The Emmy-winning actress appears in the HBO Max docuseries about various icons that paved the way for Stonewall and LGBTQ rights.
In Equal, the ambitious HBO Max docuseries that recounts the impact of many, wide-ranging LGBTQ+ visionaries, not only does Pose star Billy Porter narrate their stories, but today’s most notable out performers bring them to life through stylistic depictions. One such example is Orange Is the New Black and The Handmaid’s Tale actress Samira Wiley, who first publicly came out in 2014. She is portraying A Raisin in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry.
“Having the opportunity to bring Lorraine Hansberry to life is something that I never would have thought I would ever have the honor of doing, especially in this time right now. I feel like the stories are so [relevant to] what is happening right now in our country and in our world,” Wiley tells ET, which is also exclusively debuting a clip of her performance in episode three.
Broken up into four parts, Equal chronicles distinct periods, from the rise of early organizations (“The Birth of a Movement”), to the 20th century trans experience and the 1966 Compton Cafeteria riots (“Transgender Pioneers”), to the Black community and the growing civil rights movement (“Black is Beautiful, Gay is Good”), and ending with the 1969 Stonewall riots and beginning of the Pride movement (“Stonewall: From Rebellion to Liberation”).
In addition to Wiley as Hansberry, Cheyenne Jackson portrays Dale Jennings, Anthony Rapp appears as Harry Hay, Stranger Things’ Shannon Purser is Del Martin alongside Heather Matarazzo as Phyllis Lyon. Additionally, Jamie Clayton portrays Christine Jorgensen while original Queer Eye host Jai Rodriguez appears as José Sarria and Daytime Emmy nominee Scott Turner Schofield embodies Craig Rodwell.
“The queer community is so diverse. That’s why we have so many letters,” Wiley says, reflecting on the many names, especially those that are trans or people of color, featured in the series. “It encompasses so many different people and all of our stories are our own, but also it’s a community of stories.” What makes Equal stand out, she adds, is “being able to see how each story is connected to each other.”
For Wiley, that’s seeing how Hansberry’s short life included being the first Black female author to have a play performed on Broadway and becoming a radical voice within the civil rights movement alongside Bayard Rustin (Keiynan Lonsdale), who served as mentor and advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Equal shows how the two activists became friends and helped each other live freely behind closed doors.
“I am ashamed to say that I wasn’t as familiar with this part of her, really, at all,” Wiley says, adding it’s “because I don’t think that her story has really been told in this kind of way, that is accessible to so many people.” By portraying Hansberry, even if for a brief time, Wiley felt like she was being welcomed into a special group of people that knew who she was. “I didn’t really know as much as I know now. And I just am so happy that I do,” she says.
As for the opportunity to see Hansberry’s story unfold alongside Rustin’s as well as the many other overlooked or forgotten icons featured in Equal, Wiley says not only a “gift for me, but also such an amazing gift to give our audience.”
When it came to stepping into the playwright’s shoes, Wiley says there was just so much “to chew on there.” One thing the actress really picked up on was the way Hansberry spoke. “She’s so intent with her language, but also she doesn't speak loudly. But her words are so loud in and of themselves that it's almost like she doesn't even necessarily need the volume because the volume is in the words themselves.”
Wiley’s biggest takeaway was that she felt Hansberry “was unapologetically herself. Even though the world may not have been ready for all of her.”
Portraying Hansberry also presented an interesting opportunity for Wiley to reflect on her own coming out journey, which included appearing on the cover of Out magazine in 2014 just two seasons into a fan-favorite as Poussey Washington on OITNB.
While grateful to be on the cover, the actress admits she was still figuring things out and trying to determine what about her life was public and what about it was private. “At that time, believe it or not, I was still struggling with: ‘What do I do with who I am?’” the actress recalls, “trying to understand on what side of the line I wanted to walk with my queerness.”
The turning point came after its release and Wiley saw the kind of reception she received not only from the community but from fans around the world. “I literally have girls in different parts of Africa, sometimes writing to me on social media, telling me that they cannot be out in their communities. But they see me and they see other people giving them hope and being a light for them of what they may be able to do one day in their lives,” she says.
For the actress, “it’s been a continuous journey ever since. It's been six years now and I feel like I’ve made a complete transformation from where I was then to who I am now.” And after breaking out with OITNB, Wiley has gone on to win an Emmy for her performance as Moira on The Handmaid’s Tale and sees no signs of her career slowing down. And looking back on it now, she says, “What a privilege it is to have a Black queer character played by a Black queer actor.”
Equal premieres Thursday, Oct. 22 on HBO Max.