'Orange Is the New Black' Star Talks Taking on Black Lives Matter, Her Character's Tragic Fate
[Warning: This story contains major spoilers from the entire fourth season of Orange Is the New Black.]
Orange Is the New Black's fourth season ended in shocking fashion.
The Netflix prison dramedy from Jenji Kohan killed off fan-favorite Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley), who died during a prison-wide protest that turned fatal. The penultimate episode, "The Animals," was directed by Mad Men's Matthew Weiner and written by Wiley's real-life girlfriend, Lauren Morelli. To hear Wiley tell it, the provocative episode - which featured parallels with the Black Lives Matter movement - called for the entire cast to be present, making for an emotional day on the typically rowdy set.
"It was so amazing to have the support of my entire cast on the day that this had to happen," Wiley, who has kept the storyline a secret for more than a year, told The Hollywood Reporter. "There were faces that I hadn't seen in a long time and it felt like a real sendoff to have everyone in the same room together. A lot of them were doing their grieving on that day."
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Although fans and the cast are left reeling in the wake of Poussey's death, Wiley understands why it had to be her. Poussey dies when an untrained guard accidentally suffocates her when pinning her down with his knee. The storyline echoed the real-life death of Eric Garner and the subsequent "I Can't Breathe" and Black Lives Matter movement. In the season four finale, Poussey's body was left on the floor for an entire day as the prison struggled with how to handle the situation before ultimately covering it up to the public. That resulted in a prison-wide riot and finale cliffhanger as the inmates were on the verge of taking over the prison.
"There are people who are watching television who might not have a personal relationship with Black Lives Matter, but they know Poussey," Wiley says of the smiley, good-hearted and hopeful Litchfield character. "What I've been reading online from people is just this profound sadness, something that they can't shake away. And that is exactly what Jenji is wanting people to feel, she wants people to not be able to shake this off."
THR caught up with Wiley to discuss saying goodbye to Poussey and Orange Is the New Black, the moment she told her on-screen "sisters," including Danielle Brooks (Taystee), and the legacy she hopes to leave behind. Just as Wiley warned fans before the premiere: "Get ready - with your tissues."
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What was your reaction to being killed off and how did you process it while keeping it a secret?
I've known for a little over a year now. When I first found out, like anyone being a part of a show like this from the very beginning - everybody involved in it and the show itself had really become my family. So in receiving the news, it was definitely a shock. In the beginning I was really surprised and confused, but then in talking with the writers and trying to understand the story they were trying to tell, my feelings quickly changed to being honored. I was honored to be able to be the vessel, to be able to tell this story through Poussey. And I'm always someone who's up for a challenge so I think after talking to them I was like, "OK, let's do this and let's do it good!" Throughout the months of me knowing and up until now, it's not like my feelings stayed the same the entire time. You go through waves. It's profoundly sad sometimes; I've cried my eyes out. I've been happy and excited by the next chapter of my life. I've gone through so many different stages with it.
How did you react when you found out that Lauren would be the one writing the script for the episode that sees Poussey die?
I didn't know that Lauren was writing it until it got close to it. They don't get assigned to write it until right before because it is a real collaborative effort in the room. They all come up with the stories together and then one person is assigned to actually execute, so she didn't get assigned to write it until a few episodes before. But I felt safe once I knew she was writing it. I knew that she would take so much care, I knew that she understood the magnitude and the impact that we could have with the story we were trying to tell. Our relationship started as a professional relationship and I admire Lauren's work as a writer, I'm such a fan of hers from the beginning. So I again felt so honored to be able to have Lauren write the final episode of Poussey in prison.
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It's a timely story of Black Lives Matter and racial injustice, given the news of the past year. It feels like Jenji picked Poussey because she is so loved and she wanted it to have the most impact. How was it explained to you?
That is exactly how it was explained to me. There are people everyday who we lose. And especially, with the Black Lives Matter thing, there have been so many people who we've lost and there's people in our country who don't have any connection to that. They don't know a black person, or the only reference they have are people on TV. And Poussey is this character that, she just has such a good heart and not only that, she had so much potential. We see in season four how she really had her mind set on getting out of prison and being able to start her life in a different way. In a way where she could become an upstanding citizen of society. And these people who are watching television who might not have a personal relationship with Black Lives Matter, they know Poussey. People watch this show hour after hour in their living rooms on their couches, sometimes in their underwear! They feel really connected. People on the streets come up to me and it's different than some of my friends who are movies stars. They feel so connected to you because you are in their homes, hour after hour after hour. And what I've been reading online from people is just this profound sadness, something that they can't shake away. And that is exactly what Jenji is wanting people to feel, she wants people to not be able to shake this off. It is television, we're making television at the end of the day, it's all smoke and mirrors and it's all fake, but it's not because it makes people really feel things that are real.
Take me through filming that day: What was it like to be on set with the entire cast - something we haven't seen since the early episodes. What was their reaction to the scene and how did you get through it?
