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.
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.
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