Washington native Samira Wiley broke a lot of hearts in the summer when Poussey, her character on “Orange Is the New Black,” met a heartbreaking fate. But Wiley has brought her commanding presence back to our screens as Moira in Hulu’s critically acclaimed adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Wiley’s casting represents one of the major updates to Margaret Atwood’s classic novel, which unfolded in a racist dystopia. In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Wiley discussed taking on the role, meeting Atwood and why she thinks “The Handmaid’s Tale” will resonate in our current political climate.
“I haven’t felt as excited about a project that I’ve been in, in a very long time,” Wiley said.
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed.
What attracted you to the role of Moira? How did you feel about Margaret Atwood’s book before you got the part?
I’m always attracted to very strong characters and, in terms of scripts, something I believe needs to be said. That’s how I felt after I read the script. I actually wasn’t familiar with Margaret Atwood before the audition, and I hadn’t read “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which honestly, I count as a happy accident. A lot of people have so many preconceived notions about the book — people read it in high school and college — and I didn’t have that. So I was able to come to the script and the characters fresh, which I feel like was probably a benefit to me.
I immediately read the book after I got the role and fell in love with Margaret, and also have fallen in love with Margaret in real life. She’s an amazing woman.
What was your interaction like with Atwood on set?
The very first time I met her — it was really before we had started filming. [The cast spent] a week getting to know each other. There was a day where we all knew we were going to have dinner with her. I got there, and I sat down at a long table, sat down in my seat and realized, not too much later, when Margaret walked in, that the only seat available was literally right across from me. So I was a little freaked out. She’s really seen as royalty in Canada [where Atwood is from and where the show was filmed] so everyone knows who she is.
I got up when I saw Elisabeth Moss come into the restaurant and told her that I saved her a wonderful seat. And then I sat at a different seat.
That was my first interaction with Margaret — or rather, lack thereof. She is so warm, and she’s very active in social media, actually. She’ll tweet at me and comment on my Instagram pictures. We have a very warm relationship right now. But going into it, I was definitely pretty intimidated.
Do you feel, as many do, that “The Handmaid’s Tale” has a particular resonance in our current political climate?
We started filming before the election happened. I believe we knew then that this was something that needed to be said. We all were very, very surprised when we came back [after the election] and realized, “Oh gosh, this is going to resonate even more.”
Being a lot of different minorities — meaning I’m a black, gay woman — I was a little scared. But again, I’m really interested in scripts that have something to say and are relevant to the time that we live in. I feel that is our job as artists really, to be able to reflect the time and the climate that we’re living in. Regardless of it being a little scary, I do feel very privileged to be able to be part of a project that will resonate so much.
Do you feel like there is something empowering about the producers choosing to cast a black woman as Moira?
It’s a reflection of where we are — even in terms of giving actors a chance to be able to play a lot of different roles. I took my cue from the director, the creator, the writers, that this was something that they wanted to do. I think when you take on a role there has to be trust there. And I felt like this was the choice that they were making, and I trusted that. Even just for actors, getting different roles. I do feel like it was a smart decision on their part, and an interesting one, to push people to think about things in a different way. And to get me a job.
“The Handmaid’s Tale” also stars your former “Orange Is the New Black” co-star Madeline Brewer. Did you know you were going to be working with her again?
We sort of kept in touch through social media and group “Orange” emails. Actually, when I arrived in Toronto to start the series, I didn’t know that Maddie was a part of it until I saw her face on the casting wall. So it was a happy surprise. And she is amazing in this role. It is something completely different than you have seen her do. And it was nice to be able to work with her in such a very different kind of script. I really have some newfound respect for Madeline and her acting skills. I don’t have too many scenes with her. The ones I do were some of the greatest and most fun scenes that I did.
Speaking of “Orange Is the New Black,” did you know that Poussey’s death would be felt by so many people?
I am so honored to have been chosen to tell that story. Honestly, I’m okay with it. I’m proud that that happened.
The story that we were trying to tell was something that I feel like wasn’t on television in a narrative way. It was in the news all the time, but to be able to bring that to people who didn’t necessarily know Eric Garner, didn’t know Michael Brown, but so many people knew Poussey. And to be able to bring that to people who had fallen in love with this fictional character is something that I will always be happy and proud that I was able to do.
I think I had my own idea. But to actually see the aftermath, I don’t think that there was any way that I could have known that she resonated with people like that and that people loved her in that way.
Do you feel like people will fall in love with Moira in the same way?
That’s definitely the dream. I want to be able to bring life to Moira in the same way that I brought life to Poussey and made that person real. That’s always my goal. I think that Moira is a hero. She is the one in the book that you’re not going to question, “Is Moira going to survive?” Because you know she is.
Even the memory of her bolsters Offred [the lead character played by Moss] in a way that I don’t know she would be able to have without the presence of Moira in her life. Offred says, “I [intend to] survive.” And I, honestly, in my imagination, really feel like she gets that from Moira because Moira is always going to survive.
The first three episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” are streaming now on Hulu. The fourth will debut Wednesday.