It’s early on the East Coast and Samira Wiley is headed to rehearsal for a new Williamstown Theatre production. Before beginning work on the third season of The Handmaid’s Tale, she’s playing yet another woman fighting against an oppressive regime. This time, in the Saheem Ali-directed play Dangerous House, Wiley is Pretty Mbane, a woman running a safe house for lesbians in 2010 South Africa.
“It’s about something called corrective rape,” she explains. “Which is the idea that you can rape a lesbian and correct her into being heterosexual.”
So, after playing a prisoner who gets crushed to death by a male prison guard in Orange Is the New Black, then Moira in The Handmaid’s Tale—a woman repeatedly raped and brutalized by a dystopian nightmare regime—is this play yet more sweetness and light? “It’s not a comedy,” Wiley laughs. “I was telling someone about the play, and they were like, ‘You just always work on things about rape.’ I was like, ‘No, no, no. Oh god, I didn’t even really make that connection.’ But yeah, violence against women seems to be a thing that I’m involved in right now.”
With an Emmy nomination for Handmaid’s for the second year running, Wiley has continued to wow viewers with her specific blend of resilience and vulnerability as she negotiates the world of female oppression first dreamed up by Margaret Atwood in the ’80s, and since brought all too poignantly to life by Bruce Miller and Hulu.
Before auditioning for the role of Moira, lead character June (Elisabeth Moss)’s best friend, Wiley understood she might not fit an image of what was originally envisaged when the book was written. “Moira is a character that has been around for the last almost thirty-five years, written in Margaret Atwood’s book in ’85,” she says. “In that book, that whole world, Moira is definitely not black, let’s just put it like that.”
However, Wiley says the creative team putting the show together “didn’t have any hard and fast rules on what that person exactly needed to look like”, and at her audition, the role felt to her like an immediate fit. “I hope that when they saw me, they said, ‘Oh this is what this person is. This is what this person needs to be,’ and didn’t see my color or anything like that, but just saw the character that I was trying to bring to life.”
In fact, Wiley’s experience with Miller and executive producer Warren Littlefield has, she says, been very heartening. “I’ve had many conversations with them and they’re both straight white men. And they’re the kind of straight white men that make me believe. They’re just wonderful. They are people who want to listen and learn and be able to represent parts of the world that they are not.”
Having come to Handmaid’s from Jenji Kohan’s Orange Is the New Black—a show rightly lauded for its inclusivity—Wiley says she’s since noticed the beginnings of positive change in the industry. “I think I’ve seen the benefit of some shifts in executives’ thinking and forward thinking,” she says. “There were so many different kinds of women on that show. Not just race. You had age, you had size, you had background, everything. Diversity oftentimes does not just mean the color of someone’s skin. There are so many things about all of us women that are so beautifully different from each other, and I think that’s something that people were really ready to see. I think that maybe television executives didn’t even realize it until they saw the response.”
That huge—and vitally important—response to Orange was especially overwhelming for Wiley, who’d never planned on being famous and was sideswiped by the loss of her anonymity. She’d always seen herself as a theater actor, she says, hopefully working a lot, but remaining a relatively under-the-radar creative about town. That is, until the confluence of Kohan’s great, timely show and the emergence of binge-streaming changed all that. “I know in the beginning, after Orange came out, and I started getting fame on a very different level than I ever thought that I would gain, it was really hard for me,” she says. “I think I tried to sort of buck against that and do everything I could to deny that. I think I started being pretty depressed, honestly, in the beginning.”
But at some point, she took her feelings in hand, embraced her situation, and began to “use my powers for good”, she says, laughing at her superhero terminology. “I’m able to bring light to issues that matter to me. I’m able to hopefully inspire other people, young people who look like me, who identify in the same way that I do. It was hard for me growing up. I didn’t always see people who look like me on television, especially coming to terms with being a member of the LGBT community. I think with representation, I understand how important that is now. The last thing I would want to do now is to shy away from what I’ve been blessed with. People are looking at me; people are listening to what I have to say.”
Of course, another bonus of fame is having the opportunity to do things like tell Ellen DeGeneres she’s “lord of the lesbians” on national television, as Wiley did on Ellen in April. “And she is lord of the lesbians,” Wiley laughs. “I get to sit in her living room for a day. There are moments like that, when you’re able to meet someone that you admire, or you’re able to just share a space with someone you’ve looked up to for so long. It’s always so amazing to me when I meet someone who I get star-struck by and then they happen to know my work. I feel like my head’s going to explode.”
For Wiley, growing up, her love of acting was focused on the stage. “Through college and going to drama school at Juilliard, learning Shakespeare and all that, it was about theater, and that was my first love. I wanted to be a Broadway actor. Not really musicals, but more so plays on Broadway. That was my dream, being able to live in New York City, have a life there, have my friends there, but then go perform a play at night. That seemed like the ultimate dream for me.”
But in the Golden Age of Television, what great actor would continually eschew fantastic small screen scripts? “To have my career be mostly TV at this point is a very different life than I had imagined for myself,” she says. “When I started doing things on camera, I think I very suddenly realized that this wasn’t the same thing as theater. I do think it’s a specific skill that you have to learn in terms of how to act in front of a camera. In theater, there’s a bunch of people in front of you and you have to project your voice. You have to sometimes make your gestures a little exaggerated so the people in the nosebleed section can see exactly what you’re doing. But to act in front of a camera, obviously things have to be much smaller. It’s the difference between moving your eyes in a different way rather than having turned your entire head or something.”
And her onscreen work has been more than fulfilling, she says. “I’m so happy that I have experience now in front of the camera and can appreciate that in a very different way than I would have without having the experience.” And Wiley has plenty of strings to her on screen bow by now, with, in addition to her Handmaid’s and Orange stints, comedy roles in Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television, an early breakout big screen role in Jonah Hill-starrer The Sitter, and even a skit on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.
But she hopes she’ll continue to blend stage and screen—big and small—as her resume develops. “My dream is to be able to be in a play every year,” she says. “It’s hard to do that, though the last time I was in a play was not too long ago. It was about two years ago. But there’s just something that I feel like recharges me. This is cliché, but it’s going back to your roots in a way. I love performing, and the dream is to be able to master all of those mediums.”
For now, while she hasn’t yet seen a script for Handmaid’s Season 3, Wiley continues to find a deep resonance with the character, just as she did with Poussey on Orange. “There’s something when you read as an actor—at least in my process—where you just can see the character immediately,” she says. “And that’s what happened with me with Poussey, and definitely with Moira. It didn’t take me a bunch of thinking or trying to analyze and figure out who this person might be. I just immediately saw her. When I went into the room to audition, I think they felt it as well. I knew I was able to just step into this person and connect to so many things about her. It felt natural from the beginning. That doesn’t happen all the time. Just without even saying anything, I was like, I know who that person is and I know that I can do that character some justice.”