It is good to see Samira Wiley. The actress, who shot to fame playing the fearless Poussey on Orange Is The New Black, broke hearts when (spoiler alert) her beloved character was unjustly killed by a guard during a brutal prison riot scene in the Netflix series. Now, on Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale, Wiley is playing a character facing a different kind of injustice. On the series, which is based on Margaret Atwood's 1985 dystopian novel of the same name, Wiley's Moira is hellbent on fighting for her life — and she may already have lost. While Elisabeth Moss' Offred has resigned herself to life as a handmaid — aka a woman whose singular life purpose is to bear the children of her Commander — Moira, her best friend, escapes before she's given her handmaid assignment. By episode 3, Moira is presumed dead: She was allegedly banished to the "toxic" colonies after an escape attempt. Whether she's alive on the show's present-day timeline is yet to be revealed, but Moira's fighting spirit lives on, at least in part, in Offred.
Wiley sat down with Refinery29 to talk about her brave, bold new character — and what attracted her to the role in the first place.
How does The Handmaid's Tale fit into 2017?
"I almost want to laugh, because it's like a puzzle piece. It fits right in. It's scary. I think one of the themes of the show is dealing with the rights that are being jeopardised for women within the show, and it's right in line with what is going on in our social climate now. We have people on the streets, angry, and with determination, marching. We have people picketing. We have people protesting at airports... I think about it as this linear journey that we're on. We make an advancement, we make another advancement, and somehow, we're going back in a circle or something like that... This regime didn't happen all at once. There are gradual steps that people take to take away the [rights] that we've been used to... To have that echoed in our own reality is really scary... I wish it wasn't as relevant as it is."
What was the hardest scene for you to film?
"[SPOILER ALERT] One of the hardest scenes I've had... is a flashback scene. It's a scene where Moira and Offred are trying to escape. They get separated. Moira has to make a very difficult decision. She has to make a decision whether she goes back and is with her friend, or if she's the one who gets out. I was so conflicted during that scene, as Moira, yes, but also as Samira in trying to figure out what would this person that I look up, because I look up to Moira because the decisions she makes are so difficult but so noble."
There's been some backlash over the Tribeca Film Festival panel, in which some of the cast seemed to suggest that The Handmaid's Tale was not a feminist TV show. What are your thoughts on that?
"I think, number one, that the book is a feminist work. I think Margaret Atwood, 32 years ago, was doing that very consciously. I do think possibly that some of what my castmates were saying got misconstrued. What the essence of what they were trying to say is that this book, and this show specifically, has something in it for feminists, people who identify that way readily, and it also has something for people who don't know what that word means, or are afraid of it, or don't identify in that way. There are things in it for everyone. I think it's important to say that yes, it is a feminist work."
Did you read the book prior to taking on the role?
I read it after. I somehow got through life having not read the book, and not really being familiar with Margaret Atwood's work in general... What introduced me to the story was the pilot script, which is very well written. There are changes between the book and show, but some details are just so true to the book... I really applaud Bruce for that. In reading the pilot script, I really fell in love with Moira, and after I got cast in the role, that's when I just consumed the book, and found out so much more about who Offred was, what Gilead is, and who Moira was. I'm so happy I came to it afterwards. Before the book, and in my auditions, I could really look at that character fresh, and not put any pressure on myself to be the person who loved the book so much that I didn't want to mess it up. I still don't want to do that! A lot of people put that pressure on me, but I didn't want to put it on myself."
What were the differences between the book and the show?
"All of the choices were very conscious, but one thing that I think was very smart was that the book was written as a dystopian future. The show is written as if it's taking place right now, in 2017. In the book, Moira is not Black. She is gay, but she's not Black. That's one of the things that I think was a choice. Also OT, who plays Luke, is African American. I think those choices reflect the world that we are living in right now. It wants to reflect the people your kids play with. The people you go to school with. To rid ourselves of the people who are meshed into our society would be kind of weird. And, selfishly, it's great, because now I get to play Moira!"
Members of the LGBTQ community are punished on the show and called "gender traitors." As a woman who is a part of that community, and who just got married to another woman, was it important for you to tell this story?
"Definitely. I think it definitely, for some of the scenes, made it a little scarier for me, as those things are also true about me. More so than that, I just fell in love with the kind of person that Moira is. There are things about her that make her who she is — she's Black, she's gay — but those are facts about her that are not necessarily character traits. Her fierceness, her boldness, her 'bad-assery.' Those, more than her being a gay woman, attracted me to the role."
Did any scenes make you particularly emotional?
"Yeah girl! [Laughs] Yeah, there are some scenes in flashbacks, with June, where there are really hard conversations to have. We see these two not just as friends, but as something deeper. They are sisters. Some of the conversations they have to have about the world that they are living in, again, because of who I am, as 'Samira,' there are so many things that are the same as Moira."