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Samira Wiley Will Not Be Typecast

Culture

‘Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes On Television’ is out now

Samira Wiley has a habit of joining shows that help launch new networks. Her role as the affable, androgynous prisoner Poussey was just one of many instantly iconic characters when Orange Is the New Black premiered and took Netflix from a DVD distributor to major player in streaming TV. Next came Wiley's role in The Handmaid’s Tale, another women-led series where Wiley’s part as defiant feminist Moira elevated Hulu’s status as another competitor in choice television. Now, she’s lending some legitimacy to YouTube Red, YouTube’s new network of all-original programming, that is home to Wiley’s latest project, Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television.

“Um, gosh, I think it can definitely be a lot of pressure if you think about it like that!” Wiley says with a laugh when I tell her of this pattern. “I try to not think about it, I guess, in terms of having a network on my back or anything like that. I’m dedicated to the show, and I really believe in our show, and if the show is able to bring something good to the network, some praise or anything like that, that’s what I’m here for. I’m here for the show.”

Wiley is proud of her newest venture, especially because it’s outside of what others might consider her wheelhouse. Although she was able to bring some levity to the otherwise-dark scenarios of prison inside Orange, Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes On Television is an all-out action comedy with Wiley on the other side of the law. As cop Jessica Mathers, Wiley is a gun-toting, tough-as-tits detective who is none-too-pleased about having to partner up with an actor (Ryan Hansen playing himself) for a new unit that is enlisting stars to help solve Hollywood-specific crimes.

“I’ve referred to her before as my version of a superhero,” Wiley says of her character. “She’s the one that’s just out there saving people’s lives and locking up the bad guys and shooting out people’s tires when they try to escape. Anything and everything you’d want to do as an action actor, and it’s so many things in one, this show. I’m just so happy I got to do it.”

Created by Rawson Marshall Thurber (Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh), Ryan Hansen is largely a vehicle for, well, Ryan Hansen. But Wiley is just as much a part of the show, which pokes fun at procedurals like Law & Order and reality shows parading as “docu-series” and provides meta jokes about the entertainment industry and L.A. at large. As the relative “straight man,” to Hansen’s goofy lack of actual street smarts, Wiley is the one whose reactions and commentary set Hansen up for success. Together, they’re an odd couple, one that creates several opportunities for LOLing, which was one of the biggest challenges for Wiley on set.

“Ryan’s just hilarious, and to able to stay in the scene and do my part and remember all my lines and say them with a straight face, not look at the camera even though he’s doing it, it was a lot, but it was so great to be able to have a challenge,” she says. “I think that sometimes people think of drama as this big, heavy challenge that people have to do, but comedy is a challenge, too, if not more so. And what he does and what we created together, I’m really proud of.”

Wiley’s first meeting with Thurber was eerily similar to the kind of work she’s had to do on the show, in that it required her to keep her cool in an otherwise-laughable scenario.

“We were having breakfast, and I spilled an entire plate of black beans on myself,” she recalls. “We were eating, and it was just the two of us, and we were at the Chateau Marmont. I was covered in black beans, and I just like stopped and looked at him in his face and said, ‘Well, guess we’ll always have this.’ He always says that was the moment he knew I was supposed to work with him.”

After being cast, Wiley said she didn’t meet Hansen until their first day on set, which was nerve-racking but worked to their advantage considering their first scene is when they are introduced for the first time.

“I think both of us were sort of hoping that this could be great but this could go really bad if we don’t like each other,” she says. “It was just the total opposite, but I think that I was really scared about that the first day, just really wanting to make a good impression, really wanting to vibe together, and I honestly feel like Ryan could be my brother.”

Wiley said her post-Orange career has been “nothing short of a blessing” for her. After Poussey was killed off at the end of Season 4, she said she received a lot of calls about projects and characters that were too much like the role she’d become known for. She was concerned about being typecast.

“It was the foremost thing on my mind when I left Orange,” she says. “And at the time, I didn’t have any prospects.”

But then she booked The Handmaid’s Tale, garnering her an Emmy nod for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series, and with her return to that series for Season 2 and her role in Ryan Hansen, she says, she “can’t believe” things worked out the way they have.

“I was able to find roles that are not only so far from what I’ve been known for in the beginning, but also really great, amazing roles and they’re amazing empowering roles for women,” she says. “That’s exactly who Jessica Mathers is in Ryan Hansen. She’s a role model—she’s the badass. She’s the one that people want to be. So I’ve just been overly blessed.”

Nail polish is for novices

Fashion label The Blonds is known for its high-intensity looks that you'd only wear if you wanted to stand out (and who doesn't?). For its runway shows, wild press-on nails are the beauty step that can't be missed. So, since the brand has partnered with CND since it was founded, we thought it best to get prepped for the show with Jan Arnold, CND's co-founder.

See why you should take your nail look from a zero to a 10, in the video above.

