The Handmaid’s Tale, CanLit treasure Margaret Atwood’s work of dystopian fiction first published in 1985, feels eerily relevant ATM, yes? You’re not the only one who thinks so. FLARE chatted with Yvonne Strahovski, one of the stars of the new Hulu original TV adaptation—premiering Sunday April 30 on Bravo in Canada—about how the show is a cautionary tale.
Here, Strahovski, who had the daunting task of portraying Serena Joy, one of the architects of the fundamentalist, totalitarian world of Gilead—and a woman she calls “brutal”—talks white men in rooms deciding what women can do with their bodies, the power of participating in protests like the Women’s March and how the one of the series’s biggest strengths is showing it’s not the longest road to a place like Gilead.
How does it feel to be part of this show?
It feels amazing because it’s something that is obviously incredibly relevant considering the political climate that we’re in right now, and accidentally so. We were shooting this show before and after the election and there have been issues that have arisen out of the election that the show directly parallels. The most fascinating thing to me will be to see how people receive it once it’s out in the open.
Did the mood on set change after the election?
It was certainly a topic of conversation, but we were still plowing through with what we were doing. It definitely felt personally more precious to me and gave what we were doing on the show more of an edge. It also complicated it a bit more emotionally because I’m playing Serena Joy, which is one of the villains in this story, and here I am trying to humanize her and figure out what really makes her heart happy, while at the same time living through some pretty insane stuff that was going on in the real world.
How challenging was it to strike that balance with Serena where she’s both the villain but has human qualities?
Being honest with you, it was really hard. It was very hard to relate to her; I don’t really relate to her. There’s not a lot to like about her. She’s very unfriendly, she’s unapproachable, she’s very harsh, she’s brutal, at times, and you’ll see her be more brutal as the show goes on, and it’s not something that came easily. It’s something I really had to think about and wrap my head around and think What is the driving force behind all this? What makes this woman so mean? And when it came down to it, I saw a woman who was the designer of her own cage. She was one of the architects of Gilead, where they all live now, which is the former America, and she was one of the people who turned it into this fundamentalist, totalitarian society, and now she has to live in this society that she created and she’s oppressed by it herself.
How did you delve into understanding Serena’s complicated pain?
I thought about, how do you deal with having a big portion of your identity stripped away from you? You’re no longer able to read, write, read the news, create work; you’re not allowed to work, the only thing you’re allowed to do as a woman is follow your biological destiny and have a child. And if you can’t have a child, then you have a handmaid have a child for you and then you look after that child and that’s it. You look after the house and you’re no longer allowed to have sex for pleasure, it’s only allowed for procreation, so the right to be intimate with your partner has been taken away from you as well, as has the ability to relate to your partner on an intellectual level—anything to do with words and books and newspapers, that’s all gone. So I saw this woman who was an empty carcass, a shell, with not a lot around her to fill those empty holes and that turned her into a monster, but also a monster that had to try and survive in this cage, in this world.
Had you already read the book prior to starting the project?
I had not read the book before I read the pilot, so I read the pilot first and I knew that I was not the go-to person for the role of Serena Joy because it was written originally as older. The script was obviously incredible, it was dripping in subtext, and it’s every actor’s dream to have that amount of tension in a pilot and so well-written, and there was something very dark and sad that drew me to Serena. Then once the ball got rolling, I read the book, which was an inspiring source for me to work from in terms of trying to portray Serena and create her and the relationships she has on-screen with the rest of the cast.
What draws you to complex characters like Serena and Hannah McKay on Dexter?
There’s something about trying to figure out why someone is doing something that on the outside is horrible—what drives them to do that? What could drive any human being to that kind of behaviour? I find that fascinating because it’s not something that I can relate to, but to try and get down to the nitty gritty of it and understand where that darkness might be coming from is fascinating to me. I think humans are fascinating in general. We’re so weird. We do so many quirky things and we don’t even know it. There’s just so many layers upon layers of nuances in everything we do, and the most fun part as an actor is trying to get into all those nuances, whether they’re conscious or unconscious.
You were at the Women’s March here in Toronto [The Handmaid’s Tale was filmed in Toronto]. How important was it for you to take part in the march?
I was in Toronto when the big Women’s March was going on and I thought, Well, I’ve never been to a protest and I can’t sit this one out and they’re having a gathering here in Toronto so I may as well go and gosh, I didn’t expect 60,000 or 65,000 people to be there—it was huge! It was something that I didn’t feel I could sit out at all. It’s interesting being part of the show, and all the themes that are coming up, and then you’ve got stuff in the news about white men in a room trying to decide what rights a woman has to her body and her child… I think that’s something we all should stand up for and fight for and that’s certainly something that I wanted to do. I loved seeing all the signs on the day. It was so amazing and sad to see some signs of some of the older women who had written “I can’t believe I’m still marching and fighting for this shit.” It’s pretty amazing the parallels that we can draw from the show to what’s going on right now in real life.
In light of the political climate, what do you hope people get out of the show?
There are going to be lovers of the show, and there are going to be haters. There’s going to be some really strong opinions that come out about this show, just like there have been super strong opinions about the election—it’s been incredibly divisive. But the fact of the matter is the show is a display of what can happen when a fundamentalist regime takes over and turns society into a totalitarian-run government, and what that can do when that is imposed on humanity. The show is a display of the effects a totalitarian-run government has on humanity and the struggle to survive and everything that raises, like the denial of rights, the denial of life itself, the denial of your relationship to people, the denial of your own identity. It’s scary, and what I love about the series—and what’s done so effectively—is it shows that it’s not a long, drawn-out road to get to some place like Gilead. It is alarming and it is a warning sign—I’ve read some things about people interpreting it as a warning sign and I tend to agree with that. If there was ever a time for a show like this, it is now. The time is now, now, now, to raise the conversations and to not let things get worse than they are.
How did you unwind or shake it all off after shooting such intense scenes?
It’s hard. This wasn’t easy to shake off or let go or leave at the studio. It was something that would weigh heavy on my mind when I went home, just because I felt like I was always trying to figure out why would this person do this and why would she be so mean, why would she be so brutal, I was always asking myself those questions and trying to make sense of her so it never really left me. Living through my first Canadian winter didn’t help me, but probably helped me as Serena! Exploring Canada was my relief, just spending time in naturem and while it was still bearably cold outside, I would go out a lot and spend a lot of time at the lakeside, on the beaches and in the parks. On my days off, I skipped off to different areas like Algonquin Park and I went to Nova Scotia and did the Cabot Trail and just really embraced Canada and what it has to offer. It was my therapy.