"Is this ladder safe?” Samira Wiley asks before gamely climbing up the rickety rungs leaning against a lemon tree on location at our L.A. cover shoot. The 30-year-old actor is almost unrecognizable in a pair of soaring geometric heels and a strapless green mini dress that makes her ladder climbing even more impressive. But then she flashes her unmistakable smile, the one that makes her eyes crinkle and twinkle and is familiar to anyone who watched the first four seasons of the Netflix series Orange is the New Black, which follows a group of women in the fictional Litchfield Correctional Facility. It’s the smile she aimed right at the camera in her last scene on the show after—spoiler alert—her beloved character Poussey was murdered. Her departure from one of the most female-centric, intersectionally feminist shows ever could have been a total bummer. Except she then landed the pivotal role of Moira, best friend to Elisabeth Moss’ Offred, on Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the newest, most female-centric, feminist show to hit television. She’s on a short break soaking up the SoCal sun before heading back to Toronto to finish filming season two of the series based on Margaret Atwood’s novel, which terrifyingly explores gender inequality, the stripping of reproductive rights, and the all-too-real reign of a misogynist administration.
It’s a premise that took on a whole new meaning while the cast was shooting the initial season, Wiley says. “The first half of Season One was filmed during the [presidential] campaign and it was like, ‘By the time this comes out, we’ll just be like, God that could have happened. Isn’t it amazing we dodged that?’” Wiley says. “And obviously that is not what happened. When Donald Trump—when 45 happened—it was surreal. At the SAG Awards, [host] Kristen Bell came out and said, ‘We have the cast from the documentary The Handmaid’s Tale here,’ and that’s kind of how it felt.”
Wiley is in her own clothes now: a long-sleeved button-down shirt, skinny jeans, and a shiny pair of black Air Jordans. We’re sitting on a couch in the BUST stylist’s living room, sipping Prosecco out of mason jars. I have an unspoken rule about not drinking alcohol during interviews, but when Wiley suggests something, it’s really hard to say no. Not because of peer pressure or anything, but because she functions in a constant swirl of good vibes and you just want to get in on them. It’s one of the traits that made Poussey such a beloved character on OITNB, and part of what makes Wiley’s transition to Moira so stunning. She’s still playing a prisoner, now held captive in the fictional Gilead, but that thousand-watt smile has been greatly dimmed, the good vibes seen mostly in pre-Gilead flashbacks.
But if the trials of The Handmaid’s Tale—in which fertile women are forced to procreate by government higher-ups, and other women, like Wiley’s Moira, are relegated to sex slavery—feel more urgent than ever, on the inside, the show is a feminist utopia, much like the set of OITNB. It’s a career windfall that is not lost on Wiley, especially with the #MeToo movement’s illumination of Hollywood’s seedier side on everyone’s mind. “My first show was Orange is the New Black, just ladies and lesbians everywhere—every single person from the camera operator to the producers, the creative consultants, everyone on camera with me, everyone writing the scripts. I was a feminist when I came into it, let me be clear. But let’s say I wasn’t; that show would have completely made me a feminist my first day because you see so tangibly in front of you that this ship is running like a well-oiled machine, and that’s because of all of these women in positions of power who inspire me,” she says. “I went from that show to Handmaid’s Tale. Our showrunner is a man, but he knows that his ship can’t go anywhere unless he’s got it filled with women. Every single director last year was a woman except for one. And so because of that, I think these shows have shaped me into the feminist that I am. I know that there are women in Hollywood who feel so much like they have to fight for their stories, for their voices to be heard. And I almost feel like a little spoiled brat because I’ve somehow been living in this little fantasyland.”
“My first show was Orange is the New Black, just ladies and lesbians everywhere. I was a feminist when I came into it...But let’s say I wasn’t; that show would have completely made me a feminist my first day.”
