Samira Wiley’s Most Radical Protest


Poussey — Samira Wiley’s breakout role on Orange Is the New Black — was like a heat-seeking missile aimed at the viewer’s heart. Funny, endearing, and ultimately tragic, Poussey was an irrepressible ray of optimism who managed to not let prison life harden her. Still, after finishing her run on the show, Wiley wasn’t looking to take on the role of another imperiled lesbian. “I was definitely afraid of being typecast,” she told me over breakfast in Tribeca. Then she got a callback to play Moira in The Handmaid’s Tale, Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel. Atwood, it turned out, was her fiancée Lauren Morelli’s favorite author (“I had no clue! I’m a great partner,” Wiley said, laughing), and the couple wound up discussing Wiley’s reservations about the role. “I was like: I know, I know, this character’s gay too,” she recalled. “And — I will never forget this — she goes: This one you go gay for.”

In Moira, Wiley has found another part that gives her scrappy charisma a chance to shine; she brings an easygoing human warmth to characters in dire circumstances. In non-dire circumstances — eating an egg sandwich across the table from me — that charm is even more apparent. Wiley is tiny, but her deep belly laugh, big gestures, and exuberant vocal flourishes seemed like they’d make her easy to find in a crowd at a party. (Describing a recent trip to the restaurant Rubirosa, she drops three octaves to exalt the “SUPREEeeeme” pizza; later, when Meryl Streep’s name comes up, she lifts her eyes to the heavens and clasps her hands in a posture of prayer.) She exudes laid-back, feel-good energy, the kind of energy you might hope to find in a person you were marooned with on a desert island — or at a women’s prison, or in a totalitarian hellscape, as the case may be.

The Handmaid’s Tale (premiering April 26) and Orange Is the New Black are both shows about women surviving oppression. Products of streaming networks that didn’t exist ten years ago, they’re part of a new wave of inclusive woman-centric programming that seeks to spark political dialogue and engage with real-world issues — a project that’s gained a sense of urgency in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. And yet Wiley’s most important role might be the one she has taken on offscreen. As as a queer woman of color thriving in an industry sorely lacking in role models, Wiley has been thrust into that strange space between actor and activist — even if “going gay” as a public figure is still something she is getting used to.

Last weekend, Wiley and Morelli, a writer and producer for OITNB, got married in Palm Springs — perhaps the the most high-profile interracial lesbian wedding in Hollywood history. It marked the culmination of a behind-the-scenes courtship just as interesting as any of the story lines that have taken place on the show. “They Fell in Love on the Set of Orange Is the New Black. And Now They’re Married,” declared Time. Fans greeted the news with gushing enthusiasm: Their wedding portrait, released in Martha Stewart Weddings, “Might Be The Most Beautiful Thing You’ll Ever See,” proclaimed BuzzFeed. After we spoke, Wiley was heading back to L.A., where the pair had recently moved in together. “I’m so domesticated right now,” she said. “We have a literal white picket fence.”

Their picket-fence domesticity is just one reminder of how powerful it can be when norms change before your eyes — something Wiley has also come to appreciate in her career. “It’s interesting to see that my journey started with Orange, because it really is a place where people always talk about how progressive, and innovative, and different, and groundbreaking it is,” she said. “But it was my norm. I was surrounded by all these powerful women, and that’s what I thought TV was.”

Wiley grew up in Washington, D.C., where her parents are the co-pastors of Covenant Baptist Church, a “radically inclusive” congregation. Their work gave Wiley an up-close view of what it can cost to take a public stand. In 2007, Covenant became the first of D.C.’s historically black churches to perform same-sex unions; afterward, the church lost about half its members, and many people Wiley had considered family cut her out of their lives. Often, she said, people who disagreed with her parents’ stance would say that they were “just doing this” because of their daughter, which upset her. Wiley came out to her parents when she was around 20 and was warmly embraced: “My parents were way more than tolerant. I don’t feel like they just tolerated me, you know what I mean? They really, really, really were advocates. Not only for me but for the entire LGBT community,” she said. “They’re really my role models.”

