Exclusive: Joseph Fiennes on what he's learned playing the oppressor in The Handmaid's Tale

Contributed by
May 3, 2017, 3:30 PM EDT

Sitting in a cozy room with a fire blazing, chatting over a cup of very civilized tea is the antithesis of the reality Joseph Fiennes lived while playing the Commander in Hulu's television adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale. As one of the architects of Gilead's religious totalitarian government, the Commander would recognize the luxury of the moment, but the very idea of having a casual conversation with a woman about politics, religion and patriarchal norms would be entirely out of the question.

The dichotomy of the moment is not lost on the British actor known for his theater work, film and roles in genre series like Flashforward and American Horror Story. The actor says even pretending to live in a world where women are literally chattels for birthing was sobering, and changed how he interacts with women on a deep level.

In our exclusive interview, Fiennes and I talk about the impact of Atwood's book on his perception, whether the Commander is villain and how he hopes the series becomes part of the current political dialogue raging in the United States ... and the world.

Let's start with your exposure to Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale as a book. Had you read it prior to being offered the role of the Commander?

Joseph Fiennes: My mother was a novelist, and Atwood was a huge inspiration to her. I myself knew the name, but never read any of her books until now. I was given the pilot to make my decision on, and the book, obviously. Bruce Miller had done an extraordinary adaption, but the adaptation to get from the script to the finished product is another stage, and for that we have to celebrate the extraordinary gifts of [director] Reed Morano, and lighting design of Colin Watkinson, and the huge team behind it.

Did the book feel especially prescient to you reading it in light of our current world?

Everything that is depicted in the book is everything we have witnessed to date. Whether you look at any religion, be it Christianity or Islam or whatever, there are certain rules and restrictions on women, so we've experienced it. With Trump and the administration, I feel like it was written 30 years ago, and it was prescient then and it's been prescient every day since then up to now.

Did you have any initial concerns you discussed with Miller before taking the role?

What I felt from the book was how can you go from the first person -- which is so much of the book -- and the character of Offred and her strength and the inspiration she has through surviving, how can we get that voice? Voice-over is inherently a difficult device. Atwood so deftly writes with the energy of the ball constantly in the air, yet she can segue way for a page or two with Offred's thoughts, and come back to the room in the present day. How can you do that with editing and cutting? It could be jarring to do that. My big surprise is I feel they have really delivered in keeping the energy and momentum of the narrative, of her personality vivid, alive and arresting, and it never drops. So when Bruce said, "Do you want to come and play?" I thought of a lovely quote by Montaigne: "Seriousness in art is of no avail; joy is the only guide." I thought Bruce was speaking my language. I like the idea that it wasn't fear-driven. That was a big thing when I said I like this guy, along with Atwood and Reed and Lizzie Moss.

All of the book characters are expressed through Offred's point of view, which in theory is inherently limiting for actors outside of Elizabeth Moss. Was that a concern, just in how much that allowed you to explore your character?

With the first person both on the page and the filming, it's called The Handmaid's Tale, and so it's got to be through her perspective, so I entertained that knowingly. And the Commander's quite enigmatic anyway, so it serves up a little bit of the suspense. Also added to that is the idea that so much of what is being depicted of the Commander is her perspective of him. So if she's nervous about something that might happen, she's projecting all the time, as much as I have to allow the space for her to imagine the worst, but maybe it's not be the worst. It's wonderfully complex, and I like that.

How important do you think the Commander is in the structure of Gilead?

I think he's one of the architects. He's a component and I've got a feeling he was a Pollster, someone who was brilliant at branding, figures, numbers, marketing and he was brought in. He's a player for certain but not the big Machiavellian figure. There's a lovely description Atwood gives of him being this "failed, limp, appendage that lives inside a tough boot," so there's an outer and inner to him. And I think the inner possibly knows the fragility, the conceit and the vulnerability of the world because he breaks his rules, as they all do. As people in power are wont to do, they get dizzy on it and break the rules. I think he's cognizant to a degree.

How would you define the odd relationship between Offred and the Commander?

There's a bit in the book where she looks down the window at him getting into a car and she says, "I don't love him, and I don't hate him." There's this wonderful complexity, almost the complexity you get with a kidnapper and captive. It's that kind of syndrome going on.

Were there conversations about how to reveal the Commander, and expand him outside of the constraints of the book?

It was a big question when we first started out, which was please explain him to me because the book is not that long and television likes to absorb it rapidly. Actually in episode two, there was a moment when they interact where he gets her to kiss him, and we pulled back on having that early and saved it. There's more drawing it out, so unlike TV, it's quite cinematic. We really allow these beats to play and don't get pushed and bullied into revealing all. I think there's such depth and complexity to it that you want to enjoy, and see those beats play out. So in one sense, we've gone opposite in elongating it. At the same time, bringing in things that aren't in the book, or going down points of view that aren't in the book. But for instance there are many places mentioned, the Colonies being one, maybe we could visit the Colonies.

