Picture the scene: it’s a balmy September evening in Los Angeles on the night of the 70th Primetime Emmy Awards. It’s a big one for you, because not only are you up for an award for The Handmaid’s Tale, but you’re presenting a gong to Thandie Newton, too. You step out of your car, wearing a black floor-length designer gown, ready to hit the red carpet with your wife – but when you go to hand over your ticket, you realise that you’ve left it at home.
In a panic, you beg to be let in, but it’s a firm “no” from the doorman. Many would have screamed and shouted, or demanded someone else sped back home to retrieve their ticket. Not Samira Wiley, to whom this actually happened in 2018 when she was nominated for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series.
“It was a comedy of errors that night,” she remembers, laughing. “My car had to turn and drive me all the way home. By the time I got back, the red carpet had closed and I had to call my stylist to say, ‘Hey, I missed the carpets. There’s not going to be any pictures of this dress.’
When we got to our seats, they were randomly full of glitter! So many things happened and I was like, ‘Maybe I’ll win, as everything else is going wrong.’” And she did.
This is so very Samira Wiley. Despite spending the past eight years at the pinnacle of agenda-setting TV on shows like cult Netflix prison drama Orange Is The New Black (OITNB) and The Handmaid’s Tale, she’s still very much in awe of it all. When we speak in the middle of February, she’s busy doing her own clothing returns, on her only day off that week from filming the fourth series of The Handmaid’s Tale.
“People deal with fame in different ways – I didn’t like it”
“So many stores are closed, so I’ve been doing so much more shopping online, but I don’t have any time to do my returns!” she says.
Wiley, 33, lives in Los Angeles with her wife of four years, OITNB writer Lauren Morelli, 38. But they’ve both been stationed in Toronto since September while Wiley films The Handmaid’s Tale, in which she plays Moira, best friend of lead character Offred (Elisabeth Moss). And it’s pretty cold there right now.
“Snow on top of snow, it’s crazy,” she laughs. “Two days ago, we were filming and it was -11.” The annoying part for Wiley is that after filming three series in harsh Toronto winters, the producers had agreed to film this one in spring. It was due to happen in March 2020.
“They made a conscious decision to save us from these conditions. Lo and behold, a global pandemic came, and here we are – shooting this season, that was supposed to be [in] spring, in the winter.”
Thankfully, she has Morelli with her. “I’m so happy that Lauren was able to come,” she says. “It can be very lonely. I’m in a different country, the only people I really know here are my castmates and I don’t, just by default, trust anyone else when it comes to being close [because of COVID].
I couldn’t imagine what it would be like if I didn’t have her here. Someone to keep me sane. It would be a very, very long time without each other – I’m diabetic, and doctor’s orders [are that] I’m not meant to fly that much.”
“Queer youth is where I put most of my energy”
Wiley met Morelli on the set of OITNB back in 2013 – Wiley played the lovable Poussey Washington, while Morelli was one of the writers. The show holds a special place in Wiley’s heart for many reasons, though.
“Yes, I met my wife there, but Orange changed my life in so many ways,” she says. “I was introduced to so many strong women in positions of power, I learned how to act in front of a camera, I learned how to deal with being in the public eye and how to love in the public eye. Orange gave me my platform.”
Previously, Wiley had mainly worked in theatre, with a few minor TV appearances. She grew up in Washington DC. Her parents were pastors at a Baptist church, which in 2007 was the first in the city to perform same-sex unions. Wiley knew early on that she wanted to act. She went to an arts high school in DC, and later moved to New York to study theatre at the Juilliard School.
It was there that she met her future OITNB co-star, Danielle Brooks (Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson). Brooks told Wiley about the show, Wiley auditioned and within weeks she was filming the first episode.
“We had all different types of women in front of the camera,” she remembers. “There [was] usually only room for one type of woman and she was tiny and blonde and didn’t look anything like me or my friends. And that show really shaped what I saw as a possibility in this industry.”
"Orange changed my life in so many ways"
Most of all, it was exciting to navigate the journey with Brooks and other co-stars including Uzo Aduba (Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren) and Natasha Lyonne (Nicky Nichols).
“Most of us were new to this,” says Wiley.“We would be invited to events with a red carpet and would show up together because that’s all we knew! The whole prison. We felt like a rock-star band.”
But Wiley found her newfound fame tough. OITNB was one of the first Netflix original series.“The show came out on a Thursday, and I got recognised that weekend – people had already binge-watched it,” she remembers.
“I was going up an escalator in New York. There was a person going down the opposite escalator that recognised me and started freaking out. She grabbed my arm and wouldn’t let go – but she was going in the opposite direction! My friends had to wrestle me away from her. I felt completely shaken up.”
It got more intense in the coming months. “People deal with fame in different ways, and I was someone who didn’t like it. I’ve always wanted to live in NewYork. I was so in love with the complete anonymity there, and it got taken away. I wasn’t able to have a conversation in a bar and have that person be interested in me because I’m me. They’re interested in me now because they saw my face on TV. That was really hard.”
“There is usually only room for one type of woman and she was tiny and blonde"
Fans found out where she lived. “People would follow me home. It got pretty scary for me. I wished it wasn’t a part of my life.” Soon, she realised she had to embrace it and make it work to her advantage.
“This was my life. I had to take a different approach, which I’m very happy I did. That’s when things became clear about me wanting to talk about LGBT people and using my platform. Queer youth is where I put most of my energy.”
This is why she has always been so public about her relationship with Morelli. In 2016, they appeared together on the cover of Out magazine, and the following year, they shared beautiful images of their wedding (which Wiley’s parents officiated) in Palm Springs, California, on Martha Stewart Weddings.
