Samira Wiley captured a nation of Netflix binge-watchers’ hearts as Orange Is The New Black’s Poussey Washington, whose friendship with Taystee and relationship with Soso gave us so many feelings. In season four of Orange Is The New Black, Poussey died — killed by a white prison guard — in a move that many criticized the series for.
Lucky for her fans, Samira’s career has continued rising. Her new film, 37, was just released, and in it, Samira plays a different sort of character: Joyce, a very pregnant mother of a five-year-old who, with her husband, becomes the first black family to move into an all-white apartment — only to witness the murder of Kitty Genovese. It’s Samira’s first lead role, and she’s excellent in it.
Next up, she’ll play Moira in the Hulu adaptation of the Margaret Atwood novel The Handmaid’s Tale, a series we can’t wait to watch. Oh, and she just got engaged to Orange Is The New Black writer Lauren Morelli.
We called up Samira to talk about all that, and much more:
Congratulations on your engagement!
Thank you so much, I really appreciate that, thank you!
Has it been weird having it make headlines and trend on Facebook and everything?
Oh, god, it’s the weirdest thing ever. I was maybe a little naive. I think Lauren is less so, she was trying to tell me it’s going to be a big thing. The outpouring of love was a shock to me, but also so great because everyone was so nice about.
To start out with, can you tell me a little bit about how you got involved with 37?
My agent brought it to my attention, and Puk [Grasten], who is the director, and I had a Skype session and we talked for about an hour and we just sort of clicked with each other. I felt like she was dedicated to telling this story in a way that had truth and integrity to it — that’s always the kind of art that I want to be involved in.
Was the Kitty Genovese story something you had much familiarity with?
Before reading the script and having that conversation, I really wasn’t familiar with the story of Kitty Genovese. It was nice to be able to come to it fresh and to be able to have conversations with people who were in New York at the time. I didn’t understand how much it permeated the culture back then. A lot of times I would tell about people the project I was working on and I wouldn’t mention her name, but I would describe the crime, and immediately people would say, “Oh, Kitty Genovese.”
The film explores a lot of themes — masculinity and racism and distrust of the police. What stood out to you?
One of the issues you see from the very beginning and definitely throughout the entire movie is the inherent struggle between Archibald and Joyce about the way they think is right to raise their son. Archibald really feels like he needs to be a man, and Joyce wants him to be able to, in her typical mothering fashion, to stay her baby for as long as possible. Another thing they’re dealing with is racism. They’re the first black family to move into the neighborhood. They’re trying to move into a better neighborhood and have a better life for them, and to speak up [about Kitty Genovese’s murder], especially for a black family, their reasoning is going to be, “Who’s going to be the first person they bring in as a suspect?”
With the pregnant belly and the wig and the babydoll dresses, your character is very different from how you look on Orange Is The New Black and in life. What was it like?
Oh, man. It was so fun for me. I feel like one of the reasons I am an actor is to be able to wear those things and, more importantly, to create a different person. And it was super fun to look in the mirror and look a little like Diana Ross!
This is the first film you’ve been the lead for, right?
I hadn’t really thought of that. The other actors and actresses in the film gave just so much energy and work that to me it feels much more like an ensemble project, which is something I’m really attracted to. You can only make projects better by having a strong cast, and this one did.
But it is your face on the poster and in the trailer and the images.
You know, it’s nice to be able to have the fame from Orange, and there’s trust that comes along with that as well. It’s nice to be able to recognize the point in my career that I am at, and I’m proud to be able to, as you say, lead this! It’s wonderful to be at this point.
I wanted to talk a little about Orange Is The New Black, too. Now that some time has passed, how do you feel about your character’s death? It was so controversial and there was so much conversation about it.
I think that as an actor, and for the writers and creators of television shows as well, it’s our responsibility to be able to reflect what’s going on in our time. I feel honored to be able to give life to a character who people have fallen in love with. Her death echoes others who were murdered, and to be able to play that felt like a real honor to me as an actor. I feel like the response was so much anger, and a lot of that anger was directed towards the show itself. I really wanted the anger to be directed towards what’s actually happening.
It looks like you’re still close with a lot of the Orange Is The New Black cast members?
Yes! Those girls will be in my life forever. It was the first job I ever had of that magnitude, and it was a lot of our first jobs of that magnitude. We really went through this together, being thrust into the public consciousness in a way that we never thought possible, and we just held each other’s hands through that. Those girls, I hang out with them, I love them, they’re my family, and they always will be.
Does it feel weird to not be involved with filming anymore?
It feels so weird, it feels the weirdest. They’re in the middle of filming season 5 right now and it’s the first time I’m not on set. There’s the sadness of not being able to be there with them, but there’s also knowing that I’ll finally be able to watch this season and have no idea what’s going on!
So your friends on the cast aren’t telling you anything.
No, I don’t want them to tell me anything! I don’t want any spoilers!
I was also wondering if you could tell me a little bit about the Handmaid’s Tale, which we’re very excited for.
What I can tell you is that I’m having a blast so far. I feel so privileged to be able to act with Elisabeth Moss, who I was a real fan of before the show. I’m playing her best friend. Having a strong cast and being able to play against another person only makes you better as an actor. And she’s one of the best.
Were you familiar with the book before signing on?
I’m going to be honest, I was assigned to read this book in high school or college, and I just didn’t do it. I read the book for the first time after reading the pilot script. But now, I’m sort of happy that I didn’t, because it feels nice to come to it without any preconceived notions. There are so many people who are huge fans of the book who are like, “Don't you mess this up!” and I don’t want that pressure coming from myself!
I saw Margaret Atwood speak recently and she talked about filming a cameo. Have you hung out on set with her?
We had dinner with Margaret not too long ago, and I was so nervous. I ended up sitting right across from her. There were so many people there, I don’t know how I ended up sitting across from her! As soon as Elisabeth Moss walked in, I was like, “I saved you a seat!”
I know you have to head off, but is there anything else you want to add before I let you go?
Just a thank you to everyone for following my career and being supporters!
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