All Eyes on Samira Wiley
Samira Wiley Is NYLON's June 2019 Cover Star. The actress talks about Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale
Samira Wiley didn't think she was going to get the part on Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale. When she auditioned for the role of Moira, the intrepid and determined best friend of the series' protagonist, June, Wiley was sleepless and exhausted. She'd just flown into Toronto from Los Angeles, and because she'd just lost her passport, she'd had to get a new one the morning of her flight to Canada, where she would also be appearing at a promotional event for Toronto Pride.
But first, she had to get into Canada at all. "I had to be there at 6:45 to be the first one in line to get a same-day expedited passport, which I didn't even know was a thing," she told me on a recent afternoon, over lunch at an Ethiopian restaurant in Brooklyn. "And I wish I had my passport photo to show you to give you an idea of what I looked like that day." Unslept, unkempt, and tired from her flight, Wiley went straight to the audition upon landing. Thinking back on it now, she shakes her head, laughing. "No bueno."
There was another reason Wiley might have been feeling overwhelmed: She'd also just lost her job. Poussey Washington, the character that skyrocketed Wiley to fame, had just been killed off the beloved Netflix series Orange Is the New Black. In the large ensemble cast of Orange, Wiley had stood out. A fresh face in her first breakout TV role, Wiley was new to many viewers, and audiences were drawn to her. Her character became a fan favorite, with Wiley's charisma anchoring scene after scene. Watching Orange, you couldn't take your eyes off her. I'll confess that after her character died in Season 4, I stopped watching the show. I realized I'd only been watching for her.
Wiley has a vivaciousness and humor that she lent to Poussey, but she can also turn inward, with a twitch of her eye signaling fear or regret. She becomes solemn when she speaks of those months after losing her role on Orange. Leaving the show was not her choice, and when her character died, Wiley didn't know what to do with herself. "There were about four months there where it was really scary, just because I kind of thought…" she pauses. "Well, I didn't think my career was over, or I was over, but I did think, like, I'm lost at sea."
“Every story is about the human experience.”
And then, Wiley was sure the Handmaid's Tale audition hadn't gone well. "There was no part of me that expected I was going to get a call back for the role," she says. "I was worried I was not even going to remember the lines. I actually think—this is a little embarrassing, but my standards are really like this—I couldn't remember all of the lines. And so, when I did the audition, I just held the paper, a little shaky in my hand. But, I don't know, I guess they saw something, and they called me back."
It's not hard to imagine what they saw. In person, Wiley is almost preternaturally charming. She cracks jokes with strangers to break the ice, is quick to express pleasure or approval—"You look so cute!" "I love this song!"—and can put anyone at ease around her with a flash of her huge, infectious smile.
Maybe she got it from her parents. A native of D.C., Wiley is the daughter of Baptist ministers, people with a purpose and a message to send to a crowd. In interviews, she speaks about them with solemn admiration—especially her mom, who worked while raising Wiley and her two siblings. And they weren't afraid to take a stand: Wiley's parents became the first Baptist ministers in the city to perform same-sex marriages. Ministry is a kind of performance, and it's not hard to see how Wiley made the transition from watching her parents preach to pursuing the stage herself, first at a performing arts high school in D.C., then at Julliard. She was working in New York's theater scene when an old classmate told her about auditions for Orange. As far as Hollywood goes, Wiley's rise was low-key, organic: She was a born performer who worked hard, for years, on her craft, and got a couple of lucky breaks. But sitting with her in the restaurant, it seems like it was inevitable, fated, that she would be a star. Her magnetism makes her fame seem inevitable.
“There are only a couple of choices [for gay characters on TV.] They’re going to fuck, or they’re going to fight.”
Now, Wiley becomes the center of any room she walks into, drawing eyes and attention her way. It idly occurs to me that she could make a living as a con man, or the leader of a cult: She has the kind of disarming charm that makes you immediately trust her. But she's the kind of person who would only use her power for good. Wiley spends a lot of time cracking jokes. During my time with her, I saw her seek out whoever looked most quiet in the room, and make sure they were having a good time. The result is that being with Wiley can feel intoxicating, almost sedative. She smiles at you like you're in a conspiracy together. She makes you want to tell her a secret.
