Returning to Washington is, as one would expect, nostalgic for actress Samira Wiley, a District native.
“Everything looks so different,” she says during a recent visit. “I drove past Duke Ellington, my high school, and they did a really huge renovation recently. I immediately texted one of my high school teachers and asked for a tour.”
At 31, Wiley has become something of a cultural icon for her TV work.
From 2013-2017 she starred as fan favorite Poussey Washington in “Orange is the New Black.” She and her castmates won three Screen Actors Guild Awards for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble.
Since 2017, she has starred as Moira in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Wiley was nominated for an Emmy. The show won eight Emmy Awards (including Outstanding Drama Series), as well as the Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series.
And, in 2016, the actress was nominated for the BTVA Video Game Voice Acting Award for Best Female Lead Vocal Performance in a Video Game. She played the title character in “The Walking Dead: Michonne.” She was awarded the Human Rights Campaign’s Visibility Award in 2015; Out magazine named Wiley the “Ingenue of the Year” in 2014 and one of the Out 100 in 2017.
Wiley is currently starring in season two of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” New episodes are being dropped weekly on Hulu. The series, based on the monumental dystopian novel by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, is set in the repressive republic of Gilead, which has been established by theocratic terrorists after the overthrow of the U.S. government.
“I think it’s important for people not to think of this as in the future or in the past, but as a parallel reality,” Wiley says. “When we were making it, we knew it was going to be timely and relevant. We didn’t know it was going to be this relevant.”
Wiley plays a black gay woman who has become a handmaid in Gilead where 95 percent of the women are sterile and the fertile are enslaved as red-cloaked sexual surrogates. In the first season, she and best friend Ofglen (Elisabeth Moss) navigate the strange new world together.
Wiley credits the talented crew with helping her ground her performance.
“It feels so real to me because they have gone out of their way to make it seem real. Every detail is so planned out. Reed Morano directed the first three episodes and created the look of the show with us. She’s created a world that is insanely gorgeous. There is heartbreak in that because it is so beautiful and so horrible all at the same time.”
One of the sequences that made the biggest impact on Wiley was when Moira and June try to escape Gilead. As they walk through the town, they are under continual surveillance from armed guards and other security personnel in marked vehicles.
“The thing that was most striking to me walking through Gilead that day was the lack of signage anywhere,” she says. “There are no words. For women in Gilead, reading is illegal. To try to make your way through this town and escape and get on a train to Boston when you don’t have anything that says where you’re going makes you feel small.”
Wiley also notes the complex way the red cloaks worn by the Handmaids also display the beauty and the horror of life in Gilead.
She credits costume designer Ane Crabtree for creating such “amazing garments.” Donning the cloak, Wiley says, is an exercise in getting into character.
But, the beautiful red costumes are also a source of potential danger and punishment for the Handmaids.
“It has lots of pieces to it — I don’t even have words for all the pieces. It looks like a wash of red, but there are all these little details. When I’m getting ready, it helps me think of Aunt Lydia — is she going to say something isn’t on right? And the wings, the hats that we wear. You literally can’t look to your neighbor without turning your entire body. Just looking at your neighbor is a crime, so your body will betray you. It’s so intricate. I think it’s so well thought out. It feels like a real collaboration between the costume designer and the actors.”
At the end of season one, Moira escaped across the border to freedom in Canada, leading into her season two storyline, where she lives as an ex-pat in a region dubbed Little America across the Canadian border. She says this brings highly mixed emotions for her character.
“It’s two things. It’s this wonderful elation. She’s escaped, she’s not getting raped every day, she’s able to get health care, she gets handed money and other things that women aren’t even allowed to possess in Gilead,” Wiley says. “But then there’s also the incredible dark lonely side of it. She doesn’t have best friend June. Her fiancé from before Gilead is dead. She is really alone, and her only family is June’s husband Luke. In season two they’re trying to figure out how to live together and how to be a family without their star.”
Before Wiley donned the red Handmaid’s cloak, she wore an orange jumpsuit in “Orange is the New Black.” She played Poussey Washington, a lesbian inmate at Litchfield Penitentiary, and a popular character whose death at the end of season four left viewers bereft.
She says audiences fell in love with her character as much as she did. Her mother said it was like losing a best friend when she told her Poussey was being killed off, a notion she says is an “awesome compliment” for an actor.
Wiley was bartending when she auditioned for “Orange.” She calls the role and the fact that she “got a wife out of it, not a bad deal.”
Wiley married “Orange” writer Lauren Morelli on March 25, 2017. They met on the set and their relationship thrived, even though Morelli wrote the episode where Poussey dies, but she doesn’t hold it against her since it was a decision dictated by higher ups.
“If I had to pick someone to write my death scene, I would have picked her,” Wiley says. “I wouldn’t want to put that in someone else’s hands.”
Wiley’s parents, Christine and Dennis Wiley, are the retired co-pastors of the Covenant Baptist United Church of Christ; their church was the first traditional black church in D.C. to perform same-sex marriages.
“They are the antithesis of what you think of when you think about Baptist pastors,” she says. “My parents are super liberal cats.”
That made her coming-out process very simple.
“It was really really easy-breezy,” she says. “When I came out to them, my father basically leaned back in the chair and said, ‘That’s cool. Give me a hug.’ And that was it. It was such a non-event.”
As for a third season of “Handmaid’s Tale,” Wiley, like many, is hopeful.
“This world that Margaret has created is so complete, there are endless possibilities. It’s just there.”