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Samira Wiley as Moira in The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid Tale's Samira Wiley on telling women's stories in a terrifying world

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May 3, 2018

"Baggage," the latest episode of The Handmaid's Tale, finally brings us up-to-date with Moira's story since she escaped Gilead and made it to Canada. As played by actress Samira Wiley, Moira's been another admirable woman who somehow manages to infuse hope and determination into her dire situation. 

In Season 1, we met June's college best friend when the women were reunited in the Red Center for Handmaid training. Moira escaped and was revealed later in the season to be a "jezebel" for the elite men of Gilead. 

For Season 2, SYFY FANGRRLS talked with Wiley about the incredible response to the series, how Moira's PTSD is impacting her new life, and how we'll get to see more of her story pre-Gilead. 

I think that any woman watching this show can attest that it has been a visceral experience and a deeply moving one. As part of the show’s ensemble, you’re able to see the reaction of what your work has brought to the zeitgeist. Did you expect it to be so big?

I don't think anyone could expect the response that we received to Handmaid's. It was really overwhelming. It's exactly what we wanted. Definitely, exactly what I wanted. I definitely wanted people to be having conversations that they would not be having otherwise. That's exactly what happened after The Handmaid's Tale Season 1.

What we didn't know at the time was how relevant it was going to be, speaking of our current administration here in the States. It is quite amazing sometimes to work on something every day and finally finish it, and you all feel a certain way about it. But you're in a bubble. Everyone on set thinks it's good, but you're all on set, you know what I mean? Who's to say what other people are gonna say? To release our baby out into the world and have it receive the accolades that it did, in the way that it did, and have all of these different kinds of people talking about it, and talking about its relevance, it's really much, much more than I ever could've imagined.

Let's talk a little bit about the Season 1 episode “Jezebels,” where June discovers that Moira is working at that brothel. It feels like that was a turning point in Moira's journey?

“Jezebels” is such a defining moment for Moira. I really see it as the place where she really loses herself. But she loses herself not like, "Oh, and then she just sort of forgot who she was." It's almost like an active choice of, "I will lose myself in order to survive. I will shed this Moira. I will take on the name of Ruby. I will shield myself." The way she was acting at Jezebels is completely for survival. It's too, too, too much. I don't know how someone could not put that mask on and decide to live every day. I think she did that so she could prevent herself from killing herself even. Jezebels is a horrible, horrible place, and she had to convince herself that it wasn't a horrible place so that she could wake up in the morning every day.

When June finally comes to Jezebels, she's the wake-up call for Moira of, "Remember yourself. Who are you? What are you doing here?” I see June coming to Jezebel's as having Moira come back to herself. 

It spurs Moira to escape to Canada, which is wonderful. But we see it’s not a magic land that makes everything okay. 

There’s something that never goes away really once she crosses that border. She's escaping into freedom, but she can't get Gilead off of her. It's like it goes with her everywhere. It's a real question of self-identity for Moira this season.

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In “Baggage,” we see what Moira’s new life looks like helping other new refugees now in Canada. How would you describe her transition?

I would love to say that now she's back to herself and everything is fine, and she's figuring out how to get June back, but that's not true. I really think that Gilead has changed Moira forever really. She's just trying to figure out who she is, and who she wants to be in Little America in Canada.

It’s surprising to see Moira impeccably put together and then that’s juxtaposed later with when she goes to the club and she’s all Ruby. Do you feel like there are several versions of Moira inside her now that she’s got to rectify?

Yeah, I think it's PTSD. But I also think that PTSD is something that doesn't really go away. Moira's not receiving the kind of help that she needs. I think she's really headstrong, and probably, if someone were to approach her and ask her if she needed some help, she'd say, "No, I'm fine" because that's what she needs to show on her outside, on the exterior. 

But if we were to really ask Moira, "Who are you? What are you struggling with?" I think her answer would be, "I don't know who I am. I'm asking myself that every day." I think we're right in the middle of Moira's confusion. I think she's just confused and sad and needs help, but also wants to help others. It's a really interesting look into this part of refugee life. You have escaped this horrible place and you have all of these privileges now, but you don't know where you fit.

