Samira Wiley on Integrity, Bonnets, and Survival in The Handmaid’s Tale

on May 09, 2018, 2:00pm

Welcome to Support Group, in which TV Editor Allison Shoemaker looks at a terrific television series through the lens of a great supporting character. Spoilers are guaranteed.

Series One: The Handmaid’s Tale (2017–present)

Episodes: 10 in the first season; four of a 13-episode second season have aired to date; was recently renewed for a third season

Major Awards: Eight Emmys for the first season, plus a closet full of TCA, WGA, and PGA Awards, a smattering of Golden Globes, and a Peabody

Certified Fresh: 96%

Series Two: Orange Is the New Black (2013–present)

Episodes: 65 over five seasons. The show has already been renewed for its sixth and seventh seasons; season six is expected later this year

Major Awards: Four Emmys, five Screen Actors Guild Awards, and a Peabody

Certified Fresh: 91%

The Support: Samira Wiley

The Roles: Moira (The Handmaid’s Tale) and Poussey Washington (OITNB)

Major Awards: Nominated for a 2017 Emmy award, but lost to Handmaid’s co-star Ann Dowd; Named to Out Magazine’s 2017 “OUT100” class

Other Career Highlights: Co-star of YouTube Red’s Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television, an appearance in Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, a five-episode run on the critically acclaimed FX series You’re the Worst, and an award-nominated voice performance for the video game The Walking Dead: Michonne

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“Did ever occur to you that we don’t wanna get in touch with our feelings? That actually feeling our feelings might make it impossible to survive in here?” –Poussey Washington

Samira Wiley has a knack for playing survivors. In her relatively young career, she’s played a crucial role in not one but two critically lauded television shows, each centered on women. In these stories, these women are at the mercy of a system that’s, at best, disinterested in their humanity — and that’s on a good day. More often, these systems are openly hostile to their very existence. Orange Is the New Black and The Handmaid’s Tale capture the brutalities of their worlds — the current US prison system and a dystopian society inspired by the ways women have been treated globally throughout history, respectively — but more importantly, they defy that brutality by making sure that, at least in these narratives, the lives of women are central, vibrant, and of fundamental importance. Their humanity cannot, and will not, be denied.

Poussey Washington cannot be denied. Poussey (It’s French; “Accent à droite, bitch!”) was one of the beating, bleeding hearts of Jenji Kohan’s Orange Is the New Black, a kind, funny, and fiercely loyal woman who finds herself a resident of Litchfield Penitentiary after her conviction for trespassing and possession with intent to distribute. Some of OITNB’s finest, and often funniest, moments belong to Poussey and thus to Washington: an amazing “Amazing Grace”, the invention of the Stand and Deliver, unrequited love, requited love, calling a bully a bully, and the continuing adventures of Amanda and Mackenzie, to name a few.

We’re using the past tense in referring to Poussey, because she’s dead. In the penultimate episode of the show’s fourth season, “The Animals”, she’s inadvertently suffocated by babyfaced prison guard Baxter Bayley. He’s her killer, unquestionably; that she’s the victim of a system that shows so little interest in her well-being as to allow untrained, easily panicked guards to unwittingly end a life only enhances the tragedy and gross injustice. Her death echoes that of Eric Garner; she mouths, “Help me” as she dies.

Poussey’s death would be tragic even if she weren’t a deeply sympathetic, engaging character. But she is, and the following episode, “Toast Can’t Never Be Bread Again”, hammers that home. In its flashbacks, an adventurous, curious, big-hearted woman roams New York City, making friends everywhere she goes, and in the episode’s present, that same woman lies dead for hours on the cafeteria floor. Litchfield’s PR stooges spend hours trying to find a way to paint her as violent, unstable; when they can’t, they do the same to Bayley. In doing so, they underline exactly that which they’re trying desperately to hide. It’s Bayley’s fault, but it’s also Litchfield’s fault, and Caputo’s fault, and the judicial system’s fault, and the government’s fault, and society’s fault. The rot goes deep, and it can’t be ignored, because Poussey’s humanity cannot be denied.

