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Madeline Brewer in The Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid Tale's Madeline Brewer on Janine's suffering and hope

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May 17, 2018

One of the more tragic stories featured in Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is that of Janine (Madeline Brewer), or the Handmaid known as Ofwarren and then, Ofdaniel. First introduced in the Red Center alongside June (Elisabeth Moss), Janine became the example of what happens when you disobey the mandates of Gilead and Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd). Her eye was taken as punishment and she then spiraled into an odd, child-like shadow of her former self.

At the end of Season 1, Janine gave birth to Commander Putnam’s child and then threatened to drown the newborn because he didn’t leave his wife. Sentenced to be stoned to death, the other Handmaids refused to perform Janine’s killing, which set the stage for Season 2.

Spared, Janine was exiled to the Colonies in "Unwomen." In the latest episode, “Seeds,” we get to see how Janine and Emily (Alexis Bledel) are faring in the bleak, irradiated landscape. Unexpectedly, it’s Janine who helps inspire the dying women to embrace their little pockets of hope in the desolation. SYFY FANGRRLS talked with actress Madeline Brewer about the challenges of playing Janine and how the show and the #MeToo movement has impacted her own life.

First off, Janine is a tough character for the audience to embrace. It must be even more challenging for you.

I don't ever feel like I 100% understand Janine, so I'll just say that. I'm constantly discovering things about her, so my ideas about her are constantly changing. There are some things that are totally steadfast, but, she's elusive sometimes. I will say, I have a very profound faith in that, what you give is what you get. I'm not exactly a religious person but I am very spiritual. My faith falters at times. But I have a very, very strong faith in work ethic, for lack of a better way of putting it. I guess because I am an actress and you have to have a little bit of blind faith to do this and succeed, I can relate to Janine in that way and her [belief] this wouldn't have happened this way if something good wasn't meant to come from it. She's like, “I would have been dead by now if it were meant to be, but I'm not.”

Since her punishment, Janine has devolved into a zealot of sorts, so how do you keep her sympathetic in your performance choices?

I think a lot of that for me is in the writing. It’s about keeping Janine true to herself throughout. And really discovering her humanity. Our writers are brilliant but there is only so much that can come off the page, and I want to make sure that when I translate someone who is not necessarily relatable, that there is something about her that you can feel. Where you go, “Oh, I see you and I hear you.” And something that makes Janine such a joy to play is that she is so complicated and so different from so many other characters on television, and especially in the world of Gilead. But she's not so far-fetched that you don't feel for her.

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Janine’s relationship with Aunt Lydia is unique. It’s like a toxic mother/daughter dynamic. How was it building that with Ann Dowd?

Storytime really quick. When I went in for my final callback for Janine, I had just read on Deadline that Ann Dowd had been cast as Aunt Lydia. I had worked with Ann on my very first movie ever called Hedgehog. That had been about a year before. So, I walked in the [audition] room and I was like, “Congratulations on Ann Dowd! She's incredible.” (Laughs)

Ann’s just a really, really special performer but also a really, really special human being. She's so unique. She is one-of-a-kind. So, I think just naturally that relationship that I've had with Ann before came over into the relationship between Janine and Aunt Lydia. There's a very strong love there. I admire her. I love her so much. She's a great friend and confidant and mentor in every single way.

So, you really don’t have to create Janine’s love for Lydia. It comes organically. 

Exactly, which is bizarre but it's so comforting at the same time. And I don't know which came first, the chicken or the egg. Was it our relationship that spawned that relationship between Janine and Aunt Lydia, or was it already written that way and that just brought us closer? Whatever the case, Ann makes everyone around her feel comfortable and safe and appreciated, which then allows you, as the person acting opposite her, to just feel free to explore, and to f*ck up, and to make mistakes. And then we work it out and discuss the scene together. The relationship between Janine and Aunt Lydia is one of my favorite of my whole life, honestly.

But while Aunt Lydia has a soft spot for Janine, she was also ready to have her killed. So, that’s got to sink in for Janine too?

Yeah, that clues us a lot to where Janine is in the second season. Aunt Lydia's words carry weight for her. But I also think that Janine recognizes that Aunt Lydia is not perfect. God loves Aunt Lydia and Janine is searching for all this forgiveness. I feel like she has a lot of regrets, so she wants to be forgiven and she finds that in God. And she recognizes that God can love Aunt Lydia, and Aunt Lydia loves me.

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In “Seeds,” we finally get to see how Janine is existing in the camp. Emily has no time for her Pollyanna ways, and like her, the audience has to come to see that Janine’s outlook is actually a good thing.

Yes. In the first season, Janine tries to find the light in the darkness for the very exact reason, that if she doesn't, she will kill herself. She cannot deal. So, she is scraping by with what little light she can find, like when we're cleaning blood off of the wall, and it kind of looks like we're painting. 

But then, after we see that Janine has skirted death twice now, she feels that there has been this divine miracle that is her life and she needs to appreciate it. When we see her in the second season, the light that she finds is because she has a genuine appreciation for life, and a gratitude just for being alive, still. When we find her in the Colonies, that's how she looks at the world now and that's where she is in that scene with Emily. She wants to bring more light into the world because I feel like she spent so much time not appreciating it.

Janine doesn’t really get many light moments. Does that get oppressive for you as a person, having to wade in such dire circumstances throughout production?

I don't really bring a lot home. But truly, when I play Janine, I put the eye on and I'm Janine. And then I take the eye off and I'm no longer Janine. I take the red robes off and I'm no longer in Gilead. So, it's a very physical change for me. It's really quite easy. But after those more emotional days or just long days. I come home. I take a bath and I go to bed. I just chill ‘cause I just gotta get out of it.

How has working on the show changed you, in terms of your own activism, or just how you look at the world differently participating in this story?

For me personally, especially coinciding with the #MeToo movement, Janine is a survivor of sexual assault and rape. I play Janine in a way where that is something that has happened to her, but it's not something that defines her. I know there are a lot of women like that. There are also a lot of women who aren't like that, who find an identity in it, which is fine. Whatever helps you cope. I think it's been very important that the #MeToo movement is coinciding with this because on our show we have women being raped monthly. And some women don't live in Gilead, and that is also their reality. It’s made me realize the importance of telling your stories because you never know what story you tell that will empower another person to tell theirs and allow them the catharsis of telling their story and being heard. I've realized that a lot through this season, from working on The Handmaid's Tale and from the #MeToo movement.

The Handmaid's Tale is released Wednesdays on Hulu.

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