“It was the best day of my life!” she says. “There’s always a question in our relationship about what things we are going to keep to ourselves and what things should be public. It was a hard decision. But then we felt like there are so many young girls and boys who don’t see queer couples on the covers of magazines in a wedding being proud of who they are, and having [their] parents officiate.
"Those are things that some queer people have never seen. And I want them to know it’s a possibility. It’s a constant conversation. Why would we be doing this? And what creates the greater good?”
In 2015, Wiley won the extremely prestigious Human Rights Campaign Visibility Award for her work with the LGBTQ+ community. “I want to be very intentional on what we’re putting out there and why I’m doing it,” she says. “I’ve also been blessed with a partner who agrees.”
Wiley was out to her family and friends when she joined OITNB, but Morelli was married to a man at the time. The series embraced the queer community in a way no other had done before, and many people working on the show were gay. In an essay published in 2014, titled “While Writing For ‘Orange Is The New Black,’ I Realised I Am Gay”, Morelli revealed that the storylines made her start to question her own sexuality.
“People would follow me home. It got pretty scary for me"
“It was so many things,” says Wiley. “So much of falling in love with Lauren was her own coming-out story. For the first part of our relationship, it was more of a confidante kind of relationship where she was having lots of questions about who she was. A lot of the beginning was me being a therapist, sharing my own experiences. I came out much earlier than her – I was around 20. Lauren is the most lovely person, and [we were] able to have that relationship blossom from being scared of what was happening in her own marriage to being on the other side and [realising], ‘Oh, this is more than this, we actually really love each other.’
"We built the relationship backwards – the trust and love was all there, and the other stuff came later. Which was a unique way to enter into it, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
Morelli wrote Poussey’s final episode, in which she is suffocated to death by a prison officer during a peaceful protest. Many have since drawn comparisons with the death of George Floyd last year in Minneapolis at the hands of a police officer.
When it aired, it was a comment on the deaths of Eric Garner and Mike Brown, Black men who were also killed by police. “As artists, we’re supposed to tell the story of our time,” says Wiley. “I felt so honoured that [OITNB creator] Jenji Kohan felt comfortable to put that in my hands. I definitely didn’t think that we would be coming back here in 2020 with George Floyd. It was like opening a wound that hadn’t fully healed.
"Lauren wrote the whole episode. I wouldn’t have wanted it to be in anyone else’s hands. She took the utmost care telling that story.”
Wiley has also had roles in Will & Grace, The Walking Dead and The Sitter, a film with Jonah Hill. Shortly after leaving OITNB, she landed The Handmaid’s Tale, another show in which she has found her art mirroring real life. It’s based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel of the same name, about a state called Gilead that has overthrown the US government – and the first series began filming just before Donald Trump was elected President in 2016. How relevant did the Trump administration feel to the show?
“Oh man,” she sighs. “A little too relevant. We were shooting the very first season during the 2016 presidential campaign. Obama was president! Everyone on set was [saying], ‘This is going to be crazy once Hillary Clinton is in office, and we look back and see what could have been.’ I always remember this feeling of, oh wow, this is going to be so much more relevant than any of us thought it was going to be. We have so much more responsibility now to get this right and to make sure we tell this with integrity and validate people who are feeling trapped.”
"So much of falling in love with Lauren was her own coming out story"
When Wiley was offered the role of Moira on the show, she was nervous.“I was afraid of being typecast,” she explains. “People know me for playing Poussey, who was a gay character. And I’m gay. I didn’t want people to think, ‘That’s just what she does.’ So when I got an audition for Moira, who is queer, I had a lot of hesitation.
"I ended up having a conversation with Lauren. Unbeknownst to me [at the time], Margaret Atwood is her favourite author! I had no clue. I also hadn’t read The Handmaid’s Tale. Lauren told me that if I was going to play gay in anything, this was the thing I was going to do it for. That ended up being great advice!”
Working with Elisabeth “Lizzie” Moss has been a highlight. “Elisabeth is directing this season. To see her in the role that she is in now is so inspiring. I think I’m Lizzie’s biggest fan! She’s the most amazing actress and asks me about what I might need in a scene – she doesn’t have to do that. So many actresses who are a number one on a show don’t even show up when the other character is on camera, but she’s there. When I think about the next steps I want to take in my career, Lizzie will always be in the back of my mind.”
Moss also helps to keep things somewhat light-hearted on the set of a show that covers some pretty dark topics. Compared to OITNB, “There aren’t that many opportunities for random ad-libs!” says Wiley.“It’s hard to ad-lib about the patriarchy. But you do need moments of levity on set. [On previous seasons],they made a fresh-baked cookie tray every day. And that was the thing Lizzie looked forward to. We’re handmaids, but we have cookies!”
The show is set to land back on Channel 4 in late spring. Can we expect any happiness for Offred and Moira in the new series? “I want to say so many things that I can’t!” admits Wiley. “If I were a fan and I watched this season, I would be cheering. Handmaid’s is hard to watch sometimes, but this season, there are going to be some things that people are going to be very happy about.”
Will we get to see more of the world outside of Gilead? “Yes, I’m just going to say yes,” she concludes. “That’s a definite yes.”
That’s as much as I’m going to get out of Wiley on the matter. With that, I leave her to her clothes returns, her day off, her lovely wife and a whole world of opportunity. There’s no denying she deserves it.
Samira Wiley plays Moira in The Handmaid’s Tale on Channel 4. The fourth series is coming soon.
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