Wiley knows this, because sometimes people do tell her secrets. She tells me a story of something that happened to her just recently, on the same trip to New York where she shot this cover story. She was hanging out at a friend's apartment when a man—a friend-of-a-friend—showed up, drunk and irate. "There were four women and one man in the room," she says. "He said something like, 'Let me do it, you seven women are so stupid.' He was so drunk that he literally called us seven women." It seemed like things could get ugly. "He called us stupid, and so, some of those women got rightfully upset. Me, being the peacemaker, I was like, Lemme take this dude outside. We're walking around in the middle of New York City, and he's hammered. He starts to talk to me, and he says, 'Why can't they just be men?' I swear to god, this happened. He was like, 'I just can't fucking understand… Why can't they just be fucking men?' He looks at me, with no pause, and says, 'You know what I mean?'"
I'm stunned, and I tell her so. "I love being that person that makes people…" She searches. Feel like they can let their guard down? "Yeah! I was definitely using it very knowingly that night. I'm a Black, gay woman with a straight, white man who was completely comfortable to say that to me. It's insane."
It's a skill that Wiley has, making people feel comfortable this way, and she uses it strategically, to get to know them better. They slip up and tell her what they really think. "It's beautiful," she says, getting people to open up to her. "For me as an actor and a storyteller and a truth seeker, that's like gold. But also, it's fucking horrible because we have these people in our country who are so emboldened to say and do what they've been thinking and feeling for so long. That ain't good."
Politics are inescapable now that she's working on The Handmaid's Tale, a dystopian drama based on Margaret Atwood's novel about a brutal fundamentalist Christian dictatorship, Gilead, that takes over the U.S. in the not-so-distant future and enslaves women for the purpose of making babies. The show depicts such brutal and violent hatred of women that it can be upsetting to watch—but you can't take your eyes off it, even when you want to look away. For me, it also resonates with the way a revanchist right is chipping away at women's rights, voting rights, and gay rights, and how abortion rights, in particular, are being attacked. I'm not alone: At protests outside state capitol buildings in Alabama, Georgia, Ohio, and other states that have recently passed brutal abortion restrictions, pro-choice women wear long red capes and white bonnets, the same uniform that reproductive slaves are forced to wear on The Handmaid's Tale. In my own conversations, I find that women tend to see the show not so much as a dystopian fantasy, but as a kind of dark prediction, a template for the way that ultra-conservatives want things to be. I say this to Wiley; she nods, and for a moment, she doesn't meet my gaze.
There's an idea that keeps Gilead going, she tells me, and for it to work, it's an idea that women have to buy into. "It's this idea that you've given these women a false sense of superiority over each other. You set up this stupid-ass caste system that everyone has now subscribed to where we got wives and handmaids and whatever the fuck," she says. "You've got all these women believing, and the real thing is the women who are the most secure—like, say, the wives—they don't even realize. I think they're the most oppressed, in a way. They don't even know what's happening. The women are living in this society where this one thinks she's superior and whatever, whatever. It's really just the patriarchy that's like, 'Got you all! You're fighting against each other!'"
In the show, Wiley's character, Moira, flees Gilead in the first season, after suffering horrific rape and abuse. Moira is now in Canada, helping other survivors who have escaped the regime, but she still has loved ones back in Gilead, and she's still struggling to come to grips with what she went through there. While scenes from Gilead are brutal and often gory, Wiley's scenes, set in Canada, are quieter, but more psychologically intense. "She's not physically threatened every day of her life anymore," Wiley says of her character, "but that shit is just so in her."
In the third season, sometimes all the action of a scene takes place on Wiley's face, as she shows Moira remembering, repressing, feeling the weight of her traumas all over again. Wiley is a detail-oriented actor—she tells me she sometimes thinks so deeply about her characters that she mentally connects the way they hold a beer bottle to things that happened in their childhoods. It's a skill that serves her well on Handmaid's Tale, where telling the story of a trauma survivor sometimes requires her to convey vast depths of emotion with little more than the fall of a smile, the widening of an eye.
“It’s fucking horrible because we have these people in our country who are so emboldened to say and do what they’ve been thinking and feeling for so long. That ain’t good.”
Sometimes the violence and misogyny of the show are too much, though, even for Wiley. Because, if the show is difficult to watch, it's even more difficult to make. She's had to adjust her own working process, setting boundaries around material that deals so much with bigotry and violence. "It's trauma on trauma on trauma," she says. When she first began on the show, she approached the scripts the way she did with previous roles: obsessively. Usually, she says, her preparation draws on her background as a theater actor, and the skills she learned at Julliard. "I just get a script and pour over it," she says. "I just consume it. And that is not sustainable with a show like this." After the show's first season, she had to stop reading the scenes that her character wasn't in. It was too upsetting. "I don't read the scripts like that anymore. I can't."
