EXCLUSIVE: A Mini Oral History of Samira Wiley's Death Scene on 'Orange Is the New Black'

By
Netflix

While it’s easy to argue there’s no one star of Orange Is the New Black, Samira Wiley
easily shone as Poussey Washington in season four of the Netflix series.

A newcomer when she first joined the show, Wiley went from a
bit player to one of the show’s biggest scene-stealers, aside from Danielle
Brooks and Uzo Aduba. Showcasing her diversity as an actor, she has since
followed Orange Is the New Black with
a recurring role as a therapist on FXX’s You’re
the Worst
and a housewife who is witness to Kitty Genovese’s murder in 37. Wiley will next be seen on Hulu’s
adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale out
April 26, 2017. 

“I’m excited to get in there and create something completely
different,” Wiley tells ET about the upcoming dystopian drama.

MORE: Samira Wiley Opens Up About 'Amazing' Life After 'Orange Is the New Black'

But it was Wiley’s two episodes of the season -- "The
Animals,” written by Wiley’s fiancé, Lauren Morelli, and directed by Matt
Weiner, and Poussey’s final flashback in “Toast Can’t Never Be Bread Again” --
that delivered
a gut punch
to viewers and cast members alike. Amid a cafeteria protest
over the treatment of Litchfield inmates, Poussey is pinned down by correctional
officer Baxter Bayley (Alan Aisenberg), who inadvertently suffocates her with
his knee to her back. “I can’t breathe,” Poussey is heard screaming before she dies,
to everyone’s shock and horror. The scene, a distinct reminder of the real-life
tragedy of Eric Garner, who shouted those same words while pinned down by
police officers, was one of Orange Is the
New Black
’s many references to the larger Black Lives Matter movement
happening offscreen. 

While Wiley knew of her character’s arc from the beginning
of the season, most of the cast didn’t find out until scripts were handed out,
adding to the drama that played out onscreen. Looking back on Poussey’s final
moments, the cast opens up to ET about the emotional journey of filming those
scenes.

Netflix

Wiley: I knew
that the character was going to die over a year before everyone else. 

Aisenberg: I got
a call from Lauren Morelli and she was just like, “You're part of this pivotal
scene at the end of the episode.” At first, I was like, “Oh, very cool,” and
didn’t think much of it. I was still trying to process everything. Then she
ends the phone call by saying, “I'm going to be in New York this weekend. Let's
have lunch and start talking through it.” 

Wiley: I can't
even count how many times I went in and out of some sort of grieving. 

Aisenberg: I read
the episode and was just crying. I was completely overwhelmed and excited and
terrified, like, every emotion that you can have. This was probably a week or
two before the script came out for everyone to see. So I had 10 days where I
was, like, keeping it from everyone, which is always very difficult. I don't
know how Samira did it.

Wiley: I remember
being so anxious and afraid about it coming out, just imagining what was going
to happen. And I think it honestly sort of helped me out. What you imagine in
your head is always worse than what reality is, or at least sometimes for me. 

Aisenberg: For Matt
Weiner to come into a show at that point and direct your first episode, that's
pretty overwhelming. But he came in knowing the show so well, like, every
detail about every character. He had done research and made all of us feel
comfortable. Given that I had spent 10 full days with him, his confidence in
the show and what we were doing was so reassuring and such a driving force for
me mentally, in terms of getting it done. 

Wiley: When I
first met Matt, we were on set for a stunt rehearsal and he pulled me aside. The
first thing he said to me was, "We're filming a regular episode of
television and you know how to do that. You just have to go about it the way
you would go about anything, because you're an actor and you know how to do
this." It really took some of the pressure off for me, going into the
episode. Of course, it's not just a regular episode of television. But that
wasn't the point of what he was saying. It gave me some confidence to know how
to go into it and sort of just do my job and not get too caught up in my
feelings because there was a job to do. 

Dascha Polanco
(Dayanara Diaz):
I like the fact that we get to experience different
directors and legendary ones. It's great. It challenges you as an actor. When
Jodie [Foster] was there, it was a moment of like, "Oh my god, this is
surreal. She's really here.” I kind of take it all in and take advice from each
director and use it to my benefit.

