Finally getting to act on the long-awaited opportunity to speak with Samira Wiley, on her way to the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in Manhattan, was a blessing. In our very candid phone interview, Wiley reflected on WorldPride events in New York City, what it means to be an ambassador for Aerie, and embodying Moira on the greatest show on TV bar none, The Handmaid’s Tale. There are interviews that transcend the medium and it is apparent how a project is meaningful to a person’s life and this is the emotion and dedication Samira Wiley shares with Brief Take on this particular day.
The following is a condensed and edited version of our talk with the transcendent Samira Wiley of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Brief Take: What does it mean to you to be celebrating WorldPride in New York on the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots?
SW: Oh my goodness, honestly, it’s almost too big to even fathom – the significance, the history. I feel like as soon as I landed here, Pride is all of June, this city is vibrating, it’s infectious, and it’s one of the reasons why I fell in love with New York when I first moved here. Knowing that there are people who fifty years ago literally gave their lives for me to be able to live the life that I am today. I would not want to be anywhere else in the world than giving honour and tribute to all of the people who have come before me.
BT: Fifty years from now, what do you think are some ways that the community can continue to evolve?
SW: I’ve seen, especially in recent times, our spirit has been tried over and over again, it’s been slashed, we see it in the military, just attacking our rights. The thing that I hold onto so much is the community, knowing that we’re not alone – it is a community, there is someone standing next to you. If they’re not going through the exact same things that you’re going through, they understand what you’re going through or they see you and they care. So I think that in order to fight, we have to understand who we have around us, who is on the same side as us, and that is something that I have been really surprised by lately. I feel like we have so many more allies now.
BT: I was doing some research and the Stonewall monument was put up in 2016 toward the end of Obama’s presidency, which is a crucial time in your own narrative arc as well.
SW: Let’s talk about the whole Obama’s second term. When marriage equality got passed, it was like “Oh my goodness”, we were so proud of our country. It was “I feel loved, I feel seen” and really just feeling proud of who we are as a country and as people. There are so many things that make us alike, that makes us different, and there were so many things that happened at the same time, in me and my own journey in 2016 – being cast on Handmaid’s. At the time, I thought “Oh wow, we dodged a bullet”, which is not really the case, it kind of hit us straight on.
I don’t want to assume things that I don’t know for sure. I don’t want to assume that because I see rainbow flags everywhere that everyone is on the same team. I don’t want to assume that because I can walk out of my home holding my wife’s hand, that the whole world is like that. I felt so naive in 2016 when that happened to me. That has helped me from now on to stay super vigilant and don’t even become complacent or comfortable or not understand how far we’ve come. Everything that people have done for us to move forward, we need to hold onto that, we have to remember that. If we don’t, we might go back, we might unconsciously cause ourselves to undo some of the strides that the people who have come before us have made.
BT: Let’s talk about the show and where Moira is on the show right now. She’s in Canada, away from Gilead, where she’s trying her best to fight for the rights of those still in Gilead. That mirrors how a lot of people here in Canada feel about wanting to fight against what’s happening in America right now.
SW: That’s a question for the whole world – what is the responsibility of people in the world, no matter what their orientation, what is their responsibility as a citizen of the Earth? No matter the gender lines, the race lines, the sexual orientation lines, there are so many ways we can pick out and point so easily saying “well I’m on this side of that and you’re on that side, so we’re different in this way or different in that way”, and it’s so easy to point out those things and say that we can’t be on the same team because of this or because of that. But I’m so much more interested in how we are alike; what makes us human. For Moira, what are my responsibilities living in Canada but knowing what’s going on in Gilead. Do I have a right to just forget about it? Since I’ve overcome it, I hope y’all do good but I’m moving on, or actually understand that no, you are alive and you are a part of it. I am trying to understand that every day. Just because something is going on in the world that could be thousands and thousands of miles away from me, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t affect me, doesn’t mean that it isn’t a part of me. I’ve become obsessed with trying to find ways to connect with someone, it’s part of my empathy, even if on the surface they’re completely different from me. I’m not interested in the conversation of what makes us different, I’m done with that.
BT: The episode which you won an Emmy for, ‘After’, is one in which we learn of Moira’s backstory. It’s a heartbreaking episode and you really showed a whole range of emotion in it, especially in the scene where you learn the fate of your partner, played by Rebecca Rittenhouse. Tell me about filming the episode and then watching it afterwards.
SW: Most of what I do on the show, it’s not just me and the camera in a room. I’m always amazed at what Lizzie can bring to the screen just by being her by herself. I remember reading that scene, and it’s such a quiet scene, where I realize what has happened to Odette. It’s me in a dark library, no other people, just books, and turning pages of pictures silently. I had no idea how I was going to do that. The routine was always me in a scene with another actor, whether it’s Lizzie or O-T or Rebecca also. So I was feeling a little nervous about that scene. A lot of the things we hear as actors is “action” and “cut”, and the director of that episode, her name is Kari Skogland, she’s amazing, and she had a conversation with me before we would shoot. She said “look, I don’t feel like this is a scene where we just cut and go over, cut and go over. I’m just going to let you go, and don’t worry about anything, just be in the moment.” And I don’t know how long we filmed that scene for, [laughs] but there was no cut, there was nothing to get in the middle of what was going on. I felt like I could just sit there and breath and experience and not have to be anything. It was really, really, really emotional, and it got me to the point where, by the time I did get to cut, and this has honestly never happened to me before on set, where I just couldn’t stop crying. I couldn’t get control of my body. I was uncontrollably, even unwillingly, sort of having this intense emotional reaction. Part of me was like “why did we let the camera keep going?”. [laughs] I kind of had to step out, and I asked Kari to step into a room. I needed some time to just calm myself down. It was one of the most intense, profound, emotional responses and reactions that I’ve ever had on camera.
