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‘The Handmaid’s Tale’: Yvonne Strahovski on Filming Her Most “Devastating” Scene Yet

[This story contains spoilers for season two, episode eight of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, “Women’s Work.”]

When it comes to Gilead, it’s not often that the audience finds sympathy for the people in power. But if The Handmaid’s Tale accomplished its mission this week, then several jaws dropped in horror on behalf of Serena Joy, emotionally and physically beaten in the aftermath of a grueling episode.

The hour, called “Women’s Work,” comes from director Kari Skogland and continues to expand the unexpected alliance between Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) and Offred (Elisabeth Moss), who are working with one another on some matters of Gilead governance while Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) recovers from injuries sustained in the recent suicide bombing. Serena finds herself compelled to help Offred on a personal matter: Angela, the infant daughter of recently re-employed handmaid Janine (Madeline Brewer), is inexplicably sick, with no apparent treatment available from Gilead’s top medical experts.

Serena calls in some favors and bends some major rules in order to recruit someone to the cause: a woman who was once a top doctor in her field, now serving as a Martha for another household. The doctor fails in her efforts to save the baby, leaving Serena reeling in sorrow as she watches Janine say goodbye to her daughter (whom she calls Charlotte, despite the young girl’s given Gilead name) one last time. Little does she know that the baby will ultimately survive the night, for as-yet unexplained reasons; regardless of the outcome, watching Serena pour so much of herself into the plight of an innocent provides an unexpected softness to one of the Hulu series’ most powerful and often bitterly abusive characters.

There’s a huge motherhood arc in this season for Serena,” Strahovski tells The Hollywood Reporter about Serena’s story in “Women’s Work,” and the season at large. “Everything that happens this season challenges her idea of what she thought motherhood was about. Serena is the type of person where the only thing she actually has hope for in her life is the potential of having a child. I don’t know who she would be without that. It seems to me she would crumble without that last shred of hope. A baby — anyone’s baby — is everything to her. I think she really does believe in the welfare of the babies. She wants to help.

Alas, not everyone shares Serena’s philosophy toward new life. Earlier in the episode, she tries to recruit her husband to the cause, and when she’s unable to yield his cooperation, she pushes forward with the plan to illegally recruit the former doctor behind his back. When Fred learns about what happened, he makes his displeasure known in certain and violent terms, removing his belt and repeatedly whipping Serena’s backside as punishment.

For that particular scene, we had conversations before the rehearsal, because of the stunt involved with the beating,” Strahovski recalls of shooting the brutal beating. “I remember showing the crew what the blocking would be. We’re never fully involved in the scene at that point; we’re just showing everyone the movements, and going through it. I remember hearing audible reactions from the crew: ‘Oh, this is awful.’ I remember thinking: ‘Have we crossed the line?’ I’m sure that’s happened with many scenes, because it seems like we always cross a line in our show, which is what makes it so confronting and compelling. But in that one, it just felt so wrong, what was going on. It was kind of devastating to film. It was a real feeling of degradation that came over me as we shot that.

In order to shoot the scene, Strahovski says she “was covered up in motorcycle gear, the stuff that’s inside leather jackets motorcyclists wear, if they have an accident. My lower back and the top of my butt was covered in all of that hard shell gear. We had made this fitted piece so he could really whack me with that belt. It wasn’t hurting me, but I could definitely feel the intensity.

The intensity was felt emotionally as well, as Serena walks away from the harrowing physical encounter with visible and invisible scars alike. For one thing, Strahovski views it as a massive status quo shift within Serena’s view of her husband: “With Fred doing what he does at the end of the episode, she loses a big part of her that’s hopeful. It’s in large part because Fred has ultimately turned his back on a child in a way she could never, and didn’t, in that episode. It’s so devastating for her: A, for the child, and B, because her relationship with Fred has just hit even more of a rock bottom, if it even could have.”

There’s also the matter of Serena’s growing feelings of conflict toward Gilead, a nation she directly helped create.

Everything that happens — including this — challenges her idea of what it’s going to be like to be a mother in Gilead,” says Strahovski. “‘Even I’m not safe. What does that mean for my child? What does that mean if I have a son — and what does it mean if I have a daughter? Are they going to be safe in Gilead?’ There are all these questions that come up and challenge her, and what it means to be a great mother, and put her child first. Even in the baby Angela storyline: putting that child first, and doing the best we can for that child. In Gilead, that means breaking the rules, apparently, because [the government] won’t do what’s best for the child.

