Samira Wiley talks love, activism and The Handmaid's Tale 2

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Helen Bownass
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After starring in the most talked about TV show of the year, The Handmaid’s Tale’s Samira Wiley brings her own brand of cool to the high street’s must-have colour combinations. Photography: Andrew Yee. Fashion: Des Lewis. 

If The Handmaid’s Tale has been the best, most important thing on TV this year (and let’s all agree it has), then Samira Wiley is the dystopian drama’s hero. As Moira, the activist lesbian in a world where fertile women are forced to become handmaids, she was brave and disdainful. While the fate of Offred (Elisabeth Moss) was questionable, there was never any doubt Moira would survive the brutal regime of Gilead; indeed Wiley is currently filming season two of the show in Toronto. 

Wiley was nominated for an Emmy for her role (for outstanding supporting actress in a drama series) and Stylist’s shoot with her is the day before the awards. It’s her first award nomination, but she’s relaxed – perhaps because her mum Christine, who’s in town for the occasion, has come with her today. Between modelling the high street’s boldest new-season colour combinations – a contrast to the uniforms we’re used to seeing her in on-screen – she is humble and funny, talking of her dislike of wearing heels on the red carpet and how her wife is writing a new TV show, but has to go to a coffee shop to work as Wiley distracts her. 

It was TV that brought Wiley and her wife, Lauren Morelli, together in 2012. Morelli was a writer on Orange Is The New Black in which Wiley – a graduate from the prestigious Juilliard School for drama in New York – starred as Poussey. They married earlier this year and Wiley’s parents, both Baptist ministers who live in Washington DC (“practically down the street from the White House,” Wiley tells me) officiated at their wedding. We talk about her career and how impressive it is that she has starred in two of the most agenda-setting dramas about women in modern times, and also the ‘coincidence’ that they are both from streaming services and make great use of flashback as a narrative device. 

Wiley didn’t take home the Emmy the next night – it went to Ann Dowd, who plays Aunt Lydia in the series. She deserves one though. On screen she’s magnetic, powerful, effortless. Elisabeth Moss is in agreement. “Acting with Samira is like being in a beautiful boxing or tennis match,” she tells Stylist. “She reacts physically and emotionally to every ebb and flow. She is one of the absolute most present actors I’ve worked with.” 

The Handmaid's Tale 2

When I catch up with Wiley in New York a week after our shoot, she is convincingly thrilled the award went elsewhere: “I was rooting for Ann to win over me,” she assures me, when I ask if she was secretly disappointed. Perhaps this generosity of spirit is because Wiley is in a very happy place both personally and professionally. But while she looks like she’s got life on lockdown, it’s been a lengthy and mindful process to get here. As we talk I’m impressed with how reflective she is, the candour with which she speaks of her journey to this point, her social conscience and how she has learned to inhabit her own skin. Moss puts it best, though: “Samira is who she is unapologetically. She’s the definition of a powerful woman. She doesn’t bulls**t. I lucked out with this one and I know it.”

Moira is incredibly brave. Do you think you would have been as courageous in Gilead? And do you make brave decisions in your life?

I learned so many things about myself through her. She is someone who stands up regardless, and you see how empowering that is. There are so many similarities between me and Moira. On the surface there’s being a black gay woman – even just that phrase is something I haven’t always been able to say because I was afraid of it. My own identity, and being comfortable with who I am, is something I’m getting more comfortable with. I grew up in the church – and my parents have always been very supportive – but when I first started in this industry a lot of people told me I shouldn’t be open with who I am. You’d think that idea is archaic, but there was a guy in my [drama] class who was also gay and we had this plan that we would walk red carpets together if we both got famous. We were trying to hide our identity. I had no idea that one day I would be brave enough to say, “This is who I am”. I have a responsibility to be open and honest and my wife has taught me so much about bravery with her own coming out story. The choice to be brave has been the journey of my life. From the characters I play, I try to think what traits from them I would like to take away. Moira encourages people to speak up; we look at this Trump era and this political climate and we can’t afford to be silent or live in the shadows any more. 

The Handmaid's Tale

Because you become complicit otherwise?

Absolutely. It’s got to a point where I couldn’t afford to be invisible. There’s some little girl out there watching [me] who can think differently about herself now because someone who looks like her has stood up and can be proud. 

Was there anyone you were able to look to similarly as a young girl? 

What was amazing to see was my skin colour on television. One of my heroes and favourite movies was What’s Love Got To Do With It with Angela Bassett – it’s an amazing example of female strength. But I don’t remember there being a lot of people I could look up to, especially in the LGBT community. I didn’t come out till I was 19 or 20 years old; I just didn’t know who I was, and I think that I can attribute that to lack of representation when I was growing up. There weren’t people I could see myself in. I realised I can’t hide [who I am] because of how much it would have meant to me [to see someone like me in the public eye].

How do you balance that with keeping parts of your life just for you and Lauren?

That’s something that we’re still navigating. People want so much from you. It’s a challenge to find the balance and make sure people see enough that they know that you’re a human like them, but then also getting to be a human being.

I have to know, what are you allowed to tell me about season two of The Handmaid’s Tale? 