Wiley had known for a long time that she wanted to be an actor, and after high school she moved to New York to study theater at Juilliard. Danielle Brooks, who plays Taystee on OITNB, met Wiley on the first day of freshman year — Wiley was the orientation leader helping her move in. “I was met with her screaming ‘WOOOOOOOOO! WELCOME TO JUILLIARD!’” Brooks recalls. The two quickly became close friends, playing beer pong with roommates and watching Planet Earth (one of Taystee’s prison favorites) at Wiley’s apartment. In 2013, when Brooks got cast on Jenji Kohan’s new Netflix show about a women’s prison, she encouraged Wiley to audition for the role of her character’s best friend. A few months later, Wiley was in a baggy prison jumpsuit on a set upstate, taking notes from a staff writer named Lauren Morelli.

Early on, Wiley confessed to Brooks that she had a crush on Morelli. Brooks remembers urging caution: “My biggest fear was that she’s a writer on the show — What if something goes wrong? She can write you out!” But Wiley was unstoppable. “She was always flirting with Lauren,” Brooks said.

What followed was a period of upheaval that neither Morelli nor Wiley could have imagined. OITNB became a cultural phenomenon, putting Netflix on the map and making a star out of Wiley, who couldn’t pick up a coconut water at her local bodega without being stopped for a picture. And at the same time Wiley was dealing with her new fame, Morelli was grappling with her sexual orientation. As the writers room explored Piper’s fluid attractions and traded intimate details of their own experiences, Morelli began to question her sexuality. After months of therapy and self-doubt, she came out of the closet and left her husband, whom she’d married just two years prior. “Samira became my outlet, and through that process I fell in love with her,” Morelli told Out Magazine last year.

Last season, Morelli wrote the end to Wiley’s story on the show. While Wiley had known Poussey’s fate for a year, she didn’t find out until much closer to the air date that Morelli would be the one to write the pivotal episode. (“I felt safe once I knew she was writing it,” Wiley said at the time, while Morelli called the opportunity “an honor.”) Together they delivered one of the series’ most devastating moments. Morelli sobbed as she wrote the scene, in which the tiny Poussey is smothered by a guard while mouthing “I can’t breathe” (a tribute to Eric Garner and the Black Lives Matter movement). The death was a gut-wrenching way to bring the conversation about criminal-justice-system abuses into viewers’ living rooms — to take a social issue and force viewers to feel it as an individual loss.

Next month, Wiley trades her prison jumpsuit for another penal uniform: the red dress of a handmaid on Hulu’s Atwood adaptation. (She got a little break from the heavy stuff last year, with a guest stint on You’re the Worst and a small part in the YA thriller Nerve, among others.) In the 1985 book, Atwood imagined America transformed into a totalitarian theocracy called Gilead, where women have no rights and those who are fertile —“handmaids” — must bear the offspring of the ruling class. In 2017, with conservatives ascendant and women’s rights under siege, the story doesn’t not look quite as far-fetched as it once did — the book has found its way back onto best-seller lists, and just last month women dressed in red robes and handmaid-style bonnets marched on the Texas Senate to protest a series of restrictive abortion bills. “Before the election, there was a feeling on set of us doing something relevant,” Wiley said. “After the election it was like: Oh God, this is way too relevant.” The cast and crew felt an acute responsibility “to get this story right and make sure that we’re making art that can elicit change.”

Wiley plays Moira, best friend to the show’s narrator Offred (literally ‘of’ her commander, Fred), who’s played by Mad Men star Elisabeth Moss. Moira appears mostly in Offred’s flashbacks, and her memory becomes a beacon to Offred in the darkness of Gilead, a symbol of the freedom she once possessed. But it’s to Wiley’s credit that Moira also feels like a real person. The flashbacks let us glimpse the woman she was — courageous, resourceful, optimistic, fiercely loving — and make Offred’s loss all the more vividly painful. Just as Poussey’s death pushed viewers to feel the pain of systemic racism, Moira’s vibrant, indefatigable presence embodies the cost of everything the regime wants to stamp out.

“For Offred, in a lot of situations, the question is WWMD: What would Moira do?” Wiley told me. “You see why Offred loves, and misses, and wants to emulate this person, and how Offred taking on some of Moira’s traits is a really good thing. I think a lot of me — Samira — wants to take on some of those things from Moira, too, in terms of just speaking out.”

