Samira Wiley is known for her portrayals of two Black gay women on “TV”: Her star-making turn as Poussey on Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, and Moira on Hulu’s hit, The Handmaid’s Tale, a role for which she just won a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series. But the fact that she is a Black gay woman in real life who portrays women just like herself on-screen is not on purpose, according to the 31-year-old actress.
“It’s absolutely not. You think I’m joking but it really isn’t,” she said while being interviewed for WNYC’s podcast, Nancy, as she prepped for her work in the all-star reading of The Lamarie Project. The reading of the famous play was done to honor the life of murdered gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, 20 years after his death.
“I think that if I wasn’t portraying these characters, I wonder how my own journey with my own sexual orientation, how I would have embraced that,” she said. “How I would have walked through the world, if I wasn’t able to inhabit the characters that I have been. It’s not a choice, but I’m very, very happy that it’s worked out this way.”
It’s intriguing to think about when you consider the fact that Wiley began her career with rules in place to avoid being typecast as a gay character.
“I know I definitely had some ideas in the beginning of my career of what I could do and what I couldn’t do because of who I am. And one of the things that I couldn’t do in that spreadsheet or whatever I had [laughs], was I can do this once. But if I do this a couple of times, if I play gay twice, then I’m that, and I’m typecast, and I don’t want to do all — whatever, whatever, whatever,” she said. “But I’ve been able to, hopefully, in Poussey and Moira, two completely different, complex characters that are both Black gay women but are completely different from each other, I think that’s important, to be able to show how multifaceted we all are. I think those things helped me embrace all the facets of myself.”
And embracing all those facets wasn’t originally an easy thing. When she took on the role of Poussey and stepped into the public eye, Wiley was actually still in the closet. A co-star on Orange the New Black accidentally outed her to the world during an interview.
“We talking first season or fourth season? [laughs] There’s definitely a difference, for sure, for sure. Absolutely. I think first season I wasn’t out at all. By fourth season I was like, “Heeeey, come give me your pu–y [laughs],” she joked. “But in the beginning, I was playing a gay character, or I had always thought of her in that way, and there was someone from my cast actually, they were doing an interview, and they were talking about out gay characters in the cast, and they mentioned my name. I saw it in print and I cried. I cried a lot. And I like…tried to get it taken down.”
But Wiley said that while she should have been able to tell the world about her sexuality on her own, she doesn’t hold anger about it, and it’s all thanks to her beloved character.
“I had a journey you guys. I was not always super open-hearted and like, I’m a gay, gay-mo. [laughs]. And also, more specifically, that’s something that somebody took from me,” she said. “Everyone’s journey is their own. You should be able to come out on your own terms. But no, I wasn’t out in the beginning, and I think falling in love with Poussey, which is a real thing that happened to me, helped me fall in love with myself as well.”