Neither can Moira’s. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s wildly successful adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s feminist, dystopian novel, Wiley’s seemingly bottomless well of emotional availability gets a hell of a workout. We follow Moira — longtime friend of June (Elisabeth Moss) and an out lesbian in a world that views members of the LGBTQ community as “gender traitors” — through more chapters of her life than anyone save June. We see her life in the days preceding the advent of Gilead, the “education” that women receive before becoming Handmaids, her escape and June’s failure to do so, a sliver of her nightmarish existence at Jezebel’s, and her jubilant, terrifying flight to Canada (and freedom.) It’s a lot to comprehend as a viewer, to say nothing of how heavy a load it must be for an actor. Wiley simultaneously makes it look easy, and almost unspeakably hard.

And that’s just the first season. Of the horrors present so far in the second season of Handmaid’s, one of the most potent is perhaps the least surprising: Moira’s far from okay. She might have escaped to Little America, she may have been greeted by June’s husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle) as one of the lost members of his family (one of the first season’s only purely happy moments), but she hasn’t escaped what happened to her in the slightest. She tells a new arrival that it gets better, directs him gently, almost fearfully, to the trauma counselors a few floors up, and her facade of fine-ness falls away. It might get better, but it hasn’t gotten anywhere close to good.

That incredible vulnerability of Wiley’s, that knack she has for revealing to audiences both the armor that Moira wears and the cracks in it, has made her lingering trauma clear well before Handmaid’s arrives at the word “Ruby.” But arrive it does. In her time in that nightmarish brothel, that’s the name Moira’s given. In a sexual encounter with a woman in a club in Little America, that’s the name she shares. June is haunted by her daughter, her mother, her husband, her friends. Moira may be haunted by some of those things, but she’s also haunted by Ruby.

What makes “Baggage,” the first episode in which we see Moira in season two, so affecting is that Wiley makes it clear how hard Moira’s working to be okay. She’s a supporting player in the larger narrative of The Handmaid’s Tale, but her own narrative is every bit as harrowing. Wiley and the show’s writers reveal a world built of little things, a person struggling just to be something that might seem sort of okay. Wake up, run, eat, feed others, go to work, help someone, find a bar, find a stranger, go home, wake up, run, repeat. June’s running away, or trying to. Moira’s running in circles, whenever she can.

We spoke with Wiley about Moira’s journey, the continued importance of Orange Is the New Black, the pressure that comes with an Emmy win, and how the 2016 Presidential Election changed her Handmaid’s Tale experience.

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The Handmaid’s Tale was announced months before Election Day. At what point did you know you’d be involved, and what was it like preparing to film in that climate?

I don’t really remember what month we started shooting, but I know we had finished shooting about half of the first season before the election, ah, went down

Oh, wow.

I just remember being on set for that first half of the season and feeling so excited. The work we were doing [felt] so relevant to the time, and [I thought] that when it finally aired in 2017, we would look at it and think, ‘Oh gosh, look at that bullet we dodged.’ That’s not exactly how it worked out. I remember coming to set after that election week, and the feeling on set was … It felt like there was a collective awareness that we were doing something [significant], that we had a heightened responsibility, even. That we had a real, real chance to [tell] this story, and get it right, and make sure that all the people [who watched] were going to see it not as [a bullet] that we dodged, but as [something that was] a little too relevant. [Laughs.] More relevant than it should be.

Did you have any experience with the book before you became involved with the show? Did you have to read it in school or anything?

I was not familiar with the book before I auditioned for the show. I actually thought myself lucky to be removed from it, because the book has such a following. I remember a few people telling me that if I got it wrong, they were going to kill me! [A big laugh] When you read a book, you come up with a character that lives in your head. I’m just so happy that I didn’t already have a Moira living in my head that I had to match. [There was] already so much pressure. I didn’t need to put that pressure on myself. So, I was able to come to the story fresh and make Moira what I thought and knew her to be instead of having to deal with some idea of Moira that I’d had ever since high school.

