With The Handmaid’s Tale set to return to our screens for season 3, Samira Wiley discusses the life-changing impact of playing one of Gilead’s most outspoken characters and how the eerie parallels between the dystopian TV show and real-life make her dread the next installment.
Samira Wiley is in a good mood when I talk to her. A very good mood. The last time she was in the pages of Stylist, she’d just been nominated for, but graciously lost, the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress for her role as Moira in The Handmaid’s Tale. Two years later, we catch up with the 32-year-old after she has finally picked up an Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress in the same role.
“I felt on a high for a full two weeks, for sure,” she says. “You hear people talking about winning awards and they say, ‘I was shocked, I had no idea.’ I used to think, ‘Are you telling the truth or did you know the whole time that you were going to win?’ But the shock when I heard my name… I just couldn’t believe it.
“Honestly, I sometimes still pinch myself. It was just an awesome night. My wife was there and it felt like a night full of love and recognition of how hard all of us have been working.”
A student at New York’s prestigious Juilliard performing arts school, Wiley landed her first major role in Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black as the witty, big-hearted Poussey Washington in 2012. It was there that she met her wife Lauren Morelli, a writer on the series – “Orange created us!” Wiley says, laughing – and the pair were married in bespoke Christian Siriano outfits in 2017.
After Poussey’s tragic death at the end of the fourth season, Wiley joined the cast of the TV adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s seminal dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale. As rebellious Moira, imprisoned in Gilead then forced into prostitution at underground nightclub Jezebel’s, Wiley spent the first season plotting her escape from totalitarian rule.
Having successfully made it over the border, Moira’s second season was a quieter one as she appeared to accept how little power she had over the regime, but Wiley says the third season shows her character “definitely get back some of her Moira-ness”.
“This season feels like the characters on the show are in a similar place as the viewers watching it,” Wiley muses. “The viewers are fed up with the situation and they want to see some push back. That is exactly where the characters in the show are.” The women of Gilead –Moira, June, Emily, and maybe even Serena Joy – are raring to topple the regime that has stripped them of their rights, with June agitating from within and Moira assisting from afar.
“I don’t want to say too much, but how to help the rebellion is Moira’s dilemma this season – figuring that out,” Wiley says. Blessed be the fight.
The second season of The Handmaid’s Tale was… bleak. Are we going to see a change in mood in the third season?
One thing I can promise you is that you can’t predict what is going to happen. People will surprise you just like people surprise you in life. People surprise you the most when they are trapped in a corner, when they feel stuck, when it seems like they have no hope. Some of the most extraordinary things happen under trauma, to human beings in general, but specifically to women in this show, and I am excited for everyone to see this season.
How much of the new season will be a reflection of current real-life events?
I always think about how parallel the show is to real life. Specifically, in season two we saw women separated from their daughters. Then kids got separated from their parents at the [US and Mexico] border. It’s a little eerie, because the storyline was obviously written before it happened. I don’t think the writers are trying to line up with what’s happening in the world, but one thing Margaret [Atwood] always says is that of everything she wrote in the book, there’s nothing that has not happened to women in history before. That has always stuck with me – what one human being can do to another. So, honestly, I want to go in that writers’ room and tell them to please be careful what they write. I do not agree with this prophetic writing.
There is something very Gilead-ian about the way restrictive abortion laws are being passed in American states like Georgia and Alabama at the moment.
Yeah, it’s kind of unbelievable. In the beginning when we started production we were still in an Obama presidency. Everything has changed so much from then to now and it’s happened so fast. It’s really changed the way I think about my work and the way people receive the work. It has an extra level of importance because of the time it’s being shown in, and I feel really lucky to be a part of it. But I also feel unsettled.
Do you find it hard to switch off when you’re not working on The Handmaid’s Tale?
It’s become easier as the seasons go along just because of the nature of where Moira is. She was in Gilead in the first season and I do remember that taking an emotional toll on me, and season two was also a toll in a different kind of way. It is becoming easier to step in and step out. My days are not consumed with the gruesome parts of Handmaid’s any more. But I miss Lizzy [Elisabeth Moss, who plays Moira’s best friend June]. The most wonderful scenes for me are the flashbacks because we’re always together. Whenever we look on the schedule and see that we’re working on the same day it’s just awesome. I love her and I miss the intimacy that we created in the first season.
Has Margaret Atwood given you a sneak preview of The Testaments, her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale?
I don’t have a preview and I am kind of scared to read it. I remember when I first read [that Atwood had written] a sequel I was like, ‘Oh my god!’ But The Handmaid’s Tale is not necessarily laugh out loud television. It sometimes takes a toll on you. To know that could happen again makes me a little wary, but I’m obviously still excited.
What else have you got on your reading list?
Richard Wright’s book Native Son. I read it a long time ago, probably in high school. I remember loving that book so much and they just announced the movie so I have it with me to read but I haven’t cracked it open yet.
Do you watch much television?
I’m watching Our Planet on Netflix. It’s narrated by David Attenborough, who everyone loves. You feel like he is your warm uncle telling you about the animals. I have so many questions about how they get these shots. I find myself watching less and less scripted television, I don’t know if it’s because I work [in it] every day. I do love The Good Place. I had a meeting with someone and all she did was watch television 24/7 so I was like, ‘OK, well if there’s one show that someone has to watch, what is it?’ She said The Good Place. And I have been a fan ever since.
It’s been a few years since you left Orange Is The New Black, so how do you feel about it ending this season?
Everyone across all the seasons of the entire show was invited to a party and I was honestly a little caught off guard by my emotions. I love a party and I’d imagined going in there and having fun with some friends. But you have these memories with them, things that will never go away, things that we created for the first time. It was such a special night. I was there with my wife and I will never have anything in my life like that again just because it was the first time.
You’ve said that it took time for you to find your voice but you’re now campaigning for LGBTQ+ and feminist issues. What helped you do that?
You know, a really large part of it was getting the job on Handmaid’s and playing Moira. Playing that character, I think I got in touch with my opinions and the part of myself that understood, with the changing of our climate, what my responsibility was. I started to figure out exactly what I wanted to say and have a stand. I’m still at the beginning of my journey figuring out how I’d like touse my voice, but I know that it started with Moira.
The Handmaid’s Tale starts on Channel 4 soon
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