Actor Uzo Aduba opens up about grief, mental health and playing a psychologist in HBO's 'In Treatment.'
Erik Carter for TIME
April 29, 2021 3:12 PM EDT

There are a few words, Uzo Aduba points out, that we tend to whisper. Therapy is one of them. Saying it out loud is more than part of the job for the actor, who’s preparing for the May 23 premiere of her latest show: a new installment of HBO’s 2008–2010 hit drama In Treatment, in which she stars as the psychologist to a rotating cast of patients.

The show is billed as a fourth season of the original, which starred Gabriel Byrne as the therapist and won two Emmys and a Golden Globe. Aduba says her role as Dr. Brooke Taylor is her most personal yet—the only character she’s played so far that has followed her home at night. “This was closer to the bone,” she says.

Like her character, Aduba is aware of the value of talking through feelings. And like Brooke, who is mourning her father, Aduba has just lost a parent. Her mother Nonyem Aduba died late last year, and the actor has been working with her own therapist to face the realities of loss and forge a path forward.

Opening up in public about her personal life, and about her mental health, isn’t exactly comfortable for Aduba, who is more accustomed to putting on a brave face to the outside world than to admitting she’s struggling. The actor, who built a career in theater before breaking out in 2013 as Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren on Netflix’s hit Orange Is the New Black, has long been private. But now, she’s ready to talk. “I just hope that in adding my two cents, maybe people out there might feel moved to address things in their own world,” she says. “Privacy is important—but sharing is also necessary.”

Another word we tend to whisper is cancer, and it takes a moment for Aduba to find the right way into the story about her mother’s passing. Eventually, she begins. It was June 29, 2019, in Los Angeles, and Aduba was in a friend’s wedding as the maid of honor when she got a text from her sister: Nonyem was in the hospital. Aduba walked out of the venue and went straight to the airport. She and her four siblings heard the diagnosis a few days later: pancreatic cancer.

Anyone who has followed Aduba’s career knows how close she was to her mother. Nonyem was by her side, vibrant in blue and beaming with pride, when the actor won her first major award. She was somewhere nearby, off-screen, at the virtual Emmys ceremony in September when Aduba won for her performance as groundbreaking politician Shirley Chisholm in the FX series Mrs. America; Aduba, visibly shocked to hear her name, barely started her acceptance speech before shouting “Mom!” to get her attention. Nonyem is a character in all of Aduba’s stories—her daily confidant, her travel companion, her source of wisdom and guidance, her hero who survived polio and war and widowhood, the person she leans on and looks up to most in the world. The prospect of losing her was unthinkable.

Yet life marched on. From the outside, it would be easy to assume Aduba has been on a high, experiencing one triumph after another. There was the big TV role, the Emmy (her third), announcements for new projects, a producing deal with CBS Studios. She filmed two new shows during the pandemic: Amazon’s anthology series Solos, arriving May 21, and In Treatment—which marks her first lead role in a television show.

But in her private life, the actor spent a year and a half focused on Nonyem’s illness. Aduba was meant to move to Toronto and begin filming Mrs. America that July—and with the support of producers Stacey Sher and Coco Francini, she did the latter. But she never moved. Instead, she flew back and forth continually between the set and her mother’s side in New Jersey, sometimes round trip in a single day, never settling in Toronto for more than 10 days at a time over three months of filming.

When the pandemic hit, any lingering pressure to balance work with caretaking dissipated. Come last March, she dedicated herself solely to her mother’s care, taking only three days in the fall to film her episode of Solos. Aduba had a few other projects on the calendar, but delays and cancellations ended up being a blessing. She jokes about the term that has been thrown around so frequently during the pandemic—the new normal—and how for someone whose center of gravity had already shifted so much, her routines were largely unchanged when the world shut down.

Nonyem died in early November, her three daughters by her side. Aduba smiles when she describes how her mother stayed true to her character until the end, offering her children wisdom and counsel. Her death was a moment marked not by sadness, but by pride. “To the end, this woman is who she said she was,” Aduba says. “I’m so proud that that blood runs in my veins.”

Aduba flew from New York to Los Angeles to begin work on In Treatment just 10 days after her mother passed, and, naturally, grief traveled with her. Filming scenes where Brooke is grappling with her father’s death brought a lot to the surface. “It wasn’t hard to find those feelings,” she says. “It was hard to dampen them.”

The role changed Aduba’s perspective not on therapy but on therapists, who are asked, hour after hour, to stay open to whatever their patients bring into the room and to hold those feelings alongside them.

In the space of a few episodes, Brooke has to coax out the nuances of a young caretaker’s feelings of abandonment, help embrace a teenage girl’s Black and queer identity, and navigate a privileged man’s dishonesty. The show doesn’t shy away from contemporary tensions, pushing into violent racial fantasies and toxic masculinity. Watching Aduba’s performance in these scenes, it’s easy to feel Brooke’s frustration, unease, even danger. “This is a Black, female psychologist treating people through the lens of the world as she sees it,” Aduba says. “There are a lot of unknowns of how that day is going to go, and why people have arrived there.”

They filmed 24 episodes, each in about two breakneck days, under the stress of the pandemic. COVID-19 makes its way into the story of the show in a few ways—one patient has been released from prison because of the virus, another sees Brooke through a video platform; Brooke is seeing her in-person patients at her home while her office is closed. Aduba adhered to a grueling schedule of drilling lines as she appeared in every scene of every episode, feeling the responsibility to follow the rules and stay healthy to keep the show running. When they wrapped, she felt like she had shed old skin. “Old skin that I’ve worn from June 29, 2019,” she says. “Old skin in terms of the limits of what I thought I was capable of.”

The actor was no stranger to therapy when she signed on to star in In Treatment. She sought help for a short time, she says, when she first became high-profile. That work helped her reconcile the fact that while she was the same person, suddenly the rest of the world saw her as something else. She started again last February.

It’s describing that time that brings Aduba to slow her speech as she pushes through tears. “I knew I needed to talk to somebody about the amount of pain I was feeling,” she says, her voice unsteady. “What it means to grieve. How does one say goodbye?”

I am supposed to be the one asking the questions, but Aduba just posed the biggest one of them all—the one that everyone lucky enough to have grown up with unconditional love asks themselves. How do you say goodbye, and how do you go on?

“What I didn’t realize,” Aduba says, “is I don’t have to do life without her.” Nonyem is closer now. She’s become a part of Aduba—her voice and perspective and encouragement a constant presence within the woman she poured herself into raising. “I am her.”

Aduba will carry that sense of comfort with her, as well as the lesson that grief, and talking about grief, changes people. And while she doesn’t have the perfect language to describe this loss, the sentiment is something she’s learning not to whisper but to speak plainly. “It’s O.K. to just be trying to figure it out and make it through today,” she says. “I just hope we all learn to talk more about what we’re feeling.”

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Write to Lucy Feldman at lucy.feldman@time.com.

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