Samira Wiley is acutely aware of the significance of being a black, gay woman playing a black, gay hero in a popular, critically acclaimed television show. She is struck by how unlikely her position would have been just 10 years ago (not to mention that her “television” show, the dark, politically charged The Handmaid’s Tale, is actually on Hulu, an Internet streaming network that didn’t exist 10 years ago)—and how timely it is that the show is on even as America sees daily attacks on the rights and safety of LGBTQ people and people of color.
“It can feel overwhelming sometimes, representing so much for so many people at such a crazy time. But I feel like as artists, we have a responsibility to represent the times we live in,” Wiley tells SELF. “Things are moving forward and backward at the same time, and it’s intense, and it doesn’t always make a lot of sense. I just hope that our show is a warning, instead of prophetic.”
Wiley inherited her social conscience from her parents, both Baptist preachers whose church was among the first in Washington, D.C., to perform same-sex civil unions. “It’s practically down the street from the White House, you know what I mean? It’s so interesting to have those two things side by side,” she reflects. She says her parents are not daunted by this proximity; if anything, they seem driven by it. “What I hear from them is that no matter how close we are, even physically, to the government, and everyone making decisions in this country, we are going to make a stand. We are going to be a pillar in the middle of all of this. And even if our pillar isn’t that high, it’s here.”
Wiley, 30, has followed in her parents’ activist footsteps, accepting the Human Rights Campaign’s Visibility Award in 2015 and working as a spokeswoman for GLAAD. She didn’t get into acting to make a statement, yet when she hears actors say, “Hey, I’m not a role model, I’m just a person,” she finds that a little naïve. “When you have a platform and so many people looking up to you, I feel like it’s your responsibility to step up to the plate.” She marvels at what it means that little girls can see her prolific, extremely gay-positive Instagram feed and say to themselves, as she puts it, “Hey, I look like you, and I also like girls, and look what you did, and how happy you are. I can do that too.”
“I was 20 when I came out to my parents,” Wiley says. “As soon as I finished telling them, my dad opened his arms, and I think he literally said, ‘Great. Come give me a hug.'” So it comes as no surprise that her parents presided over her super romantic, confetti-dusted March wedding to Lauren Morelli, a writer on Orange Is the New Black, the Netflix women’s prison drama that gave Wiley her breakout role (and where the two met and fell in love).
Wiley had a less than auspicious entrée into the acting world. Bursting since age 10 with a desire to be an actor and about to graduate from D.C.’s Duke Ellington High, Wiley auditioned for entrance to several acting conservatories.
“I didn’t get into any of them,” she says, laughing, as one does 12 years past bad news and three weeks after being nominated for an Emmy. “The thing is, it didn’t make me think about quitting. I was just like, ‘Maybe I am not the best at this thing, but I just love it so much. Maybe I won’t be an actor, but I will work in theater anyway. Maybe I’ll just work in a box office.'”
One expects a young person with dashed dreams to react with either extreme pessimism—”screw this”—or defiance—”I’ll show them.” Wiley’s reaction was truly special, a blend of humility and toughness that shows in her acting. You can see it in the quick, sweet smile that contrasts so gorgeously—crushing many women’s hearts—with a hot, tough swagger in her role as inmate Poussey Washington through four seasons of the alternately laugh-out-loud/ugly-cry-inducing Orange Is the New Black. And you can see it in the tone she strikes as Moira in the feminist dystopian drama The Handmaid’s Tale—one of polite but fearless disdain.
Remarking to Wiley how surprising it is that her juvenile brush with rejection involved so little ego, she laughs again. Wiley laughs a lot, possibly because her life is kind of ridiculously perfect right now—rising fame; Emmy nom; newly, giddily married—but she also seems like one of those people who is just naturally disposed to being in a good mood. Which, come to think of it, probably helped her cultivate such a kind of ridiculously perfect life.
Maybe good old-fashioned prayer helped, too. After Wiley’s first semester at Temple University, her mother convinced her to give Juilliard a shot. “I told my mom not to tell anybody I was auditioning, but she had everyone at Wednesday-night Bible study praying for me.” This time, Wiley was accepted. “Thank you, Wednesday-night Bible study!” she laughs. At Juilliard, she says, “I ended up having the best time of my life. I think I felt for the first time, like, ‘Maybe I’m good at this.'”
