
Set in the politically and racially tumultuous late 1960s and early ‘70s, the story follows the travails of the Levov family: successful businessman Seymour (McGregor), his less-than-stable wife, Dawn (Jennifer Connelly), and their daughter, Merry (Dakota Fanning). She becomes radicalized, is accused of a series of New Jersey bombings, then disappears. Aduba plays Vicky, the office manager and right-hand-woman at Seymour’s factory, and the calming center of the family’s and the film’s emotional storm.
Q. Your official bio states that you’re from Boston, but in interviews you’ve always said you’re from a small New England town. Where did you grow up?
A. I’m from Medfield. I don’t usually say it because often when I do, people say, “Oh, I know it.” I say, “It’s so small I’m not sure you do.” Then they say, “Yeah, Tufts, Medford.” So I know they don’t know it. And it’s OK to say Boston. My dog is named Fenway Bark.
Q. How did your dreams of being a singer turn into an acting career?
A. Actually, I did some acting very early. The first show I ever did was “Caps for Sale,” when I was in day care, and around that time I was an angel in a nativity play. In high school I auditioned for “The Secret Garden” and got a part as a ghost. But I always sang. I was singing in church, and in my choir in middle school and high school, and it felt natural to go into drama in high school, because there were musicals. I was pursuing singing and musical theater, and my voice sang more naturally in its upper register in a classical capacity.
Q. So when you went to BU it was more for singing than acting?
A. Yes. I was studying classical voice performance there, but in that program you also have to take acting. In addition to voice lessons, theory, ear training, and music history, you also had to take Shakespeare and movement. So on Fridays, we’d have a class in movement, and we’d be doing things like rolling around on the ground, and on another day we’d have music history, learning about Rachmaninoff. And I thought, “I like the rolling on the ground part better.” I felt that when I moved to New York, this is what I’d be doing.
Q. You did a lot of stage work there, then “Orange Is the New Black” happened, and now you’ve broken into film. How did the part of Vicky come to you?
A. My agents brought me the script, and I loved it, and loved the story. Then I got a phone call from Ewan. He was talking about the script, and I remember his enthusiasm and his passion for the story and for what he was trying to say and communicate. It was infectious and exciting, and who doesn’t want to be in an environment like that? So I said yes.
Q. Introduce Vicky.
A. She’s a woman who works alongside Ewan’s character, Seymour, at his handmade glove factory. We’re watching her life at a time when this country is in a state of change and transition, at a time when people of her make are supposed to be sort of relegated to the back seat of our culture, but is, because of the Levov family, very empowered at her workplace. She is able to stand in her full, authentic self, and she’s a very self-possessed woman, full of opinions, that she’s happy to offer, whether solicited or not [laughs].
Q. You don’t have a lot of scenes, but we get to know your character pretty well. Did you add much to the script?
A. Not really. I just thought she sang so loudly with the little that she had to say. I felt she was a person who was emphatic about whatever it was she wanted to state. She is clear, and she is fearless. And I know women who are like that — certainly in my own home — who have no problem speaking their opinions. I thought this was a wonderful opportunity for a number of voices we haven’t heard from, from that time or since, to give them as loud a voice as I possibly could.
Q. You got to sing last year when you played Glinda on the TV broadcast of “The Wiz Live.” Are there plans to do a concert any time down the road?
A. Oh, I don’t know. I would love to do a concert, but as an artist, I don’t like doing something just for the sake of doing it. I think if it feels motivated by a need to say or do something, that concert will happen.