In Hulu’s award-winning drama The Handmaid’s Tale, the character Serena Joy was once a powerful earner and famous in her own right — but things changed.
In the new America, called Gilead, she is wed to Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and her lofty role has since been stripped of any real power. Serena is in a far better position than the Marthas and the Handmaids, both of whom serve the wives of the power elite, but in deeply different ways — the Marthas for housekeeping and cooking and the Handmaids to bear children.
Actor Yvonne Strahovski had big shoes to fill. In the 1990 film version of Margaret Atwood’s story, her role was played by legendary thespian Faye Dunaway. But Strahovski’s version of Serena is more subtle and perfectly wrought.
Her turn as the former multimedia star of the religious right is chillingly on point, with her now the barren partner in conceiving a child with her fertile Handmaid “Offred”, played by the series’ lead Elisabeth Moss.
In scene together, the two are riveting in a feminine power struggle that sees Serena Joy attempting to manage her Handmaid in one of the most intimate of all human exchanges, sexual intercourse.
The entire series has galvanized female viewers and in some ways, started the steady drumbeat wake-up call to women already in tune with the idea that their reproductive freedom is a tenuous thing, especially given the political and cultural seismic shift towards patriarchal intolerance.
We spoke to Yvonne about her chilling and yet relatable approach to playing a woman torn between letting go of her pride, and holding on to absolute power over another woman:
Monsters and Critics: Were you aware when filming this how prescient Margaret Atwood’s book was and the theme, women rebelling against the oppression?
Yvonne Strahovski: Yes. I definitely felt just in terms of being on set and watching people working — and being a part of the whole thing obviously, and reading the script — I had a feeling that this was going to make its mark in the world of television for sure. There was just something about it, the energy on set, the work that was being created, I had a feeling.
As we got halfway through season one and the presidential election happened, it sort of started to become clearer that this is going to resonate with people on a more political level.
Certainly, as we neared the end of the season, the Women’s March had already occurred, and issues were coming up in the media surrounding women, all those headlines, and then I really started thinking, ‘Wow, this is going to make a splash.’
But I really didn’t know or understand what the scope of that splash would be. Obviously, it certainly has resonated in such a huge way with so many people for so many different reasons that it’s been really wonderful and interesting to see.
M&C: Your character, Serena Joy, does she mourn the lack of intimacy with Joseph’s character, the Commander, or does she mourn her career and her independent voice more?
YS: Oh, that’s a tough question. I don’t know that one wins out over the other. I think she mourns them both. And I think that is definitely part of her conflict; that she probably doesn’t want to feel those feelings.
I think it annoys her that she does have feelings like that, that I think she tries to suppress them because of her whole attitude of we are trying to do something for the greater good here, which means I have to sacrifice things as well in my personal life, and if this is the way it’s going to be, then I must commit to this.
There is that extremist religious sort of aspect hovering over that as well, which puts that stamp on it even harder than usual, which is sort of I think the best way to describe Serena — that she has a constant tug of war going on between what she thinks the world should be versus her own human emotions that come out because of the situation she’s put herself in that now she has to deal with.
M&C: I get the feeling when I watch you and Joseph in a scene that he’s [the Commander] slightly more religious than you are, and that your religion was a platform for notoriety in the old life. Be careful what you wish for. Serena Joy is now sort of entrapped by this world she helped create. What do you think of that?
YS: I think they’re both less religious on the down-low in certain aspects. I think that comes out of this whole idea that even the oppressors are oppressed in this world, and they do not have an outlet.
Therefore, they bend their own religious rules, and they write their own bibles in essence to survive. For the Commander, it seems to be, for him, he needs to have intimacy. He wants to go and have his fun…if you wanna call it fun. That’s why he goes to Jezebel’s, and he does do what he does with Offred, the handmaid, which he isn’t supposed to be doing.
I think for Serena…she’s still trying to work within the bounds of Gilead, in trying to attain a baby. But knowing that it’s not happening, she takes matters into her own hands, and that’s why she sets up for Nick and Offred to have sex so that she can have a better chance of producing a baby for herself, which is obviously completely against the rules. But that is her way of surviving also.
I think for Serena the light at the end of the tunnel is this baby. And she’s holding on to that. So anything she can do to get that, to help her own survival within this world of Gilead is going to be good for her. So I think they both bend the rules in a lot of ways.
M&C: Season 2 has been really teased by everyone as being much darker than the first. And of course it’s now a continuation of the book, which wasn’t written by Atwood, so this is going to be an adjunct storyline I guess…and Offred, does she ever have a chance to connect with you in any way?
