Based on the convincingly bold characters she played on TV -- from CIA agents to serial killers -- it would be easy to believe Yvonne Strahovski would also stride confidently into any role. But she admits that "The Handmaid's Tale" tested her limits.
The actress has been a longtime standard-bearer for TV's increasingly large stable of strong, capable female protagonists with her roles on series like "Chuck," "Dexter," and "24: Live Another Day." But when it came to taking on the role of the privileged but frustrated Serena Joy Waterford, the wife of the totalitarian Commander in Hulu's adaptation of Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel set in a dystopian future where a fundamentalist regime has all but eliminated the rights of a particular class of women, Strahovski had to wrap her head around such a seemingly improbable reality -- and then re-wrap it when American society suddenly revealed the kinds of fissures that could, in fact, pave the way for that level of oppression.
As Strohovski reveals to Moviefone, bringing the deeper themes of "The Handmaid's Tale" to life proved to be one of the most challenging prospects of her career to date -- and she wouldn't have it any other way.
Moviefone: This is a little different from anything that you've done before. Tell me about wrapping your head around the big picture of this show, and who you were going to fit in the framework.
Yvonne Strahovski: Yeah, it's not an easy task, wrapping my head around the whole thing, and all of its themes and ideas, which feel incredibly potent. It felt incredibly potent back then, but they feel even more potent now as we sort of watch the news, and all kinds of things unfold in the world, and what's going on in the world in terms of human rights, and politics, and all that stuff.
So it's hard, because every one of us has our own personal beliefs. It's hard to sort of separate that for me, playing one of the bad guys in essence, because I have to separate that in order to sort of attack Serena, in a way, because she is one of the architects of this totalitarian society that is completely oppressive, and violates every human right on the planet. So that's really, really hard.
I've tried to approach it -- how do I explain it? It's hard to explain. I just sort of have tried to figure out who Serena is, just as a person, as the base human [factors]: what her beliefs are, and why she wanted this, at what level did she get taken away? Did her voice get taken out of the process of creating, structuring Gilead? And how does she sit with it now?
It's so many conflicting ideas for Serena. Yes, she was an architect of the society. Do I think that she was an architect in the society all the way to the very end? No. I think even though she's at the top of the food chain for women in Gilead, I think she's very oppressed.
The things that stood out to me, women are no longer allowed to read, and write, and engage, anything to do with words in Gilead, and Serena, as a character -- as a woman, as an intellectual woman who was a spokeswoman, an author -- she had a huge relationship with the English language, and that's been stripped from her.
It's also been stripped from her relationship. I think her and The Commander, that would have been a huge part of how they connected. In any relationship, you have commonalities, especially intimate relationships, words. The English language was a big one for them.
Also in intimate relationships, you have a sexual connection, and that's been taken away from her as well. You meet her at a time where she's almost having an identity crisis on the inside, of "Who can I be, in that case, if I don't get to be this person and relate to my husband in the way that I used to?" I think she probably embraced a lot of that to begin with. Now she's sleeping in the bed that she made.
And acting out against the weakest person in the equation, in a sense. Rather than rebelling against the system, she's taking her frustrations out.
Right. I think, also, at this stage, when you meet her, the one thing, I think, that she thinks is going to solve a lot of her problems is having the baby, and if she can just have this baby, everything will be okay. Even though that's obviously a Band-Aid solution. I just don't think she's there yet, and allowing herself to not be in denial of that.
I would love to see the deconstruction of her, and her belief system, and everything as we go forward in the story. Considering it's a series, and hopefully there'll be Season 2 and 3 after this, I would love to see that deconstruction.This morning I was talking to someone who read the book around the time that it came out. She mentioned to me how, back then, it seemed impossible to imagine this future where those things could be happening. Today, it seems a lot more believable, as you mentioned, too. We're at a place in time, it feels like, when we have made so many progressive strides forward with gender equality, and our sociopolitical relationships, and yet a pendulum could so easily swing back.
Yeah, you nailed it. It does feel like the pendulum could swing at any given moment. It feels uneasy. It feels scary. It's emotional because of that. Human rights, women's rights, everything that we've fought for, any type of equality that we've fought for as a society up until this point, feels like it's on shaky ground right now.
I struggled to watch it because of that. It feels really, like, too close to home right now, all those ideas. I only just watched episodes two and three yesterday, so it's still very raw and fresh in my mind. I pretty much wept all the way through it watching it, because it's difficult. It's hard to watch, in the best way possible.
