Samira Wiley’s Wild Ride
When Netflix first dropped all 13 episodes of its genre-busting prison drama Orange is the New Black simultaneously on July 11, 2013, nobody involved with the show – not its fledgling ‘network,’ nor its creators, nor its cast – had any idea that it would be such an instant smash. Certainly not actress Samira Wiley, who plays fan-favorite Poussey Washington…
“The show got released on a Thursday and literally nothing was the same after that weekend.”
Wiley isn’t exaggerating, referring to what has transpired since that fateful summer day not even a year ago as “an absolutely wild ride.” And who can blame her? After all, it’s not like there was a precedent for OITNB’s phenomenal success, at least not when Wiley first signed on to play the tough-talking, wisecracking inmate. She recalls: “There were no Netflix shows out when we started filming, and nobody knew what that meant exactly.”
This was long before another series, the Fincher/Spacey political drama House Of Cards, had premiered to critical acclaim and surprising fan fervor, when Netflix was still thought of mainly as an online Blockbuster Video of sorts.
But the actress, who cut her teeth in regional theater throughout the NY tri-state area, and who had appeared in small roles on CBS’s Unforgettable and Person of Interest, had a pretty good reason to keep the faith. “The one thing that I did know from the beginning was that the show would be under the control of a woman who already had an amazing history in television.”
She’s referring to Weeds creator Jenji Kohan, a gifted writer with a knack for tapping into our deliciously complex and shared humanity, and then inspiring her actors to do the same. According to Wiley, “Jenji is really great at just observing us: not having deep long conversations about exactly what our talents are, but just having that eye and being able to see, Oh, this (actor) can handle this, and this person can handle that.”
It’s an ongoing “dialogue,” as the actress refers to it, but one that exists not just between Kohan and her staff, but also among the extremely close OITNB cast.
“Orange is so much like a family. I had known some of the girls prior to us getting cast (including close friend Danielle Brooks, who plays scene-stealer Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson), but it’s funny how much we all hang out with each other off set now and how much we are all up in each other’s lives.”
So much so that Wiley admits, “during filming, it often seems like there’s no divide between work and play.” However, that doesn’t mean that she or her fellow cast members ever lose sight of the show’s deep emotional undercurrent.
“Sometimes, we can think of people in prison as other or separate from us and like we don’t know anyone like them, but Poussey, and the show in general, have helped me – and hopefully a lot of people – see that these women are human beings who’ve just made mistakes like everyone else.”
That’s probably why fans of both sexes, as well as every color and creed, identify so deeply with OITNB. And you better believe they make that known to the actress any chance they get… but she doesn’t mind. “To be honest, I invite it. I enjoy it, and I’m happy to connect with a fan, always. It’s great to be able to have that one on one moment with someone who relates to or connects with Poussey’s story. That [exchange] is what I love and miss about the theater.”
And speaking of Ms. Washington’s story, fans eagerly anticipating a pre-prison flashback in Season 2 need not fear. Wiley assures us that “we’re gonna get into Poussey’s story and see more of who she is as a woman and where her loyalty lies and her morals. We’ll get into her story and a lot more of her in prison, too.”
But before that, Wiley hits the big screen this month, repping the other side of the law in the mafia thriller Rob the Mob alongside Michael Pitt, Andy Garcia, and fellow theater gal, Nina Arianda. Clearly she’s still pinching herself after the “incredible experience” of filming, but there was something else about playing FBI Agent Annie Bell that really got her heart racing. “I get to carry a gun! I’m not for gun violence or anything, but it was so cool to have it on my hip.”
Sadly for Wiley, packing a pistol is not something that we’ll see Poussey do on Season 2 of Orange is The New Black, but perhaps we’ll witness her rapping again, or showing off those amazing pipes like she did onstage at the Christmas pageant. For her part, all Samira Wiley will confirm is that fans can expect more of Poussey’s endlessly quotable one-liners. “I’m just in my room cracking up all the time when I read each new script. I can’t wait for everyone to see what’s in store.”
PHOTOGRAPHY ALEKSANDAR TOMOVIC | Creative Direction STEPHANE MARQUET
STYLING ANI HOVHANNISYAN
GROOMING TIM MACKAY
Production Bello Media Group | Words by BRAD LIBERTI