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There’s a reason people are comparing Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale to our current political climate: It’s about a world where women’s rights are stripped away in a totalitarian return to “traditional values.” It also features protests, terrorism, and a character who’s already drawn comparisons to Ivanka Trump and the 53 percent of white women who voted for her father: the Commander’s wife, Serena Joy.
In the book, Serena Joy is an older woman who walks with a cane and shows no remorse for her role in the rise of Gilead (she was a gospel star who preached about the sanctity of the home). On the show, she’s closer in age to her handmaiden, Offred (played by Elisabeth Moss), and seems at least a little bit contrite, however unforgivable. (She was once an author who wrote about “domestic feminism.” That backfired.) Here, Yvonne Strahovski talks about adapting her character for TV and why Serena Joy is a cautionary tale.
Cosmopolitan: How does Serena Joy being closer in age to Offred change their dynamic?
Yvonne Strahovski: It offers so much to play with, in terms of the power play, because you have these two women, and one is at the top of the food chain in terms of women in this society, and the other one is at the bottom. Maybe they could have been friends outside the world of Gilead, but they’re not allowed to be now, and they’re pitted against each other. Exploring that, it was so fascinating; I had so many surprise moments with Lizzy when we were shooting scenes, things came up that we didn’t think were going to be there.
Cosmopolitan: What were some of those moments?
YS: There was a scene in episode two, it’s after the scene where Janine [another handmaiden] has given birth, and we had this weird moment in the foyer. We didn’t think it was going to be there, because in reading the scene, it’s not really there in the text, but it was a weird moment of sisterhood in the energy between them. Do you know the scene that I’m talking about?
Cosmopolitan: Yes, when Offred tells Serena that Janine has lost her grip on reality, and Serena says something like, “It’s terrible, what we do.”
YS: Yeah, there is this unexpected moment of “I get you, and you get me, and I get what you have to go through.”
Cosmopolitan: There was a similar moment in that episode, when all the wives are complaining about the handmaids right in front of Offred, and you see Serena Joy look over at her. It’s as if she feels bad or guilty. Were you playing that up intentionally?
YS: Yeah, in the book she’s pretty brutal. There’s not a lot of empathy or sympathy for her. So in creating the TV character, I did want to humanize her despite her obscene, brutal behavior and the way that she treats people, which I find completely unrelatable. I did want to add that element of heart to her.
Cosmopolitan: The idea that the women are complicit in the world of Gilead feels even more pronounced on the show than it does in the book. Watching it, I find myself feeling more betrayed by the women than I do the men — are you hearing that a lot?
YS: No, but I totally agree with you. There’s a duality of Serena Joy. We see in flashbacks [in episode six] who she was prior to Gilead, and I think there was an essence of her that was pure and good, and her intention was really to contribute to saving the world, where birthrates have fallen and children are a rarity and the human race will no longer exist if we don’t fix this now. And I do think that she was truly, joyously trying to inspire women to follow their biological destinies and find power in that — initially. Then you go through this whole journey, and something went wrong — well, not something; a whole lot of things went wrong. Now we find Serena Joy living in this cage that she spent a lot of time constructing herself; now she’s realizing it wasn’t the best decision. Actually, I take that back: She’s not realizing it wasn’t the best decision, she’s feeling it wasn’t the best decision. I don’t think she’s consciously ready to admit to herself that it wasn’t the best decision.
Cosmopolitan: Is that why she’s so angry? Because we see her turn so quickly on Offred, like when she finds out Offred isn’t actually pregnant and she assaults her.
YS: I think the anger is coming from an unidentified regret, a regret that hasn’t been realized into consciousness. I think it comes from the fact that she feels stripped of her identity, ironically from her femininity as well, despite what she was rooting for to begin with. Here’s a woman who’s no longer able to be sexual with her husband, here’s a woman who’s no longer able to do the work that she used to do, be the spokesperson that she used to be, be the author that she used to be. She’s not allowed to do any of that. She’s not allowed to connect with her husband the way that she used to. When I step back and I look at that and I try and imagine what that might feel like, and then I put myself in a place like Gilead, where the rules are incredibly rigid and if you break them, the consequences can be life-threatening, there’s a lot of fear and a lot of emptiness in a world like that. And those were the things that came up for me. This woman who is surviving, in her own cage that she created, how far will she go to survive and maintain her dignity? Because she survives at the expense of other women, and she’s OK with that.
Cosmopolitan: She’s always been operating at the expense of other women, even as a supposed advocate. She had the protection of the Commander. She had a successful career. What about people without all that?
YS: Right, because she was privileged, and she was naïve within that privilege.
Cosmopolitan: Is she a cautionary tale to women who are blind to their privilege today?
YS: Absolutely. People are mentioning Ivanka Trump a lot, and those sort of parallels to the real world. Serena Joy, I imagine, grew up in a house of faith, with certain values, always protected, and she’s in so deep now that what would happen if she did turn against it all? I don’t think the consequences would be favorable for her. But at the same time, are you OK with standing by and saying nothing and being silent? Although I don’t think these [questions] are conscious in her mind, they’re definitely things that I thought about as I got through these 10 episodes.
Cosmopolitan: Did going through that mental exercise impact your perspective as a feminist or force you to think more politically?
YS: It did. [The show] has become political. We started shooting pre-election, then we went through the election, and then we wrapped mid-February, into Trump’s presidency, and there are all these issues coming up in the news with women’s rights and men in a room deciding what women’s rights should be. And that’s really scary and I can’t help but see the parallels when I watch the show and be inspired by the show, in the sense, like you said, that it is a cautionary tale and a version of what could happen should we stay silent on things that we shouldn’t be silent on. And I had to play one of those characters who is silent!
Cosmopolitan: Is it exhausting to have to talk about such heavy topics when you’re promoting a show?
YS: No, you know, I thought going into this that it would be daunting to have all these kinds of conversations, but it really hasn’t been. It’s been pretty empowering. I don’t really fancy myself politically inclined, nor do I fancy myself politically articulate in any way, shape, or form, but I’m finding myself being really engaged and excited about the types of conversation that this show is bringing up. I’m excited the conversations that [will] arise when people see it, because obviously we did have a very divisive election, which has led us to here and now, in 2017, and this show does inevitably, whether you want to admit it or not, reflect the current political climate. There are going to be some interesting conversations that come out of this show, and there’s going to be all kinds of responses. People are going to be wildly inspired and wildly depressed and wildly offended.
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