Yvonne Strahovski Finds The Victim In The Villain On ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

It’s been months since “The Handmaid’s Tale” wrapped filming, and Yvonne Strahovski still can’t get Serena Joy out of her head. 

As the resident baddie in Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s celebrated novel, the Australian actress is discovering new depths to a character whose inner life was largely absent from the text. 

For Strahovksi, her first introduction to the world of “The Handmaid’s Tale” was the pilot script ― she went back and read the book later ― and what inspired her wasn’t the character’s cruelty, but her pain. Capturing the humanity of a woman complicit in the subjugation of her gender under an oppressive regime was an opportunity to make the role her own. 

Until the sixth episode “A Woman’s Place,” released on Wednesday, the series utilized flashbacks as emotionally-driven viewpoints to juxtapose what life was like for Offred (Elisabeth Moss) before she was forced to bear children for the ruling class to which Serena belongs. 

This week, Strahovski delivered some of the finest work of her career, as the series veered away from the book and back to a time where Serena more than lived up to her surname, something that has been stamped out in the totalitarian state she helped create. 

HuffPost recently caught up with the actress.

The series paints Serena as a more complex character as compared to the book. In this version, we understand her as tragic figure. Was that something that attracted you to the role? 

It was definitely something that was important to me after reading the book and having the series flesh out Serena by humanizing her a little more. Yes, she’s the villain. Yes, she’s the evil character, but she also has feelings. It was important for me to try to attempt to have audiences connect with her in some way, shape or form emotionally because she is so unrelatable in every other way. I was going to say in a lot of ways, but I’m gonna say she’s unrelatable because she’s evil.

There’s a real sense of sadness with Serena.

On paper she is so evil, but where does she draw the line? I feel like Serena is so complicated because she is one of those authority figures who created this society, but now she has to live in it. She’s realizing it’s not so great for her either. On some level, she’s also dealing with a lot oppression as a female because she’s been stripped of her rights, to a degree. How do you deal with the complexities of trying to negotiate the fact that you did this to yourself, but also you’re living it and it doesn’t feel so good anymore?

This week’s episode was particularly flashback-heavy and shifted the POV to Serena. What was it like to explore her life before Gilead? 

It felt really unnatural and weird. It really did. It felt like a big giant leap, but I think it’s an important one, because it’s heartbreaking. We’re following the story of Offred and Ofglen and all these amazing characters who are suffering in some way, shape or form, but I think this is a story about how everyone is suffering.

Having those flashbacks with her finding some sort of happiness and meaning and place for herself in the world is important to show, even though I personally struggle to not judge her and totally disagree with what she’s doing as a passive bystander when women are totally losing their rights. 

The flashback scene where Serena isn’t allowed to speak in a meeting about the creation of this new society because she is a woman stood out to me. 

That scene was hugely important to me because it bridged that gap between Serena Joy pre-Gilead, as we see in those flashbacks, and then Serena Joy in Gilead. We spend so much time focusing on the current Gilead, so suddenly in Episode 6, the flashbacks were really hard to imagine after setting up this pent-up, very uptight character. The biggest thing on my mind was at what one point did Serena Joy exit the conversation about how Gilead was going to be set up.

I think that’s the beginning of the demise of her former self and the demise of her and the commander’s relationship. That’s where her rights started getting taken away and she no longer has a voice. It’s this weird line she walks of having a pure intention to begin with of saving the world and creating more babies in a religious-based way. Somewhere along the line, it got obviously really messed up.

Serena and the Commander (Joseph Fiennes) actually share a consensual and loving sex scene in the flashbacks. What was it like to film a sex scene that wasn’t so dark? 

It kind of felt like a normal day of a different show that wasn’t “The Handmaids Tale.” It wasn’t rigid. The walls are very thick and high in Gilead and as each character, we live bound by those parameters, so to have those parameters let go and just shoot a scene that seems pure, loving, passionate and intimate just kind of seemed like a normal day at work instead of working on material that’s really confronting very potent issues and themes. 

How did it differ from the ceremony scenes you share with Elisabeth Moss and Joseph Fiennes? What goes through your mind when you’re all in bed together? 

In the actual moment, it’s pure rage for Serena. She’s lost a lot also. She’s lost her ability to do her work as an author or a spokeswoman. She’s lost her right to connect to her husband sexually. She’s got a lot of emptiness inside her, so she holds onto the one thing that will make her life better there, and that’s having a baby. Serena also has no way out. It’s not like she can leave her house, the country or the Commander. In a way, it’s her own story of survival, but she just happens to be doing really shitty things while she’s surviving. 

I’ve always had this image of her as a boiling pot of water on a stove with the lid tightly on. Every so often, the boiling water inside gets [to be] too much and it has to release and the lid lifts and she releases her rage. There’s just no release in Gilead, so when she can abuse her power and release some of that pent-up rage, she does. 

Did you stay in character during the ceremony scenes? How did you break the tension?

No, I think I would go insane if I stayed in that mode the whole time. We have to let go. Although, I do have to say mentally it was hard to let go of Serena because she is so complex and has all these dualities that feels like a puzzle sometimes. She did stay with me in my brain for the most part of shooting the show. 

We’re not, like, freaky-deaky toward each other on set. It’s a very normal cast and crew and we all like to come to set because it’s just a workday for us. After we get past “How was your weekend?” and “How was your night last night?” we switch gears and get into this kind of stuff. 

What do you make of Serena’s smoking habit? It seems to be one the few obvious cracks in her “perfect wife” facade. 

I sort of saw it as a calming thing and also something to do. There’s just not a whole lot that she has to do in this society. She’s the master of the house and she’s supposed to take care of all things domestic. But I just feel like there would be that element of boredom if you’re in that situation. What do you do? She paints, knits and she smokes because there are no other things to do our outlets. The smoking thing did really seem to me like a time-passing mechanism or a calming mechanism when things get too much for Serena when she’s about to blow. 

Hulu has renewed “The Handmaid’s Tale” for a second season. What are your thoughts on the series moving away from the text and into uncharted territory?  

I’m excited by the prospect. I feel like each of these characters have so much to offer and there’s a lot to explore. I love that we’ve been given this opportunity to spend these 10 episode reflecting what Maragaret Atwood’s book originally told us, but now we have these established characters, so we can take them places. It feels like there are a lot of places to go because we are in such a rigid society, so when everything is so pent up and rigid there a lot of rules to be broken. For someone like Serena, it would be really interesting to see her belief system challenged against her own will. I would love to see her own walls that she built herself crumble around her.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

New episodes of the “The Handmaid’s Tale” are available every Wednesday on Hulu. 

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