June’s best friend Moira might have escaped Gilead and relocated to Little America, but her recovery process has been a slow one. Actress Samira Wiley's interpretation of Moira's journey in Season 2 of The Handmaid's Tale was gut-wrenching enough to earn her an Emmy nomination for Best Guest Actress.
Wiley hopes that means The Handmaid's Tale will be able to dominate once again, as it did at the 2017 Emmy Awards. “Last year, we won every female acting category [for drama],” she says. “Let’s keep our streak!”
In celebration of her nomination, SYFY WIRE spoke with Wiley to wade through Moira’s stages of post-Gilead-stress-syndrome. Wiley chatted with us about her most challenging scenes this season, where Moira gets her activist streak, and what she’d like to see come Season 3.
You had a lot of heavy scenes this season. Director Kari Skogland mentioned that you made her cry.
Samira Wiley: Oh, yeah. She’s a great director. She’s one of my favorite directors. It seems like every really intense emotional scene I have on the show is with her! Which only makes me feel safe.
I didn’t know that was happening at first because I think of her as being a tough exterior kind of gal, but when she came away from the monitor, she had tears in her eyes, and I did not expect that. I did not think it was because of something that I was doing on camera. I was like, “Oh my god, what’s wrong?” So that was pretty awesome.
She mentioned she wanted to make sure you didn’t see the photo of Odette first, and that she gave you the close-up shot first.
It’s such a collaborative process. What can we do to make this best and more authentic? And I think we both sort of came up with the decision together to delay that moment, to only capture it on screen. I didn’t even realize she was doing the close-up first! But, thinking about in retrospect, that’s of course what should have happened. It just ended up being like all the right things happening at the right time.
And that scene was so challenging for a few different reasons. Number one, the subject matter. I’m not even saying that much. I mean, it’s just, Odette was the love of her life, and she’s confirming that she’s dead. But number one, I was the only one on camera! I’m usually in a scene with someone! Elizabeth Moss, she does a good chunk of her scenes where it’s just her crying in front of a camera, so she’s got that part down, you know what I mean? And she pulls at your heartstrings every time. But I was like, “Wait, Lizzie has got this down, but you want me to do this?” And there are just all these people in your face going, “Action! Go! Deliver!” So that was hard, and a little nerve-wracking, but very, very rewarding.
When you finally found out what happened to Odette, how did that mesh with what you had imagined for Moira and Odette’s backstory?
It’s a tricky thing because in theater, you can see your character’s entire arc, but when it comes to television, you try to fill it in.
I remember being on my first year on Orange Is the New Black, and I came up with this whole backstory of what Poussey’s relationship with her mother was like. I made up all these things about how she would come and visit me every two weeks. And then, in one of the later episodes, they gave me a monologue about how my mom had been dead for six years or something like that. So that can really mess with your story, of what you think is going on!
I just try to welcome whatever the writers write because I know that it might not mesh with whatever I’m imagining. I just try to be open to that. I don’t want to imagine too much history until it’s written for me, or is revealed to me. So I didn’t really imagine any specifics for Moira and Odette or anything like that. I just thought about the feeling of the relationship because that was easier.
And I think that’s what transfers onscreen — how you feel about a person; how deep the love is; how much was their name etched on my heart. You know what I mean? So I always imagined, from the conversations in the first season, that this was not just my girlfriend, but my life partner. I imagined that we had a life together. And that she was a busy person. I think in the first season I have a monologue about her bringing out the activist bug in me, when we’re out there holding the signs in front of all the marches? I think I say, “I get that from Odette.” So that’s part of what I imagined for us, that she rubbed off on me like that.
Moira becomes more of an activist this season, too, when she’s in Canada and confronts the Commander. Perhaps Odette was inspiring her there as well?
Yes! That, and the bombing in Season 2. When she was in Gilead, she had to be strong, like a horse, like an animal, and lock things away. And she’s sort of lost a little bit of that now that she’s in Canada, but she’s getting reminders of that. Like reading the letters of the women who are still trapped there, that was like a voice bolstering Moira again, to help her remember why she’s here and why she does what she does.
And those letters weren’t just from Handmaids. They were from women at Jezebel’s. They were from Marthas. They were from a lot of women oppressed in different ways.
I honestly think that even if you’re the highest-ranking woman in Gilead, someone equivalent to Serena Joy or higher, a Wife, I think they’re oppressed, too. You know what I mean? She literally got a spanking from her husband.
And she lost her finger because she read from the Bible.
Yes! Yes! Exactly. That’s just the law. Those are the rules. And that sucks. Poor Yvonne [Strahovski] — she’s going to have to go without a finger for the rest of the show! [Laughs]
But I don’t think any woman in Gilead has it easy. There’s a false sense of superiority for some, but we’re really all in the same boat.
It was a pretty cathartic moment for me, though, to be able to confront the Commander. I mean, for me as an actress, in terms of screen time, Joseph [Fiennes] and I only had that one scene together last year. But Moira, as Ruby, had a much more familiar relationship with the Commander, and I had imagined what that whole history was like. So to be able to confront him like that? Cathartic.
Which serves a dual purpose because it also reminds Serena about something she’d rather ignore. She’s oppressed, too, but she has a little more power to help other women, as we’ve seen this season.
Yeah. I think about how it could be really something if the women in Gilead were able to sort of take advantage of their collective power and band together. I have a really strong belief in the collective power of women. I mean, there’s 52 percent of us on this planet! So we outnumber you, guys!
Why do you think Moira uses her Jezebel’s name, Ruby, when she has her club hookup?
I thought a lot about that. I think you can take someone away from Gilead – like Moira escaped, she’s physically outside of Gilead – but there is so much of Gilead still inside of her. And part of Moira’s life is her armor, which she puts up to protect herself, and that’s become something that’s really easy to access for her. And part of that armor is being not herself. Being able to put a barrier between me and whoever you are, and saying, “You don’t get to access the real me.”
Her trust isn’t where it needs to be yet, because she doesn’t know this girl. She doesn’t even know what it means to be really intimate with anyone anymore. The only intimacy she’s had was taken away from her. Her fiancé is dead. She’s been raped, basically. And so there are a lot of complicated feelings that come with sex, and her only response to a sexual encounter right now is that she cannot be herself. There’s no way she can let herself actually live with what’s happening to her. So it’s probably a matter of habit, and a matter of feeling broken, and having PTSD. All of those things.
Maybe this will happen in Season 3, but I feel like we still need to see more of Moira and Odette together. More of their life together. And I also want to see if Moira gets more of Odette’s activist spirit and does more with the resistance movement.
Right! Yeah, absolutely. I want more. Even this conversation is making me more excited and amped to start Season 3 and see a script or something. At this point in the series, I feel like I’m like, “Yo! I’m ready for s*** to go down!” Let’s just go and mess some stuff up in Gilead. Let’s just go.