It also likely means a dissolution of the alliance with Offred, at least for now. Near the end of the episode, Offred comes to Serena’s room to provide consolation; Serena promptly orders Offred to leave, opting to suffer in silence. According to Strahovski: “That scene is so devastating. Deep down, you have raw human emotions, and all you want is for someone to hold you after something like that, and be with you. But in a way, she’s already learning the lesson Fred has imposed on her after the beating: to keep to your own domain, and do not become friendly with a handmaid, and keep yourself separate from that. She’s already doing what Fred wanted her to think: ‘Get back to your position and get back to where you belong. You’re a woman in my house and you’ll abide by my rules.’ There’s an element of fear and also embarrassment, of not wanting Offred to see her in that way. But as a raw human, you would want to let her in.


The Handmaid’s Tale Star Yvonne Strahovski Gets Glam in FASHION Magazine

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Actress Yvonne Strahovski dazzles in red on the April 2018 cover of FASHION Magazine. Photographed by Max Abadian, ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ star wears a lace Preen by Thornton Bregazzi dress and Salvatore Ferragamo swimsuit. Inside the glossy, Yvonne poses in fashion forward looks from the spring collections. Stylist Juliana Schiavinatto dresses the blonde beauty in designs from the likes of Coach, Valentino and Dior.

In her interview, Yvonne talks about surviving in the cut-throat entertainment business.

I think I have a pretty good handle on how to survive in this business, so much of it comes down to just being myself. It reminds me of the feminist movement that’s happening right now. It’s about being able to tell your stories and not having to be prim and proper. And it’s probably also because I’m getting older.


Yvonne for Jones magazine


When it was first announced that a TV series based on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was in the works, the reaction was fairly muted. After all, how much relevance could a dystopian novel from 1985 really have in April 2016? That same month, Hillary Clinton announced her presidential campaign and it looked as if, come January 2017, there might finally be a woman occupying the Oval Office.

Cut to a year later and the TV show made its April 2017 debut in a very different world – one where its themes about the oppression and exploitation of women were suddenly, startlingly pertinent again. In a year in which women united to march for their rights, to strike in solidarity and to call out harassment, The Handmaid’s Tale had clearly struck a chord.

The blood red robes and stiff white bonnets worn by the series’ main characters became symbolic of the restrictions placed on women’s freedom and autonomy, and the outfits became popular with protesters, most notably pro-choice activists concerned about proposed changes to abortion laws in the US. The robes and bonnets even made appearances in SNL sketches, at Halloween and on the runway – the oversized black bonnets featured in Vera Wang’s Spring 2018 collection were evidence of just how influential the show had become.

Embraced by the critics and showered with awards, the series was also a ratings juggernaut, so it came as no surprise when a second season was commissioned. All the main cast will return, including Australia’s own Yvonne Strahovski, who plays the spine-chilling Serena Joy. During a break from filming on the series’ Ontario, Canada set, Yvonne reflects on the show’s surprising success.

I remember feeling early on that this was going to make a mark in some way shape or form in the history of television, if only in terms of the performances that I was witnessing. It was palpable. But I didn’t realise the political and social impact it would have,” she says. “But, by the time Trump’s presidency started unfolding and as we got into the Women’s Marches, it became pretty clear that this was not your ordinary show, that we had accidentally started to reflect real life.

Playing one of the series’ antagonists proved challenging for Yvonne. “The first season, I felt like I was grappling with her ideology. I was almost resentful that I had to not judge her because I had to play her, to justify her actions and moral compass and her level of integrity,” she admits.

Her character, an anti-feminist villain and ruthless enforcer of the patriarchy, is married to Commander Fred (Joseph Fiennes), a high-ranking member of the government. Together, the couple enslave Offred (Elisabeth Moss), attempting to use her to give them a child, since Serena is infertile. But Serena is far from being a one-dimensional baddie. Yvonne’s portrayal of a desperate woman in an even-more-desperate situation oscillates between moments of tenderness and moments of pure brutality.

Full interview:

The Handmaid’s Tale’s Yvonne Strahovski Made Me Believe in Ghosts.

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As far as ways in which a photoshoot can go, I never expected to start one with a ghost story. But that’s exactly what happened when I met Yvonne Strahovski in Beverly Hills, just days before she headed to Banff Springs—a castle turned hotel nestled at the base of the Canadian Rockies. It’s stunning (like a postcard!) but also haunted. I know because I’ve stayed there, and felt obligated to share my superstitions. I have to admit, I was surprised when Strahovski started telling me an anecdote of her “many” revenant encounters (more on that below!) that were so convincing, even the reluctant believer in me felt swayed.

But we finally regress to talk of more tellurian trepidations stories. Like that of her character, Serena Joy Waterford: the stoic, often-villainous infertile wife to The Commander in Hulu’s original series, The Handmaid’s Tale. Her life in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian society, Gilead, shares a scary (more so than ghost stories!) resemblance to Trump’s America. Strahovski tells me of how things changed on set post-election, how she often struggled to relate to her character’s polar-opposite views, and how she chills out after those intense scenes.

