Samira Wiley on Poussey’s Powerful—and Controversial—OITNB Death and Living Out Loud
The actress opens up about her new film ‘Nerve,’ her character’s tragic end on ‘Orange Is the New Black,’ and much more.
When Samira Wiley smiles, the world smiles with her. It is as if her entire face transmogrifies into pure jollity, and this, followed by that unmistakable laugh, is nothing if not contagious. It’s what made her Poussey Washington (accent à droite, bitch!) such a beloved character on the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black—and what made her demise this past season so damn heartbreaking for the show’s legion of devoted fans. You’ve surely seen or heard of it by now: a cafeteria protest over serial prisoner abuse turned violent, with an undertrained guard crushing tiny Poussey with the weight of his body as he restrains her. She gasps help me, to no avail. She is lifeless; another black body destroyed by the long arm of the law.
“It was so intense, man. It was so intense,” recalls Wiley. “Uzo [Aduba] was crying her eyes out and screaming. It was just the most intense thing ever.”
Wiley acknowledges that Poussey’s end was inspired by the death of Eric Garner, an asthmatic African-American who was choked to death by a Staten Island police officer, and that she spent much of the week caring for sobbing castmates who weren’t ready to let go of Poussey. We’re seated on a couch in downtown Manhattan, mere days after the officer-involved deaths of two more black men: Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. The news saddens Wiley, who becomes visibly shaken as we discuss how her character’s departure served as a tribute to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“My hope at the time was that we’re filming something that is happening right now, but is hopefully in our past, and to have post-us filming this more deaths is unconscionable,” she says. “I’m speechless, really, when it comes to some of the violence that’s going on in our country.” There was, is always, a certain amount of backlash when it came to Poussey’s death. Given the makeup of the OITNB writers’ room, which does not boast a single black writer, some critics viewed it as sensationalized, and glorying the death of a beloved black character.
“I didn’t see it that way,” Wiley says of the controversy. “I’m coming from a place where, as people making art in whatever time you’re doing it in, you do have a responsibility to reflect the time that you live in because we are cultural historians. I think the story that we were collectively trying to tell is a truthful one. I wish that people’s anger could be directed fully toward what’s happening in real life—that people’s anger can be transferred from Poussey and a television show to Alton Sterling, to Eric Garner, and to all the tragedies that are happening in real life.”
The 29-year-old actress’s first post-Poussey role is a supporting turn in the silly-fun Lionsgate thriller Nerve, about an app that rewards its players with increasingly large cash prizes in exchange for completing increasingly dangerous stunts. Wiley plays Azhar, the leader of a league of hackers who do their best to help protagonists Vee (Emma Roberts) and Ian (Dave Franco) best the seductive—and ultimately, evil—game. “I am like the Oz!” she says of her hacker queen. “She’s a cool chick. She’s small, but mighty.”
Nerve also stars Wiley’s OITNB co-star Kimiko Glenn as Vee’s nerdy pal, Liv, offering a reunion of sorts for the onscreen lovers after that gut-wrenching goodbye.
“Kimiko is an amazing actress and I love working with her, but fun fact: We actually were not on set at the same time this movie,” explains Wiley. “We’re both technically in the same movie, but didn’t get to work together at all! It was serendipitous though that we ended up in this together.”
As far as technology goes, Wiley says she doesn’t come anywhere close to Azhar’s geek-prowess IRL. She has a Twitter, but no Facebook, and recently downloaded Snapchat but says she’s “in over my head” and can’t figure it out. “And now, everyone has Pokémon Go, right?” she adds. “Everyone! I guess I gotta go get it now!”
Ever since the death of Poussey, however, her Twitter mentions have been flooded with people angry, sad, and confused—or a mixture of all three.
“My mentions now are just nothing but, ‘You’re dead!’ ‘Why you die?!’ Stuff like that. I don’t know how to deal with it!” she exclaims. “They’re very aggressive and very, very outspoken. I just read it and I’ll kind of like it sometimes. ‘Why you die?!’ Like. It’s like, #ISeeYou.”
