Photography by JUCO | Retouching by Anna Glen at Wet Noodle
The Moment: December 21, 1934: Josephine Baker appears in Zouzou, becoming the first black woman to star in a major motion picture.
Samira Wiley can pinpoint the exact moment acting took hold of her. She was in the third grade, attending an oratorical contest at her school, and she was bored in the way that most children made to sit still are.
“I remember it so vividly,” Wiley says. “There was this girl who went to my school, and she did a Nikki Giovanni poem, ‘Ego Tripping,’ and it was just different from everyone else’s. It wasn’t flat recitation. It had an energy and a life to it. And it made me sit up in my seat, and my eyes got wide, and I really felt inside myself, She’s making me feel things. I want to do that.”
Nearly two decades later, in the summer of 2014, devoted fans binge-watched the entire second season of the hit series Orange Is the New Black, to discover that Wiley, as inmate Poussey Washington, had taken them through the entire spectrum of human emotions. “After the first season, my life definitely changed,” she says. “But after the second season, I feel like it’s changed ten-fold.”
In season 1, we knew Poussey as a scrappy goofball with a penchant for Ina Garten. In season 2, we watched painfully as she had her heart broken (as a young Army brat torn from her German girlfriend) and her spirits and body shattered, only to emerge stronger than ever by believing in her own convictions. “In figuring out her arc during season 2,” Wiley says, “I didn’t realize how big she was until the end of it, looking back and thinking, Huh. She’s kind of the hero.”
Her delayed reaction could be read as modesty, but it speaks to Wiley’s dramatic origins. “When I was younger in the theater, I didn’t really feel like I got much recognition from the powers that be,” she says. “I got a lot of small roles — I never got the standout roles.”
Still, she pursued acting doggedly throughout high school at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C., and later went on to study at Juilliard, meeting her OITNB co-star Danielle Brooks, who helped get her an audition for the show and whose character, Taystee, she fell in love with on-screen this year.
Offscreen, Wiley has been adjusting to her celebrity status. She found herself in the midst of a gossip storm last summer, appearing at the Emmys with her girlfriend, Lauren Morelli, a writer for the series who recently came out as a lesbian and filed for divorce from her husband. And she also laments the loss of anonymity in New York City, where she’s lived for the past nine years. “You have people who are so passionate and touched by my work, which is so humbling,” she says. “But other times, it’s a little overwhelming. If I’m just trying to go to the bodega and get some coconut water, I have to put on a hat and some glasses — those kinds of things.”
Still, Wiley has a positive outlook on her purpose as an actor and on her fans, some of whom have longed to see their lives, often marginalized by pop culture, reflected in characters like Poussey.
“I grew up in the church,” she says, recalling something her parents, both Baptist pastors, instilled in her. “I have seen my parents inspire people and give them hope and faith most of my life. I feel like I’ve always wanted to have my work be some sort of ministry, because that’s what my parents do and that’s the only word I have for it.”
Her parents, Christine and Dennis Wiley, are in fact pillars of the LGBT religious community. In 2007, theirs was the only traditionally black Baptist church in D.C. to perform same-sex unions. As Wiley remembers, they lost half of their congregation as a result.
“I feel like oftentimes in the church people get caught up in literal translations of the Bible. But that’s not the home I grew up in,” she says. “I was just taught that love is the most powerful thing. And being able to see that and see my parents on the forefront of that made such a big impact on my life.”
Photographed at ACME Studios, Brooklyn on October 9, 2014
Syling by Michael Cook. Set Designer: Greg Garry. Hair and Makeup: Tasha Brown for Exclusive Artists using Bobbi Brown and Kevin Murphy. Fashion Assistant: Taja Whitted. Zebra Rug, The Evolution Store. Dress by Nili Lotan. Shoes by Nicholas Kirkwood. Jewelry available at Early Halloween, nyc.