She took every drop of this confidence to her OITNB audition—for which, coincidentally, her friend and Juilliard classmate Danielle Brooks had already shot the pilot (she plays Taystee). “When I went to my Orange audition, I was so determined,” she says, “I could feel that part lived in me somewhere. I went in there, and I sat in my chair backward, I had a pick stuck in my hair. I was like, ‘I’m going to get this.'” Modesty is a virtue, but sometimes you just have to own it. “Hey, everybody wants to be able to be the star!” she says.
Wiley is not quite a household name yet. Her Emmy nomination is for best supporting actress in The Handmaid’s Tale, in which she plays best friend to Offred (Elisabeth Moss, nominated for best actress). As the show shifts back and forth in time, viewers watch as, in their past, the two do typical urban girl stuff (flirt, party, eat hot dogs), while in the present they inhabit a world where fertile women are enslaved to bear children for sterile elites. Though not its star, (opaque spoiler alert) Wiley, as Moira, is arguably the show’s hero.
Like Poussey on OINTB, Moira is gay. While out and proud IRL, Wiley considers it somewhat of a coincidence that she’s played two lesbian characters back to back—and it certainly wasn’t the plan. “I love Poussey, and I love Moira, and I’m so honored to be able to play these women who shed light on what it’s like to be a woman today,” she says, pivoting to point out that she’s always admired actors—among her heroes are Robin Williams, Tom Hanks, and Meryl Streep—who are versatile and can take on a range of different characters. One day, she says, she wants to play Juliet.
“After I was done with OITNB I was like,” and here Wiley adopts a booming, stentorian voice, “You are going to play someone hetero!” But Morelli, a huge Margaret Atwood fan (Atwood wrote the 1985 novel on which the show is based and is an executive producer), let her then-fiancée know in no uncertain terms that she felt that this was not the time to die on “I’m not playing a lesbian” hill.
“She was like, ‘Do not walk away from this.’ And it was good advice. Really good advice,” Wiley says, adding about her wife, “I love having someone on my team. Also, the other day, she bought me a really dope tracksuit.”
Like many American women, Wiley and Morelli have logged hours marveling about the terrifying relevance of The Handmaid’s Tale. Relentless with its mental, emotional, and physical violence, the show envisions a not-too-distant future in which religious fundamentalism is the order of the day, and female fertility is a rare resource to be mined and controlled. Watching it feels like peering into a not-so-funhouse mirror at the country we currently live in, where abortion and birth control rights are constantly under attack, rape survivors are routinely disbelieved, and women strive constantly to prove their value beyond reproduction and ornamentation.
Wiley, who says she “definitely wants to be a mother,” knew from the start that the show’s themes mattered. But as time went on, its message of warning felt increasingly urgent. “We started filming before the election, and sure, we still felt like what we were doing was relevant and timely,” she tells SELF. “But once the election happened we were like, holy shit, our responsibility now is so much more to make sure that we present this with excellence so that people will pay attention.”
People are indeed paying attention. And, as Moira, Wiley is a big part of the show’s penetrating excellence. “Acting with Samira is like being in a beautiful boxing or tennis match,” costar Elisabeth Moss tells SELF. “She reacts physically and emotionally to every tiny adjustment, ebb, flow, or anything thrown her way. She is one of the absolute most present actors I’ve ever worked with. She’s one of those actors that makes you feel like there’s nobody else in the room when you are in a scene with her. It’s just you and her. Tossing it back and forth.”
To hear Wiley tell it, that dynamic was natural and effortless, notwithstanding her being a bit starstruck of Moss at first: “Coming into this, I was so in awe of her talent. I had all these plans in my head, all these ideas for how I was going to get us to have this amazing rapport, but working with her was easy because we had so much in common.” Shooting for season two of The Handmaid’s Tale is already underway in Toronto; it will be released next year.
Talking about Moss and the show, Wiley brings up an important point which, while not necessarily lost on viewers, probably doesn’t get talked about enough: Don’t just watch it because it’s topical, watch it because it is so damn good. “Yes, it’s an important show, yes, it’s a feminist classic, but also,” her voice rises to an enthusiastic cheer, “it’s just such great television.”
And there it is again, that emotional bob and weave that makes Wiley such a deeply powerful presence, onscreen and off. She can have the still beauty of an oil painting, but also make you laugh out loud, or spontaneously fill you with rage—yet she’s not self-conscious or showy, or overdone. She just seems to be enjoying herself. It’s abundantly clear that Wiley was never destined for working in the box office, but you can imagine her there, making the best of it.
Watch: The Handmaid’s Tale Actor Samira Wiley on Being a Role Model
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