Samira Wiley, Photo by George Kraychyk

Moira’s story is so deeply upsetting, but two of the most joyful moments from the first season are hers, and I’m wondering what it was like to bring those to life. This show is incredibly compelling, but it’s almost unrelentingly bleak. What was it like to bring those scenes — her escape from Jezebel’s and then her reunion with Luke — to life?

It’s amazing to be able to do [those]. When you’re in a show like this, hitting these, like you said, these horrible, bleak moments [over and over], to be able to bring something like [those joyful scenes] to screen, I think it just makes it all the more real. I think it makes everyone realize how elating this moment really is, because all we’ve been seeing is bleakness. For me as an actor, I remember being in front of the camera and feeling a release, not just as Moira but as Samira, who has had to play this horrible, horrible side of [life[ for so long. And then, to have this release… I think it just made it all the more authentic.

Do you find that now, when you’re just out, living your life, that people approach you about Handmaid’s, or do they talk to you about Orange Is the New Black?

Most of the time now — and I did not honestly think this was going to happen, especially not this quickly — most of the time it’s Handmaid’s now, it really is. Because Orange is so huge … I mean, people don’t even call me Samira, they call me Poussey on the street. So, I really didn’t know that Handmaid’s was going to be able to sort of overshadow Orange. But it really is. [And I’m glad], because that’s the show that I want to be talking about, because that’s the show that I’m on right now, and I’m happy that people are talking about it because I think it’s obviously worth the conversation.

Orange is the New Black

Absolutely. It’s remarkable that you got to be a part of these two shows that are worthy of that kind of conversation, basically back to back, in which the creators are devoted to telling stories of women who are put in incredibly dangerous, damaging, illegal, immoral situations. Is that something you’re attracted to as an artist typically, or is that just sort of how the dice fell?

Honestly, that’s just how it worked out. I mean, I was definitely attracted to the characters of Poussey and Moira because they’re both amazingly strong, complex, three-dimensional women, [and that’s] a dream for any actor to play. So, I was definitely very attracted to playing both of those roles, but in terms of the projects and the issues that we’re dealing with, I didn’t necessarily seek them out. It just happened that way. And after being on a show like Orange, a show that everybody, everywhere was talking about … I didn’t think it could happen again. [Then] to be in a show like Handmaid’s, which is in a way even more oddly relevant right now than, um, because of the Trump administration but also the #MeToo movement, just everything right now … it seems to be permeating the culture in a way that I never ever, ever thought would happen.

What was filming season two like after the tidal wave of praise and awards that followed season one? Was it a different experience?

I’d say the only difference is that — you know, I don’t want to say that. I was going to say people were even more focused, and more determined, but that somehow undercuts how focused and determined we were for the first season. I think people have really had an idea from the beginning about what kind of show we wanted it to be. Everyone, from the writers to the actors to the production designers, it just seems to be of one accord. That definitely spilled over into the second season.

I can’t speak for everyone, but I can definitely speak for myself and say that I would be lying if I said there wasn’t a little pressure [she laughs] to be able to try to repeat what happened in the first season. It’s amazing to be able to go into the second season with that, because you know, we’re moving beyond the source material. No one knows what’s going to happen in Gilead, not even Margaret Atwood knows what’s going to happen in Gilead this season. So that’s really exciting. But I think in terms of everyone being focused and determined to tell this story with as much integrity as we can, I think that was the same, really, throughout both seasons.

 Photo by George Kraychyk

Integrity really is a great word to use in conjunction with this show, because as someone watching it and writing about it, it really does feel like everyone involved is really committed to telling this story in the best way possible. Is there a scene or moment in the show so far, or in the first season at least, that kind of encapsulates your experience? Anything that was particularly striking to film, or that stayed with you?

