“It feels really amazing to me,” Samira Wiley tells ET about life after Orange Is the New Black, the Netflix series on which she played Poussey Washington -- [Spoiler Alert] -- before being killed off at the end of season four. Starring in the new ensemble film 37, inspired by the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese in Kew Gardens, New York, Wiley is slowly putting that experience behind her. “I come from a training program where we were playing different characters every week, so to be able to be back out there and be hungry, I found some good and some sort of optimism in being away from the show.”
Admittedly, there was a grieving process that Wiley went through multiple times. She learned about her character’s fate a year before her cast mates, and well before audiences who watched it this past June. But she came out stronger on the other side. “I feel like I grew up on that show … Those were really formative years,” she says of her first series regular role on a TV show. “I’d never played a character as long as I played Poussey. Spending time with her, so much time embodying that character, it was so -- and still is and always will be -- so special to me and a part of who I am.”
But now she’s back out there, “able to jump into all these different genres and different characters,” Wiley says, including a role opposite her Orange Is the New Black onscreen partner, Kimiko Glenn, in the social media thriller Nerve and a recurring role on the FXX comedy You’re the Worst.
“It was such a blast to have Samira on set,” says Kether Donohue, who plays Lindsay on the raunchy series. On the show, Wiley plays a therapist, Justina Jordan, to Aya Cash’s Gretchen. “I only have one scene with her,” Donohue says, “which was a dream because she’s so talented and sweet.”
Wiley’s latest role is playing Joyce Smith, a pregnant mother and wife who moves into an apartment complex that later becomes the setting for a gruesome rape and murder. The real murder of Genovese became infamous when it was reported that 37 witnesses did nothing to intervene.
“The movie is not really about the crime, it’s about the response to the crime,” Wiley says of 37 (in theaters and on demand Friday, Oct. 7), which she considers a fresh and bold form of storytelling. “Not even seeing the crime itself is a bold choice, but a real testament to what the movie is supposed to be about.”
While Wiley wasn’t familiar with the story before signing onto the project, she quickly became fascinated -- as audiences have with many of the real-life stories that have become wrapped up in the nation’s obsession with true crime. “I can’t even put my finger on why, but I would imagine it’s just an interest in the human mind and human behavior, especially when something is so far from you,” she says. “It's an interesting psychological study to me. I'm definitely caught up in the Kool-Aid of true-crime stories.”
Genovese’s murder is a particularly gripping story that has inspired an episode of Law & Order: SVU and a fictitious, interactive play in an episode of Girls. It’s also the subject of the documentary The Witness, which is now streaming on Netflix. “It’s infamous in New York,” Wiley says, adding that filming exterior shots just blocks away from where the original murder took place was a surreal experience. “I felt a large amount of responsibility of being there and wanting to tell the story with truth and honesty. I definitely felt that in a very palatable way when we were on set there.”
While she’s dabbling in film, Wiley will be returning to TV on Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale as Moira. The dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood is being turned into a 10-episode series slated to premiere in 2017 starring Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss and Joseph Fiennes.
And it’s a far cry from Orange Is the New Black, which still remains with fans not quite ready to let go of Poussey. “There are so many people that are so attached to her in a way that I don’t think I understood until this happened,” Wiley says, referring to her departure.
But her hunger for work and new experiences will keep her pushing forward. “I’m excited to get in there and create something completely different,” she says.