Orange Is the New Black is Netflix’s latest venture into original programming, and, arguably, its most successful yet. The heartfelt, wry prison dramedy, which premiered its entire first season on July 11, proves that Netflix can do more than revive canceled cult hits (Arrested Development) and mimic the male anti-hero drama formula that HBO and AMC perfected (House of Cards) — it can also provide a space for shows you don’t see anywhere else.
Creator Jenji Kohan (Weeds) imbues OITNB with a strong, clear voice and vision, resulting in a diverse, female-driven show the likes of which is sadly lacking on regular TV. Along with providing viewers with a plethora of characters we don't see on TV very often, OITNB has introduced America to a slew of talented actresses who hadn't had a chance to shine on-screen until this show.
One example is Samira Wiley, the young actress who brings the loveable Poussey Washington to life. Wetpaint Entertainment chatted with Samira about what makes OITNB so special, why everyone adores her character, and how the Netflix original’s success has changed her life.
Check out the full interview below.
Wetpaint Entertainment: Congratulations on the success of the show!
Samira Wiley: Thank you so much!
The show hasn’t been out for very long, but it already has a ton of buzz. Has your life changed since the premiere?
Yes. Because of the nature of what Netflix is doing these days, releasing all of the episodes at one time, people can take how they watch the show into their own hands, and so you have lots of people who choose to watch the show all at one time. Which is very different from prime time, where you kind of get a gradual introduction to people recognizing you and your life sort of changing a little bit.
For me and some of the other girls on the show, because it all happened at once, it was like one week our life was one way, and now… I didn’t even have a Twitter account until a couple weeks ago, and I all of a sudden have almost 2,000 followers! It’s a lot to happen all at once. But I think all the girls on the show are in a place where we’re ready for that, we’re ready to receive it, and we’re just so happy that [the show's] being received so well.
At this point, Netflix has proven itself — Orange has been a critical success, House of Cards got a ton of Emmy nominations, etc. But when you signed on, Netflix doing original programming was still a new concept. Did you have any concerns or questions about doing the show?
I didn’t have any concerns; I think I had lots of questions, just because it was never done before. But I also felt really privileged to be on the ground floor of something that — even though we didn’t know, we felt like it was something groundbreaking. We could feel that it was something that was going to be special, just because of, number one, Netflix being at the head of it, and number two, just the women on set. It felt special, it felt different, and it felt like we were really, really, really able to craft what the whole story was going to be before putting it out there.
What initially attracted you to this project?
I’m a big fan of Jenji, number one. For what she’s doing, she’s pretty young to be doing it, and she seems pretty dead set on employing other women. Me, just as a young woman, seeing that and seeing someone in that position of power, gives me so much inspiration, and some place to look forward to, and someplace to go.
Also, the women who are cast on this show. You’ve got Lea Delaria [Boo], who is an amazing icon who I looked up to, Kate Mulgrew [Red] — I don’t think there was one thing telling me not to be involved with this. Everything about it was so attractive in so many different ways.
How did you prepare for playing a woman in prison? Did you read the book the show is based on?
I did read the book that Piper [Kerman] wrote that the show is based on. What I really wanted to be able to do was go to a prison, but unfortunately I wasn’t able to do that. But me and Danielle [Brooks], who plays Taystee, we’re really good friends. We went to school together and were friends before the show. So we kind of did our research together, watching different episodes of Scared Straight, and just doing some internet reading on women who are incarcerated and how their lives have changed.
We can do as much research as we can, but the one thing that I always come back to is that these women are just women like you and me, who have just made maybe a wrong choice or a wrong decision. My character says that “we all just made a wrong turn going to church,” you know, and in some ways that is kind of what happened. You can see from the show that these aren’t bad women. They aren’t cold, cold, cold hearted. This isn’t maximum security. These are women who have troubled upbringings, who have little knicks in their paths that somehow turn them going down the wrong way. I think remembering their humanity, and remembering that these women are not so far from me, has helped me in my portrayal of my character.
Speaking of going down the wrong path, we haven’t been given Poussey’s backstory yet. Have the writers told you what they have in mind for her?
The writers, I think what they’re doing, with every episode you get a little deeper into each one of the characters, and you find out a little more about them. I can’t disclose everything, and things are also always changing, because we have to figure out how everything works together. So we don’t necessarily know exactly yet, but I think we might find out more about exactly who Poussey is and why she’s in prison next season.
Poussey seems to be one of the most universally loved characters amongst fans. What do you think makes her so appealing?
Someone on Twitter asked me at the Ask Orange event last week what my favorite thing is about Poussey, and I said “her smile.” Because, although a lot of people talk about how the show is a mix between comedy and drama, being in prison is not necessarily funny. It’s not a funny situation. But there can be people in prison who are naturally funny people, and people that you would enjoy spending time with, enjoy sharing a meal with. Although throughout the season you see that Poussey is frusterated by her incarceration, she has four more years to do there, so it’s not like she can so much see her end date. So I think, in contrast to some of the other characters, she really has to make prison her home, and has to make it livable there. I really enjoyed finding the joy within the fucked upness of it.
