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Samira Wiley on the Pursuit of Happiness

As a child, you toy around with ideas of becoming many different things. A police officer. A writer. A teacher. But for Samira Wiley, there was only one option; to be on screen. The 28-year-old “Orange is the New Black” star has been committed to acting for quite some time. And we’ve got news for you. She’s just getting started. Wiley spoke with JET about her unique upbringing, what it’s like to be living out your passion, and the importance of staying true to yourself and your dreams.

JET: You have a very interesting background. What was life like growing up for you?

Samira Wiley: It’s interesting because growing up, you don’t even realize that your life is different cuz it’s the only thing you know. I was definitely in church every single day of the week. [Me and my brother] didn’t know at the time, but now I’m very aware of how progressive my mother and father was. My parents, (who are pastors), believe that God loves everyone. Anybody can be a member of their church regardless of race, sexual orientation, age, anything like that. I think it takes a lot of courage to be like that. That’s sort of a radical stance to take in a baptist church. But growing up, we were basically free. We just knew we had to do our homework at church every night (laughs).

JET: You’re relatively new to the acting business, having made this big splash with “Orange is the New Black.” When did you realize that you wanted to act full-time?

Samira Wiley: Honestly, I was one of the few kids who knew they wanted to be an actor since they were like 10-years-old and never changed their mind. That was me. My parents had me involved in theater, arts programs, summer programs at Howard University where I grew up and I went to an art high school and ended up going to Julliard. For a long time, I felt like I had a passion for it, but didn’t necessarily have that much talent. Like when I was a kid, I definitely didn’t get any big speaking roles. I was always an ensemble [cast member with] no lines. Just supporting, but happy to be there on stage (laughs). I definitely hadn’t had an actual thought that I could sustain myself with it honestly until OITNB. My first year working on OITNB, I was a bartender the entire season. Actually, I was bartending even after Season 1 came out until a lot of people started recognizing me and my friend was like, “Samira, what are you doing? (laughs) “You can’t be a bartender anymore. Like maybe this [acting] is actually gonna work.”

JET: You mentioned that you were always part of the ensemble cast. I think that’s how a lot of greats start out. You being happy in that role speaks to the level of passion that you have for the craft. Personally, I like those people. The person who doesn’t care about being the star because he or she is going to play the best “party girl number 2” they can play.

Samira Wiley: I guess so. You mention passion. That’s definitely what it is. When I graduated high school, I didn’t get accepted into any single place that I applied for to be in a conservatory theater arts program. I ended up having to go to a liberal arts college and that was sorta discouraging for me. I mean everybody at my school is going on to study at NYU or North Carolina School of Arts and I didn’t get accepted anywhere. I had to sort of swallow it and know that at that point like, “This probably can’t be my career. I’ll be able to do passion projects, but this wont be lucrative enough for me to survive.” But I didn’t care. I still wanted to study theater. Passion is a thing that I feel most people need to survive because there’s nothing like it. It doesn’t matter how much money you’re making. It doesn’t matter how successful you are. So the fact that it’s actually working out where I can make a living off of doing it is over and beyond anything that I could ever imagine.

JET: I think you’re 100% correct. So what’s the story? How did you end up on OITNB?

Samira Wiley: It just came in an email just like everything else does. A lot of times my agent would highlight something for me. He definitely highlighted this one for me. And of course I knew Danielle Brooks, who plays Taystee. She was already shooting the pilot and so I had some familiarity with the show and the script, just a very small knowledge of what was going on with it. But I didn’t even get the first script. I just got some lines with some girl named Taystee. So I said, “Shoot well I know the girl who’s playing Taystee so let me call her up!” I’m always practicing my lines with my friends or another actor so I said, “Why not practice with the actual person who’s playing it?” I think I found out I got the role less than 24 hours after the audition which has never happened to me before so that was really amazing.

JET: Nice. It definitely sounds like it was meant to be. Now, for 2 years we’ve come to love your character Poussey on OITNB, but you’ll soon be having another run-in with the law. You’re set to appear on Law & Order: SVU this week. Tell us about the character that you’ll be portraying.

Samira Wiley: I’m very excited to be playing a character everyone has fallen so much in love with Poussey and it’s such a joy being able to play someone like that. But as an actor, I’m always itching to exercise different parts of my instrument. I’m playing a girl named Michelle in SVU this week. She’s a young girl who testifies when she’s a child that her father is sexually abusing her and so you know…with SVU, the show has so many twists and turns. In the beginning, she comes out and wants to apologize for lying on the stand because she was coerced to lie and [say] that her father didn’t actually rape her. I just had a great great great time on the set. I still feel like I’m such a baby in my career. I had a great learning experience. Mariska Hargitay and Andre Braugher was so amazing to work with. I just had a blast to be honest. I’m excited for this new role that I’m having on SVU and I’m excited for where my career is going to take me in the next few years and I just hope that everybody who has been rocking with me so far continues to be a fan going forward because I love them so much.

Wiley & Mariska Hargitay in a scene from this week's episode of "Law & Order: SVU."

Wiley & Mariska Hargitay in a scene from this week’s episode of “Law & Order: SVU.”

JET: So, without giving it away because I know you can’t say too much, what can we expect from Season 3 of OITNB?

Samira Wiley: Well…The trailer came out for Season 3, I don’t know if you seen it, but it’s like a bunch of candles. Like Catholic candles. This season is about faith and how that works and how that interacts and how that shows itself with the women in prison, and that’s all I will say (laughs).

Want more Samira? Catch her on this week’s episode of “Law & Order: SVU” which airs Wednesday, May 6 at 9pm ET/PT on NBC.