Spoiler warning: For those who haven’t finished season 4 of OITNB, plot details will be revealed ahead.
Wiley is making headlines for her portrayal of Poussey Washington in the latest season of the hit Netflix show. The actress, who played a fan-favorite, opened up to PEOPLE about her shocking exit in episode 12 and what it meant for the Black Lives Matter movement.
“I knew about it a long time before I got the script,” Wiley tells PEOPLE. “The writers came and talked to me before the season even started. They knew what they wanted to do before the season even started and what story they wanted to tell. It wasn’t all fleshed-out, but I knew it was going to have to do with the larger issue of Black Lives Matter, and I was pretty honored to be the one to help tell the story with this. They knew it was a big deal, and I felt taken care of by everyone involved.”
Did Wiley think her character was going to be killed off? “Absolutely not. No. It was a big surprise,” she says.
In Poussey’s final scene, she died during a prison-wide protest after being pinned down and accidentally suffocated by untrained prison guard Bayley (Alan Aisenberg).
“In the scene when most of the people come by me and realize what’s going on around them, that’s the genius of the scene. It sort of happens in quiet,” she says of Poussey’s death. “You don’t really know what’s going on, and that’s how it can happen – that’s how a death can happen because no one is paying attention. People don’t actually pay attention and see what’s happening before the crime, and for a lack of better words, the deed is already done.”
Yet, the 29-year-old actress couldn’t be more happier with the emotional response her finale scene has caused amongst fans.
“I was expecting it to be pretty bananas … I had an idea,” she says. “People really love Poussey, they love that character … and she’s really like the moral center of the show and I knew that people were going to be pretty affected, but I don’t know if I could have predicted this much. But I knew people would be affected.”
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Wiley also explains how Poussey’s death scene differed from that of Vee’s (Lorraine Toussaint) in season 2 in terms of good verses evil. Toussaint’s character suffered a different type of fate – after escaping the prison, Vee was run over by a van driven by Miss Rosa (Barbara Rosenblat). In that cast, fans couldn’t have been happier.
“I think that’s why it hurt so much more,” Wiley says of Poussey’s emotional death. “I think that’s one of the reasons Jenji [Kohan, the show’s creator,] really thought it would be impractical to have it be Poussey because she is so good and she has the potential to have a life outside of prison. She has a future, but then to see that future stripped away in a millisecond is so heartbreaking.”
“I think that they really wanted it to have that punch and it to hurt that bad for people. Vee’s death in season 2, people were cheering,” she adds. “You could do that with an evil character, but you can’t do that with someone as good as Poussey. I think that’s why they chose her.”
As for her costars, they too felt the pains of Poussey’s loss both prior to filming and on that fateful day.
“My phone was just like ‘buzz buzz buzz,’ within 24 hours of everyone getting the script,” she says. “Everyone was calling me, checking in on me … and that day filming, it was the first day I really had seen a lot of them since they read it. In the first reading, they were reacting the same way the viewers are reacting. It was really hard for them to take in, but since I’ve know for months, I felt a little bit of responsibility to take care of people on set and let them know that ‘I’m okay, I’ve known for months, it’s all right.’ All in all, it was a very emotional day.”
There was one costar who Wiley admits to leaning on during the filming of Poussey’s death: Danielle Brooks.
“Danielle and I both [lost it], especially at the time when she had to come over and discover me – we had to do that scene over and over again for camera,” Wiley says. “She really goes there, and I think that’s the reason the scene worked – because everybody just goes there.
Brooks, who plays Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson, is the one who sprints over to Poussey and breaks down over seeing her lifeless body laying on the cold cafeteria floor.
“There was a time in between scenes that we went back to my dressing room and just broke down,” Wiley says of the scene. “I just broke down crying in front of Danielle. It was hard. It was going through waves of me trying to take care of everybody and then it hitting me all at once and then it hitting Danielle all at once. There was laughter and tears all throughout that day.”
As chaotic of a scene that it is, Wiley admits that it was rather “intimate.”
“Everyone coming and crowding around me and over my body, all I had to do was close my eyes and block people out,” Wiley recalls. “I think it would have been a lot harder if people were starring at me the whole time, but during the actual filming of that whole part, it was basically just me and Alan, it felt a little bit more intimate than it looked. I felt safe and I felt okay, and I felt that all the people there – even though it was chaos – they were there to support me.”
“So, at the end of the day it felt good to have everyone be around,” she adds. “It felt better to have my last time be people that I have known for four different seasons rather than to just be alone.”
Season 4 of Orange Is the New Black is currently streaming on Netflix.