Break out

Orange is the New Black star Samira Wiley takes us behind the scenes
By Lewis Firth | Film+TV | 7 July 2016

The recent release of the fourth season of Orange is the New Black saw fans the world bunker down on their laptops, taking to Netflix to consumer all thirteen episodes in the shortest time span possible. Here, we revisit our HEROINE Issue 4 interview with actress Samira Wiley, who has since gone and landed a role in the film Nerve, out later this year. 

Orange is the New Black is the eminent beacon of online-only TV. Acclaimed for humanising prisoners, its solid storytelling continues to attract the big awards but, like any on-screen success, its talent line-up really drives it. Samira Wiley is one of those breakout stars, playing Poussey Washington for four seasons now. The Juilliard-trained talent has recently tackled, released February, the lead role of Joyce Smith in the film 37, which traces the brutal murder of New Yorker Kitty Genovese in 1964 and the the 37 eye witnesses who failed to call the police. She’s also making waves off-screen for her social activism, named OUT100’s Ingénue of the Year in 2014 and winning the Human Rights Campaign’s Visibility Award in early 2015. (Past recipients of the latter accolade include her parents, Dennis and Christine Wiley.)

Lewis Firth: Let’s talk about 37 because the history behind the story – and the psychological analyses spawned from it – is really intriguing.
Samira Wiley: It was a story that I was not aware of but New Yorkers knew a lot about. Before I could even finish explaining they’d be like, “Oh, Kitty Genovese!” There’re a few psychological studies focusing on it and have named it the ‘Genovese Effect’. It’s a movie that will definitely spark some discussions.

“I’d be at Orange in the morning, in a jumpsuit with no makeup, and then getting rushed over to 37’s set to put on some Diana Ross-like wig after being in prison all day”.

LF: Even after five decades the conversations surrounding Genovese’s story are still extremely relevant.
SW: I think we forget sometimes, or maybe we have desensitised ourselves, that a person – any person – standing in front of us is just that: a person. You can’t devalue someone’s life just because you don’t know them.

LF: 37 is an independent film, how was that experience compared to Orange is the New Black?
SW: The subject matter is a lot heavier. Orange’s producers were so great and accommodating; I was lucky to film both at the same time. I’d be at Orange in the morning, in a jumpsuit with no makeup, and then getting rushed over to 37’s set to put on some Diana Ross-like wig after being in prison all day.

LF: That sounds tiring! I also saw that you voiced Michonne in a The Walking Dead game…
SW: Oh, yes! I’ve never done anything like it before. Lewis, it was the most tiring thing I have ever done.

LF: Seriously? I thought filming both 37 and Orange on the same day would be the killer!
SW: You’ve got to react to all these things in the game and you’ve got to make that translate – doing that in a booth is really hard. I’ve had days in that booth where I’ve just died around 7,000 different times, you know?

LF: [laughs]
SW: We didn’t have motion capture, or anything like that, but we may as well have had it: I was all over that booth killing zombies! But before that I was so unprepared, I didn’t realise how difficult it would be. My first day was really tough.

LF: So how do you get into character when there’s no set or costume?
SW: I went home that evening, on my first day, and made myself this pretend sword – Michonne has this samurai sword, right? – I brought it to the booth the next day, to help me, and people looked at me like I was crazy! [laughs]

LF: [laughs] That is crazy! I love it—so inventive. And in regards to Orange: how does it feel to be part of an incredibly successful show while simultaneously being able to highlight societal issues surrounding race, sexuality and gender?
SW: I had another job when I got the part; I was bartending; and I didn’t quit it during filming and release of the first season as I had no idea how it would turn out. It’s been so amazing to go on this journey with the others – who I call my sisters, now – especially when most of us were pretty unknown before the show. You walk around the set and it’s mostly women, created by a woman, based on a book by a woman, and most of the operators are also women! And on top of that, the story touches on a lot of social issues. It’s our responsibility as artists, as people who are putting content out into the public, to ensure that what we create reflects on issues that are happening in the world today. I have so much respect for Jenji [Kohan, creator of Orange].

LF: Last season I watched every episode in one weekend, I think that’s how most people do it. My friends will ask if I fancy a night out, and I’m like, “I can’t, I’m really busy this weekend.”
SW: [laughs] I keep trying to tell people to slow down.

“You walk around the [Orange] set and it’s mostly women, created by a woman, based on a book by a woman, and most of the operators are also women.”

LF I keep telling myself that. But I’ll watch one episode, then another…
SW: That’s you and a lot of other people – you’re not alone.

LF: Outside of Orange, you’ve won a few awards: last year you were Out magazine’s OUT100 Ingenue of the Year and earlier in 2015 you won Human Rights Campaign’s Visibility Award, which is incredible. A lot of actors find it difficult to be open about their sexuality, worrying it would affect their career, what was it like for you?
SW: Before I got the part in Orange, and before my life changed, I always dreamt of being an actor. Even then I was really scared and had plans to never talk about my sexuality; I was worried about getting typecast. But the price of hiding those feelings was too much. I didn’t see any other option, I don’t believe in lying – like a lot of people – but I also don’t believe in lying by omission. I didn’t want to do that. I think, as a community, we can move forward by just being ourselves. Growing up of course you had actors who were out, but it never felt safe, you know? They were never allowed to talk about it. Now we have people like Ellen Page, who is such a role model to young people – we don’t need to do anything radical to continue making changes: just living our lives, right now and openly, is radical… which is also insane! How is living my life radical?

LF: I understand what you’re saying, it’s unfortunately still often perceived as a radical concept. The source of your social activism comes from your parents, right?
SW: My parents are pastors of a church and because of that they have to be vocal about their beliefs, which are really progressive and focus on inclusivity, and they have to lead their congregation. They were unafraid to go around and tell people about what they believed. Yes, people may not like you, but don’t you feel better being open and honest? They’re my role models.


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