There’s a telling moment when she says to that former soldier who has PTSD, "It gets easier. I promise." Do you think she believes that?

I think Moira is almost so out of touch with herself that she wants to believe that for him. She's encouraging him, but let’s say that she's saying, "I know from my own experience." That's not really true, you know what I mean? She's telling him it's gonna get better, but it's almost like she's completely not even in touch with her own journey and her own emotions. She has to take herself away from that in order to function. It's this weird thing where she's giving this advice that she should be giving to herself, and she should be internalizing herself that, "Yes, it can get better." So, it's not really something from personal experience that she's telling him. She's just trying to help him.

In “Baggage,” we also get to meet June's mother, Holly (Cherry Jones), and see how much impact she also had on Moira.

It's interesting because Moira really looks up to her. She sees herself in her. She's a fighter, and she's an activist, and she's someone with a real voice and who's not afraid to speak up.

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When Moira and June see her in the Red Center propaganda, their reaction afterward provides a very moving moment. Talk about how you played that scene?

Holly can be seen as a hero for Moira. And to see your hero cut down like that, just reduced to skin and bones, it's a lot. It's one thing when you think you can go on, thinking, "I won't be put down, but I can look to other people who came before me, and they give me strength." But then when you look to your strength, and your strength has been cut down and is lying dead in a field, that is something that is unshakeable. I remember filming that scene. They take these powerful giants of women. They take women who are scholars and doctors, and they just strip them of everything down to their lives. I remember just the image of seeing her cut down in that field, it gets at your spirit. You know? And Moira has a spirit that is really, really resilient. She’s able to get through lots of things, but Gilead is a hard motherf*cker. It just hits you again and again and again. 

The show has been able to explore love and what that means for different women. But women of color also have other stories that are different than June’s story and experiences. As the series progresses, have you felt as an actress and an activist there is more inclusion in the narrative of all kinds of stories?

Right. Yes. That's one thing that I think is amazing about this show as well, is that it's having people talk about this. There is not one singular woman's story from this. There are so many. Even just in the caste system itself. You've got the Handmaid's Tale. We could also make a show called the Wives' Tale. We could make a show called the Econowives' Tale, you know what I mean?

Number one, just being a black, gay female in my life, I'm happy to be able to portray that on TV and show that journey through Moira. In the second season, we'll see much more of her backstory in terms of relationships that we don't know about yet, that came pre-Gilead that are not with June, not with Luke, and with other important people in her life. We'll see events that got her to where she was, pre-Gilead. We'll just get to see more bits and a different person's story and go deeper into who Moira was before we started to see her.

Is there an episode where you're most excited for audiences to see because it provides more context for Moira?

Yeah, there's definitely an episode that's basically Moira's episode that you really get to see her before Gilead. She mentions a fiancée that she had in Season 1, so we see some of that. Yeah, I'm excited for people to see it.

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As a storyteller, as an actress, and as a woman, has this role been one that's hard for you to shed? It’s a brutal world to wade through for months and then just let it go.

At the end of the day, with letting the character go, I've done work to be able to know how to do that. But especially now that Season 2 is out, I can't have a press day and do a bunch of interviews and then go home and forget about it. I've been talking about it all day. But I have counted myself lucky for that because it helps me be involved in the conversation. It helps me be involved in knowing what exactly is going on in my country, in my world that I'm living in right now. I feel privileged to be able to talk about this and learn throughout the day as I'm talking, and be able to feel like a citizen of my country. I feel like this show is helping me do that, helping me really be involved, helping me be in the know. I like that I'm able to be informed just because I happen to be on this wonderful show.

In terms of your own activism, has this show changed how you determine what gets your time? Has it helped you focus on what is effective in making change?

Totally. But, I think that's still a question for me, trying to figure out exactly where do I put my voice. Where do I put my energy? What makes the most sense? What's gonna make the most change? I think playing Moira in this series is bringing up those questions for me, and is making me have much more interest in wanting to be involved, in learning how to use my voice, in knowing that I have a platform. I don't think I would be as interested, or as gung-ho about doing all of these things if it wasn't for the experience of playing Moira.

The Handmaid's Tale airs Wednesdays on Hulu.