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The Handmaid's Tale's Yvonne Strahovski on Serena's Season 2 journey

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May 25, 2018

Critically acclaimed Hulu series The Handmaid’s Tale is deep into its second season, and this week's episode gives us a closer look at Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), one of the architects of the horror Offred (Elisabeth Moss) lives in. It’s a difficult episode, taking us from hoping to see some bit of reason from Serena to realizing how monstrous her actions have been and currently are.

Serena is a complex character, dealing with the disappointment of the reality of the future she helped bring about, desperate for a child in a world that is plagued with infertility, and often showing intense cruelty towards Offred. Strahovski received rave reviews for her performance as Serena, and she told FANGRRLS a bit about how the show is dealing with her further story, what it takes to bring the character to life, Serena’s journey in Season 2 and what the show means as part of the #MeToo movement.

I read the book back in 1994 and it scared the crap out of me. One of the things that I loved in the first season was the amount of backstory we get on Serena. 

It’s definitely part of the structure of the show and something that is obviously very interesting to see, how these people came about and how they became who they are today in the world of Gilead that we’re following. So yeah, we’re definitely going to keep plugging along down that road in flashbacks.

Did you get to talk to Margaret Atwood about her backstory?

I actually didn’t get to talk to Margaret Atwood about Serena. I had the book, which was a great springboard for me. I spoke more to Bruce Miller about Serena because he was the one that was fleshing her out even more, and allowing for the flashback moments to come in, and allowing her to flourish really in the world of TV, and this portrayal that we’re doing in television format. We had very extensive conversations about how we see Serena, and they continue to happen. Every episode that comes in, usually I’m picking up the phone and calling Bruce about something or other that I have a question about. [laughs]

One thing I love about the show is that so much of the acting is done through the eyes, and every time anyone says, “yes,” it seems to be a lie. Was that a conscious choice?

Yeah, definitely. That’s one of my favorite things about the show, was that no one is really saying what they’re saying with their words. [laughs] There are so many more things going on. It’s the beauty of what we get to do. Those circumstances are so intense and so emotional, and the stakes are so high, you know, more often than not, we’re not allowed to be saying what we really want to say, or show what we’re feeling. It offers so much to play with. It really highlights that world that we’re living in, that is so restricted and dangerous, and full of potential punishment around the corner, should we actually say what we really mean.

I know that, when you play a villain—if you consider Serena a villain—you have to justify her actions to yourself. I’m wondering how you did that, and how you managed to brush off the intensity of the role after shooting.

Yeah, the justification part was something that really didn’t sit well with me for the whole first season of shooting! [laughs] I just felt like I was justifying the worst behavior ever in my life that I had ever witnessed. I had to somehow come to grips with really and truly understanding it, which I do. And I really do understand Serena in so many ways so I sort of have that love/hate relationship with her. But I really see her as so human at the end of the day, and someone who is deeply affected by everything that happens around her, whether she shows it or not. Again, you know, she’s also living in a very oppressive society, so the choices for her to say what she means, or say how she feels truly, are also very limited. So it’s really a lot of fun to play with those levels. The shaking her off at the end of the day comes a lot easier in Season 2, just because I know her so well now. I don’t have to spend as much time with her in my brain as I did in Season 1! I can shake her off now. [laughs]

How much of the psychology of disappointment — and of a person like this — did you research?

Everything for me came from the words on the page, and from talking to Bruce. It was less about researching the psychology of people like that, or those kinds of political situations, than the humanity of that situation and how one is affected by it. There was a lot of—and it continues to be—it’s always a thought process, on the current circumstances and how they might be affecting someone on a core emotional level. It’s just that when you have something like Gilead be so dangerous—it’s such a dangerous place. The stakes are so, so high. There are so many potential reactions and emotions that come up in living in a world like that. That to me is the biggest part of the show, and the main focus for me in playing Serena is always anchoring myself in the humanity of how everything is affecting her. 

The first season was shot before the #MeToo movement became a big thing. Was there a different feel on set with this one?

Yeah. For me personally, yeah. It continues to be something that I’m really proud of, something that I’m proud to be a part of, because of how life is reflecting our art in a lot of ways, and the themes that are coming up in our show. There are such direct parallels, and I continue to be inspired by what’s happening in real life for our show, and vice versa, you know? I kind of feel like it goes hand in hand. For me, personally, it’s been quite impactful. I really do truly feel like a part of the movement, and I do feel like the show that we create has a small part to play in the movement that is going on in the real world. And that’s really special.

What can you tell us about Serena’s journey in Season 2?

I found in filming it to be very up and down, very tumultuous. I think she walks a lot of uncharted territory in a lot of ways, just in terms of what she’s prepared to deal with. I think she’s confronted with a lot more this season, and those confrontations, I think, challenge her in a lot of ways. That was really, really exciting to play. And also, it just feels like we just one-upped the previous season in terms of the journey of the individual characters, and then the dynamics that Serena has with everyone, particularly the Commander and with Offred. Those are the two primary relationships that we’ve seen her have. And those dynamics are even more challenging this season in so many different ways. That’s what I can say.

The Handmaid's Tale is released Wednesdays on Hulu.

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