Samira Wiley on ‘Shocking’ Fan Reactions to ‘Orange Is the New Black’ Season 4

Orange Is the New Black season
Courtesy of Netflix

[Spoiler alert: The following interview discusses major plot points from the final three episodes of “Orange Is the New Black” season 4. Do not read until you’ve finished the season.]

Samira Wiley has been keeping a big secret for a long time. While most of the cast and crew of “Orange Is The New Black” didn’t find out about her character’s sudden death at the end of the fourth season until they got the scripts, Wiley has known for nearly a year. Once the season dropped last weekend, Wiley’s been doing a goodbye tour — promising her fans and friends that it’s all going to be totally fine on the other side of “Orange Is The New Black.” Indeed, things are looking rosy. Wiley’s just announced a recurring role on “You’re The Worst” as Gretchen (Aya Cash)’s therapist, a role that she assures Variety is “completely different from Poussey.”

For the audience, Poussey’s death comes out of nowhere, and proves to be one of the most gutting of the series — a tragedy heightened by the innocence of Wiley’s character and the budding romance she shared with another inmate, Soso (Kimiko Glenn). It’s also sparked a lot of discussion, some very critical of the show, about what it means for Poussey to have been killed, and how “Orange Is the New Black” positions itself in relation to its audience and to its black characters. Variety talked to Wiley about the audience’s reactions and the political implications of Poussey’s storyline, as well as what it took for her to get into her character’s head for those difficult scenes.

What has fan reaction been like?

Honestly, it’s been the most crazy on the Internet. People come out in waves on the Internet. And they would never do or say things like this in real life. But people are pissed. People are either really, really, really upset and mad and angry and threatening to do something violent, or they’re profoundly sad and wrecked. I knew that people were going to have a really big emotional reaction. I mean, it’s a devastating scene, so I think I was anticipating the sadness. But the way that some of these fans are so angry and mad, and just the things that they’re saying, is sort of shocking.

I meant to ask you about that. I have seen your character’s death described as “trauma porn.”

I don’t know if I’ve seen exactly that, but I do think I know what you’re talking about. I want people to be able to look through, and see the message that we’re trying to tell, and understand. I feel like my responsibility, and our responsibility as artists and people who are producing the show, is to reflect what is happening in life. This is not thoughtless. It is a senseless death, but it’s not a thoughtless decision on the part of the show. It echoes so many deaths that have happened in the last year, even. Eric Garner. Mike Brown. This happens in real life, and people are so upset.

I feel like a lot of people’s anger is directed toward the show; they’re upset at the show. I want people to be upset, but I want them to be upset that this is a thing that happens in real life. What we are doing as artists is our responsibility — art reflects life, life reflects art. Back and forth. It’s like a cyclical thing. I feel like we are taking our responsibility not lightly by doing this, by doing something brave like this. I’m proud to be able to be the character that they have decided to do it with.

Is there ever a point where you, as an actor, are assuming a privileged or white audience for the show?

When I’m working on the scene, that is never a thought that crosses my mind. I just am, get a script and interpret it to the best of my ability, and that’s, I don’t really think about catering my performance to anyone that’s watching or the demographic of the show or anything like that. I just try to go in there and do a good job.

The episode that ends with Poussey’s death gives the viewer a lot of flashbacks to how the correctional officer, Bayley (Alan Aisenberg), grew up. What did you think about giving backstory to the CO?

How easy would it have been to take one of those actual guards and replaced Bayley with one of them? It would have been — I think our feelings would be so much less complicated. It would be so much more black-and-white. But one thing about life is it’s freaking complicated.

That’s one thing that I think Jenji [Kohan, showrunner] and the writers of “Orange” do well, and especially have done well this time — showing how complicated that is, showing that sometimes bad people do good things and sometimes good people do bad things. It’s not necessarily that black-and-white. It’s so many different shades of gray in life, and I think that that’s what they were trying to do.

My feelings are so — I can’t even tell you exactly what I feel about it, because my feelings are so complicated when I read that script. You know what I mean? Like, you want to feel like this person is bad. You want to feel — you want to be able to not feel like he’s human. You know what I mean? Because how can you do this crime and be a good human person?

I’m rambling now, and my thoughts are obviously not well thought out because it is complicated.

Well, it’s personal, right? Your own identity mirrors Poussey’s in some ways. Your girlfriend wrote this episode. You’re uniquely positioned, I think, to comment on what this storyline represents. What do you hope viewers take away from it?

One of the things that we wanted to do is to start a conversation. When we’ve got the script, that’s what happened on set. The conversations on set were mirroring, I think, the conversations that are happening now by the viewers. Everyone is entitled to whatever opinion they want to have — just like if anything happens in life, you start a conversation about it.

I think that the conversation — the fact that we’re having a conversation about it — is what we wanted to do, it’s what we wanted to spark. The fact that people are talking about it, the fact that people are having big, huge, emotional responses to it, I think that that means we did our job well.