Absolutely! Obviously, part of that is her friendship with Taystee, which is so heartwarming. Some fans have read that relationship as having romantic undertones. Do you see it possibly going in that direction?
I think we’ll just have to wait and see!
Do you have any favorite memories from filming?
During Episode 6, which is the episode where all the ladies run for the WAC — that was a particularly thrilling episode to film, because there were so many women on set at the same time. There’s that scene where we’re doing the rap battle and you have Lea Delaria, you have Natasha Lyonne [Nicky], everyone is just there. That was one of the first times when we were literally all on set at the same time, and you could feel everyone’s energy, and people could feed off of each other.
I grew up doing plays, and I’m used to being on stage and sharing the space with many different other performers, and that just kind of felt almost like home to me, and why I got into this in the beginning. Theater and acting — its not a singular art. You have to connect with other people to make it work; you have to connect with the audience, and you also have to connect with the other women that you’re creating this with. So that whole episode, and that day in particular, was just wonderful to see and feel and hear and learn from these other women on set.
Coming from a theater background, do you prefer acting on stage or for screen?
I think that when I was younger I would have hand downs told you, “Oh yes, theater is the true art,” and all that stuff. But I think that now, from doing more camera work, I really really have been able to appreciate and see film work and camera work as its own craft, that has some of the same rules, but a lot of different rules than theater. When you’re in theater you can have someone hundreds of feet away from you that you have to connect with and project to. You’re trying to reach someone all the way in the back of the room. When you’re on camera, it’s almost like having someone right in your face, and that’s who you’re trying to connect with. You don’t want to yell at them, you don’t want to be too big.
Are there any characters Poussey hasn’t really inteacted with that you’d love to see her have more scenes with next season?
I mean, I’d love to have a scene with Red, that would be amazing! Red, also Natasha [Lyonne], I think she’s phenomenal on the show. To be honest, literally any woman who I haven’t had a scene with, that’s who I want to have a scene with!
Obviously, Orange is pretty incredible when it comes to diversity on a lot of levels, but some people have criticized it because the protagonist is still pretty, white, and well-off; not exactly your typical woman in prison. Does that bother you?
I don’t see it as a problem. I think one thing to remember is that this is a true story, it’s based on Piper Kerman’s life. And I also think that — I don’t want to be naive. Most of the country and people who we would want to watch the show, they need someone they can identify with. I have no problem with having Piper’s character being the entryway, and then have someone see Poussey, see Taystee, see Gloria, see Dayanara, and say “oh, these women are interesting, too. I never would have watched it if it wasn’t for Piper.”
Obviously you and everyone else are very dressed down for the show. Prison clothing, not a lot of makeup. What was that like? Did it help you get in touch with the character?
Number one, yes, I do think it helped me get in touch with this character. This is their uniform, this is what they have to wear. But also it was kind of comfortable. Kind of like going to work and wearing pajamas everyday! Also, it really took the emphasis away from vanity, because we’re all in there looking the same. People don’t have to be jealous over “oh, she got to wear that.”
Is the dialogue strictly from the page, or do you guys improvise?
Well, every episode was a new director, and a different writer, so that kind of is dependant on the working relationship that the writer and director have. One episode they may want you to stick to the script, and another episode can be a totally different vibe. There’s the episode where we did Scared Straight, we did a lot ad-libbing in that. Like, the scene where I walk up to the girl in the wheelchair, there were takes when I was told to not say what was in the script, just go and say what you want. I think it really helps me as an actor, getting in touch with who is Poussey? What would she actually say? To be able to go ahead and trust that I know who she is.
To give your fans a chance to get to know you better: Who are your acting inspirations?
This is so funny. My number one favorite actress is Regina King. I’ve been watching her since I was a little girl, when she was on 227 back in the day. I admire her because I haven’t always had a hunger for fame, I have a hunger to be working in my craft, and I see her as a woman who — I’m sure she’d say different, but in my eyes, she’s always been working, since she was a teenager, and I admire that, and that’s what I would want. And she tweeted me last night, which is crazy!
There’s a scene in there when I mention her name, and she tweeted us, and I almost died! I was totally star struck.
Do you have any other projects coming up?
I just completed a movie called Rob the Mob with Andy Garcia and Michael Pitt, directed by Raymond De Felitta. It’s a totally different thing. I’m playing an inmate in Orange Is the New Black, and in the movie I play an FBI agent. Both sides of the law!
[Ed note: Rob the Mob is due out in 2014.]
Do you have a message for your fans?
Number one is how overwhelmed I am, and positively overjoyed by all the wonderful response that the show has gotten, and even just for me. I feel like I have a little fanbase now, of people who actually like Samira Wiley. That’s exciting and surprising, and new, and I love all of you guys.
Want more Samira? Follow her on Twitter @samirawiley.
Haven't watched Orange Is the New Black yet? The entirety of Season 1 is available via Netflix.
Rebecca Martin is an editor at Wetpaint Entertainment. Follow her on Twitter @BeccaDMartin.