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'The Handmaid's Tale': Yvonne Strahovski channels a 'boiling pot of water' to play Serena Joy

by Michelle Lanz | The Frame

Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) yells at Offred (Elisabeth Moss) after she tells she her she's not pregnant in "The Handmaid's Tale." Hulu

Beware of possible spoilers below! 

Of all the characters in Hulu's adaptation of "The Handmaid's Tale," Serena Joy Waterford is turning out to be perhaps the most complex. 

Her cruelty and coldness toward Offred (Elisabeth Moss) — who is essentially a sex slave — made it easy to hate her in the beginning. But the layers of her character and her life before Gilead are finally coming to light. 

In episode 6, which aired on Wednesday, we see Serena Joy and her husband (Joseph Fiennes) in love and engaging in physical affection — something we never see in present-day Gilead. But we also learn that the rules of Gilead were largely designed by Serena Joy. 

Through flashbacks we learn it was her idea to enact rules that encourage women to embrace their biological destinies to become mothers for the greater good. Though it's hinted that this effort came from a sincere place (i.e., saving the human race), it's clear that Serena Joy did not fully consider what her ideas would mean for herself, even with her status as one of the elites. 

The woman tasked with portraying Serena Joy is Australian actress Yvonne Strahovski, who you might recognize from her other TV roles in "Chuck" and "Dexter." 

She recently stopped by The Frame to talk with John Horn about becoming Serena Joy Waterford, and why this character was so hard to let go of after production ended.  

Interview Highlights

When did you first come to know the story of "The Handmaid's Tale"?:

I read the pilot, first, before I read the book, and the pilot really spoke to me, just in its own right. It was so well-written, and it really struck me how full of tension it was, both in the dialogue and outside the dialogue. They managed to put all this subtext in this pilot that you don't ordinarily get in a lot of the scripts you come across. It was a guessing game when I went in to read because I didn't know the story of Serena Joy, Offred or "The Handmaid's Tale." So this just opened up a whole new world for me, coming onto the show.

I assume the more you read about the character you play, the scarier she becomes and her scenes become more intimidating to do. Was that your experience?

[laughs] Yeah, I'm not ashamed to admit this whole thing was very intimidating, because Serena's not someone I easily relate to, if at all. To try to deconstruct her was a difficult process and a constant puzzle as we shot the show — there are so many dualities and complexities to her that I discovered along the way. In the book, she's not so fleshed out in terms of being an emotionally complete human, so it was important for me to try to humanize her a little more, and I think she's an important character to humanize. She's one of the authority figures in this authoritarian society.

But she's both an authority figure and a victim of something that's part of her own creation.

Exactly, and that's what I found so fascinating about her. That's the biggest duality to her, that she'd constructed this cage and she was such a proactive person in creating Gilead. Her whole thing, I think at least initially, was pure-intentioned — trying to save the world and trying to make women passionate about their biological destinies. Somewhere along the line, as a woman, she lost her voice in that conversation. So here she is now, in an oppressive situation herself, even though she's at the top of the food chain when it comes to women in this society.

There's a beautiful and very careful production design to this show, in terms of costumes, the general look, and the way in which this world is set up. It's not too distant from our world. It feels real and grounded. How much does the environment of the shoot and production design give you?

Serena Joy's costumes in particular added a rigidness to her. A lot of the collars you see her wear creep up her neck, especially as we go along into the episodes, and that constant collar you see on her ... there's a constant repetitiveness to her life, it feels like, when it comes to her clothing and the things that she's allowed to do. Even Serena's not allowed to read books or write or partake in anything that she might have before, like a sexual relationship with her husband. So what are you left with in Gilead? A lot of that production design really helped us get into this world.

The scene in episode 3 when Offred tells Serena Joy that she's not pregnant — your emotions go from being ecstatic to cruel.  Can you talk about what you were channeling in that scene?

I remember this image that I held onto with Serena Joy, and this scene really painted that picture for me. I had this image of Serena as this boiling pot of water, this steel pot with the lid firmly on it, and just raging underneath. And every so often, the steam and water would get so intense that the lid would have to lift. Some of that steam would have to come out, and the lid would have to come back on tightly. I had this image of her constantly throughout filming the show, and then this scene really shows that in a human way. She has so much rage and emotion inside of her that it has to come out somehow, and it's at the expense of Offred.

One of the bigger changes from the book to the series is that Offred and Serena Joy are the same age. In the book, Serena was much older. What does that change mean in terms of what you and Elisabeth Moss are playing at?

I love this change. We're very close in age, and I think we're a week apart in real life. But I love this change because it brings Serena Joy closer to the loss of fertility and the fact that she cannot provide that. There's so much emotion connected to that, of not being able to provide and the jealousy and the competitiveness she might feel with Offred, who gets to be fertile, who gets to provide a baby, gets to be intimate with Serena's husband. There's so much complexity there. And probably my favorite thing to play on-set is this power dynamic between the two women. So often in doing these scenes with Lizzy, I'd discover these power shifts that would come up where we didn't expect them, and that's one of the great things about making those characters equal in age.

Is this the kind of part that was harder to leave behind once you stopped filming?

Yes. [laughs] She was really hard to let go of because it felt like a puzzle piece — it's not someone I relate to, and I'm sitting here and judging her. I don't agree with a lot of her actions, but somehow I have to strip away all the judgment and peel away those layers and figure out, What is her heart all about? At the end of the day, she is a human. I've found it a struggle to let go of her.

There has been a lot of talk about the current relevance of this story. Did that come up at all while filming?

I think closer to the end there was a lot of discussion, I think just purely because of the presidential election. We were all there in Canada filming. There were headlines coming up about women's rights, there was a women's march. This is pre-, during and [after] the election. 

So you're making this series during the time the Trump tape came out where he talked about grabbing women? 

Yes, which was really trippy because suddenly the material we were working with, which is already very relevant in its own right ... it was very strange to have all of this unfolding in real life as we were shooting, and suddenly the show became much more personal and meaningful to me. I went to Toronto to the Women's March, and also what was really interesting was playing Serena Joy as one of the villains and seeing behavior in the media that I didn't agree with and playing a character that I didn't agree with, but here I was trying to humanize her and justify her actions, which was sort of a scary process. 

Because if she's totally villainous then her point of view becomes irrelevant.

Right. There had to be a way to humanize her and it sort of made me think about people in positions of power who have either put themselves in that position of authority or who have been voted in. When they're preaching something that you don't necessarily agree with, what are they actually doing? Are they actually thinking about the greater good of society, or are they just trying to survive in the bubble that they protect themselves in now? That was really at the forefront of my mind in playing Serena and having that parallel in real life. 

This is just a partial transcript of the interview. Listen to the audio to hear the entire conversation.

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