It feels especially lucky to Wiley since being on set at all was a dream she almost didn’t experience. She was just nine years old when a commercial she heard in the car for a summer arts camp made her realize, That’s what I want to do with my life. That camp—at Howard University in Washington D.C., where she grew up—is where she learned to sing, dance, and act, and is what she looked forward to during the long months of the school year. “That’s where I really learned how to be on stage and to own my self-worth,” she says. “I wasn’t a kid who found my self-worth after a math test, you know what I mean?” From there she went to Duke Ellington School of the Arts, her hometown’s only arts high school. When she graduated, however, her trajectory took a turn. Wiley had her hopes pinned on attending an arts university, and auditioned for a number of major theater programs—but she didn’t get in to any of them. The worst part was that the rejections seemed to fit her experience at school. “Once I was in high school, no one ever really told me I was special. I never got any awards,” she says. (I’m guessing her Emmy nom for her portrayal of Moira helped eclipse those early years of being overlooked.)
She ended up at Temple University in Philadelphia because it was the only school that accepted her. Wiley resigned herself to one day working offstage in a theater rather than on. But then a teacher’s encouragement got her rethinking her future as an usher. “It felt super weird. Like, ‘Is this some kind of trick or a joke? Because all these other motherfuckers just finished telling me one thing, and now you’re like, Hey, I think you’re talented,’” she says, her eyebrows raised incredulously. “When you have already gotten your spirit trudged on the way that I had, the more you don’t believe it when somebody says something like that.” But at that teacher’s behest, and with a hundred dollars she borrowed from her mom, she auditioned for Juilliard and was accepted. There, she befriended fellow student Danielle Brooks, who was later cast as Taystee on OITNB and convinced Wiley to audition for the role of Poussey, her character’s best friend. (The authenticity and joy of their relationship both onscreen and off is basically the definition of #squadgoals.)
Though Wiley attributes her Juilliard admission to the fact that talent is wholly subjective, she also cheekily credits her mother’s Wednesday night Bible study group: “They prayed for me,” she says. Though they just retired last year, both of her parents were Baptist pastors, which indelibly shaped her most formative years. “As a young person, religion was my life. My brother and I were at church seven days a week. We were at church more than we were at school,” she says. “They called us the First Family—I was the First Daughter, my mom was the First Lady. Every right of passage went side by side with being in the church. This may be too much, but I even got my period in the church. I sang for the first time in the church. I kissed a boy for the first time in the church. I kissed a girl later,” she says with a sly smile.
“Every right of passage went side by side with being in the church. This may be too much, but I even got my period in the church. I sang for the first time in the church. I kissed a boy for the first time in the church. I kissed a girl later.”
Coming out to parents who are pastors might seem like a recipe for familial ostricization, but not for Wiley, who has been openly gay since her early 20s and whose mom and dad led the crusade for marriage equality long before they knew they’d be fighting for their daughter’s rights. “My parents are two of the most liberal Baptists you will ever meet in your entire life,” says Wiley, who no longer has any religious ties, but maintains a strong spiritual relationship with a higher power. “My church is pretty famous for doing the first union ceremonies ever in Washington D.C. before marriages were even legal. My parents lost more than half of their church because they came out in support of gay marriage.” That support got personal when her parents officiated her own wedding last year to writer Lauren Morelli. OITNB wasn’t momentous only for making Wiley a mainstream star, it’s also where she met her future wife. Their connection sparked, fittingly, over a script: Morelli wrote the sixth episode of Season One, the first where Poussey’s storyline gets more attention. “I was really attracted to Lauren’s mind first before I met Lauren the person. I got her script and I was like, ‘This person’s really talented, I can’t wait to meet this person.’ Well, OK, I’m a little biased. It was the first script that my [character’s] name was actually in, where she says her name is Poussey. It’s the ‘accent a droite’ script,” she says, referring to one of Poussey’s many memorable lines. “But then there was this rap battle in it and I was like, ‘Who is this writer? They just wrote a whole rap battle.’ I just assumed that they were going to be a person of color. They were not. Let’s just say, shout out, my wife can write raps. But I just remember her coming to set and me being able to watch her be a boss from afar, telling whatever people to go this way, answering this question. Just seeing her literally be the person in charge was really attractive to me.”
