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Uzo Aduba on her role in new film exploring college athlete compensation debate

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

There's a new movie out about college football just in time for the start of college playoff season. It's called "National Champions." But there are no come-from-behind victories in this film, no tales of athletes heroically overcoming adversity, either. Instead, "National Champions" explores the heated debate over whether college players should be compensated by the NCAA, which generates hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue each year from college sports. In the movie, the central character is a star quarterback, played by actor Stephan James, who tries to get his fellow players to boycott the national championship game.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NATIONAL CHAMPIONS")

STEPHAN JAMES: (As LeMarcus James) You see, all of this money is predicated on one underlying principle, free labor.

PFEIFFER: Some of you listeners may be asking if this compensation issue was resolved by new rules letting student athletes make money off their names and images. But "National Champions" goes deeper into this controversy.

With us today is another star of the film, Emmy award-winning Uzo Aduba. Uzo, welcome to the program.

UZO ADUBA: Thank you for having me.

PFEIFFER: Uzo, this is a issue movie. It takes on a big societal debate. I'm wondering if you were attracted to this movie because of that particular issue, or was there something else about the specific role that made you want to sign on?

ADUBA: It was the subject matter, the imbalance between the labor of the athletes and the money generated from the sport by the university and all those attached. And so I was fascinated by that debate that's happening within the film. And I understood the conversation from a place of the personal, having been a college scholarship athlete myself.

PFEIFFER: I think you ran track at Boston University. Is that right?

ADUBA: Correct.

PFEIFFER: Was there anything about your own student-athlete experience that gave you helpful insights into playing this role?

ADUBA: Sure. You know, I think the balancing of sport and life and the opportunity that comes with scholarships, of course, read personally to me, and the story of my character, Katherine Poe...

PFEIFFER: Who is a lawyer for the NCAA.

ADUBA: That's right - who comes from a very humble background herself and, with the opportunity of the scholarship, was able to carve out a new path for herself. At the same time, I understood the challenges that are being brought up in the film so far as athletes who are playing these major sports, in particular impact - high-impact sports - and some who go on to have these illustrious, amazing careers, and some who, unfortunately, don't without any sort of support.

PFEIFFER: In this movie, as we mentioned, you play a lawyer, a pretty ruthless lawyer for the NCAA - basically, a union-busting attorney. Here's a clip where you're confronting two boycotting football players. And you've just mentioned that your fictional character had gotten a full ride at Duke to run track.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NATIONAL CHAMPIONS")

ADUBA: (As Katherine Poe) The NCAA spends $3.6 billion on student-athlete scholarships for kids like me, like you and like you so that we can get a leg up. And what happens to all of that? When they start paying you, what happens to volleyball in Minnesota, to soccer in Idaho, to softball in South Carolina? What happens to all of those other sports that are not men's football and basketball?

PFEIFFER: You know, Uzo Aduba, I've already watched this movie to prepare to talk to you, but as I listen to it now again, I can hear your voice actually trembling in that scene. And it makes me wonder if that was just...

ADUBA: Yeah.

PFEIFFER: ...Very good acting or you actually were feeling that emotion in that moment?

ADUBA: Yeah. I mean, of course, I think - I - feeling that emotion, you know? I would have been one of those other sports. And I could understand the life that Katherine has created for herself based off of the opportunity she got from being a scholarship athlete. And - but I could also understand this line that she was straddling with her old self, her previous life, and that she was the very person, one of the many people, that, you know, LeMarcus James is actually standing up for.

PFEIFFER: In this movie, most of the bad guys, let's call them, are rich, older white men trying to protect their business interests and trying to protect the revenue stream that has made them rich. But you play a Black lawyer being paid to basically crush a Black young athlete by any means necessary. Did you have any reticence about playing that kind of henchwoman? Or was it just a good role and maybe particularly interesting and challenging because of that dynamic?

ADUBA: I think it's had more to do with the latter. I mean, the apprehension, of course, is - that's built in - isn't it, right? - to the challenge of Katherine's job, that she has to be pit against someone whose story she understands and who - and an argument that she understands. And it's difficult to know that a casualty of that propping up is also the takedown of someone from her community. So I think - I wasn't glad to do that. Let me say it that way. But it certainly was a layer of the challenges that made her character and the relationship more challenging.

PFEIFFER: You had your big break with "Orange Is The New Black." You won multiple Emmys for your character in that series, Crazy Eyes. After experiencing that kind of success, which I think came more than a decade after you first started acting, how has that changed your thought process about the type of projects you want to do?

ADUBA: It's expanded my ideas of what is possible. You know, Suzanne "Crazy Eyes" Warren on "Orange" was unlike any character I'd ever played before playing her. I had never played anybody like that before. And I think for me, it really cemented in me this desire to try as many different creative hats as possible.

PFEIFFER: That's Emmy-winning actress Uzo Aduba. She stars in the new movie "National Champions," in theaters now and on demand everywhere December 28. Uzo, thank you very much.

ADUBA: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.