As sophisticated as we consumers of pop culture are, sometimes the opinions and impressions we have of certain characters bleed unconsciously into our feelings toward the actors portraying them.
It’s like that hazy feeling of dread you get when you put on a fragrance you last wore during a breakup: You don’t quite know why a scent you love suddenly makes you feel sad or uneasy.
Something similar happens to me when I hear from Yvonne Strahovski, the 35-year-old Australian actress who stars in The Handmaid’s Tale. She has arrived for our cover shoot but isn’t sure if she’s at the right place. I’m a little nervous to go outside to retrieve her. And while there’s usually a bit of nerves before I meet any celebrity, my uneasiness has a slightly different, lived-in flavour. It’s almost as if we’ve met before and it didn’t go well.
We haven’t, of course. But I have become somewhat familiar with the chilling character Strahovski plays on the award-winning zeitgeist-defining show. Rationally, I know she and Serena Joy aren’t the same person, even though they look remarkably similar. Still, it’s jarring, in a very good way, to see the difference up close.
The only reason the difference between Serena and Strahovski is jarring at all is because Strahovski embodies her character so perfectly. It’s a role that doesn’t come easy. “She’s so harsh, but at the same time I want to find the humanity in her,” Strahovski tells me. “She’s so unrelatable, but I try to make her relatable through what she’s going through emotionally, even though I feel like she resents her own emotions.”
A quick character recap for those who haven’t followed the series (or read the Margaret Atwood modern classic upon which it is based): In the world of The Handmaid’s Tale, most women are infertile. In a now-theocratic United States (renamed Gilead—and, actually, it’s not the entire country), religious zealots force women into a brutal class system wherein the few remaining fertile women are given to couples as surrogates—never by consent, of course. Serena and her husband, Fred, are given a handmaid played by Elisabeth Moss.
What would already be a difficult and cruel situation—having your husband ritually rape another woman so you can have a child—is made more complicated for Serena by the fact that as an author and a religious activist in the world before, she helped bring about this new society in which women are without rights and unable to work or even read. Serena’s sense of betrayal inspires even greater cruelty toward her handmaid. It’s an astounding performance—sad and infuriating and utterly compelling. Watching her, you wonder how Strahovski finds her way into playing such an icy character.
“She’s so unrelatable, but I try to make her relatable through what she’s going through emotionally, even though I feel like she resents her own emotions.”
“I had to strip away all the judgments people place on Serena, because she is basically a nasty, awful bitch,” she says. “I thought about how she was betrayed by her husband. I also thought about how she had had a voice in constructing this society and how her intentions came from a pure place. She was trying to inspire women to go back to their biological destiny to produce babies in this time of dire need. But along the way, she lost her voice, and she lost a lot of her own rights, so there’s this emotional space that she’s in, where she’s lonely and bitter, knowing that she put herself in this spot. But she has to play along.”
And despite what some actors say about the thrill of playing villains over heroes, Serena doesn’t seem like much fun to play. When the show took off last year, so many of Strahovski’s interviews included her talking about how hard the whole experience was. She’s an emotional person, she says—a crier—so playing a role that inflicts so much pain on others isn’t exactly fun. Fulfilling, sure, but that’s different. “It’s hard because my heart breaks often on the show for what is happening to someone else,” she says.
This isn’t Strahovski’s first major role—or even her first complicated one. Yet being a part of The Handmaid’s Tale does represent a kind of newish chapter for her. After graduating from theatre school in Sydney (and starting and briefly running her own theatre company with a friend), she came to America when she was 24. She wasn’t expecting—or even looking for—her big break. She just wanted to make some impressions and learn a little about how Hollywood operates. Instead, she landed a lead role on the action/comedy series Chuck. For five years, she played a CIA agent—the kind that could shoot, fight and run away from explosions. After that came a role in the mini-series 24: Live Another Day (a continuation of the original TV show 24), where she also shot, fought and, presumably, ran away from explosions. More action roles came, too, both in films and, interestingly, in video games.
“I think all of us have some idea of how we think things are going to go in our lives,” she muses. “I always thought I would be doing period movies, because I grew up doing theatre, doing Shakespeare. I really enjoy reading all the classics. And then I landed Chuck.”
“I always thought I would be doing period movies, because I grew up doing theatre, doing Shakespeare. I really enjoy reading all the classics. And then I landed Chuck.”
It’s not that Chuck wasn’t valuable or interesting, but it carried a different weight than The Handmaid’s Tale does. During her Chuck era, Strahovski was cast as a kind of male fantasy—albeit a tough one. She says that she’s well aware of how actors can be typecast and how limiting that can be for their careers. “People take one look at you and they put you in a box,” she explains. “Whatever your race, culture, look, height, size—all of it. I think my pigeonhole was also specific. When you’re running around with guns, playing a CIA agent, it can be hard to break out of that.”
But it wasn’t as hard as she thought it would be. After a couple of seasons on Dexter and a play on Broadway, she felt confident enough to push for the role of Serena Joy. And—nothing against the genre fare she cut her teeth on—it’s exciting to see an actress move into a different stratum. Today she’s on an award-winning show that has become a cultural touchpoint for the #MeToo movement.
In a way, Strahovski’s career path—and the characters she’s played—mirrors the goals and arc of this post-Weinstein feminist wave. It’s not just about women being heroic and badass (that’s an important step, of course); it’s also true that creative equality offers women the freedom to play any well-rounded, nuanced, self-directed character, regardless of whether that character is good, bad, liked or unlikable.
“I think I have a pretty good handle on how to survive in this business,” says Strahovski. “So much of it comes down to just being myself. It reminds me of the feminist movement that’s happening right now. It’s about being able to tell your stories and not having to be prim and proper. And it’s probably also because I’m getting older.”
“So much of it comes down to just being myself. It reminds me of the feminist movement that’s happening right now. It’s about being able to tell your stories and not having to be prim and proper. And it’s probably also because I’m getting older.”
She’s also better at coping with her demanding role on The Handmaid’s Tale. “Last year, it was harder to decompress. I was alone—and I also don’t do well in this freezing-cold weather!” she explains, adding that things are better now that her husband and two dogs have joined her in Toronto, where the series is being shot.
“We did an emotional scene last night, and we were joking around between takes,” she says with a smile. “And then we would go back into these serious faces with tears dripping out of our eyeballs. We’re getting to the point where we can kind of joke around.”
It’s not surprising that it took a year, a husband and two dogs to help her handle the weight of her new role. It can be hard separating the actress from the part, after all.