You want art, like what we're doing, you want that to hold the mirror up. You want it to be challenging to watch, and entertaining, and everything in one. I think now more than ever, this show is so, so important, and I think it's going to be really hard to watch for a lot of people. Now is the time. Now is definitely the time. It's so amazing how it aligned accidentally, really. The timing of it is incredibly accidental.
People are literally rolling up sleeves to talk and perhaps fight about Planned Parenthood, and Roe v. Wade, and all those interrelated issues. Here comes this allegory about women and reproductive rights. It's really amazing timing. Is this your first foray into an expansive, world-building kind of project? Has everything else been rooted in reality for you?
If you can call running around as a CIA agent reality, I don't know. [Laughs] Yeah, this would probably be the most serious version.
Were you intrigued by that? Do you like to lose yourself in a fictional world like that?
I do. I like to try my hand at anything, really. I enjoy the challenges that come with everything. I think everything comes with its own challenge. This, for sure, is a bucket of challenges, just because there's so many things about the character that I'm playing that challenge my own personal views.
You always get that question in interviews: "So what are the similarities between you and the character that you're playing?" It's an age old question I've always gotten. In this case, I don't know. Serena's really neat. So am I. That's probably about the only thing I could say. It's difficult. It is.
What was the fun of it? When you got over the difficulties of the material?
I think the fun of it is the difficulties. You've got to work, and you've got this challenge every day. How am I going to do this? What are we going to do? Honestly, it's one of my most favorite things that I've ever worked on because of the actors that I'm working with. Especially Reed Morano, the first three episodes, working with her as a director has been really, really, extraordinary and liberating, I would say. But working with so much talent. I get to spend my time mostly with Lizzy [Elisabeth Moss] and Joe [Fiennes]. It's been so, so great.
These are people who are so invested, and so talented, and so great at exploring, and articulating, and fleshing this material out, which is more than deserved to have. I don't feel like there's any better woman for the job to have directed this. Reed has really given it the time of day, in every aspect. She's really crafted something out of this, as has everyone.
I feel like when you watch the pilot, you can really see that every conversation is paid off, across every department, across every writer. It's just all sort of paid off and landed. I hope people will respond to it in the same way I have. I know that people I have spoken to have found it to be very potent. I like that.
The trajectory of the projects that you've worked on have just gotten deeper, darker, grittier, and more complex. Is that the road you're going to stay on? Or do you need to step out of it at some moment? Like, "Give me a romantic comedy!"
It's weird. No, I love this. I really love it. I find that I thrive, my soul thrives, when I get involved in some dark projects like this. I don't know why. It's just something I've always been drawn to, even as a kid. Maybe it's because, as a kid, I did a lot of Shakespeare. We did a lot of Shakespeare plays growing up in high school. I don't know. I always was drawn to it.
Weirdly, I was always thrown into comedy stuff. Even "Chuck." "Chuck" was a comedy, even though I was the serious sort of anchor of the show, if you will. I like it's going in this direction. It's really interesting to me to explore human nature down those dark alleys.
Did you have to fight for those parts? Did Hollywood keep putting you in that comedy or lighter fare box?
No, I don't think so. I feel like, with TV, I've been really blessed. "Dexter" came along, that was really cool. Even Broadway, that was really amazing, and Lorna Moon was extraordinarily difficult, emotionally difficult role. This one, I wouldn't say it was a fluke, but it was definitely, I know they weren't looking at me for the role.
There's no way I fit the bill for the character description of Serena Joy. Because she's older in the book. It just wasn't something that anyone was looking at. I feel like my representatives kind of had a lightbulb moment and thought, "Well, why not?" She sent me the script and said, "You should read this." I know that it says "45-year-old woman" or whatever, but just read this, and I sort of fell in love with it. And I auditioned for the role. I kind of enjoyed the challenge factor of not being the typical person for the role. I enjoyed that.
And I love the outcome, now having read the book, knowing a lot more, obviously, about the project. I think it's fascinating to have Offred and Serena be the same age. It really adds an element of -- it's this equality element in a power play, in a hierarchy where Serena is at the top of the food chain, and Offred is not. But because it is two women that might be friends in another world, but they can't be in this world, just the power play is extraordinary. It's so much fun to play with, and so much fun to play with Lizzie.
"The Handmaid's Tale" premieres today (April 26th) on Hulu.