*That* ghost story:
My dog is a mama’s boy, and I had two friends over one night. It was very late, probably midnight, and I had just started to renovate the house. I know that the man who built it had died pretty recently—not in the house. My dog just kind of looked over at an open space; it was the kitchen-dining-living area leading into the master bedroom end. He never leaves my side, but got up and started stalking over to the doorway like a jaguar. I have never, in the 10 years I have had him, seen him do that. He walked across the room, growling, and stopped about 3 feet in front of the doorway and looked up as if somebody was standing there, and growled like a crazy dog for two minutes. We all froze. He just kind of shook it off and walked back over. My friends were like, ‘What the fuck was that?’ There are many more, but that was one that had us all shaken.

How things changed on set post-election:
Something changed for me, personally. It was a very strange experience, having started this show and knowing that this was being conceived pre-election. We were filming while they were campaigning; the election happened in November, and we were still shooting until mid-February, so we were well into his presidency. The Women’s March came about during those first few months. It was really powerful and confusing to be playing one of the authority figures that is, in essence, a villain.

I’m drawing these parallels between what was going on in real-life politics to my character, while at the same time being me and going to the Women’s March, and feeling like I couldn’t relate to Serena Joy at all in those moments.

The eerie similarities between fiction and real life:
It was a very strange journey of our mirroring life. How amazing has it been to be a part of something that really has such strength and power in affecting people. Not only have we reached the heights of great entertainment because it’s so beautifully written, shot, directed and acted, but we have also crashed through boundaries into real land, where we can have real conversations with people who are truly, deeply affected by the show and alarmed. It seems to me, from the conversations that I’ve had with many people, that it speaks to people’s fears about what could happen and what is happening. You hear headlines about women’s rights and what women are suppose[d] to do with their bodies, and men [are] discussing that in a room—there are no females present. It’s alarming and you can’t help but draw direct parallels. You can’t help it.

How the silence was almost more important than the dialogue in her scenes:
I just loved all of the nuances in between the dialogue. It just seemed to be so ripe with detail. I could imagine every twitch, every breath meaning something in between the spaces in the dialogue. I love that when you’re watching actors. I love the subtext. It’s always about the subtext.

Her way of chilling out after intense scenes:
I go to Lake Ontario. I go to the lake’s edge, and I ride my bike up and down that lakeside. That’s how I discovered all the parks [in Toronto]. It was hard, though. I spent a lot of time trying to get into Serena’s headspace. She is so brutal. I think (not that this is justifiable) I can see why someone would abuse their power in that way, because there’s no other outlet. She, too, even though she put herself there and only had herself to blame, has to try to survive.


Yvonne Strahovski Says ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ ‘Feels So Close to Home’ in Trump Era

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As she cruelly controls and manipulates Elisabeth Moss’ character Offred, Serena Joy is commonly perceived as a villain on “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and actress Yvonne Strahovski agrees that her character is a bad person.

One thing I really struggled with was to relate to her to begin with and turn my judgmental self off because I don’t agree with what she is doing,” the actress said in an interview with TheWrap. “It was really about peeling away all the judgment and seeing who she is on the inside.

In the book we don’t get to explore Serena Joy’s backstory [as a televangelist who advocated for women to return to traditional family values] as much as we do on the television show, so it was important to try to humanize this villain … to try and feel for her as well,” Strahovski continued.

Hulu’s groundbreaking adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel was filmed during the presidential election last November, and airs in the subsequent aftermath and the dawn of the Trump era. Parallels between Atwood’s fictional theocratic military dictatorship of the Republic of Gilead and Donald Trump’s America have not been lost on viewers, the cast or even the author herself.

It was really astounding fascinating to watch things unfold in real life in politics … the derogatory comments that Trump made about women and all the fallout from that,” Strahovski, who is Australian-born to Polish parents, told TheWrap. “Making the show pre-election and then post-election, and then realizing as they are editing it how real and how topical this show is going to be.

Earlier this week, “The Handmaid’s Tale” even inspired abortion bill protestors to dress in its signature red robes and white bonnets in opposition of a proposed state legislation in Ohio.

I think what is so great is that the show is sparking very real conversations about substantial things we need to talk about in today’s society,” Strahovski said.

The show talks about people’s real fears in the world and here in the States, it is alarming to watch. I myself sit at home and I know what is happening [on the Hulu series], I can’t help to feel alarmed about what is going on as it feels so close to home — it feels too close. This was originally a story about a future world. But what the show does really well is show how present that future is — it’s now.

As for the complexities of Serena Joy, who went from being involved in writing the laws of the Republic to being subservient to her husband, Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), Strahovski said: “This idea of being stripped of so many things you would have a right to … women weren’t allowed to read or write in this society. She was a writer and a spokeswoman — then she had that taken away from her.

I see this boiling pot of water with this lid on it … that was the image I kept hold of her as there’s no outlet in Gilead,” she added.


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