Yes. It was actually pretty early in season one, around episode four or so, where Offred [Moss’s character] and Moira escape from the Red Center. [Editor’s note: It’s episode four exactly, “Nolite Te Bastardes Carborundorum.”] I remember that day so vividly. One of the things in Gilead that’s forbidden [for women], of course is reading. I remember that scene because it felt so big. I [felt like I] didn’t really know where the cameras were, because we were outside, and they [the production team] had done such an amazing job. There was no signage. There were people with guns everywhere. And all of a sudden, I felt like I was really in the middle of Gilead.

I mean, of course it’s [their] job to make the set look how it’s supposed to look, but it just … it was amazing to me, the job that they had done. And we were in a real subway station, and they had done away with all of the signage; there was nothing [to read] anywhere. I had a scene with Lizzie [Moss] that because of her costume, the cap that she wears as a Handmaid … we really had a scene with just our eyes. It felt so real … That’s what I think about, in my whole experience [on the show.] That scene, just [being] on that platform, escaping Gilead on the train.

That cap is such a brilliant piece of costume design, because it forces you to focus on just the face and on what people might be revealing with their expressions. I feel like that carries over to the performances a lot, even out of costume. I was really struck by the moment when June first sees Moira in “Jezebels” [season one, episode eight]. She seems to be playing her part so well, but then it crumbles briefly, and then the well goes back up. How do you go about creating someone who has to play a part to stay alive, but has difficulty playing that part?

You know, I think the entire time that I’m playing Moira, there’s always conflict just within the character, just within Moira herself. That whole time that she’s in Jezebel’s in season one, I feel like her having to be “Ruby” while she’s there — all of that is for survival, you know? All of that is because [she thinks], If I am actually myself, if I’m not taking drugs every day, if I’m not making myself numb to this, will I actually be able to survive this?” I think that in doing those scenes, and especially doing them with Lizzie — she’s such an amazing partner, I honestly feel like I could do anything if I’m doing it with Lizzie — in doing those scenes in Jezebel’s, we really just see Moira as this shell of herself. She’s put herself in this weird Ruby armor, and she has to protect herself from the realities of what’s going on, just to survive.

Handmaid's Tale

Is your approach when you’re playing a supporting character any different than your approach when you’re playing a protagonist or an antagonist? Is there any sense that you’re serving the story differently?

You know, when I’m playing a character, I don’t necessarily [think about] that. I always think that in the mind of my character, whatever story I’m telling, I think it’s about me. It’s about that character … When I bring characters to life, I don’t think of them as supporting characters. This is Moira’s story, too. If it was Moira’s story, maybe there would be different camera angles, things like that, but I try not to think about [the role] as “supporting” … I don’t want any thoughts creeping into my mind that [make it seem like she’s] less important, or like her story is not central. To me, it is central, so that’s how I think about it.

Can you imagine a version either of Orange Is the New Black or of The Handmaid’s Tale where the protagonist is your character? A Handmaid’s where we spend all of our time in Moira’s head, or where we’re following Poussey from the time where she enters the prison on through the rest of her experience?

Yeah, honestly. That’s the way I think about it now, when I’m thinking about the characters, because that’s what I have. I’m not bringing June to life, so that’s honestly how I think about it. I already think about it as their story.

Is there anything you’d say to someone just getting ready to start The Handmaid’s Tale or to someone getting ready to jump into season two?

Yes. Do not binge-watch The Handmaid’s Tale! [A big laugh]

I so agree! That’s such good advice.

I know that The Handmaid’s Tale is on streaming television, and binge-watching and streaming television have become synonymous, but I think that you will be doing yourself a great disservice if you don’t take the time to watch an episode, really take it in, and then move on, rather than just sitting [and watching it all] in one sitting, and having no idea what happened.

Transcription assistance by Clara Scott.

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