Samira Wiley might just have us convinced: she’s one of the best actresses of her generation.
The leggy, bookish actress grew up in Washington DC, the daughter of two Baptist ministers. In her early 20s, Wiley landed a coveted spot studying theatre at the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City before embarking on her acting career. She began working in theatre before landing the role of Poussey in Orange is the New Black, a part she continued to play throughout the show’s first five and seventh season. She landed another plumb role in 2018, that of the character Moira in The Handmaid’s Tale, for which she won an Emmy Award.
Now Wiley returns to her roots in theatre, stepping into the role of Raisin in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry in the HBO series Equal. In addition to witing one of the greatest works of American drama, Hansberry also spent her life campaigning for equality for women, LGBTQ people and African-Americans. Though not known to the public during her life, Hansberry was also a proud lesbian herself. Equal recounts Hansberry’s life as a gay woman, her writing career, and the far-reaching effect of her work through a mix of archive footage, and a haunting performance by Wiley.
We snagged some time to chat with Ms. Wiley about her connections to Lorraine Hansberry, her career, and the bliss of wedded life. Equal comes to HBO Max on October 16.
How much did you know about Lorraine Hansbury going in?
I was so honored to even be considered for a role like this. Lorraine has been a part of my life for a long time, just from me knowing Raisin in the Sun and knowing I wanted to be part of theatre when I was in high school. I’ve felt connected to Lorraine in that way. But, I did not know before having conversations with HBO about Equal that she was also part of the queer community. My eyes just opened so much bigger, like, oh my God, she’s this too? All these things I am?
That was really something that made me feel like I could not not do this.
Isn’t that such an empowering feeling when you learn someone you admire is on our team?
What kind of research did you do on your own to nail down her as a character?
I did a lot of listening to Lorraine’s voice, just trying to get her cadence down. There’s something very particular about the way she speaks, and something very particular about the way she uses her hands. That is usually something I do to find my way into a character. I like to sometimes start with the shoes they wear, because it makes you walk a certain way. I guess you could think about it as working from the outside in, because that really just gets me in the body. Sometimes there are things that come out of that I wouldn’t be able to reach otherwise. So those things are really where I started.
When you’re playing a real-life character like that, how do you avoid just giving an impersonation? In other words, how do you avoid just being a mimic?
Honestly, going back and thinking about it, I think this is my first historical character. I’ve had lots of conversations with other actors who have done this, asking the exact same question you asked. That was my number one fear. So I really have to go into her mind and understand the similarities between us too. It can’t be this completely other thing that is inaccessible to me. One time I remember being in class and I tried to have this conversation with my teacher about what I was doing on stage, and how the character was different from me. And she said “There’s nothing you can put up there that isn’t already inside of you somewhere.”
I have found that with lots of different characters that I’ve played: there’s nobody up there but me. So if I’m bringing Lorraine there, all the things about Lorriane I have to find within myself. I think that, for me, is how I make sure I’m not just doing a mimic. I make sure I connect with the things inside myself aligned with her.
I love that. The show takes a very unusual approach to its subject in that it is both a documentary, and it’s a dramatization. You also break the fourth wall, delivering monologues to the camera. As an actor how does that affect your approach to a role?
That’s a good question. It’s really about making sure that you understand the camera is not a camera. The camera is literally you, and anyone else watching this. There’s a real intimacy with that. I don’t think I would be able to do this if this was the beginning of my career. Starting in theatre, it takes a while to understand how to act in front of a camera. And there’s another thing you’re highlighting here: speaking directly to the camera. There can be something there, if you’re not well versed in it, that you can think it’s so unrealistic because you’re talking to a piece of machinery. But you really have to take your mind there and make this intimate journey.
I really felt like I was telling people my secrets. You can’t tell a machine your secrets. There has to be someone there. Even if you’re journaling, there is someone you’re connecting to. In some ways, I actually think it’s more vulnerable to a different level. There’s a depth there that isn’t even there when you have a scene with someone else on camera. You have to almost open your chest to show people your soft parts and say “I give them to you.” That is really scary but also so beautiful.
So for the sake of context, I interviewed your director Stephen Kijak last year. He’s a documentarian; he’s not known for directing as much narrative drama. Tell me about working with him. How is his approach different?
I would never have known it. He’s very decisive. I really feel comfortable with a director when there is a level of trust there, when I know I can trust. I don’t feel like I can trust a director when they don’t know what’s going on. You could tell that he knew in his mind how he wanted it to look. He was also very open to my ideas, and very open to collaboration. It was one of those experiences where afterword you’re like that was a blessing.
You’re a very successful woman in showbiz. Orange is the New Black, Handmaid’s Tale, for which you won an Emmy. I’m curious though, how does being a queer performer affect your career? Were you ever advised against coming out? Do you find it limiting in terms of the roles you’re offered?
I was definitely told those things in the beginning from a lot of different angles, from people who had nothing to do with my career. It’s so confusing. Being so young when I started and not understanding what I feel like my purpose is. I feel like being an out, queer black woman is completely connected to who I want to be in the roles I want to take, where I want my career to go, how I want people to look at me. I don’t want to just play [queer] characters. I want to the world to see my community can do anything, just like [straight] actors can do anything.
I’ve realized, how a black queer woman being able to give a voice to a black queer woman—we have not always been able to tell our stories. Years ago, gay or queer roles were not being played by queer people. What a gift that is, that we’re able to do that now. What a personal gift it is for me to be able to step into these shoes.
I am so enriched by life that I’m able to take the roles that I do and play the roles that I have and walked down the red carpet holding my wife’s hand. I would not be fulfilled as a person if I was to hide that part of me. I think that happens to anyone—if you are hiding part of you, that is a burden. It is something you are actively doing every day to push something down that is a beautiful part of yourself. I feel lighter. I feel more myself without having that burden.
I interviewed your wife, Lauren Morelli, who is an astonishing writer for Tales of the City last year. When you’re involved with another creative mind like that, how does the relationship influence and challenge you as a performer?
For me, I don’ t know how I would be able to give the level of excellence. Lauren pushes me to be able to see her work every day. It shows me: you’re bringing your A-game there? What am I doing? Every day I’m able to see in my own home, someone who’s level of artistic integrity I think is sometimes unmatched, and her work ethic, and her dedication. We talk about her art every single day. We talk about what our purpose is. We talk about not just telling stories, but telling stories that matter to us, telling stories our children will one day be proud of. I look to my parents and I’m proud of them, and I want that whenever we have a family. I count myself really lucky that I’m able to have conversations with her about the bigger picture of what we’re doing.
Last summer, I did a couple movies. I did one with Allison Janney and Aquafina and Wanda Sykes. It’s going to be a fun one. I don’t know when that’s coming out, because the movies aren’t open…
I also did a project on Netflix called Amend which is all about the 14th Amendment. I’m not sure of the release date, but it comes out this year. Mahershala Ali is part of it. Will Smith is a part of it. A lot of different people, and I’m very interested in what conversations that brings up.
Absolutely. And having seen you play Lorraine Hansberry, I hope you don’t mind my saying, I want to see you play Beneatha in Raisin in the Sun. Watching you I was like she’d be great.
Can I tell you I just said that earlier today?
I’m glad it’s not just me.
It’s great you brought that up. I’m always casting myself in my mind as Beneatha. In thinking about Lorriane, this person who is my queer ancestor, I know that she talked about Beneatha being partly autobiographical. So when I think about my connection to her, it makes complete sense that I feel so close to Beneatha. I feel like that would be such an honor.
Equal premieres on HBO Max October 16.