[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.