Credits:
Shot by Charlotte Prager
Edited by Gretta Wilson
Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Production Assistant: Polina Buchak
Featuring Jan Arnold of CND Nails and The Blonds

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Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

It would've been nice if someone said the word "fat"

Back in November, Rebel Wilson claimed to be the first plus-sized lead in a romantic comedy when she appeared on Ellen to talk about her role in Isn't It Romantic. Wilson was not only wrong, but she was—even if inadvertently—erasing the work of Black plus-size actresses like Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique, both of whom have expansive resumes that include romantic comedies.

Wilson's comment isn't the first example of white women taking up a little too much space in the fat acceptance ethos. It's actually quite common. But there is a reason why women like Wilson—women who are blonde, pretty, successful, and white—get put front and center in calls for body positivity. In the same way that feminism—the movement from which body positivity was born—has often failed to address how gender intersects with other identities like race and class; so, too, has body positivity been championed as a cause for otherwise privileged women. And that's why it's no surprise that Isn't It Romantic, which aspires to be both a spot-on mockery of rom-coms and a celebration of body positivity, is actually a perfect example of how very white both the movie genre and the body positivity movement tend to be.

In the film, Wilson plays Natalie, an architect based in New York, who is single and plus-sized—the archetypal rom-com underdog. Very early on in the movie, she endures the double humiliation of both being hit by a runaway food cart and then accosted by its owner for not stopping it with her "cement truck"-like body. At work, Natalie is similarly disrespected: The office manager hands off troubleshooting tasks to Natalie; another colleague always tasks Natalie to throw out his trash; her assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin) won't stop watching movies (rom-coms, naturally) while in the office; and Natalie is so afraid to present her ideas for more innovative parking garage designs that she isn't even widely known in the firm as an architect, and is treated like an intern.

But is Natalie just a doormat? Or is it that she isn't asking for what she wants? And isn't very nice about not getting it? If Natalie's life is any example, the bar on suffering is set pretty low for white women. In her personal life, Natalie lives alone with her dog, and seems to be pretty well-off, financially; her best friend is actually her slacker assistant, Whitney, and she's close with another coworker, Josh (Adam Devine), who gives Natalie constant emotional support. She's decidedly anti-romantic, having been told by her mother from a young age that there's no such thing as real-life fairy tales; she's level-headed and practical. But also, she's filled with self-loathing. This leads her to be crass, sarcastic, and disconnected from people. And it was this last part that was hard for me. As a fat Black woman who grew up broke, does not have an assistant, and would get fired if I didn't do my job well, it was hard, if not impossible, to root for her.

For Natalie, though, everything changes when she bangs her head while fighting off a mugger. Her mundane life is tinted through rosy rom-com glasses. Suddenly, all the things that sucked about her life are gone, and everything is beautiful and perfect. But was her life so bad before? It didn't really seem to be.

And yet, looking around the theater at the mostly white, female audience, I accepted that my feelings didn't seem to be shared. But that almost seems to be by design; this feels like a movie for a white, female audience. There is only one person of color in the movie who even has a name: It's Isabelle (Priyanka Chopra), who shows up about halfway through the film—after everything has been rom-com filtered—as a yoga ambassador and swimsuit model. But a name is all Isabella has. A supporting character at best, she doesn't have any connection to anyone other than her white boyfriend, and is sketchily drawn. We learn nothing of her familial or ethnic background, and, even when she is shown at her wedding, there is nobody from her family celebrating with her. This huge oversight is particularly bizarre, given that Natalie has already bemoaned the lack of diversity in romantic films.

Another huge oversight? The presence of the word "fat." I don't think I heard it used a single time. Natalie only references her weight indirectly, by commenting on the appearance of straight-sized women; when talking about her own body, the word "fat" is replaced with "girl like me." But by ignoring this aspect of herself, and refusing to address it head-on, Natalie is succumbing to the same fatphobia that shapes her world, whether she identifies it as being a problem or not.

Before her life becomes a rom-com, Natalie feels invisible at work and in the world. Some of this is certainly her fault, but fatphobia is also at play. Fatphobia chips away at the humanity of fat people from different angles. It means that Natalie gets used to being dehumanized; she doesn't expect others to have empathy for her when she's physically hurt, because they don't value her body. And it's no coincidence that Natalie's fantasy world includes a magically bigger apartment with unlimited clothing options, because discrimination against fat people isn't just a matter aesthetics and preferences—it affects everything from our ability to dress ourselves to our ability to make and save money, since there's a price to pay for being fat, even if it's just having to pay more to travel. Just as much as gender and race intersect with fat bodies, so, too, do economics and class.

I knew I could count on a plus-sized white comedian to take down a genre of films that prioritized thin women. But I ventured to see if Wilson could go further than that, and challenge what it means to be white and well-off and fat in the process; it isn't just about taking down rom-coms but about doing so in a way that isn't just a mouthpiece for white feminist values. But, in the end, that isn't what happened. Isn't It Romantic is fine, but it needed to do more than target an audience of girls who are 10 to 30 pounds overweight and still too jolted by the word "fat" to ever apply it to themselves, so they go for acceptable alternatives, like curvy, plus-sized—or thicc, if they're hip. But I'm not afraid to say I'm fat, I'm just disappointed I will be waiting even longer to see a realistic reflection of that experience onscreen.

Isn't It Romantic is in theaters now.