Major spoilers ahead for episodes 12 and 13 of Orange Is the New Black season four.
Orange Is the New Black’s Samira Wiley has a request: “Be thinking about me Friday and Saturday when people are blowing my Twitter up. You pray for me.”
Wiley, 29, is concerned. She’s worried viewers bingeing the new season over the weekend wouldn’t be able to handle the devastating way the show says good-bye to the fan favorite she plays. She’s worried people will actually think something terrible has happened to her. She’s worried how people will react to a story hitting culturally and socially so close to home.
We know Poussey Washington’s federal crimes were trespassing and selling less than half an ounce of marijuana. We know that when she was arrested she was less than two weeks from starting anew in Amsterdam, attempting to rebuild her life after the gun incident with the Army commander in Germany who caught Poussey and his daughter together. And now we’ve seen her young life come to a tragic, violent end at the hands of a prison guard. Wiley told Vulture she’s very sad to leave a series she loves so much, but proud that creator Jenji Kohan chose her to be a symbol of the Black Lives Matter movement in the world of Orange.
When in the production process did you learn that Poussey would be dying?
The writers and [creator and showrunner Jenji Kohan] told me right before production started for season four. So I basically knew the whole season, which was great for me to be able to have a whole season of this news to myself, to be able to process it, to be able to sit back and reflect and just have some knowledge that this would have some finality for me. The hardest thing was probably keeping it a secret from everybody else. Nobody else in the cast knew until the script came out. As of now, I have known for over a year.
That must have been very hard because you guys are so close.
It was so hard. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
How did you feel when they broke this news?
I felt a lot of things. The first thing was shock and confusion. You’re on a show for so long and you feel a part of it and then, all of a sudden, you get news like this, and it’s a real shock. I definitely needed the time and am grateful and thankful for all the executive producers being able to understand how delicate and sensitive this situation was. They made sure I was okay throughout the whole process. They also let me know, even though I didn’t have a script, what story was trying to be told in terms of “Black Lives Matter.” At the end of the day, I honestly feel pretty honored to be able to be the person or the character or the actor they entrusted with the responsibility of bringing this story to light and bringing this story to a bunch of people in whatever parts of America or whatever parts of the world where this hasn’t really permeated their world yet.
The way it happens is devastating. When you finally did get the script and everyone knew, were there a lot of conversations about the parallels that the writers were trying to draw to “Black Lives Matter” and “I Can’t Breathe”?
Our conversations on set will probably mirror a lot of people’s conversations in the world. Meaning that it wasn’t one, formal sit-down conversation we all had about it. It just happened to be like, “Did you finish the script? Oh, Laverne, you finish the script? What do you think?” We didn’t have some big sit-down, Let’s talk about what’s happening, guys moment. It was a very organic conversation that hopefully now will spread to the rest of the audience that watches Orange. I’m scared, yo. I’m scared. I honestly am scared. It’s a huge moment in television. It’s a huge moment in our show, something I’ve been a part of for so long, and fans go crazy for Orange Is the New Black, man. After the season comes out they want to come up to you on the street and talk to you about what happened and wrap you up for a bit. I don’t know if I have the emotional strength to stop on the street and talk about me being dead. I guess I’m a little wary about that part of it. Sometimes people don’t understand that your character and who you are as a person are two different things. I would actually love the part of walking down the street being like, “Ya’ll it’s okay, I’m okay! I am good. I’m out here living and breathing.” [Laughs.]
Maybe you should get a T-shirt that says, “I’m okay, guys.”
That’s really good.
The way she dies is excruciating to watch and process. As viewers, we love Poussey. She’s so much the heart of the show, the beautiful smile, she really wants to help, she’s smart.
That’s one of the reasons why they wanted to do it. You talk to people who watched right after Vee died, and everybody was like, “Yeah, that’s what’s up!” They didn’t want it to be that kind of story. They wanted it to be really heartbreaking. Fortunately or unfortunately, they definitely succeeded. I think it’s fortunately. Some people who love Orange Is the New Black don’t know what “Black Lives Matter” is. They don’t have a black friend and they don’t have a gay friend, but they know Poussey from TV and they feel just like you said — you feel like you knew her. I talked to another reporter who had just seen the episodes and she said her stomach hurt so bad she felt like she was going to throw up when she watched it. If we’re making people feel like that just from a TV show, then that’s the kind of TV I want to make. That’s the kind of art I want to make. Make people feel things so deeply that it affects them in that way. To know that we might have achieved that this time is awesome.