Last October, the couple were at home in L.A. packing for a weekend trip to Palm Springs when Morelli called Wiley over to her. As Morelli pulled Wiley in for a dance, she reached behind the couch and pulled out an engagement ring. Later, on Instagram, the world found out about the proposal: with a blissful selfie of the couple, Wiley’s fingers splayed to display an asscher-cut diamond ring, along with a one-word caption: “yes.”

Since going public with their relationship in late 2014, the pair has increasingly emphasized the importance of visibility, using social media to give fans a window into their romance. Last December, they sat for an Out cover shoot. Wiley recalls how, after posting one of the photos on Instagram, Margaret Atwood commented ‘Perfectly Beautiful Couple’ under it. “It made me tear up,” said Wiley, “this woman who wrote this book in 1985 is able to see that this is just two people loving each other. And it’s beautiful.” She shakes her head and gives a sad half-smile. “It really sucks, man, to have people in power that want to act like there’s something perverse about that.”

(Atwood’s Instagram love is not reserved for momentous personal occasions. “Without fail, she comments on every single one of my Instagram pictures,” Wiley reported. “Most of the time they’re emojis. Can you imagine? Margaret Atwood just like, flower, smiley face.” )

In OITNB’s early days, Wiley was so private that speculating about her sexuality was practically a fan pastime. Wiley never hid or denied her sexual orientation, but in the early days of career, she didn’t see any reason to talk about it. It’s hard to fault her initial reluctance to shout her sexuality from the rooftops. The power of labels — and the problem with them — is that they tend to stick. Amber Heard recently described how, after giving an interview in which she casually acknowledged her sexuality, she watched as she became “not actress Amber Heard, but out lesbian Amber Heard.” And Kristen Stewart’s career has been a case study in the challenge of balancing privacy, public scrutiny, and politics.

Between Wiley’s supportive upbringing and the feminist-utopia work environment of OITNB, part of the challenge for her was recognizing the importance of not taking acceptance for granted. “Thankfully, but also sort of weirdly, I didn’t have to go through some transition and feel like, Oh, we’re here now,” she said. Conversations on set could be a “sort of history lesson,” with colleagues telling her, “This is how it used to be, you need to appreciate this.” Cast mate Lea DeLaria — who in 1993 became the first openly gay comic on late night when she guested on The Arsenio Hall Show — was a major inspiration, said Wiley.

DeLaria describes Wiley as an “incredibly private person” who has made the choice to open herself up to the world. “Once she trusts you, she opens her heart to you,” DeLaria told me. “I love the ease with who she is and how she has decided to use that bright goodness and fantastic brain of hers to change the world, to stand up and be counted. She’s using her power for good.”

In the past few years, Wiley’s activism has grown; she received the Human Rights Campaign’s visibility award in 2015 and has been involved with organizations that promote arts education for kids, a cause she has long been passionate about. She has marched with her fellow OITNBers at gay pride events in New York and São Paolo, where they received heroes’ welcomes from thousands of screaming fans. (“We’re like the Jackson Five,” as Brooks put it.) But away from that fanfare, Wiley believes her most important act is just living in the public eye and letting her life speak for itself. She gets messages from fans across the globe “saying they can’t be open with their families, can’t be open with their communities,” people who tell her “that I or we give them strength and we make them feel like they’re just a normal person — because they are.”

A few weeks after our interview, Wiley and Morelli got married in a Funfetti-themed ceremony in Palm Springs, officiated by Wiley’s parents. The pair entered the reception to Justin Bieber’s “Baby” and celebrated their first dance with a blast of confetti. That night, they released their wedding photo: Morelli in an elegant caped jumpsuit with an ornate neck of crystal petals, Wiley in a fairy-tale off-the-shoulder top and ball-gown skirt, both designed by Christian Siriano. By next morning, the photo was plastered across the internet.

“I think about when I was a young girl, [what it would have meant] to be able to look up to people who I could identify with, and to see them in positions of power and in positions of doing what I wanted to do,” Wiley tells me, twisting her engagement ring round and round on her finger. “I think I really realized how important that is. Even if I’m not breathing it down people’s necks, I feel like my protest is walking down the street holding Lauren’s hand. Putting pictures of ourselves kissing on Instagram so people don’t think, no, they’re just friends. Just living my life openly and honestly, and having that be a protest.”

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Samira Wiley’s Most Radical Protest Is Being Herself