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: davidjones.com.au