How did you feel about the fact that the guard who kills her is humanized in the episode? He’s not one of the jerks.
That that’s real life, too. Honestly, it was a really smart decision on their part because it is complicated. All life is complicated. You could’ve had one of those asshole guards be the one to do it, but then that would’ve made your feelings so cut and dry. It wouldn’t have been complicated like life is. It’s something I didn’t know was coming. Even when I was reading the script up until that moment, I knew what was going to happen but I was surprised that it was him. In the last episode, you see that they are two kids, and we pass each other on the street. That’s really cool of them to do that, too, just to see that these are just two kids walking down the street. In however many years, one is going to kill the other. It’s not this vicious crime. It’s the system. That’s what Jenji’s trying to do. She’s trying to highlight this horrible corrupt system that’s corrupt on both sides.
Then the warden in the end ends up defending him.
I know, man. I couldn’t believe that. I was real hurt.
The whole cast was there for the death scene. Tell me about that day.
We had to do that scene on a special day, a Sunday, because they wanted everybody there. You want to see everybody’s face that you’ve seen from the beginning when you have a moment like this on a show with a character that’s been there from the beginning. It was actually pretty fun. We hadn’t had a day like that on set since maybe first season, when we were all in there rapping together in a circle. My phone blew when people read that script because [that’s when the] cast found out. I remember I was sitting right next to [Laverne Cox] in hair and makeup when she finished the script and she just screamed in my ear. She’s like, “OH MY GOD!’” They read it at different times so for the next 24 hours people in the cast were just crying and calling me. For me, I felt like a little bit of my responsibility on that day, shooting that scene, was to take care of everybody. The same thing I’m talking about when I want to walk on the street and be like, “It’s okay, ya’ll. I’m good. We all good. We a family.” I was hanging out on the floor in between takes because they made this little thing for me so he could lean on my back and not hurt me for real because I’m actually really tiny. He would have for real hurt me. They had to lay this cast thing on my lower body when I was on the floor. I would be hanging out there, they would stop the take, and people would get all emotional. I’d just run around and make jokes and try and break the ice because it’s hard. When everybody around you is sad, I do the opposite. I gotta cheer people up. Even though I’m the one that’s gone, I was cheering people up.
How many takes did you do?
I don’t remember. A lot. You gotta do the wide shot and then the close-up shots. The one of my face, I think, we did it twice because [director Matthew Weiner] was just like, “I don’t want to do that anymore. That was good. Let’s just say that was good.”
That was where I lost it.
You’re about to make me cry just talking about it.
What kind of direction did you get for that moment, when the camera focused on your face as she was taking her last breaths?
The director was Matt Weiner, who’s the genius behind Mad Men. He was just so great to work with. I remember him coming up to me before we even started filming the episode and he was just like, “Look, I know this is our first time working together but I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves. Let’s just shoot this like we’re shooting another episode of TV.” And I said alright, you got it. That felt so much better than him coming to me and being like, “Alright, you know that this is all on your shoulders. Don’t fuck up.” For him to just come in and tell me, “I got your back. Just do it like it’s any other old day. This is your job. You know how to do this.” Those were really good words of encouragement. In terms of direction I got on that day for the close-up scenes, I didn’t really get too much, Do this with your face, do that with your face. I think that might’ve been the last scene I shot in that episode. The trust between the director and me was already there and we already had a lot of conversations about it even before we started. I really feel like we put in the work to be able to execute.
How did Danielle Brooks react when she read the script? Taystee and Poussey are so close.
Well Danielle … I couldn’t … I thought about if it happened in reverse, if this was happening with Danielle, and if I got a script, and how that would make me feel. I said I can’t do that to her. [Pauses, chokes up a bit.] I went over to her apartment, got a bottle of wine and was like, “Yo, I need to tell you something.” We talked it out like sisters before she even got the script.
How did it go with Kimiko Glenn [Poussey’s girlfriend Brook]?
Everybody was just so shocked. They couldn’t believe it was actually real. One of them might have even said to me, “Damn, dead dead or in a coma?” I was like, nah, I think I’m gone. I was like, “It don’t pack the same punch if you’re just in a coma.” They’re both phenomenal. It’s been one of the most, if not the most amazing thing, that’s ever happened to my life, to be able to work on this show with these girls. Nothing will ever compare to it. I can’t believe it’s over.
Tell me how it’s changed your life.