At the end of the day, I’m just hoping that people direct their anger and their sadness and all of their huge emotional feelings about what happened on the show — I’m hoping that they direct that toward what’s going on in the real world, and are not just upset at the show for reflecting what’s happening in real life.

I read in earlier interviews that you hadn’t watched the season yet. Have you had a chance to watch the final episodes?

Well, it’s not that I haven’t had a chance to. I’m not ready to watch it yet.

How do you prepare for an arc like this — especially because you had to play a character who was in very dire straits and then suffering, and then right after that, are in the pre-prison scenes where she is so free and so alive?

I don’t know. I guess you just don’t think about it too much. In the playing of it, I just have to be there, I just have to be present. I can’t think about it too much. I can’t compare too much about how I was last time and I’ve got to be this now. I just try to read the script and see where my character is and just try to drop in to wherever she is. I don’t, I can’t do too much thinking about it, because then the acting won’t be as good.

That’s the wonderful thing about acting that I love, is that you figure it out as you go. It’s okay to get it wrong. It’s okay to fail, because you can do another take. You know what I mean? You figure it out with the director, with the writer as you go along. It’s a scary thing, acting, but I’m proud of what we did. I’m really proud of what we did this season.

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  1. I truly feel like I lost a best friend tonight (just watched end of Season 4). Poussey is an incredible actress, as are all of the characters on this show!!!! And the writer and everyone else involved are also super talented! But I’ll miss cute little Poussey the most…can’t wait to see what you do next!!!

  2. never again says:

    yeh, this is exactly what happens irl: the media makes excuses for murderers. good job, you did your role perfectly. all of you. maybe next you will be expert witnesses in a case where a murdering cop has murdered someone very legally in this country, and you can explain about how it’s ‘complicated.’

  3. Melva Brewer says:

    I am upset that she left the show the way that she did, it brings to my mind what is going on today in our real life people being murders without any regard that they are human beings. It just breaks my heart that she left the show period I love all the women in the show and I look forward to seeing the show every season. I know that there life have to change. I never think it will end this way.It really seemed so final, wish her well in her new show.

  4. Addie says:

    Putting all else aside, the last 90 seconds–ending with Wiley’s glorious smile–reduced me to sobbing, something I’ve never had happen before in my years of viewing television. Hodor brought tears…this had ugly face crying.

    Thank you, Ms. Wiley, for that moment.

    • RD says:

      I was just thinking the same thing! The death itself was exquisitely portrayed and I just WEPT. But the entire pre-prison sequence of the final episode was grueling (wonderfully so). That final grin was a COUP DE GRAS for sure. Completely destroyed me. Ms. Wiley, the only thing that will hurt me more is if you don’t take home an Emmy for this. <3

  5. jzerba says:

    Is no one going to bring up Suzanne and Poussey’s roles in this incident? the incident never would’ve happened if it Suzanne hadn’t started yelling and hitting things like a lunatic and Poussey never should of grabbed the guard from behind. If Suzanne hadn’t been fighting with the guard as he was trying to restrain Poussey she never would of been killed.

    • Sarah says:

      You raise an interesting point, because those factors are often cited in the attempt to justify the deaths of unarmed people by those sworn to protect them. Which is to say: that is no reason for the excessive force that caused her death. Poussey was not attacking the guard, and he held her down with all his might because he was scared (overcrowded prison, untrained CO). Suzanne was freaking out after she saw the guard who forced her to fight (prisoner abuse). Even the CO captain called her an animal – had he seen her as a person, he would’ve understood her behavioral problems and dealt with it responsibly, as the previous COs did. You cannot discount those factors, because as Caputo says, a *peaceful protest* resulted in a girl dead – a girl who caused no harm whatsoever.

  6. Mady says:

    So, on the last episode it ends with diya having a gun getting ready to shoot the officer? Out there going to be anymore episodes on Netflix to make sure we get more informed?

  7. GQ says:

    This interview is questionable. The interviewer needs to stop perpetrating the whole “race” thing. That question about “privilege or white”, c’mon. We need to stop segregating everything into races. The scene, as it was written, regardless by whom could been any one of the other characters in there.

    Would it be any different if it were one of the Latinas, or Caucasians, or Asians? No, it wouldn’t have. It still would have been a senseless death, it still would have shocked the audience to see. The character they chose had a huge impact on the fans, was it b/c she was black? No, it was b/c of who the character was.

    Am I mad? Yes. At the corporation and the guards and the issue isn’t just one of TV land proportions but is something that does happen, and is hidden.

    Stop with the whole “race” thing… we’re all human beings.

