When asked to draw parallels between her personality and that of Poussey Washington’s, her character on Netflix’s hit series Orange Is the New Black, Samira modestly insists that there aren’t any. However, we’re inclined to respectfully disagree, having noted in her the charm, charisma and infectious energy we’ve all grown to love in Poussey. Just like the rest of us, Samira was drawn to the role from the moment she first saw the script. “I just read the signs and sometimes you just connect,” she recalls, “something about the essence that you feel in a character when you first read them.” The rest is history – or rather, Netflix-filled binge days for those of us who have fallen in love with OITNB and its ensemble of personalities.
Samira’s rise to this highly-scrutinized stage was a relatively quick one – the show is her first venture into acting in front of a camera. A Julliard-trained actress, Samira got the theatre bug early on and worked as a bartender to support her passion. To this day, she regards theatre as her first love. “Because I’m not doing it and I used to do it all the time, I’m trying to find ways to pepper it into my schedule. Trying to take on workshops, whatever I can,” she says. Samira admits that her dream has always been to play Juliet, hoping that if she tells enough people, perhaps someone will give her the opportunity – “put it out into the universe,” she jokes.
When the call came to audition for OITNB, Samira recalls that it was an audition like any other. A classmate from Julliard, Danielle Brooks (whom we now know as Taystee) had been cast for the show and although the two had never worked together before, Samira was thrilled with the prospect. Her wishes came true when she was cast in the first season of the show. “I had no idea even how to tell people what it was,” she laughs, adding that the show was positioned to pioneer Netflix’s streaming model along with a number of others, but the concept had been too new then. As far as working with Brooks, Samira explains that the chemistry was effortless. “She and I just come from the same school – same teachers, same classes. You don’t have to use as much language because you have the same language. It’s what made it easy for us to work together and made our friendship so much stronger than it ever was before,” she says.
Indeed, for those of us who know and love the show, it is the friendships between these characters and the intricacies of their dynamic relationships that keep us hooked. “Life imitates art,” Samira admits when asked if the party keeps going once the cameras are down. “I feel like it’s a great privilege to be able to bring the sisterhood and camaraderie that we have off-screen to our scenes on-screen, and use that chemistry and that organic natural thing that we have. It can get seamless sometimes – the flow of our energy and what we bring while we’re on-screen as well.”
As for Poussey, the energetic, hooch-brewing army brat who’s found herself on the wrong side of the law, Samira reveals that her greatest hope for the character is to find love. “I feel like ever since the first season where you sort of find out toward the end of the season that she has a thing for Taystee, she’s been rejected and beat up,” she says. While she won’t admit to any plot spoilers for new episodes, she does say that the fans’ wishes for her character have been in line with her own.
We ask Samira how fame has treated her thus far, having been plucked out of the ranks of struggling actors and thrown into the spotlight in just a matter of years. She admits that it often feels like everything has been flipped upside down. “You find out more about yourself when you’re thrown into situations that you’ve never been in before. This fame thing that has really, I feel like, been thrust upon me and my cast mates – it’s a lot to deal with,” she says. While there is no shortage of gratitude for what she refers to as the privilege of being able to practice her craft and impact so many people, fame has reinforced the concepts of family and privacy in her life. “There is a public part of this, me, of this job, but there are some things that are precious that you need to keep for yourself. Family and everything like that.”
It certainly seems like Samira has struck a balance in her life and her advice for others considering a similar path is noteworthy. “I think that one thing that young actors, or honestly young people need to ask themselves – are you passionate about this and how passionate are you? Going into something because you think it’s going to be glitz and glamour, or you have an idea of what the lifestyle is going to bring you – it’s just not the motivation that should be driving you. I wouldn’t be so happy if I wasn’t in this because I felt like this is the only thing I want to and can do. It’s what I’m supposed to be doing. I feel like there’s something out there for everyone and you just need to find what your love is and sprint towards that.”
Samira has been relentless in her sprint. While shooting the last season of OITNB, she took on a role in the upcoming film “37”, inspired by the 1964 brutal murder of Kitty Genovese who was stabbed to death outside of her home and although several of her neighbors witnessed and heard what had happened, none came to her aid. The two projects are very different in tone and shooting them at the same time proved to be a challenge for Samira, but a welcome one. She relied on her schooling and additional research to tackle the character, and even though she admits that at times switching from one role to the other was tricky, she made it work. Samira looks forward to continuing to tackle new projects, but which ones? She doesn’t know, but remains eternally optimistic – a condition she credits to her dream job on OITNB.
Those who can’t get enough of Samira and need a fix of the charming smile that has contributed to her lovable character, may find her across glossy magazine spreads. She has recently been named as the face of Christian Siriano, a move into the modeling world she had never anticipated for herself. “I’m short, I’m like 5”2, and I don’t know, I don’t know why even. It’s something I never thought of but I’m so happy that this thing has become something that’s a part of my life now,” she gushes. For a girl who self-admittedly wears too many jean shirts, Samira’s style is anything but redundant. Her Instagram is filled with photos of what she insists are two people – one in flannel and sneakers and the other in glamorous, red carpet stunners. “There’s a doppelgänger,” she jokes, but attributes the versatility to the empowerment of choice and self-expression. “I think clothes are really powerful in the way they make you feel when you have them on. It brings out different parts of you.”
Creative self-expression has been a part of Samira’s life from an early age through arts education, the lack of which now she feels strongly about. “I definitely wanted to go all the way and be an actor,” she says of the program she was in. “There’s also so many kids in those programs and that’s not what they end up doing but it gives them so much confidence and helps them in school.” As budgets across the nation dwindle for these types of programs, Samira insists that having access to them can make all the difference for a young child. It’s something we may have to agree with her on.
When she’s not acting or modeling in front of the camera, you can find this girl relaxing at home with a good book. Her shelves are filled with the likes of Shakespeare, mixed in with non-fiction history books – a genre she admits is her favorite. If such a thing were possible, we would find Samira Wiley even more charming than we originally anticipated.