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Awards Contenders: How The Handmaid's Tale cast choreographed a spontaneous musical
Welcome to Awards Contenders. This month, SYFY WIRE is talking to the actors, directors, designers, and craftspeople whose work was featured in the best movies and TV offerings of 2019, and who are now the leading awards nominees. Today, we're speaking with the SAG-nominated ensemble cast of The Handmaid's Tale.
Between takes and behind the scenes, The Handmaid's Tale started to turn into a musical.
It began when the actresses playing the Marthas made up a song about working to undermine the Gilead regime from within. "It's a cheery song, but with subversive lyrics underneath the cheeriness," says Kristen Gutoskie, who plays the Martha known as Beth. "The Marthas seem like they're being of service to the Commanders, but they're actually doing all this insidious stuff."
To demonstrate, Gutoskie sings a line for us: "We're the Marthas, we're the Marthas, we'll put arsenic in your tea" — a reference to Aunt Martha from Arsenic and Old Lace, who helped poison men in her care. "It has an old school vibe," Gutoskie says. "Maybe it's not going to be a Top 40 hit, but it was something fun, and I forced everyone into singing that with me."
From there, Amanda Brugel, who plays the Martha known as Rita, came up with a dance to go with the song, and started to teach the other cast members the moves. "I still need to learn the choreography," Gutoskie says with a laugh.
Not to be outdone, the actresses who play the Handmaids decided they needed a dance of their own. This time, the instigator was Nina Kiri, who plays Alma. It was the end of a long day, after an intense scene in Season 3, Episode 8, where June accuses Natalie (aka Ofmatthew) of not wanting her unborn child. This meant that a lot of background actors dressed as Handmaids were on hand, and Kiri decided they should do something a little silly to let off some steam.
"The show is so heavy and dark, and none of us are very heavy or dark people," explains Madeline Brewer, who plays Janine. "Everybody on this show could do a comedy. It's a bunch of really smart, really funny people." In fact, they've come up with a bunch of The Handmaid's Tale/Mean Girls crossover jokes. (For instance: "On Wednesdays, we wear red," which seriously needs to be a T-shirt.)
Kiri, Brewer, LaThorp, and Watson, who plays Brianna (aka Oferic), often sing and dance just when hanging out in their trailers. This time, though, they had a large group all in costume, which offered this unique musical opportunity. "We should all do a dance," Kiri announced during a meal break. "We were like, 'Let's do it,'" says Ashleigh LaThrop, who plays Natalie. "'Let's come up with steps.'"
Although there was no music to use as a guide, Kiri, operating as the set choreographer, came up with a routine within a few minutes. From there, she taught the choreography to the other Handmaid actresses, including Elisabeth Moss, who plays June, who helped out with a few movements toward the end of the routine. Says LaThrop, "She was like, 'I want to be a part of this!'" "Pretty soon, we knew this dance, and we lined up in formation," Brewer says.
Then the Handmaid dance troupe begged episode director Mike Barker to film them doing the moves, thinking he would do so on his iPhone. But he volunteered to do it for real, using the production's cameras. Ann Dowd, who plays Aunt Lydia, gave the Handmaids a countdown and tapped out a beat for them. "If they didn't want us to be a dance troupe," Watson says, "they shouldn't have put us in the same uniform, you know? Because these things happen."
"My favorite part is at the end, when the background Handmaids all scatter to the back," Brewer says.
When it was shown to the other actors on set, the Handmaids' little dance triggered a flash mob – the video became a challenge. Says LaThrop, "We were like, 'Basically, anyone that's not a Handmaid, it's now up to you.'"
"Amanda Brugel and Yvonne Strahovski were like, 'Oh no, we have to have our own!'" Brewer says. "It became this whole thing where the Marthas and the Wives were all doing dances at the end of their big days, too."
Since the actors playing the Commanders and their Wives already had a ballroom dance scene to shoot, that became the perfect occasion to stage a response. Strahovski, who plays Serena, told the actors assembled that the gauntlet had been thrown down by the Handmaids and that they'd have to step up. And according to Joseph Fiennes, who plays Commander Waterford, Strahovski "masterfully" choreographed the moves in about 30 seconds. "I learned the dance in a bit of a haze," Fiennes says, "because it was so late. And we had our crew of some 200 ballroom dancers responding in kind to the Handmaids."
"It was so satisfying how the other crews took it so seriously," Watson says. "And it was shot beautifully and became a real thing."
For some added star power, Taylor Swift's song "ME!" was added to a cut of the three dance videos that were mixed together after the fact.
"The tension in this deeply complex dystopian drama, you could cut with a knife," Fiennes says. "So it's lovely to let the oxygen back in. Some good, fun-loving oxygen, via giggles and dancing."
"I feel like it's a bit of a relief for everyone," Watson says. "It helps show that maybe things aren't completely hopeless, you know?"