Women are a rarity in the tech world—as are black people—which makes Wiley’s casting an interesting choice, and a progressive one from a representation standpoint. It’s one of the reasons she says she took the part.
“I’ve definitely been thinking about it as a woman in the tech world, but as a black woman in the tech world it’s even more rare,” she says. “I’m very happy to be on the screen portraying that. As a kid growing up, it was hard for me to think I was able to do things without seeing other people doing it that looked like me. It’s cool to be able to do that for people.”
Wiley, as an out lesbian actress, is also a role model for the LGBTQ community, and it’s a responsibility she is very proud of. She’s still beaming from Pride weekend in New York, an emotionally cathartic celebration following the tragic mass-shooting at the Orlando gay club Pulse that left 49 people dead.
“Pride is one of my favorite times of the year because it’s so joyous! It’s so gay!” she says, grinning wide. “To be honest, my Pride parades are sort of blending into each other right now—I went to a few this year—and at one we held a moment of silence for Orlando. I was never struck more than in that moment of how joyous and how happy Pride makes me, because we had to take that moment of silence and for a moment, it was so profoundly sad, it was so profoundly upsetting, that it made me aware of how different a feeling it was.”
She pauses to collect herself. “I took it as a message of how important it is to me to stay visible, to remain active, and not necessarily doing anything radical but just living my life openly and honestly in front of people—I think that in and of itself can be radical—and to not hide, and to not be afraid,” she continues. “These are things that are much easier said than done, but I think if anyone can do it, someone that is in my position as a potential role model should, and that’s a position that I do not want to take lightly. I want to be a positive role model for young people to let them know that we can live our lives openly, honestly, and with love.”
The writer of Poussey’s death episode on OITNB, Lauren Morelli, is none other than Wiley’s girlfriend. It wasn’t strange for her, she says, because “Lauren and I have been working together for four seasons of television” and she’s “a big fan of hers so knew I was in good hands.” She also believes that the surreal post-death sequence, of Poussey navigating a warehouse party and following a group of bicycling monks towards the river, is not a form of purgatory but that she “just looked at it as a flashback.”
After her final scenes on OITNB, Wiley says that she took home her “entire prison uniform, prison boots, one of those plastic coffee mugs from the cafeteria, a laundry bag, my nametag, and a maxi-pad—because the prison ones are really special.” Then, the cast all congregated at a bar to celebrate.
“We went to this beer garden place in Queens, and the whole cast was there. I felt really loved and seen,” she says. “I couldn’t deal with a speech, though! There weren’t speeches, just a lot of toasts and… shots. It was nice to be able to sit down and just acknowledge it with a drink in our hand. It brought some finality to the journey. I think it’s important to do that. I know as a woman, especially as a black woman, it’s hard sometimes to stop and acknowledge what I’ve done, or pat myself on the back for it, or stop to celebrate.”
Speaking of celebrating, at one point during our chat she points to the cover of a gossip magazine featuring Derek Jeter—who apparently is the world’s biggest OITNB fan.
“He bought me a drink one time—no big deal!” says Wiley, laughing hysterically. “It was year at the Soho House. He was, like, a super-duper-uberfan of the show! It was me and a couple of my castmates and he was geeking out!”
She misses her fellow inmates, acknowledging that since Season 5 is mid-way through production, “it’s hard to hear them talk about being on set.” Still, she says, “I’m ready for the next chapters of my life and I’m happy, optimistic, and have no bitter feelings at all towards anyone over there. I’m now on my post-Orange journey.”
That journey will include an upcoming arc on the FXX series You’re the Worst; a film out in the fall called 37, about the eyewitnesses to the 1964 stabbing death of Kitty Genovese; and a role opposite Elisabeth Moss in the Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale.
“I feel so proud to have been a part of Orange,” says Wiley. “In a lot of ways I feel pretty naïve because this was my entrée into the TV world, but I know that I’m privileged to have had this experience. To come on a show like this where my castmates are all different shapes, sizes, backgrounds, and ages and have that be my home? I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”