“It’s like that first season I bartended that whole time,” Samira Wiley said of her mostly supporting role as Poussey Washington, the lovable, moral-to-the-core Litchfield inmate who was mainly used as comic relief and a sidekick throughout Season 1 of Orange Is the New Black. “I just waited every couple weeks to see the new script and crossed my fingers that I was in it,” the 27-year-old actress added.
But that changed when Poussey became an essential part of Orange Is the New Black Season 2. “My way of working in the first season was so different,” she recalled, sitting in a coffee shop in New York’s Flatiron neighborhood, frequently flashing her signature smile and slipping in the giggle that has helped make her a fan favorite. “I really didn’t have to prepare to be like, Yeah! I didn’t really have to do anything… I think the breakdown [for the character] said something like she loves Ina Garten and I was like, What? That’s so crazy. I didn’t know much.”
Season 2, however, gave Wiley — and the Orange Is the New Black audience — plenty more insight into who Poussey is and where she came from. The character’s journey in the show’s sophomore season began with an awkward moment when she kissed her best friend Taystee (Danielle Brooks), only to be shot down. “I think the writers or people who are watching the show picked up on [the attraction toward Taystee] before I did,” confessed Wiley, who didn’t even know her character was gay until late in Season 1. “I think it was maybe Episode 8 of Season 1. One of the directors gave me a note. We were doing this scene and I look back at [Taystee] and kind of bite my lip and it’s just like, What’s going on there? But he kind of steered the scene in that direction. I just didn’t even look at their relationship that way before that moment.”
With the writers working in Los Angeles and the show filming in New York, Wiley said cast members don’t find out about their characters’ arcs until they are given a new script, much like how viewers approach the season. So, when Wiley received the script for her intense backstory episode in Season 2, which required her to both speak German and strip down for a sex scene, she was surprised and nervous about it all. Thankfully for the Washington, D.C., native, who joked she’s only fluent in English, one task actually helped with the other. “That was my first nude scene, first sex scene, and normally, I feel like I’d be all in my head worrying about my body or being super self-conscious,” said Wiley, admitting she didn’t want her parents to watch younger military brat Poussey sleep with her German girlfriend Franziska (Nina Rausch), an Army commander’s daughter, on screen. “But since I had to speak German the whole time, I didn’t even get a chance to worry about that because I was just hoping I got the sounds right!”
Still, for Wiley, stripping down on camera and mastering another language weren’t even the most challenging parts of the Poussey-centric episode. After being caught in bed with Franziska, the Washingtons were to be transferred out of Germany, leaving Poussey thousands of miles away from her girlfriend. In retaliation, she attempted to pull a gun on Franziska’s father, only to be stopped at the last second by her own dad’s strong embrace. “It was definitely a task to try to keep myself at that place because she comes in at like an 8. It’s not like you build up to this emotional place during the scene,” Wiley said. “She comes in like that. So I was listening to Lil Wayne on my iPod. Something about Lil Wayne gets me to this place where I’m determined.”
Though there was a seemingly throwaway line in Season 2 that insinuated Poussey was sent behind bars for dealing pot, Wiley still doesn’t know the full story. She does, however, think that particular moment with the German army commander from her teen years influenced the behavior that led Poussey to Litchfield. “Military families move around a lot and she references that in the scene with her dad,” Wiley said. “Moving around a lot when you’re a kid, it is traumatic; but being 17 when you’re like really starting to know who you are as a person and you’ve got someone who you’re in love with, to have that ripped away, I just imagine that changed things for her and she probably went on a downward spiral after that.”
Wiley’s character endured a lot over the course of Orange Is the New Black’s second season. She suffered emotional abuse from her former friend Taystee and one terrible incident of physical abuse at the hands of Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba), all because of Season 2 newcomer and genuinely evil inmate Vee Parker (Lorraine Toussaint). Vee’s strategic, exploitive behavior created a strain between Poussey and Taystee, pulling the latter into her controlling grip and leaving Poussey alienated, alone, and particularly sad after a scene in which Vee told Poussey that Taystee would never love her the way she wants.
