Samira Wiley and Uzo Aduba still remember struggling
By Trish Bendix
Eight years ago, Samira Wiley and Uzo Aduba were struggling New York actors working service jobs when they auditioned for a new series from a movie-rental service-turned-streaming site called Netflix.
After “Orange Is the New Black” premiered in the summer of 2013, they found themselves at the center of both a new hit show and a TV sea change, as Netflix continued its evolution into an industry-reshaping force.
This year, Netflix set an Emmy record with 160 total nominations, and Wiley and Aduba received nods of their own. Wiley was nominated for best supporting actress in a drama for playing feminist lesbian activist Moira in Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” her third nomination for the role. Aduba is up for best supporting actress for playing pioneering congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, who ran for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in 1972, in FX’s limited series “Mrs. America.”
“For actors, it’s not a given that you get a part on a show where, No. 1, it’s an amazing part, and, No. 2, it’s a show that people watch,” Wiley said. “I don’t know how it’s happened that both the shows that I was on have permeated the zeitgeist, but it’s amazing.”
The triumph of “Orange Is the New Black” was due partly to the tapestry of its diverse cast; Aduba and Wiley, playing Black queer characters, were fan favorites. Aduba won two Emmys for her affectionate and affable take on Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren. (Thanks to her indelible performance and a shift in the Emmy classification rules, she won awards for the role in both the comedy and drama categories.) Wiley’s truehearted, androgynous Poussey Washington was so beloved that some viewers stopped watching the show after her character was killed by a prison guard at the end of Season 4 — Aduba among them.
“It made me too sad,” Aduba said during a recent Zoom call with Wiley. Aduba said she cried when she read the final line of the script, which described Poussey offering her signature smile one last time.
As Season 5 was being shot, Wiley remembered calling Aduba or another castmate, and they’d be together on set. “It was really hard in the beginning when all of them were still there,” she said
The actors’ mutual affection was apparent during the call in late August. What began as an interview about the Emmys quickly turned into Aduba and Wiley interviewing each other about “Orange” and how it helped to shape their careers, their approaches to new roles and themselves. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: How does it feel to be nominated again? Is it still as exciting as the first few times?
SAMIRA WILEY: It still feels amazing to me. An Emmy is the highest thing that you can aspire to in our line of work. This time is no different.
UZO ADUBA: The morning of, I was on the phone with (her nominated “Mrs. America” co-stars Margo Martindale and Tracey Ullman), and they were equally excited. Tracey has like 95 Emmys; Margo the same. I also think there’s an element of realizing — Samira and myself, I know for sure — that there was a lifetime of famine. The appreciation is there. It’s not like it was 50 years ago when I used to work at that restaurant. We can touch that time.
WILEY: And for you, Uzo, being nominated for a completely different role, I imagine that feels different.
ADUBA: It felt good. It was the same feeling I felt when I got the job, where I was like, “Thank God I’m not not going to work again.” I’m being 100% honest — that was the feeling.
WILEY: It felt amazing to just get a job. When I wanted to be an actor, it wasn’t like I was little and looking at TV seeing people everywhere that looked like me. And I think it started with “Orange,” because it felt like a real departure from having this idealized woman on television, going all the way back from the age of, like, “Leave It to Beaver.” Where there’s this unattainable beauty and perfection rather than having women that you’re like, “Oh, that’s me. That’s my auntie. That’s my mom.”
ADUBA: I hear you on the “Orange” of it all and the specialness of that — people who were not getting space now getting space. Now shows are getting made for women and people of color, and they’re hitting the zeitgeist in a way that’s powerful. Partly because of the social climate, but also because there is something recognizable.
WILEY: Also, the relevancy of the shows. Like “Mrs. America” — we’re living in a time where we actually have a Black woman vice-presidential candidate (Sen. Kamala Harris). And “The Handmaid’s Tale” — we know the parallels there.
Q: Let me ask you: What is it like to have now been part of two culture-shaping stories?
WILEY: Playing Poussey, getting to know her — I spent four years with her, and I was so in touch with the things that she taught me. She’s so loyal. Her moral center is so centered; it’s immovable. That show helped me understand the kind of person I want to be. And Moira is someone who taught me to embrace my activism; to be a champion for the LGBT community, to be a champion for the Black community and to not be afraid to speak up. It’s such a gift to be able to have lived with these women, to be able to shape who Samira is.
ADUBA: Did they shape Samira? Or do you think Samira shaped them as well?
WILEY: I remember being in school, trying to create a character and telling my teacher I couldn’t access something. I will never forget what my teacher said: “Well, it’s nobody up there but you.” You can’t create something up there out of nothing; it lives within you somewhere. So that’s always in my head: It has to come from me. But these people, it’s almost like therapy. Having internal conversations with Moira and Poussey has made me aware of these things that are deep inside me that I am now comfortable bringing to light.