The 35-year-old Morelli was married to a man at the time, but that is also a part of their story. “I remember those first months with her, trying to figure out her journey with her own sexuality. Feeling like she picked me as the person she was going to talk to about all of it. And it wasn’t sexual, it was just like a friend,” Wiley says. “There was something deeply intimate about that, whether there was sexual tension there or not. The deep intimacy of being two people talking about the core of who we are. Talking about our journeys. Not even necessarily flirting on set, but on the phone, thousands of miles apart, talking about Who are we? And does this make me a different person? Does this actually make me who I am now? That’s how we fell in love.”
When I ask about a tattoo I saw earlier on her left inner bicep, she tells me it’s the West African Adinkra symbol for power. She says she hates it, but it’s better than the tattoo she got with an ex-girlfriend, which she covered up with this tattoo after she and Morelli got engaged. Last year, the couple tied the knot in Palm Springs and you’ve likely seen photos of their stunning wedding (if you haven’t, Google it immediately). The intimate, confetti-themed soiree—in which Wiley wore a “princessy” dress and Morelli donned a caped jumpsuit, both custom designed by Christian Siriano—was photographed exclusively for Martha Stewart Weddings and then plastered all over bridal and tabloid sites alike. Having the mainstream bridal magazine document their nuptials wasn’t a decision the couple made lightly. “We were really hesitant about it at first,” Wiley says. They wanted the day to be theirs alone, to not have to worry about media or press coverage, to keep the event small and private. “Then we had some conversations and we felt like, No, maybe this is our responsibility. I’m gonna get a little teary-eyed right now,” she says, choking up. “To have the public platform that we do and to put that out there and maybe have some little girl look at it who wouldn’t have anything else to look to. Or have a couple who’s older than us—giving them inspiration that their story fits in the bigger story. There are parts of us that want to keep our private lives private and have things that are sacred, but then there are also parts of us that realize we have a responsibility to give some visibility to people in our position, and I am happy that we made the decision,” she says. “It didn’t take anything away from our wedding day, it only enriched it. I feel like we were just pushing the future—not even the future, the now—forward.”
“if I wasn’t playing this role, I don’t know if I would be as outspoken about my beliefs when it comes to the president that we have today. Especially when it comes to the rights of people who look like me, and live their lives like I do.”
Making the personal political can be exhausting, though. For Wiley, putting her private life in the public sphere is not a natural fit. She’d just as soon be home with Morelli, at their place in L.A’s Historic Filipinotown, hanging with their 15-year-old wiener dog Duncan (“It’s like living with an old, old man who just starts peeing wherever he wants to pee”), and watching The Bachelor, which she swears she didn’t do before she met Morelli. But it’s a responsibility she feels more keenly than ever, thanks in part to working on The Handmaid’s Tale. “Moira is such a badass. And she is someone who is never going to be in the back not speaking up. She’s always going to be in the forefront. She’s always going to be at the mic at the Women’s March. She has become a real role model for me, and I think that if I wasn’t playing this role, I don’t know if I would be as outspoken about my beliefs and where they lie when it comes to the president that we have today. Especially when it comes to the rights of people who look like me, and live their lives like I do,” she says. “People in the entertainment industry, for the most part, if you’re gay, that’s something that you don’t really talk about. Even if you are proud about it, you don’t flaunt it, you know? And I think that I’m finding out now that I want to be that person that someone can look to. Angela Bassett was that person for me, just by being black, honestly. I was like, She’s out there, she’s got a job, that’s what I want to do! And if I can do that for somebody, whether it’s by being an actor or by being an open, out, proud person, I hope that I can be some kind of inspiration like that.”
By Lisa Butterworth
Photos by Jeaneen Lund
Styling by Karen Levitt // Makeup by Nick Barose for Exclusive Artists using MAC Cosmetics // Hair by Alexander Armand for Exclusive Artists using Oribe Haircare
Top photo: Top, Shorts, and Jacket: Ashton Michael; Earrings: Topshop
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