Samira Wiley is incarcerated on the small screen again. The former Poussey Washington from Orange Is The New Black returns as quick-witted Moira, friend to Elisabeth Moss’s Offred, in The Handmaid’s Tale. The 10-part series, based on Margaret Atwood’s prescient novel from 1985, premiered last week on Hulu. While the 1990 film starring Miranda Richardson and Robert Duvall was brilliantly done and still disturbs today, this new rendition offers striking visual and storytelling contrasts, and its expanded narrative is equally intense.
A quick breakdown: In the near future of the fundamentalist republic of Gilead, which is heavily militarized and surveilled, most women have been rendered infertile due to pollution. The fertile among them are placed into sexual servitude to rich, child-craving couples, which clearly humiliates the wives who must watch their husbands copulating with their handmaids. A handmaiden named Offred seeks to escape her horrible fate and find her young daughter who has been stolen away. Moira, meanwhile, disappeared from the handmaiden training facility in the pilot and was presumed dead. She has since appeared in some of Offred’s flashbacks from before the time that Gilead went fascist, and last night we saw how Offred helped Moira escape.
Given the attacks on women’s rights and bodies today, the story resonates more strongly than ever. The show is an unmitigated hit for Hulu, who have already renewed it for a second season. Moss also created a stir at the Tribeca Film Festival last month when she expressed her belief that the show is humanist rather than feminist.
Wiley spoke with Playboy.com about tackling the role of Moira (whose openly gay sexuality was made vague in the 1990 film), what the series means to her and how the story can help us navigate our increasingly oppressive society.
Moira is a smart bad girl who knows how to have fun. She’s intelligent, strong and a great friend to Offred. Did you go back to the film adaptation and the novel to see how Moira was portrayed, or did you just start fresh?
I haven’t seen the film at all, and honestly when I came to the project I hadn’t read the book and wasn’t really familiar with Margaret Atwood. Being able to read the script, fall in love with the character that way and then return to the source material was amazing. There were some changes in the show from the book, but I do think the show stays true to the book in most aspects. In reading the book and realizing who this character was in that way, I think I was able to bring so much from the character in the book to the show. I’m proud of that. I’m proud that Margaret and Bruce [Miller, the show’s creator and executive producer] have worked so closely together that there really is no gap between the book and the show.
What do you relate to in Moira?
There are so many things about Moira that I want to emulate. There are things about me that are similar but that I want to be stronger. In my own life, I try to be a real conscious role model to people who are looking up to me—young black women, people who want to be actors, people especially in the LGBT community. And Moira never shies away from speaking out. She speaks up for herself and all the people who don’t have a voice. She’s going to be in front of the picket line. She’s going to be speaking at marches and rallies. She’s going to be the face of something, and I really want to be able to do something like that in my own life as well.
The most chilling line in the pilot comes from Aunt Lydia: “This may not seem ordinary to you right now, but over time it will. This will become ordinary.” I feel that idea echoes what is going on in America right now.
I absolutely agree. I think one of the things that happens in the story of Gilead is there are things that people always think could never happen and then they do. People say that because, going off of what you said, that is not the norm—something that is not the norm and we feel that we have really surpassed as a society; [something] we think could never happen. Then it happens and that sort of becomes normal, but the next thing is not possible. I think people can gain so much from watching this show and seeing how this gradually creeps up on the society and how we need to remain vigilant and make sure that we know what’s going on. I think that’s something that people can really see in the show and hopefully apply to reality.
At the Tribeca Film Festival last week, Elizabeth Moss said that she didn’t feel that this is a feminist story but a humanist one. Many feminists were questioning why we should back away from the term feminism. What’s interesting in The Handmaid’s Tale is that the people who are indoctrinating handmaidens are all women. It’s this misogynistic patriarchal society where women are being forced into corroborating its structure.
It’s absolutely true. It’s like this horrible genius of pitting women against each other and when you do that it’s almost like the men in this patriarchal society don’t have to do anything to keep these women down. I don’t shy away from saying that this is a feminist work. I think it definitely is and I think what my castmate was trying to say is that this has so much in it for people who consider themselves feminists and people who also might be afraid of that word; people who like to use other words [like] humanist. But you can’t deny that it is. Using women [against each other], they have this false sense of authority over each other but if people were able to see so clearly what the men are doing to them, the backlash would be amazing.
It’s funny: Coming from Orange Is The New Black you’re trading one kind of prison uniform for another. Did any of that experience play into this? I feel that so many things from that show have taught me how to navigate through the entertainment world and the world of The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s definitely another show about women who are being held down by men. It’s so much more overt in The Handmaid’s Tale because the men literally have this regime that is holding women down. One thing that I think is really different about it is that in Orange most of the guards are men but the women are not necessarily pitted against each other. They’re not in different castes. They are collectively oppressed, and because they are collectively oppressed you have women who come from different walks of life that are able to see more similarities than differences between them. They’re able to collectively rise up in a way that the women of The Handmaid’s Tale haven’t been able to do.
Read our piece on Handmaid’s Tale cast member Madeline Brewer here.