It was the first time we'd all been on set at the same time, really, since season one. So that was really special. But I remember in season one, when the girls were running for WAC Pack (Women's Advisory Council) and we were doing a rap battle, so it was a very different mood the last time we were all on set together. We have so many people on our cast now, I remember we couldn't even film it on a regular day. We had to do it on a weekend which we never usually do, just to coordinate everyone's schedule. But it was so amazing to have the support of my entire cast on the day that this had to happen. There were faces that I hadn't seen in a long time and it felt like a real sendoff to have everyone in the same room together. Our set is such a loud, boisterous, loving set and everyone's always joking and there's always noise. But on that day, it was much more quiet.
When did most of the cast find out?
I'd known for so long but my castmates didn't know until maybe the week before or so, when they got the script. So they found out when they sat there, and some people read the script fast and they found out fast and some people took a while to read the script and that's when they found out. It wasn't some big announcement. They had much less time to process than I did and because of that, I think a lot of them were doing their grieving on that day of filming, whereas I had done my grieving months before. I had really come to terms that this is my story and because of that, I think I had to do a lot of making sure that everyone else was OK. I think honestly, that day, the rest of the cast, it was much harder for them than it was for me.
Did you tell any of your Orange crew - Danielle Brooks, Uzo Aduba (Crazy Eyes), Vicky Jeudy (Janae), Adrienne C. Moore (Black Cindy) and Kimiko Glenn (Poussey's girlfriend Soso) - earlier? How did they handle the news?
Kimiko joined the cast in season two and Adrienne joined the cast maybe two-thirds through the way of season one. Uzo and Danny, Danielle, had been with me since the beginning. I'd done a really, really good job - I'd like to pat myself on the back - of keeping this a secret from the cast. I didn't say a word to anyone. I remember calling up one of our executive producers and I said, "Look, when does this script come out?" Because I had been thinking about: "Oh god, if this happened to Danielle, if this happened to Uzo, and I sat down and I read the script," I couldn't imagine having to find out that way. I'm all about protocol and not breaking the rules! So I asked her if it would be OK if I told my sisters. It was before the script came out, maybe a week or two before that, and I met Danielle and Uzo at one of their houses and I remember I got there and I was like, "Do you guys have a bottle of wine?" And they said no and I said, "OK, well I'm going to need a bottle of wine." Danielle and I went out and got a bottle of wine and came back and we just sat there and we cried together and we drank together and we smiled together, we reminisced. I'm so grateful that I was able to have that night with them. It was really special to just be able to sit down and talk to each other and let them know some finality was coming ahead. Unfortunately, for Adrienne, Kimiko and Vicky, they did find out by reading the script. But then after they read it, we had our own moments too. But that night that I told people in advance, it was just Uzo, me and Danny.
Fans love Poussey and Taystee's relationship. What was it like to go through this with Danielle, and to film the moment where she collapses to the ground next to Poussey's body?
It helped a lot that my eyes were closed! It was already really hard. I remember in season two, us being in a very similar position facing each other, we were laying on a bed and we were kissing, though. I try to kiss her. I remember every take, we would just laugh and giggle and we were like, "This is ridiculous!" I've known Danielle since she was 17 and we are like sisters. To kiss each other was so weird and we laughed. This time, we were [choking up] definitely wiping each other's tears between the takes. It was great to be able to do that with someone like Danielle who I do have a long history with and I do love her like my sister and yeah, that was hard.
It's a testament to your chemistry that fans can feel the pain and sadness between these two best friends. How will Taystee survive this?
I actually have the privilege now of being able to not answer any questions about it anymore. And I say privilege because now I get to sit back and watch it like everybody else! And I really am excited to see what happens in season five because the way season four ends - the anticipation that I have for season five after seeing the end is like, "Wow, where do you go from here?" I'm just excited to honestly be a viewer and experience it.
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Matt Weiner directed your death scene. What was working with him like?
I think this was his first TV directing job that wasn't on Mad Men. We have a lot of repeat directors who come and we have such good relationships with them, but to have someone come in from the outside with an outside eye is so great. One of the first things he said to me before we started shooting the episode was: "This is another episode of television and that's exactly how we're going to shoot it and that's exactly how I want you to think about it." It would have been really hard if he came to me and said, "This is going to be the biggest episode: Don't f - it up."
Do you think Poussey would have any forgiveness for Bayley (Alan Aisenberg), the guard who inadvertently killed her?
I always said that Poussey is such a model person in a way that I often want to emulate her, or wish that I could. I do think that if it was someone else that Poussey would be the one to see both sides. I do think she'd have forgiveness in her heart for Bayley. I think that she would be able to see the complexities of the situation. And that's what Jenji and her team of writers are trying to do with this. They're not making it black and white. How easy would it have been to have had one of the others, one of the horrible guards that they have doing all these detestable things in this season, how easy would it have been to have one of those guards be the person that committed this horrible tragedy? In episode 13 with Poussey's backstory, there's a point where she's walking down the street and she happens to pass Bayley and that really does show that they were just two kids who end up in this corrupt system and end up crossing paths. Who would know that in a few years, one would end up killing the other? It's complicated and I do think that Poussey would be able to see that.
That flashback then ends with you looking straight at the camera, something we've never seen the show do.
