‘Equal’s Samira Wiley: ‘It Was a Gift’ to Play Lorraine Hansberry in HBO Max Docuseries
HBO Max is paying tribute to the LGBTQ+ movement and the leaders and unsung heroes who changed the course of American history through their activism in Equal, and one such voice is Lorraine Hansberry’s.
Samira Wiley (The Handmaid’s Tale) portrays the woman who was the first African American female author to have a play performed on Broadway (A Raisin in the Sun) in the docuseries alongside archival footage that takes us inside her life. Hansberry was closeted throughout her life, though she did write under pseudonyms in plays, stories, and letters that discussed her lesbianism.
Here, Wiley, in quarantine in Canada for The Handmaid’s Tale Season 4, discusses playing Lorraine Hansberry in Equal and what it meant to her and discusses returning to work on the Hulu drama.
First of all, I have to say you were so good, especially as you walked to the stage for opening night and in the final scene.
Samira Wiley: Thank you so much.
How did you get involved in this docuseries?
When it was first presented to me that HBO wanted me to be involved in this, it’s one of those opportunities where you’re like, “Oh, wow, 100 percent yes. This fits with everything I believe in,” and not only that, but being able to learn about who Lorraine was and being presented number one with, “Hey, Lorraine was gay, you want to do this?” Not that that’s how they said it. But to me, I’m like, “Wait, Lorraine is part of my community in this way as well?” I felt like it was a gift, really, to be able to portray Lorraine.
What did you want to showcase about her life in your portrayal?
For me, I really wanted to showcase her humanity. I want to do that in every work that I am a part of. That’s really how you get a message across and how you’re able to have people connect to a story, is doing your best to not show something that is other. Because how can someone connect with that? Yes, I think of her being a Black queer woman, [but] not everyone is a Black queer woman, so you can possibly on the surface say, “This story has nothing to do with me.” But that is not the truth. The actual truth is being able to show how much this story is also your story, regardless of how far you are away from how she identifies, just because we’re humans who live and love in a pure way and this is who she is.
Did one moment that you portrayed stand out to you more than others, whether because of what you were portraying about Lorraine or just what she means to so many?
For me, it’s interesting you pulled out those two moments [earlier]. They’re like these bookends of what I was able to do with her, and I definitely think so much about what it’s like to be the first African American woman to have the honor of having your play debut on Broadway and what that night was like. I did some work before we even were on camera. The narrator talks about how she pressed and curled her hair, she put on bejeweled earrings. I imagined so much what that night was like before she even walked into the theater and that was profound for me.
But also the very end, when she’s able to just be — I see it as that’s public stuff, her walking out and being this polished, piece of art herself, walking and presenting herself to this room of all these people who are going to receive her work — but at the end, she’s got this quiet moment in this room with the woman that she loves, a place where she possibly feels more herself than anywhere else, and those two bookends of the story stand out for me.
Something that made this docuseries seem more powerful was the mix of the footage of the people and the portrayals. Did it feel that way to you?
Absolutely. Me being able to watch that, it’s so well done, and it gives you such a full picture of who she is. Being able to actually see clips of her sitting down and talking with a circle of a bunch of white men and hold her own, that there’s nothing in that clip that feels like Lorraine is inferior, that she feels nervous, none of that. She is able to be completely herself in a room where no one looks like her and possibly no one thinks like her. It’s just so amazing to be able to see that, and for me, in bringing her to life, I really needed that. That was essential for me to really do my best work, to have those things side by side.
Why was this docuseries the right way to celebrate and honor Lorraine?
I think that there’s always something so special when we’re able to connect so many stories to each other and see that thread and see how we’re all connected. Not knowing before being involved that Lorraine was part of the queer community and now being on the other side of that and having that knowledge, I feel so much more connected to her. Because of that and looking at the other stories, I’m seeing how that connection extends to my feeling connected to the other stories. There is no better place, I feel like, to tell Lorraine’s story than this project and in this way. I just feel like it just fits so perfectly and I just couldn’t imagine a better place for this story to be told.
What are you hoping people take away from watching the part on Lorraine and also the docuseries as a whole, especially in the way it’s presented, on a streaming service?
With this new age of having a streaming service, you’re able to really take it in at your pace. I think sometimes when — which nothing wrong with someone binge-watching something — you’re able to take in an episode and you’re able to sometimes have that time to process it and then on your own time say, “All right, I’m ready for the next one,” it’s almost like being able to just have this journey with yourself and see the connection and see the humanity in other people’s stories. That is what this is all about, and that’s the main thing I take away from it.
The Handmaid’s Tale has resumed filming. Anything you can tease about Season 4?
One of the things I’m really excited about once I get back to set is Elisabeth Moss is directing an episode this season and I’m in that episode. She has been such an amazing leader throughout this entire series as an executive producer, as our lead actress, and now her being able to put on this director’s hat, that’s one thing I’m very, very, very excited for. I’m sure you were asking for tidbits about plot, and I’m honestly not sorry I can’t give it to you because it’s going to be so amazing when you get to watch it.
This season is going to be something that is really, really different. We already filmed a good portion of the season before COVID restrictions became a real thing and it’s going to be something very, very different than anyone’s ever done before on set. There are just things that we won’t be able to do. … Sometimes on set I can get a little lost in the camaraderie, and this will give me a chance to really, really, really focus on the work, which I do think I’m looking forward to. Moira has a little more story to tell this season. People can look forward to that, and I really want to make sure I’m giving that all the time it deserves.
Is there anything from your experiences filming The Handmaid’s Tale or Equal you’re looking to bring to your acting or producing or directing in the future?
I know that’s in my future. I definitely do. I don’t really have many big ideas right now. I think something that has served me in my career is making sure that I am doing things at a pace that feels comfortable to me. Sometimes pushing myself, because I do think that also has its merit, but right now, I don’t have any huge plans of what I’m going to produce.
But something like Equal, even more so sometimes than Handmaid’s Tale, is showing me what I care about. Having someone present something like this to me and having me go through the process, it has me in touch with feelings of, “Oh, this is what I want to do. This is what I care about.” When I decide to actually be behind the camera or making these kinds of decisions, this is what I want to be involved in.
And something like Equal‘s format with the mix of archival footage and portrayals?
Yeah, specifically that, it has really come off really well in this and I think I am very much interested in being able to explore this avenue as well in this way of telling a story.
Equal, Docuseries Premiere, Thursday, October 22, HBO Max
The Handmaid’s Tale, Season 4, TBA, Hulu