Orange is the New Black’s Samira Wiley: ‘Prison is not a funny place’
The actor who plays Poussey Washington discusses how the show has changed her life, and why she wants to play Juliet
in‘The biggest change for me is that I’ve lost my anonymity when I walk down the street.’ Photograph: /Netflix
theguardian.com, Monday 23 June 2014 16.54 BST
Samira Wiley’The biggest change for me is that I’ve lost my anonymity when I walk down the street.’ Photograph: /Netflix
Samira Wiley’s turn as Poussey Washington on Orange Is the New Black has established the Julliard-trained actor as a rising star. With over 200,000 followers on Instagram – with whom she shares fan art and behind-the-scenes selfies with the cast – Wiley’s breezy smile and her distinctly leavening laugh have positioned her as a fan favorite too.
Season two revealed much about Poussey’s character, and Wiley’s poignant portrayal of the young inmate’s fidelity towards her prison family, masked at times by her chin-raised bravado, drove the series forward. Here, she discusses how the show has transformed her life, future projects and similarities she shares with her character.
How has your life changed since the show?
It’s really great the way that it’s changed, and so awesome to be with the other girls [on the show], whose lives are also changing. There aren’t really, like, a whole bunch of famous people on [Orange Is The New Black], so to be able to go through all these changes together has really been a blessing.
The biggest change I guess for me is that I’ve lost my anonymity when I walk down the street. There are people who watch this show over the course of a day, or over the course of two days, which is funny because we spend months and months making it and then after just one weekend, all these people have seen it and are excited about it.
Do you feel any new responsibilities?
I do, definitely. I feel a responsibility to young girls who want to follow in our footsteps. I feel a responsibility to the prison community. I feel like when you get to a place where you’re more visible or where people point at you and say “Samira Wiley, what is she doing?” you have a social responsibility in the world.
I’m actual thankful for the amount of responsibility that has been handed to me. I feel very honored.
Flashback scenes are an important part of OITNB. How you do feel they refocus or balance with the scenes in prison?
Honestly, prison – even though the show is funny and it’s winning awards for being a comedy – is not a funny place. The flashbacks really humanize the characters. Just showing that is so essential. It’s easy to get lost when watching the show, and think that these women’s lives have nothing to do with our own. The flashbacks help viewers see that these women have likely done the same things they’ve done themselves, and just didn’t get caught. It’s nuanced and it has so many colors and it’s not just black and white.
Speaking of the flashbacks, young Poussey’s fluency in German was a show-stopping moment on OITNB. Did you speak German before shooting?
[Laughs] I just learned it for that episode. I really worked hard and in Julliard we learned how to work on different accents and how to learn different languages phonetically. I felt prepared.
What was your reaction then when you got the script and Poussey’s lines were in German of all things?
When I got the script, I was [laughs], I was really surprised. I was mainly like, “They’re trusting me to do this?!” I think Jenji [Kohan] and all the other writers really know us. And it felt awesome that they trusted me with something that large.
Let’s talk about Poussey’s friendship with Taystee [played by Danielle Brooks, who attended Julliard at the same time as Wiley]. Like you said, it’s prison and it’s not a funny place, but their bond buoys them both. Does it mimic your real life friendship with Danielle?
I do think that our relationship on the show is a bit similar because we went to school together, we have a language – we’ve had that chemistry from the beginning. I’ve known her since 2007. You know one of the things that’s different though is the fact that in prison you don’t have family, so as a result [Taystee and Poussey] have to be each other’s family. Taystee and Poussey are each other’s sisters, they are each other’s mothers, they fulfill every familiar relationship that they’re missing for each other. Luckily on the outside I don’t have to be everything for Danielle [laughs] and she doesn’t have to be everything for me. But yeah, me and Danielle, I feel like she’s gonna be my friend for life.
One of this season’s most poignant episodes was the Valentine’s Day episode. Do you relate to Poussey’s definition of love, of ‘just chilling, kicking it, making mad stupid jokes,’ and not wanting to go to sleep because they you’ll ‘be without them for a minute, and you wouldn’t want that’?
I’ve never really thought about it but now that I’m thinking about it, yeah! That’s some deep love right there. I remember my older sister falling asleep on the phone with her boyfriends and stuff – that’s some deep love right there.
Poussey is serving a six-year sentence for selling weed. What’s your take on these sentences that don’t fit the so-called crime and how faulted the prison system is?
To be honest I think the time and effort spent “reforming” these women … I just don’t know how much putting them in a box is actually doing what we’re saying it’s doing. I’m really interested in new ways of reforming and actually, actually trying to reform. Especially in this prison that we’re portraying. It’s minimum security. These aren’t murderers. These aren’t violent criminals. I wonder if [there’s] some other program, rather than placing them behind bars for years of their lives when a lot of them are young girls and still developing, you know what I mean?
And most of the time, these sentences do nothing for these women once they’re out of prison.
Yeah. Like with Taystee last season. When they finally do have a chance to get out, they don’t have any tools, and a lot of times they end up cycling back to the system. It’s heartbreaking.
Since the show, you’ve probably met so many actors and heroes who have influenced you. Does anyone stand out?
I was at Essence magazine’s Black Woman in Hollywood luncheon and Oprah was there. She had like bodyguards around her and Danielle went up and got a picture with her and I was like, “Man, OK. Let me get enough courage to walk over there.” But by the time I actually got myself together to actually go walk over and say something to her, I say, “Hi Miss Oprah!” Of course I put a Miss in front of [her name]! I don’t even know. It was an out of body experience. I think she turned around and said, “Hey baby,” and then she was gone.
What are the projects you have coming up? What would you love to work on?
I never want to pigeonhole myself or get typecast. I’m looking forward to my career and showing all of my range as an actress, and I’m looking at other mediums too. I’m a theater actress first. And I cannot wait to return to the stage.
What’s your dream stage role?
I’m a big lover of Shakespeare. In fact the only plays that I’ve ever done professionally in New York have been Shakespearian. This might sound cliché, but I want to play Juliet. [Laughs] I think I would do a great job playing Juliet. Also, I love Chekhov. There’s a play that Chekhov wrote called Uncle Vanya and I when I was in school I played Sonya, and sometimes people ask me if there was ever a role I could play again, that’s definitely the role I would play again, Sonya in Uncle Vanya. I was young then and there’s just so much more to explore and I’d love to get the chance to do that. Those are such classics and I know I’m probably biting off more than I can chew by saying that but yeah, that’s what I want. That’s what I want….