I remember being on set and we're filming the scene and, that's not on paper or anything. So the last scene I'm sort of looking off and we do that a couple times and I think we're done. Then someone runs over and says, "Jenji wants you to look into the camera." I said, "This is Orange Is the New Black, we don't look into the camera - that's crazy!" And of course it wasn't. It's very powerful and it seems to really be hitting people.
This past TV season has been a deadly one for not only female characters but lesbian characters in particular, as the "Bury Your Gays" trope went mainstream. Did you and Jenji talk at all about the trope? Do you think Poussey is an example of Bury Your Gays?
I do know about it. Jenji and I didn't talk about, but I thought about it a lot. When they were first coming up with the season, I'm not sure how much already happened yet, with [it going mainstream]. But I do know that the story that we are trying to tell, I believe, is something other than that. The story we are trying to tell is about marginalized people, black people, Black Lives Matter - people dying. And it being pushed aside in a way that some people aren't affected by it and people dying and it doesn't matter. We're trying to show people that it does matter. I was talking to someone who said their stomach hurt so much that they wanted to throw up. And to be able to affect people in that way, I think is a part of this season. In a roundabout way, showing that in Poussey's death, it's another cry that: yes, these people are dying. People in real life are dying, that's exactly what we're saying. This show is showing you so much that hurts and it's not senseless. It's not: "We're going to kill a character, let's just kill Poussey." We're choosing Poussey with a conscious mind, it's not just to get rid of a black lesbian character - there's lots of black lesbians on Orange Is the New Black! So I honestly don't think it's in that same category and I really do hope that people can see that and understand the message that we are trying to tell and not lumping that in with Bury Your Gays. I really hope they can see that because as a black gay woman, I can see the difference and I hope that everyone else does and doesn't do themselves a disservice and miss our message.
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What do you want fans to remember about her and to take away from her death?
I want people to remember her smile, laugh, optimism, humor her soft parts and how she was a lover and not a fighter. I want people to remember how much joy she gave them and - gosh, look at me I'm starting to cry! I've read some things about people saying that, "I've never felt anything like that from television before." And I want people to remember that. I want people to remember how it felt when they saw her body laying on the ground not being moved in episode 13, how no one even referred to her by her name anymore, they just called it "the body." I want people to remember that and remember that there are people out here dying everyday and this happens every day: they are nameless, faceless people sometimes, but if you have this one moment you can remember, even if it's only form TV, that's what we want. We want you to remember that. [Choking up]
Can you share a favorite moment ever from the series?
It was all so new in season one and everything was the most exciting thing I've ever done, but I remember in episode 10, the Scared Straight episode, ["Bora Bora Bora"], it was one of the first episodes that Poussey got a real, like, featured moment. And she's trying to go scare the girl in the wheelchair and she doesn't really know what to say. That was [laughs], she's trying to be respectful but also scare her at the same time, that was pretty fun. And I got to do a little bit of ad-libbing in that scene but it was super fun. Also, the Amanda and Mackenzie "white people" voices with Poussey and Taystee talking back and forth, that's always for me going to be classic.
You should do a web series spinoff - the uncovered secret cell phone adventures of Amanda and Mackenzie.
That is so good, I should mention that to Danielle.
We also loved watching Poussey find love this season. You see the massive hole Poussey left as Norma cradles Soso in her arms, singing to her. How much did you enjoy playing out the Soso relationship?
It was so great. People would make fun of me on set all the time, Danielle mainly, because I would come off set or when they were changing the camera setup or whatever, and I would have my arm around Kimiko and she would have her arm around me and I would be like, "Yeah, this is my girlfriend." And Danielle would be like, "You are so happy to have a girlfriend this season - we get it, we get it." It was just fun, I feel like Poussey from the very beginning has had this capacity for love and she just needed someone to give it to. And I've had so much fun being able to play with Kimiko this season, it was a really beautiful way to go out: to have something she's always wanted. And I think it makes her death impact even more, because she's just starting to receive the things that she couldn't have and then in an instant, it's all taken away.
The MCC said Poussey got picked up with possession and intent to sell with half an ounce and was sentenced to six years. Do we know how much time she had left?
In my mind, I would probably say around two years or so. But it's not dated, clearly.
To end on what you're doing next, THR broke that you landed a role on You're the Worst. How did you book this role?
Stephen Falk, the creator of You're the Worst, he wrote on Orange season two and is actually the writer who wrote Poussey's backstory. It's awesome, It feels a little full circle or serendipitous that it's happening in this way. He's a great guy and I'm so excited to be able to work for him
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How does the character compare to Poussey?
Totally different, which is everything I want to do now. Orange and Poussey have given me my life as an actor, and where I am in my career right now. But I am an actor at the end of the day and I want to make sure I can show the world different parts of myself. Poussey is not all that I am and as an actor, I want to be able to play roles that are wildly different from the last role that I've played. In terms of roles that I'm seeking now and movies that I'm doing, that's the goal. To do things that are on the other end of the spectrum from Poussey.
Season four of Orange Is the New Black is streaming now on Netflix. Follow all of THR's OITNB coverage, including more interviews with the cast, here.