Exclusive: Samira Wiley on her defiant 'badass' character in The Handmaid's Tale

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Apr 27, 2017

After four scene-stealing seasons as Poussey Washington on Orange Is the New Black, Julliard trained actress Samira Wiley had a choice to make: theater, film, or commit to another television series. Luckily another TV series adaptation of a female-centric book was in need of Wiley's skills, and so she signed up to play Moira in Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale.

As the determined best friend to Elizabeth Moss' June/Offred, Moira is a lesbian woman who doesn't bend to the will of Gilead's homophobic system. In the book, her rebellion serves to illustrate what happens to women who reject the training of the Aunts, or seek to escape the authoritarian rule imposed upon them. In the TV series, Moira's role is expanded via flashbacks that greater define the friendship between her and June before Gilead becomes the new norm. And we also get to see how Moira's fire forges a different, if not equally tragic path.

For Wiley, the character of Moira deeply reflected many things the actress holds dear. Both are lesbian, married, and outspoken about social causes, all of which brought the frightening themes of The Handmaid's Tale even closer to home. Although initially unfamiliar with the book, Wiley talks to us about how timely and important bringing Margret Atwood's novel to life became for her and the rest of the production.

Having worked for years on episodic TV, was there any concern about jumping right back into another possible long run series?

Regardless of the medium, whether it's TV, film, or stage, it doesn't matter where the art is happening. It only matters to me the quality of the writing and the artistic integrity of the people involved. I read the script, and in terms of the roles I want to take, this one really jumped out at me.

What about Moira appealed to you?

Not only is the writing excellent, but a character like Moira is a badass. In the characters that I play, I try to look for people that I admire something in them. Like Poussey, they have traits that I do not necessarily have, or have not fine-tuned them as much as they have. The exact same thing goes for Moira. She stands up for herself and all of the women of the time and world that they're living in. She's someone who would have been at the head of the Women's Marches in this day and age. It was a no brainer to go in and audition for this role. I wanted it.

Obviously, Atwood's book is beloved by many, especially women. Will fans recognize Moira from the book in the series?

Yes. A lot of people told me that if I mess this up, they're going to kill me. (Laughs) Sometimes when you're working on a show with a huge fandom already, it's hard to please everyone. But I think people who are familiar with the book and those unfamiliar with the book will be happy. In a nutshell. Moira's journey is parallel to what's in the book.

You work a lot with Elizabeth Moss in the show because of June and Moira's pre-Gilead friendship. Did you talk much about how to portray that friendship?

First of all, I'm a huge fan and admirer, and now friend, of Elizabeth Moss. She sets the tone on set. She is a pro and she's on set every single day. Not only is she doing flashbacks and present day, but also voice-overs for the series. I take my cues from her. A lot [of that friendship] has to do with conversations that are initiated by Bruce [Miller, the showrunner], me, or Lizzie. I remember one conversation in particular that was a flashback scene, I asked in terms of where we are in the real world, where does this fit in? Would you say this is where we are now, post Trump? And it was the scariest answer I have ever received from Bruce Miller. (Laughs) He said, "Oh, no, this is definitely before where we are now." That was unsettling, but so helpful to have those conversations so we are all on the same page. It's not muddled where we are in the story.

The series has a very distinct, close-up shooting style that director Reed Morano sets up in the pilot. The camera is right in the character's faces. How was it adjusting to that intimacy with the camera?

It is a very different shooting style than I am used to. In Orange, there were so many wide shots because there are a 1,000 of us in the cast. (Laughs) Having Reed at the helm of this project, directing the first three episodes, she comes from a very specific background as a director of photography. Because of that, she thinks in a very specific way as a director. Not only that, she is intent on even having the right colors in the shot. She is very attentive to that. And one thing that she does that I love, and I haven't worked with many directors who do this, is she takes the camera herself and gets right in your face. She'll talk to you beforehand and say, "I'm going to be right up on you. If you need me to get out of the way, push against me. I'm here and with you." It was in the beginning, so weird for me. I had never done anything like it before. But I felt close to Reed from the very beginning. Also throwing it back to Elizabeth, she works so well with Reed. They had done a movie before together so to see the fluidity of them and Reed with the camera, it just felt like she had it. Through that, we were able to have so much freedom. You know exactly where you can go and I had a blast trying to figure out how to work in that environment.

Bruce Miller is the showrunner. How was he about taking feedback from the women who are playing out this intensely female story?

Number one, it's not just Bruce. He has an entire room of writers in L.A. with a plethora of women. But honestly, Bruce has been one of the most open people I have worked with. He encourages conversation and a collaborative working environment. I never, ever feel I can't talk to him about anything. I'm not sure where he gets that from, but it's very, very, very helpful. I know a lot of people don't work that way.

Was the show missing anything by not having a female showrunner?

I think about this all the time because people are always asking about Bruce being the male head of this female show. I was doing this play with a black cast set in Memphis and we had a white, French director. When you first hear that, you question it. But I found there's a language that all women share, or all black people share, and being in that room you can take that for granted. With Bruce, he can take those parts that are understood and perhaps say, "I don't understand this and feel it needs to be fleshed out more." I think it's an advantage to have Bruce because there are so many women in other roles on the show. He's so open-minded, seeking opinions, while having his own, which has been the best experience.

How has it impacted you playing a woman with a story similar to your own?

As a gay woman, it makes me have thoughts I've never had before. I remember our last President putting into law that me, and anyone like me, can get married all over this country. I will never forget that morning with my mother sending me a text with all these happy emojis saying, "You can get married anywhere!" It felt we had come to this place, and crossed this imaginary threshold. Because we're telling this story in these flashbacks, you can see how it gradually crept up on them. It does make it feel like some of the things are closer to home than I thought they were. It's unsettling and scary. I wish it wasn't, but it also makes me feel like I'm doing something that matters, and is important. At the end of the day, all we're doing is making television, but we know television can incite real change. I want the outcome for people who watch this to have been moved. The concoction we've come up with hopefully will do that for people.

Tease out Moira's arc this season.

I don't want to make her too lofty, but she's not going to stop until she's burned at the stake like Joan of Arc. Throughout the season, because of who she is, you'll see how being the lone wolf helpsĀ and hurts her.

To you, is there a sense of hope in the story of Gilead?

When times are bad, what the human heart wants to do is thrive. In Gilead, there are too many things in the way to do that. Your shift has to be to survive. It's the only thing June is thinking about, and Moira is thinking about. Even the people at the head of this system, not necessarily the men, but the Commander's wife, who has been in it from the beginning writing books and trying to tell women what their place is. There's this false thing of someone being superior and inferior to one another. I remember people asking me on Orange is there cattiness on the set? I always wondered: why am I being asked that? I feel like anywhere, but in Gilead especially, there's a system in place that's pitted these women against each other, and if they realize the power they could have by banding together, that would be amazing.

The Handmaid's Tale is available now on Hulu.