In the second season of “Orange is the New Black,” the character Poussey, played by Samira Wiley, went from wisecracking sidekick to the show’s tragic heroine. The shift made sense in a season that was darker, and more violent, than the first. Over the course of 13 episodes, Poussey was isolated from the makeshift family she had formed for herself in prison, rejected by her best friend, and assaulted. Her reckless bravado placed her at odds with drug-dealing matriarch Vee (Lorraine Toussaint), the season's villain. Though difficult to watch at times, it provided a showcase for the talents of Wiley, a Juilliard-trained actress. I spoke to her by phone last week, while she was on a break from shooting the third season.
Esther Breger: Poussey had such a heartbreaking storyline this season. Did anything about it surprise you?
Samira Wiley: Definitely the backstory episode, where we see her on the military base speaking German—that was a big surprise to me. I don’t actually speak any German, but they had a dialect coach for me.
EB: I loved your mohawk in that episode. It must have been exciting to get to something other than a prison uniform for once. How involved were you in the styling for that episode?
SW: The mohawk was definitely my idea! They have a great costume designer on set, and when it was time for my episode she came in with a rack of clothes. I was able to pick out certain outfits but it was really her ideas—and then I threw in the mohawk to complete the whole look.
EB: Have you ever had a mohawk?
SW: I did, a few summers ago. I remembered that, and I thought, oh, that would be cute.
EB: By the end of Poussey’s flashback episode, she’s confronting her girlfriend’s father with a gun. That was pretty shocking, since before then we’d never seen any potential for violence from her.
SW: When you’re in a place like that, when you think that your whole world is being taken out from under you—I think Poussey is just trying to gain some control. To be honest, I don’t know if she’s even thought it through. She’s just trying to gain some control.
EB: And that’s echoed in her relationship with Vee later in the season.
SW: Yes, she’s the same way with Vee. Though she probably is doing a better job of it now, since she’s older and she has been in prison a long time and she knows the way things work. She’s probably a little more successful with Vee in gaining control of her own life, in saying, It doesn’t matter that I’m a black girl and the black girls are doing this. I’m going to take a stand.
EB: What was acting across from Lorraine Toussaint like?
SW: Someone told me before that working with a great actor makes you great, and I feel like I was able to step up to the plate this season just by having Lorraine there with me. She’s a veteran in this business. Being able to work with her was such a treat.
EB: What was the hardest scene to shoot this season?
SW: Definitely the scene we were just speaking of [with her German girlfriend’s father] was hard. With everything that’s going on on set, to be in that deep emotional place is difficult. I’m also thinking of the scene with Taystee in episode 12, when we’re in the library. It’s kind of the climax of the whole season, when basically she pushes me down and we crumble into a crying fest. That was difficult, but it was also easy just because I’m working with Danielle Brooks and I’ve known her for so long. To be able to have the kind of working relationship that we have on set, I definitely don’t want to take that for granted. She’s such an amazing screen partner.
EB: You and Danielle Brooks [who plays Taystee] were classmates at Julliard, right?
SW: She was in the class right under me. Danielle was actually cast in “Orange” before me, and I was just so happy for her. Taystee was in the pilot, but my character wasn’t cast until later. I feel like “Orange is the New Black” was a part of my life even before it was really a part of my life, just because of her getting the role. But when I finally got the audition, I called Danielle and she came over to my house and we actually worked on my audition together.
EB: Is your friendship with Danielle anything like the Poussey-Taystee friendship?
SW: I think the only difference is that prison is such a specific place, and there is really no other place like it. When you’re in there you’re shut off from the world, so you have to create these relationships that fill every void. In prison Poussey and Taystee really are everything to each other. They fulfill all of those familial relationships: the sister, the mother, everything. I don’t really have to be everything to Danielle.
EB: Did you and Danielle ever act together while you were at Julliard?
SW: The way it works at Julliard is that you just perform with people who are in your own class. But there was one project, after I graduated, that they asked me to come back for, and Danielle was in it. It was a play called The Last Pair of the Earlies, by a young playwright by the name of Josh Allen. But we were in totally different time eras, so we didn’t have any scenes together, any lines together at all.
EB: In season 2 it quickly became clear that Poussey had romantic feelings for Taystee. How aware of that were you when you were playing the character in the first season?
SW: No it’s definitely not anything that we talked about. I don’t think I was even aware that that was the undercurrent until really late in season 1. It’s so funny—I hear people talking about the show, and they’re like, I knew from the beginning. And I’m like, Well I didn’t!
EB: We haven’t yet seen the backstory on how Poussey got to prison. What do you think happened?
SW: We’re not very far into season 3 at all, but in terms of my own speculation—Poussey mentions in season 2 that she sold drugs. In the flashback episode, her and her family get booted out of Germany, and I think that probably did a lot to her. She’s in love and she’s having to move away from everything that she knows. She’s so dedicated to being there, she’s taken the time to learn the language and everything. I don’t think she was the same after that.
EB: What did you do to prepare for the role of a prison inmate? Have you learned more about the prison system while acting on the show?
SW: First off, I read Piper Kerman’s book, which the show is based on. And the show does some work with the Women’s Prison Association—me and the rest of the girls have worked with them in making some back-to-school backpacks with people who had been incarcerated, people who had come out of the prison system. There’s this school of thought that people in prison are so “other.” It’s like, I would never end up there, or My children would never end up there. But you realize that these people are just people, and there’s not some huge gap between them and me. I try to keep that in mind when I’m playing Poussey; that this is a human being just like me and I don’t need to do some crazy research project to find out about who the person is.
EB: Do you get recognized a lot now?
SW: I do get recognized, more and more every day. This show has really impacted people, but it's just been overwhelming, the love that we’ve received from everyone. You know, I come from a theater background, and if you’re doing a play your audience is right there and you’re able to have that one-on-one experience. Doing more TV now, when fans come up to me on the street and talk to me on social media, that’s a way to bridge that gap.
EB: What was the most fun scene to shoot?
SW: That’s going to have to be in season 1, because that’s where all of my fun stuff is. In episode 6—it was called “WAC Pack”—when Danielle is campaigning to be the president of the Women’s Advisory Commitee, she’s standing up on the chair, giving the women promises of what’s she going to do, like give out fried chicken, and I was her hype man. And that was so fun for me because that part was not on the page. My character was supposed to be just sitting down and listening to her with the rest of the ladies, but I was like, Hey man, if I’m her right hand, I’m going to be right there being the hype man. So I talked it over with the writer and the director and they just gave me free range to go and hype her up. That was all improv.
It’s a really fun set to be on. The girls, we cut up on set all the time, the camera can be on or off. Laverne [Cox, who plays Sophia Burset] and Danielle and Adrienne [Moore, who plays Black Cindy], everyone’s just constantly making up songs, making up dances, keeping ourselves entertained in between takes.
This interview has been edited and condensed.