Though Poussey was able to stand her ground in many difficult situations throughout the season, eventually, she was literally knocked down. After getting drunk by herself and finding Vee in the bathroom, Poussey decided to attack, but she couldn’t do much damage before Vee’s obedient mentee, Crazy Eyes, quickly pulled Poussey off of her surrogate mom, and, with Vee’s permission, mercilessly beat her up, leaving her on the cold, wet bathroom floor. “It was me the whole time,” said Wiley, who didn’t have a stunt double for the violent scene. “The day before, we had rehearsals. My whole body was padded up. I looked like a little Michelin Man, and we’re going through all the motions and we get exactly what’s going to happen and I’m feeling great. I’m like, OK. I got this.” Despite the practice, Wiley admitted the actual shoot was a challenge. “It was a hard day. It was a lot of takes. They were telling me at some point, ‘You can have your stunt double,’” she recalled. “I was like, ‘No, I want to do it.’”
“To be honest, I really think that Poussey getting beaten up allows her to see what Vee is capable of,” Wiley added of her character’s game-changing scene. “She sees that she’s still standing at the end of the day, and she doesn’t have any friends on her side, and I think she feels alone. She really just gets to a place where she doesn’t care what will happen to her… I’m fucking in prison. The survival in prison is based on relationships. One of Poussey’s lines is, ‘You’ve got to have people.’ If you’re out there alone, anything can happen to you; you’re vulnerable and I think she just gets to a place where she doesn’t have anybody and she doesn’t care. It’s kind of sad.”
Despite everything Poussey was put through in her tumultuous second season, she remained true to her morals, which couldn’t have been more clear than it was in the climactic scene when Taystee confronted Poussey in the library during the blackout. When Poussey got fed up over being a scapegoat for Vee’s irrational actions and tried to walk out, Taystee forcefully pushed her to the ground.
“There was so much going on that day… Me and Danielle knew this was the climax of the season facing it, so we really wanted to do a good job. We really wanted to keep the truth of the moment there,” Wiley said. As Poussey sat huddled on the ground, with Taystee standing over, fist clenched, Poussey pulled her former friend in for an embrace. “Taystee has become everything for her and she knows Taystee’s story and she knows that Vee is a manipulative bitch,” Wiley added. “I think that the whole season she’s just been waiting for Taystee to say what she said — that she’s sorry and she sees Vee’s ways. So that glimmer of her opening her eyes is enough of an in to, All right. I see you. I’m going to hug you.”
It might just be the scene that solidified Poussey as fans’ favorite Orange Is the New Black character in Season 2 and Wiley can see why. “She’s someone that is admirable to a point where you wish you could be like her,” the actress said. But the attention and newfound sex symbol label have been a lot for Wiley, who graduated from the prestigious Julliard just a few years ago. “To be honest, I try not to think about it a lot. I think it’s a little overwhelming for me to think about,” she said. “It’s cool. It’s definitely cooler than the other option: Everybody hates me, thinks I’m ugly. But I do like to talk about the work as opposed to all that other stuff.”
As for what’s to come for Orange Is the New Black’s new hero in the show’s upcoming third season, Wiley thinks it will be a while before the so-called ghetto crew is fully back together again. “I think Poussey is going to need some time to heal after everything that happened,” Wiley said, speaking particularly of Poussey and Crazy Eyes. “I think that there was a friendship budding this season before the fight. You see it when she’s selling cigarettes in the library — Crazy Eyes comes in to give her more and there’s a cool banter between the two of them, playing a little bit. And when she has the thing where she can pee like a boy, the she-wee, I just remember those days on set and our characters having a thing. I think Crazy Eyes took 10 steps back beating the crap out of Poussey and I think she definitely faults Vee more, but even if you fault Vee, it’s hard to look the person in the eye that was banging punches down on you and just be cool with that person.”
“Each episode I’m just figuring out more and more about who this person is,” she continued of Season 3. “I really hope that she has an easy [season] and we see her smiling a lot and getting along with Taystee and back to that Season 1 energy. I think she needs a break.”