    • CF says:

      Okay, but they literally wrote this episode around the whole “race” thing… It was intended to show the type of stories that led to the Black Lives Matter and I Can’t Breathe and Say Her Name movements. Yes, it was a devastating death simply because of who the character was, but that also furthers the point they were trying to make. She was kind, positive, as non-violent as they come. After her death, the corporation that runs the prison’s first instinct was to portray her to the world as a violent criminal in an effort to justify her death. This is what happens in the media to e v e r y black person who is killed for no reason. Yes, we’re all human beings, but this instance was specifically about what is happening to black people in America right now. There is no taking away from that.

  8. JB Rellim says:

    They missed the mark with this. They wanted to make it about race, when it should have been about the failure of the system and how poor judgement in the moment leads to mistakes… They just had to make this a direct relation to Eric Garner, but failed in equating Bayley to the officer who killed Garner… They also failed in providing Caputo with the proper moment to be a hero for all of his inmates.. Yes, they showed the events as a mistake from a person without intent, but they chose to make this something that only occurs between ‘white people’ and ‘black people’, rather than what it truly is – something that occurs between people when judgement fails. Further, when they finally gave Caputo his moment, they again try to reinforce that ‘because he is ‘white’ he knows no better’ – Caputo stands up for his guard who made a mistake in a situation that was generated by Piscatella (therefore Piscatella is the only person who should be punished in this situation).

    Had they chosen to have a hispanic guard, for example, accidentally end Poussey’s life during a heated moment, they would have accomplished what their true intention was – showing the failure of justice and appropriate humane treatment within our prison systems… Instead, they could not get passed their own personal bias and absolutely had to inflate the ridiculous concept that these kinds of tragedies only occur when ‘white’ racist folk’s are involved (insinuating that innocent Bayley is a closet racist in a sense). They further reinforced this statement with Caputo’s failure to acknowledge Poussey’s tragedy publicly, or to condemn Piscatella for his actions…

    To the producers of OITNB, ‘white people’ are all Judy King. They are ignorant racists with no human compassion, who can only see as far as their own sleeves extend.

    The entire antagonist of the series itself has broken down into ‘white people’. Thanks for spreading racism, by pretending to be against racism, OITNB.

    Epic failure. I appreciate the use of real life events, however, I would respect them so much more if the overall moral came down to human interaction, and not ‘white racism’… They’ve thrown it in our faces at every single turn.

    • Amber says:

      “what it truly is – something that occurs between people when judgement fails…showing the failure of justice and appropriate humane treatment within our prison systems”

      That is what they did. You complete misconstrued the scene and the lead up. It was utter incompetence and the oppressive system that contributed to the tragedy.

      “their own personal bias and absolutely had to inflate the ridiculous concept that these kinds of tragedies only occur when ‘white’ racist folk’s are involved (insinuating that innocent Bayley is a closet racist in a sense)”

      I really don’t know what show you’re watching. Samira herself contradicts that notion in the interview.

      “To the producers of OITNB, ‘white people’ are all Judy King. They are ignorant racists with no human compassion, who can only see as far as their own sleeves extend …. I would respect them so much more if the overall moral came down to human interaction, and not ‘white racism’”

      Seriously I’m quite shocked at how warped and detached from reality your interpretation of the show is.

  9. diamonion says:

    every episode all i thought was “they’re gonna riot…”

    • looneybin says:

      They are shouting Attica, referencing the Attica prison riot in 1971. Check wikipedia.

      • diamonion says:

        no, they are shouting gattaca, in reference to the 1997 movie instead of attica in reference to the 1971 prison riot, that’s the joke.

  10. LW Oliver says:

    As one who binged watched “Orange is the New Black” , looking forward to more of Samira Wiley’s character, I was saddened by her demise. Why? She was one of the brightest and most enjoyable characters to watch. Now, what’s left? One less fan. Really two, my thirty yr. old son is out too.

    • Jenet says:

      Lol. You watched the prison show because one of the prisoners was bright and entertaining?
      There are quite a few entertaining characters and bright characters. Poussey was actually quite priviledged, self-centered and whiny.

  11. pickles says:

    This season was predictable. In the first few episodes it was clear she was going to die and the way they talked about her, how small she is, you just knew she was going to die in a struggle. There was a lot of over acting as well especially with Nichols character and Chapmans’ character.

  12. Mike says:

    SPOILER ALERT!! Thank you for completely wrecking the season by showing us a picture of who dies! It’s not the first time Variety has done this! Where are the professional journalist who would know better?!? Variety used to stand for something. Pathetic.

    • joncoen1 says:

      Dude…the very first line said dont read this article if you haven’t finished watching the season. Get over yourself.

      • J says:

        A lot of headlines do that these days. If I haven’t seen a show yet i’ll avoid all articles and headlines about it.

      • Lacey says:

        SERIOUSLY. I saw the headline and immediately knew. Thanks, Variety.

      • Mike says:

        The headline said “shocking death” and the picture gave it away. They have since changed the headline.

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