When I got to Toronto, there was a big book waiting for me with the outlines for the first third of the season, which was so exciting. Season one talks so much about the colonies where ‘unwomen’ are taken and left to die or work with toxic waste. And this season we’re going to go and meet the women there. I’m excited about that but it’s not a happy place [laughs], so it’s still on the darker side. We’ll see Moira in the present, her life before and more of a full picture of who this woman is.

Is it more nerve-wracking going into season two without the security of the book, or is that more freeing?

For me right now it’s just exciting, and Margaret [Atwood] is on board for season two, which is great. There was so much pressure last year; this book is so beloved. I feel there’s a little more freedom [now].  We’ve proved ourselves, in a way, and now we can spread our wings.

Will there be examinations of other social issues beyond fertility? Race, for example? 

I do know that there’s a lot more [about race], and I’m definitely on board with exploring that – I think there’s such depth to that.

The Handmaid's Tale

Are you a natural optimist?

I’m probably one of the biggest optimists you’ll ever meet. I wanted to be an actor so much – I auditioned for all the [drama] schools and didn’t get accepted anywhere. I could have seen that as a tragedy, but I ended up going to Juilliard [after a teacher suggested she audition]. If that hadn’t happened I wouldn’t have got my agent, and then I wouldn’t have had auditions for these roles. Everything happens for a reason – we just need to wait and see.

Are you able to employ that optimistic lens when you look at America today?

I have so much faith in people. People are so worried about our country right now, and I think that rather than putting my energy into worrying, I try to put my energy into the faith that I have in other people and how we should move forward as a country. 

Your new project, Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes On Television, [on YouTube Red this October] is quite a departure from Poussey and Moira…

I play a detective, and [comedian] Ryan [Hansen] plays himself. It’s a little meta. Handmaid’s Tale is artistically fulfilling in every way, but to have that balance a project like this is a breath of fresh air. I pride myself on being able to land comedy as well as drama. At Juilliard we took a clown class, which was one of the hardest classes I’ve ever taken. This feels like returning to my roots. Actors I admire are people like Alec Baldwin who can do anything. I want to be able to have a repertoire that shows all of that. 

The Handmaid's Tale 2

How easy is it for you to hold on to your own sense of self while on the red carpet?

That idea of ‘holding on to your sense of self’ is a good way to think about it. It’s probably my least favourite part of the job. It’s hard to navigate that and to understand I have to do this, but also to find joy in it. That’s the key to everything; how can you find the joy in what you’re doing.

You wore a Wu-Tang Clan vest for some of your wedding day. Can you tell me about that?

[Laughs] It wasn’t planned. I just thought: ‘I’m hot, I’m dancing, I cannot dance in these heels any more.’ I ran to my room and the first thing I saw was a Wu-Tang Clan vest and some tennis shoes, so I put them on.

How did Lauren react? 

One thing that’s great about Lauren is she married all of me, she knows exactly who I am. I want to live authentically in the moment, and I’m happy that in that moment I was not concerned with how I looked, but with how I felt.

Is that the secret to a happy marriage, to accept you’re marrying all of someone?

Yes. If you’re going to choose someone then you have to really choose them, you know?

You and Lauren live in LA now. Do you feel nostalgic when you return to New York? 

New York is the greatest city in the world – I’ve always wanted to live here, ever since I knew what Broadway was. When I first got here it was everything I wanted it to be, but I think it doesn’t go with my lifestyle any more. I would be recognised in New York. I had a few people chase me down the street before, it wasn’t fun. The dream would be to live bi-coastally. 

The Handmaid's Tale

Are you eating vegan food and hiking every weekend in LA?

I’m very adventurous, but hiking is my mortal enemy. My wife thinks I’m crazy but I get angry when I’m hiking. I don’t like when you’re hiking up and then in the middle of the hike the hike goes down, and I feel like you’re losing progress. 

So you don’t like the idea of walking but not actually going somewhere? Do you think that’s quite a relevant metaphor for your life?

YES! I’m also not a big fan of yoga. I need things to be going somewhere. I feel like a child asking: ‘What are we doing? When are we getting there?’ Whenever I’m talking to my agent, he’s always asking: “Is that going to be too much?” And my answer is always, “No, I can do it.” My mom is 67, and she’s just got her second PhD and is someone who will never stop. I get that from her. I just don’t know how to slow down.

Is Lauren a good counter-influence on you?

Yes. She’s always trying to teach me how to celebrate, which I didn’t know I didn’t have. I barrelled through life’s big moments. When I got an Emmy nomination, there was never a point where I said, “Let’s pause, have a meal.” She helps me pause. 

Is that inability to stop partly motivated by fear, that if you stop it’ll all get taken away?

Yes, I think it comes from fear. There are so many things that drive us through fear. I’m not sure what I’m afraid of, though; is it that I’ll lose everything? Sometimes fear can be a good thing, it can help push us to do things we wouldn’t have done. But I do think I need to find, and people need to find, a balance between what is motivating our actions. Is it something positive or is it something negative? Even just having this conversation is helping me to be aware. There’s so much value in pausing and asking yourself why? Why am I doing these things? Why now? Why this? Those are good questions to ask yourself.

The Handmaid’s Tale will return in 2018.