Oh, God. The show has changed my life in 1,000 different ways. Number one, when I first got my job on Orange I was a bartender and I stayed bartending the entire time we shot season one because I was scared I wasn’t going to be in prison no more. [Laughs.] I was for real scared they were just not going to write anything for me anymore because that’s actually happened to me before. I was supposed to be recurring on this TV show before, and after episode two they were just like, “Alright, guess we lost our numbers.” I’ve been out here without a job. I had to beg for that bartending job I had. I was like, I don’t have time to be out here on a dream. Like, oh, this show might get big, I’m going to quit my job. I wasn’t thinking like that. I was thinking I had to survive. Also, nobody knew what Netflix was back then. Everybody was like, that DVD service? Is it a web series? I was like, I don’t think so? I had nothing to hang my hat on to know that this is going to be good until I kept bartending and people started recognizing me, and then my friends were like, “You really have to stop bartending.” In that way, I’m going from unemployed, just trying to get any kind of acting job, to it’s hard for me sometimes to walk out of my door just because the show is so big.
Like you said, I’m so honored people do have a love for Poussey. They feel connected to her in a way that is special and different. She has so much potential and so much hope, especially in this season, as we see she is basically guaranteed a job. Her mind is all about I’m going to get out of here, I’m going to go be a chef. Judy King is like, “Yeah, I’m going to set you up.” That’s what makes the punch so much harder too. Wow, she really could’ve made something of herself. It’s not like somebody else in prison who’s just going to end up in a cycle of incarceration. She could have actually pulled herself up and got out of there.
In the next episode, we’re reminded of how she landed in prison, and it’s nothing! She got six years for selling marijuana.
The thing that’s really crazy is that is somebody’s real story. People are out here for multiple years for small drug offenses, marijuana and stuff — and these are kids. Taking their lives away. It’s sad.
And yet Poussey’s story all season was so sweet. She did find love, and it was a great relationship. When this happens to her in the end, it’s like, No, come on.
You asked me earlier why was I scared, and I think I am scared because I remember when I told my mom, she couldn’t believe it. We had talked for a while, and she said, “I can’t get over that thing you told me. I feel like I lost one of my best friends.” That’s my mom talking about seeing a character that’s different from a real person, that’s different from her own daughter. That really actually meant a lot to me because I was like, Oh, wow. It felt like I’m really doing my job as an actor because my mom is talking about Poussey as her friend. Hopefully, everybody feels that way. I feel like I don’t want to take it for granted that Jenji and the team behind her were like, Samira can handle this. They didn’t have to do that. It’s a lot to carry on my shoulders. I feel honored that they felt like I could handle it.
Poussey was already a beloved character. But it seems like now she’s truly unforgettable. This story will keep resonating in future seasons.
I don’t want them to ever forget about her. She’s too big. The show really gave me my life. I wouldn’t be talking to you, I wouldn’t be able to be in magazines and newspapers and have my family be proud of me because my face is on TV. I wouldn’t have any of this stuff without Orange Is the New Black. I’m forever grateful. There is no beef, no hard feelings. I’m not bitter at anybody on that show. I just felt like we came together, worked together, and made a good season of television.
You talked about how hard it was to go and share with Danielle what was happening. What was it like filming the final scene where she throws herself on the floor with Poussey?
It was real hard. I’ve known Danielle since she was 17 years old. People don’t know that. We go way back. We went to school together. She first came to New York in 2006, 2007, something like that. I was in my second year at Julliard, and she was coming to move into the dorms. I remember I helped her move into the first place she ever lived outside of South Carolina, in New York City. I helped her move into her dorm room. I watched her grow all throughout school. I watched all her shows, and she’ll tell you too, back in school she looked up to me a little bit because she was in the class under me. Then to get this job together. We got so much closer on this job. She’s special. Our friendship is really special, and it’s really real. The chemistry that we have on camera, that’s because this is real.
She really tore into that moment, when she just collapses on the floor.
I don’t think it said all that in the script. It’s not like, “Then Taystee comes and collapses.” She reads her lines, and she’s an amazing actor so she interprets it how her character is going to interpret it. I didn’t know it was going to be like that. It was hard for me. My eyes had to be tight shut. She was right on my face. It was really hard. Me and Danielle had to kiss in season two. We were laughing in between every single take. We thought it was the funniest thing in the world. We were wiping each other’s tears this time.
One thing I did miss this season was that friendship. You guys had scenes together in groups, but there weren’t those really fun Taystee–Poussey scenes this season.