Aisenberg: That
death scene was a 22-hour consecutive day. Matt knew exactly what he wanted,
and what he wanted was a lot. He knew that scene needed to have this scale to
it, and to do that he wanted to take the time to get it right. We probably shot
the death part of that scene over a 100 times. He was going to keep going until
we got it. And even if we got it, he was going to keep going because there was
no going back. That last scene in particular, I don't think anyone will
possibly ever have a day like that ever again.

Jolene Purdy (Stephanie
Hapakuka)
:
People were a mess on set, but at the same time it was a 24-hour
day with a lot of shots to get in. Everyone was so professional, but it was a
long day.

Wiley: I think
there's a tendency when someone is in a certain place emotionally to sort of
counter them. I remember not really being sad on that day. I felt like everyone
was sad and I needed to take care of them in a way. I remember going around and
telling everyone, “Hey guys, it's OK. Everything's fine. I'm good.” 

Polanco: We all
were devastated and crying. It was a sad moment. It was a moment of
self-realization, and you realize the end is going to come and it will for all
of us. 

Purdy: So, watching
the veterans from the last few seasons -- they're all so close -- and watching
them deal with losing one of theirs, some chose to watch the scene being taped
and some chose not to. There were definitely tears flowing. 

Adrienne C. Moore (Cindy
“Black Cindy” Hayes):
It definitely choked me to tears.

Purdy: To actually
recreate Eric Garner’s death on this show, it meant so much to a lot of the
cast. 

Aisenberg: All
you have to do is open up your laptop or turn on the TV and the stuff’s there.
We were all aware of it. 

Danielle Brooks
(Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson)
:
It’s dealing with issues that we deal with in
the world, like Black Lives Matter. People are going to really see themselves
reflected, not as individuals but as a collective world. 

Yael Stone (Lorna
Morello):
I'm really proud to be a small part of such incredibly
challenging, funny, heartfelt show that’s not afraid of addressing some serious
social issues that we're dealing with right now. I was very proud of that. 

Purdy: Alan was
kind of jittery. I don't want to call him a wreck because it's just acting, at
the end of the day. It's just pretend. She's alive. But yeah, it was intense. 

Aisenberg: I
never left the set, so I didn't really get to enjoy hanging out with everyone. There
were a lot of folks there who would shoot a part of their scene and then go and
go hang out in the set with all the bunk beds, which was our green room for the
day. Imagine the entire cast of Orange Is
the New Black
hanging out there on bunk beds. It was a giant sleepover. The
amount of people holding me and hugging me -- that was the extent of my hanging
out with everyone.

Wiley: Honestly,
that day itself, when we filmed the cafeteria scene, was not as emotional as
the very last scene I filmed in the prison. It was the last scene I ever filmed
wearing those clothes and after that, I just sort of broke down and started
crying. It was really pretty emotional. It felt like an ending to an era in my
life. 

Selenis Leyva (Gloria
Mendoza):
There's definitely a bond and a sisterhood with the cores.
There's a core group of us that started from day one. You know, some with one
line, some with major story lines. But still there's this little tribe of us. We
are so devoted and so fiercely protective of each other and our family. That's
been really helpful in this journey, to be honest. 

Wiley: I
definitely cried for Poussey. And it's not just Poussey. It's my family on Orange, the first show I was ever a
regular character on. We really became sisters.

Stone: Those
ladies, they're just the best and they’ve become my best friends. Even probably
more than that; when you live away from your family, you find family in other
places.

Leyva: Without
that kind of bond, I don't think the show would have been as successful. I
really don't. You can't fake chemistry. And it shows on the screen, that we are
all really connected in a very spiritual way. 

Polanco: It's
always sad to see one of your co-workers move on or not be in a current season.
Luckily, we're all growing individually and we'll eventually cross paths again. 

Stone: I was also
very proud that I did not blow any spoilers to anyone about Poussey. But now
that my time is over, I'm allowed to say that because I held that secret for
too long. 

Wiley: 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. I felt like I grew up on that show. I
was 24, 25 when I first got it. I'm almost 30 years old now. Even though I know
I'm still so young, it was a really, really, really, formative part of my
life. 

--Additional reporting from Leanne Aguilera