Wiley is an empathetic person; I can tell from the way she's able to put everyone around her at ease. She clearly spends a lot of time thinking about what other people are feeling, wanting them to be happy, to thrive. She talks about her characters like they're close friends, people she loves. "She's so badass," she says of Moira, and her tone takes on the combination of admiration and worry that mothers use when they're talking about their perhaps slightly troubled adult children. "If anyone says anything, she's gotta cut right back. But she also has a light to her that's really been diminished and dimmed since Gilead."
The weight of Moira's experiences weighs on Wiley. She feels responsible to the woman she portrays. "I can't imagine the trauma that women who have gone through abuse, sexual or not [have experienced]," she says. "Because from what it feels like, it's just this pit, this ball in your stomach that you just can't pass." She makes a fist and pushes back from the table so I can see it, balled up, hard and white-knuckled against her T-shirt. "I just want her to be okay," she says. "I don't worry about Poussey, because she's dead. But I do worry about Moira. I think about her in this really meta way where I wish she would just go to therapy. "
But as upsetting as the role can be, Wiley is insistent that The Handmaid's Tale has made her stronger, more empathetic. Seeing her characters as normal people in extraordinary situations has made her further aware of the suffering of others, aware of how history and chance can change normal people's lives. "It's not a story about this crazy other," she says. "Because every story is about the human experience." The suffering brings the characters together, makes them understand one another and sympathize. "It's a group of women who, in another situation, would never hang out with each other, would never be around each other. And that doesn't matter when it comes to what's actually happening to them and who they are as people. It really, really, really does highlight for me how similar we are as human beings, and that is what I'm interested in."
Still, even a show like Handmaid's, with its decidedly feminist lessons, can be a tense workplace for one of the most prominent Black lesbians in the straight, white, and male-dominated entertainment industry. Wiley's character is one of a few gay characters on the show, living in a world where gay people are executed as "gender traitors." She talks about how a director for one of Season 3's episodes asked her if two of the show's lesbian characters—both survivors of sex slavery—were going to sleep together. Wiley remembers: "I was like… 'Are you kidding me?' She was like, 'Yeah, that kind of seems like where it's going.'"
Being gay in public has been a challenge for Wiley. She used to worry about getting typecast, especially after playing two lesbians in her two major TV roles. Now, she worries about doing justice to the variety of the gay experience, about being a good role model for gay kids. Wiley wouldn't name the director who had been so wrongheaded about the show's gay characters, but it's clear that the conversation bugged her. It struck a chord. "It just totally…" Wiley shakes her head. She's been determinedly optimistic the whole afternoon; this is the closest I see her to anger. "There are only a couple of choices," for gay characters on TV, she says. "They're going to fuck, or they're going to fight."
"I'm just about women and queer women opening the door. Keep opening the door."
But what was special about the characters on Handmaid's is that, gay or not, they get to be full people, complete with hurts, pasts, traumas; people who are coping with something deep and profound. "We're actually just two traumatized women who can understand the other one without any words, and that is invaluable. To be able to sit next to each other in a freaking coffee shop and drink a cup of coffee and know that she knows what you went through? No, we're not going to hook up! We're looking for that… I don't know. It really made me upset."
But when I ask her if she thinks being out has lost her opportunities, she shakes her head no before I can even get the question out. Yeah, she gets offered a lot of gay parts, she says, but it's not like that's a bad thing. "At the end of the day, I want to tell stories that I believe in and that I believe are creative. It's great. I'm very flattered by it," she says. "Because of that, I get things that come across my desk that are freaking brilliant. A lot of it, probably the majority of it, is like, 'Samira is gay, she can play this.' I don't know. I'm just about women and queer women opening the door. Keep opening the door."◊
- PHOTOGRAPHER: KATE OWEN
- VIDEOGRAPHER: DANI OKON
- LINE PRODUCER: ALEXANDRA HSIE
- STYLIST: MECCA JAMES-WILLIAMS
- HAIR STYLIST: DERICK MONROE
- MAKEUP ARTIST: "DISCO"
- NAILS: LEANNE WOODLEY AT SHE LIKES CUTIE
- STYLIST ASSISTANT: RYAN GALE
- PHOTOGRAPHER ASSISTANT: DRAKE WOODAL
- INTERNS: SOFIA ROMERO, POLINA BUCHAK, SABRINA TALBERT, MALLORI ALBRIGHT