Yeah, because Poussey was all up in her love. Poussey was about that Asian love. What she does she say? Blasian? [Laughs.]
Did you miss having scenes with Danielle like that?
Absolutely, yes. Also knowing it was our last time. She didn’t know it at the time, but I did. Every script I’m looking, Ooh, what do I get with Danielle? But I don’t regret any of it, though. For three seasons what I wanted was for Poussey to have some love in her life. I want her to have a girlfriend. She got a lot of love this season, so I’m not hating on that either.
Let’s talk about the final episode. It was so unexpected to have a flashback that wasn’t showing her in hard times. Poussey was having an amazing night.
I know! Which makes it even more sad! It’s beautiful. Honestly, if they did something else with the last episode, if I was just gone and not in it, it would’ve been really hard to leave the show on that note. But they gave me Poussey’s best-night-ever backstory. A night in New York, getting lost, and dancing with drag queens.
And the monks on the bikes.
And the monks on the bikes! That’s so absurd. It was so fun to film. Those monks were some troopers for real because they didn’t have on any coats and it was in the middle of winter.
Why do you think the writers did it that way? Did they just want to leave us on a happy note with her?
Of course, everything I say is speculation. I remember one of my castmates right after she read the script, she texted me or called me and said, “Let’s have a drink and go mourn her life.” It didn’t sit right with me. I said you know what, I don’t want to go mourn her life. I want to go celebrate it. Let’s go have a drink and celebrate this person’s life. I feel like that’s what they’re doing with this last episode. It really feels like a memorial for her. Let’s take this last episode and just celebrate who this person was.
What about the very last moment when you looked into the camera with your big old smile?
I’m going to tell you a true story, okay? True story. Don’t nobody on Orange Is the New Black ever look in the camera, alright. So we were on set and we were doing it over and over, and then somebody comes over and they’re like, “Jenji said look in the camera.” I’m like, Jenji said what?! She ain’t say that. I thought they were playing with me. And they were like, “No, she wants you to look straight into the camera.” I was like, This is ridiculous, because we had done it a lot of times just me looking off. I was like okay, this is just the genius of Jenji Kohan, I guess I’ll do this and then she’ll see or everybody will see later it don’t work. But no, they obviously used it. It was so weird, though. I haven’t really seen that part. I just heard from other people who watched it that that’s the part that they used. I can’t wait to see it.
They don’t want us to remember her on the floor.
Yeah, absolutely right. That’s 100-percent true.
What do you think you’re going to miss the most?
I’m going to be on set all the time. They’re going to be like, “Samira, you need to leave. You do not work here.” I’m going to miss the girls so much. That set is just so fun. It’s really all of the fun that people think it is. That’s always my family, but to know I can’t just count on going to a set every day that’s like that … I’ll just have to cherish and remember. I’m so happy I knew the whole season what was going to happen because it really did help me take my time with the scenes and take my time with the girls there, just knowing, Alright this is the last time. Just having that knowledge was really good for me. I will try to do different things now, movies, or other TV shows, or whatever comes my way. Nothing will ever be able to touch Orange, ever.
Tell me some of your favorite moments as Poussey.
When she makes that thing where they’re supposed to pee in the toilet with the little contraption. I thought that was really funny. What’s that, season two? Let’s go throwback season one when her and Taystee are talking like white girls in the cafeteria. I love the moment at the end of season one where you actually see Poussey sing “Amazing Grace.” Now I’m going down memory lane. I feel like I really am talking about somebody I lost. [Pauses.] We did though.
Also, just standing up for herself in season two against Vee. She got beat up, but she still came back. She was all about it. One of the most fun times I ever had filming was at the end of season two, Poussey destroys all of these tobacco products and she pours bleach on all of them and then she stomps on them because she’s drunk. I had so much fun stomping on all them cans. They were like “Cut! Cut!” I’m still stomping on the cans. [Laughs.]
Moments on that TV show coincide with moments from my own life. Poussey, she’s a young woman growing up in prison, and Samira is a young woman growing up in an environment she’s not used to that much either — and that’s this whole fame thing. We were all, my whole cast, thrust into this thing of people knowing our faces and pictures on the sides of buses. I was trying to make the right drink at the bar and not put salt on the rim when you were supposed to put sugar on the rim. That was my life. To have what we have now and to know that no matter what happens, it’s not over. Poussey’s journey might be over, but Samira’s is not.