Season 2 would be a place where more deviation could occur with all of the characters.

Yes, but the one creative issue is how do you keep it cinematically from her perspective? That's difficult because then you know it's no longer from her. It throws up some challenges on perspectives from a cinematic point of view. I think they'll be stuff added, and we'll be exploring all of the characters who may not be in the room with Offred. But at the same time, there's no doubting this is her story. It is firmly rooted in her perspective.

The Commander is sort of in this bent triangle with Offred and his severe wife, Serena Joy, played by Yvonne Strahovski. Talk about playing out that dynamic and working with these two women?

It's interesting that the walking red is symbolic of the walking womb, and it's something that is empty and barren in the household of the Waterford's. It's the ghost, and the character we don't see that haunts them, and [Serena]. The subject of fertility and what that means in society has repercussions in our society, yet we are seeing an explosion of population unlike the toxic world of Gilead which doesn't have kids. There's a precious need for babies, which puts even more pressure on the wives and the women to have babies. It's an interesting dynamic that might fracture a strong relationship. And I do believe there is great strength and love there [between the Waterford's], but there's a belief and they're architects of that belief. The architects can have as much downfall as those who are forced to join the regime. I feel that there are these masks they play, but there's the suffering of Yvonne. She's wonderful. Her poise and beauty, elegance and intelligence. They're also surviving.

And what Lizzie's doing is not only surviving it, but she's deeply inspirational within the world of surviving. She's a phenomenal actress, really. The brutality of what she's doing every day, and the hours she's doing! The woman is extraordinary and beautiful to watch. And there's a flawed nature [to Offred] which I love in the book. So much of needing survival in Gilead is about skin contact. She's bereft of her child and that need of that skin contact. And her husband. She finds it through other means and that's flawed. It might be abhorrent, and brutal and abusive, but at the same time is what's complex in Atwood's writing is that it's a form of contact, and form of survival. I love that flawed nature, and she plays it brilliantly.

Do we get to see more of what made the Waterford's who they are now?

In the middle of the season, we get to go back in his life with his wife and we get to explore how they became this. I think he falls into it and likes the sense, and smell and whiff of power in the uniform and what it gives him.

With the announcement of a Season 2, Miller talked about breaking out into non-book territory. Did you talk about that before the end of Season 1 production much?

What you see in the book, you'll get in the first series. After that, I have inquired but I'm so focused in the now. Of course, you would love it to play out. The question is whether we, because it's such an amazing team, can keep the tone, the quality, the complexity, the momentum and politics, whether it's sexual or not, going? The first season is set up by the book, and I think it offers the writers who are so schooled in the Atwood world how to juggle those themes. I have every confidence they will be able to move forward.

What's really interesting is the book by the end, the tapes that are played and revealed in the lecture hall years later makes it seem like Gilead was this blip that happened and got through it. It's a tape, and maybe they unearth another recording? But it's a snatched moment and maybe it gives writers a prospect for finding copy and narrative with the idea of unearthing moments in tapes. It gives you a sense that it's loose in one sense and you could explore beyond.

At the end of this experience, did you take away a better sense of gender dynamics?

I kind of feel on the bigger picture, yes. But also on the very subtle picture of male/female interactions of the corporate world. I come from film and television, where is it an equal playing field? Pay, is it an equal playing field? So there are takeaways just in terms of the way I am playing the Commander and interacting with Offred and Lizzie, and I can't help but have an internal dialogue about my position as a man, and how am I conditioned about how I interact, and what restrictions do I place on it in subtle ways? There are very small dynamics that are inherent in our conditioning to look out for, whether it's the bigger picture of being completely constricted as a woman, or the subtleties.

Are you happy with how it's come together as a piece?

For the huge Atwood fans, and The Handmaid's Tale fans, we want to make sure we've done justice to that material. I think everyone is cognizant that it's an adaptation, and by virtue: you win some, you lose some. But I think it's as brilliant and as close as you can get.

What do you hope it does in terms of impacting audiences, and how they react to what unfolds?

In terms of politics, it's definitely prescient. It's like Shakespeare, where it won't ever go out of fashion because there's always something to draw from. But I do think it throws into a sharper focus with President Trump, who has a history of not releasing his tax returns, can say appalling things about women, and possibly do appalling things to women and not be held to account, and is a father figure and a leader in the most powerful position in the world, which is kind of frightening. Positions he and his administration might take on politics, religion and sexuality would leave a lot of people for concern. I think maybe this is a wonderful cautionary tale in terms of that.

It's certainly gotten people talking.

I'm thrilled because I love having those conversations myself, and if there's a show that describes the complexity we're in through this speculative future, although I think it's right now and here, I think that's brilliant. I'm proud as can be that I might be involved in something feel arrested by, and have a wonderful conversation that throws up all of the opinions and thoughts that we need to explore. This is a time for art, if ever there was a time. Without being too finger-pointing, it allows us the space to explore without being too confrontational.

The Handmaid's Tale is streaming now on Hulu.