YS: I can’t really go into Season 2, because then I would be spoiling some storylines there for people. But, I think definitely their relationship, just from Season 1, it’s so complicated, and fruitful, and so awful. There’s just so much to work with.
You have a society where people are pitted against each other, and in particular, women are pitted against each other.
So there really isn’t a chance in hell that these two women are going to get along as much as maybe Serena has her moments of trying.
But at the end of the day, here are two women who are of the same age, and this notion of fertility is so strong I think for Serena, being of the age where she should be the one to have a baby with her husband, but she is unable to. I think that causes so much competition, and jealousy, and the anger, all of the above for that dynamic between Offred and Serena.
But at the same time, there’s so much loneliness in Gilead. And there’s so much lack of connection…I think for Serena. And rejection. She has no one. I think in an odd, creepy way, she does try to reach out to Offred, but it is set up to fail every time just circumstantially.
M&C: Your character is an island. Am I correct or incorrect?
YS: Yes, I think that was definitely the idea, even with the character and Naomi Putnam that is supposed to be maybe sort of Serena’s closest ally. I think the other wives sort of drink the Kool-Aid a little bit more than Serena.
Serena’s sort of always a step ahead. She’s manipulative. She also understands very well that confiding in someone too much can get her into a lot of trouble. She is surviving in this world as well, as is every single other person, which is what is great about this story.
It’s not just you’re watching Offred and the Handmaids survive in this awful world, it’s everyone really, even down from the Commander, Aunt Lydia, Serena Joy, they’re all trying to make this work for themselves.
M&C: Can you tell me about the colonies, which are going to be more predominant in Season 2? What are the colonies like?
YS: I can’t. I wish I could, but I would probably get shot in the head if they found out that I told you what colonies were gonna be like.
M&C: And is it just the ‘unwomen’ that get sent there, or are men there too?
YS: Based on the book, it is a colony for unwomen. I don’t know if they plan to expand on that or not.
M&C: Since we really can’t talk too much about Season 2, what was the moment that really took your breath away that you were really proud of?
YS: I think the standout moment was the beginning. Working with [director] Reed Morano in those first three episodes was really something special, having the time to sort of really digest the material and marinate in it on set, as we got to play with it.
And consequently that sort of moment that comes out of it in the third episode where Offred tells Serena she isn’t pregnant after all, and Serena throws a fit literally.
It came out of that moment where I got in her face, it just came out of a great moment on the set where we have the perfect sort of attitude and the perfect people that play….allowing us the freedom to go there in that scene and elevate it off the page into something as powerful as that.
It’s really so inspiring to be working with everyone and reading these extraordinary scripts. Bruce Miller has been so amazing, above and beyond. All the directors, and the actors, of course, it really has sort of been a dream come true.
M&C: How would you tease your character in Season 2 and her transformation as she’s living in Gilead?
YS: I think she’s as feisty as ever and as dark as ever — as is Gilead. It’s true what they say, we are going to go dark. ‘Go dark or go home’ is our motto here in Gilead.
M&C: Talk about your Handmaid’s Tale costume designer, Ane Crabtree…
YS: I think Ane Crabtree is such a genius. She’s really wonderful and puts in so much thought into what she’s doing. The costumes always are such a help in putting those final sorts of touches on the character. You’re really walking in their shoes, literally and figuratively, once you get that costume on.
The costumes are all handmade. They make those themselves and they’re exquisite. Even Joseph’s suits they make in the wardrobe department there. Their attention to detail is extraordinary.
In Season 1, you’ll notice I think one of Ane’s goals was to just sort of keep that armor going up on Serena as the neck sort of got higher and the seams got a bit stricter. She really does have an angle, and I think that attention to detail across the board is what sort of makes the show so tightly held together. Everyone’s very invested in this.
M&C: Other than The Handmaid’s Tale, what other projects are you working on?
YS: After shooting Season 1, I went off and did the new Predator movie with Shane Black, not that I can talk about who I play in that or the storyline at all because I will also be shot in the head if I do that.
But it’s certainly fun to mention that just because it is so completely different to The Handmaid’s Tale, and the material we’re working with on Handmaid’s. The Predator movies are so fun and so iconic, and just completely different.
The Handmaid’s Tale won as Outstanding Drama series and nine other awards at the Emmys. The series returns to Hulu for Season 2 in summer of 2018.