BT: I’ve seen the first 8 episodes of this current season, and I’ve really liked Moira’s interplay with Emily, Alexis Bledel’s character. Viewers can tell that it’s difficult for them in Canada, now dealing with their trauma from Gilead head on and trying to move forward with their lives.
SW: Yes, we don’t have to think “are they going through trauma?”, it’s right in your face. They’re going through trauma, it doesn’t really have to be explained. You see Moira and you see Emily outside and they’re in Canada living their lives. On the surface it’s “they’re safe now, they’ve made it, there’s no Gilead”, it’s the complete opposite, and that’s almost worse because it’s just going on inside of you. I know for Moira, to have someone like Emily who she can just stand next to and know that the two of them have gone through the exact same traumatic experience, that is something that no one can understand. She’s been with Luke ever since she got there and it’s not like Luke understands her. She can have long conversations with him and he still won’t understand, whereas Moira and Emily will never have to speak a word and there’s this underlying understanding between them that they are sisters in trauma, which fucking sucks. I always think about Moira, well I think of my characters as separate, I think of them as almost my children – I love them and want to protect them. But the trauma, how do you deal with that? There’s a part of you that’s “oh, maybe I shouldn’t talk about it. Maybe I should stuff this down and everything around me is great and I should just focus on that”, but that doesn’t make any sense. You have to deal with everything, and it doesn’t make sense to just wallow in it and “this is my whole life, no one will understand”. You have to find the space for both of those and how do you do that? That is a question that I do not have the answer to. You save space for the hope for everyone who lives as a former handmaid who lives in Canada.
BT: Tell me about being an AerieREAL Pride ambassador.
SW: I go back to when I was younger, not knowing who I was, and my own coming out. As a young person, you look to people and think “who looks like me?”. I’ve heard from so many young black children after Obama had been elected, there was this statistic that young black people dreaming of the things that they could do when they grew up, that just expanded after Obama became President. If you don’t ever see anyone do it before you, how can you dream? There’s people like Obama, there are pioneers, people that are the first to do this, first to do that – that is the kind of person that I feel like my path is leading me towards. I know when I was younger, I didn’t have anyone look like me do what I do. To be able to be outspoken and to be on Instagram, on social media, on whatever kind of platform, and to be exactly who I am, not hiding anything – be open about my marriage and my life – I really want to be a model for what’s possible for people in my community. When you pay attention to the people who are looking at you, when you pay attention to the people who are responding to the things that you are doing, then, for me, my purpose gets a little bit clearer. It’s almost a conversation between me and the people who are looking at me, of who I am going to be, who I am going to be for you, and what my responsibility is. And I don’t use that word lightly – responsibility. I really do think it is. People are always going to be looking at you if you’re in the public eye, you don’t have a choice. You only have a choice of what you’re going to say with your platform, because you’ve been given one if you’re in the public eye. I am so happy that I understand that and I understand it on a level that I feel like is greater than me. I see so many people, men and women, on social media and on the streets, whose hearts connect with mine, regardless of what we look like and regardless of anything else. We connect on a level that is sometimes inexplicable, and one hundred per cent, I know that that is real.
BT: Tell me about your emotional connection to your upcoming projects – BIOS and Breaking News in Yuba County.
SW: Absolutely. During hiatus from Handmaid’s, I really wanted to get into doing more movies. I was just doing something with Tom Hanks and the character in the script that was written was this John Wayne kind of character, and I’m completely different than that type. [laughs] Miguel Sapochnik is one of the most talented directors that I’ve gotten to work with. He is able to look at that character the way they are on the page and see the essence of that character, not exactly what it looks like on the outside. So when I was able to come in and make a tape for that character, he saw that the essence was there. To be able to show that to audiences, well it’ll come out in 2020, to show them what America can look like or what our world can look like, and that there aren’t these rigid lines of what people have to look like or sound like, but it’s the essence of who they are. I mean that, number one, is the truth, but also two, revolutionary in terms of what we see in the media. So it was awesome to be in that movie, but also to get to work with Tom was amazing. Basically, what I guess I’m saying is, with all of these things that I’m doing, the secret project and the one with Allison Janney, a lot of these roles and the things I’m auditioning for, I think someone who looks like me wouldn’t think that they could audition for. I am happy to be living in the time that I’m living, even with all the chaos and all the things that makes the time that we’re living in horrible. But when it comes to art, I feel like the projects that I’m doing, the people that I’m able to interact with, the things that I’m doing are things that my ancestors, LGBT and/or black ancestors, anyone who has come before me, what I’m doing right now were only in their wildest dreams. So I always have to remember that.
The Handmaid’s Tale is available on Hulu and Crave