Elisabeth Moss Talks The Handmaid's Tale — & How It's Definitely A Feminist Show

Photo: George Kraychyk/Hulu
It has not been easy to watch The Handmaid's Tale. Hulu's latest scripted endeavour, an adaptation of Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel of the same name, feels as contemporary as ever. In a world where a woman's right to choose seems newly threatened on the daily, watching a series about the world's last remaining fertile women being used as "hosts" for the children of elite men is, frankly, chilling. Hearing a woman reduced to "whore" and blamed for the rape committed against her is nauseating — not because these things never happen in our world, but because, somewhere on the globe, they have.
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We are witness to this new world order through the eyes of Offred, a woman torn from her daughter and forced to work as a "handmaid" for Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes). Offred — whose real name is June — is portrayed by Mad Men star Elisabeth Moss, an actress capable of revealing June's inner life with merely a glance. The role was by no means an easy one, but one that Moss, who spoke with Refinery29 at the Handmaid's Tale press day, revealed was an extremely important one.
How does The Handmaid's Tale fit into our political climate in 2017?
"Unfortunately, the parallels are undeniable, between the issues that are talked about on the show and the issues that are currently on the table in our country. It's an unfortunate relevance."
Were there any specific scenes in the show where you thought 'This could happen in 2017?'
"All of them, in a way. We're not quite there yet, thankfully. Margaret talks about this, about the minute the police... open fire on the protest is a turning point. That's not something that hasn't happened in history. Obviously, we've had many protests that have ended in brutality. Thankfully, with the Women's March, we were allowed to protest. There are certain things [in the show] that maybe haven't gotten there yet, but at the same time, everything in the book has happened at some point in history. Margaret has been very specific about that. Everything in that book has happened at some point, and sometimes in America, which I think is important to remember.
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"I see shades of it. When people take away your right to protest, when they take away your right to do what you want with your body, when people use the word 'host' to describe women, it sends chills down your spine. It would if I wasn't on this show. So I see shades, terrifying, chilling shades of [the real world], everyday."
You spoke about how the sex scenes were never easy to film on the show. What was the most challenging part of filming those scenes?
"The most challenging thing is figuring out what happens in that situation. I chose to, in the first [ceremony scene we shot], that in that situation — which is really a sexual assault — my choice was to go somewhere else... To be present would be too painful. [The scene] is a rape, it's non-consensual sex, but [Offred] can't physically fight back. There's nothing she can do... Any time you take away someone's right to choose something, that's oppression. These women are in this prison system. If they fight back they'll be abused, or killed, or maimed. They may be walking around and looking docile and looking like they're not fighting back, but they are completely enslaved."
What was the hardest scene to film?
"The ceremony is hard, but I think besides the ceremony scene, which is unpleasant and difficult to do and be in that moment... I welcome the challenges of my job, so the more 'difficult' scene the more I enjoy doing my job. There's one scene at the end of episode 3 where I get interrogated by Ann Dowd [who plays Aunt Lydia], and I don't move until I'm hit with the cattle prod. I basically stand on one spot and go through this emotional arc. That was challenging... There's a scene in episode 10, which, when it airs, I will be able to talk about as my hardest scene."
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Recently there was some controversy over The Handmaid's Tale cast not using the word "feminism" to describe the series at a panel at the Tribeca Film Festival. What was your reaction to that backlash?
"I welcome any time feminism enters a conversation. I would firstly say, obviously, it is a feminist work. This is Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. I've been filming it for six months, I've been involved with it for a year, I've read the book nine million times. It is a feminist show, it is a feminist book, and as a card-carrying feminist, I am proud of that. [Regarding the controversy at the TriBeca Film Festival panel], I think there is a very important word, which is 'also.' I think that it is a feminist work, and it is also a humanist work, which is what I believe Margaret says as well, so I'll defer to the author of the book on that one.
"Women's rights are human rights, hence how it becomes a humanist work. I also welcome this conversation, I wouldn't even categorise it as a backlash, in my opinion. Yes, let's talk about this. It's when we don't talk about it, and when we aren't allowed to air our opinions, is when we run into a problem. Let's talk. Let's bring it into the conversation."
When did you read The Handmaid's Tale for the first time?
"I read it for the first time as a teenager, but it almost feels like I didn't because my relationship with it is so much deeper and more personal now. It's almost like a different book to me, because now I know it inside and out... and yet I feel like I could read it again and discover new things about it. In fact that will happen to me now, I'll come across a new passage in the book, and be like 'Oh, right!' It's just so complex... There's a difference between reading something in an abstract way, and reading it knowing you're going to play [one of the characters]."
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Was there any scene that made you particularly emotional?
"Yeah. The day after the [2016 Presidential] election, [Joseph Fiennes, who plays The Commander] and I had a scene and it was one... where we quote from the book... He says 'We were trying to make things better,' and Offred goes 'Better?' and he says 'Better doesn't always mean better for everyone. It's always worse for some.' And I couldn't help but feel stabbed in the heart. Any emotion you see in that scene is very real. That doesn't always happen. I'm an actor, I literally fake things, I pretend. I'm not a method actor at all. It was completely involuntary. I couldn't help but feel affected by that, given the [results] of the election."
How do you prepare to get into your role?
"I always make a playlists. In this case I made two: One for Offred, One for June. It's forever expanding, I'm always adding and putting new things in it. I put our composer [Adam Taylor's] music in it for the show, because he was composing music as we went along... For me it's not about getting into an emotional dark place, it's just about not being distracted, shutting down any outside noise a little bit... Often on set there are a lot of people around, and sometimes you can engage with people... and I do that all the time, but sometimes you need to preserve your energy a little bit. It's all about not exhausting yourself."
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What's on your playlists for Offred and June?
"Offred is mostly soundtracks and orchestral. A lot of Max Richter. Clint Mansell, [who did] The Fountain soundtrack, there's always a lot of Philip Glass on my playlists. Johan Johansson... Radiohead, the latest album. "Burn The Witch?" Listen to this song. It's like it was written for The Handmaid's Tale.
"For June, it's more contemporary. Again, Radiohead. There's this song by Allman Brown called "Sons And Daughters..." I sent it to [O-T Fagbenle], who plays Luke, because I think this is Luke and June's song. There's a song called "Slip" by Elliot Moss which is Nick and June's song. Muse, "Madness." [June's playlist] is more contemporary."
The Handmaid's Tale uses a lot of '80s songs, including Blondie's "Heart Of Glass" and Simple Minds' "Don't You Forget About Me." Can you talk about why those music choices were made?
"I found [that version of 'Heart Of Glass.'] I was looking for Philip Glass music, and I came across that, it's Glass mixed with Blondie... I thought it was the most perfect song for the show. I played it for [director Reed Morano,] and Anne Crabtree our costume designer, and we all just fell in love with it... Reed decided to put in the show during the protest scene, which is the perfect place for it. That song gives me chills just talking about it.
"For ['Don't You Forget About Me,' which plays when Offred returns home], we were shooting that scene, and Reed and I just felt like we were in an '80s movie with that scene... I'm feeling super good, and then walking down the stairs to the driveway I see my crush, I think he likes me too, and we just felt like this was an '80s movie scene. So we thought, well, what's a great '80s song? And The Breakfast Club song came to mind. We didn't even think we'd be able to do it, but luckily thanks to Hulu and MGM, who have been so supportive of our choices, we were able to get it and use it in the show."
The first series of The Handmaid's Tale is shown on Channel 4 on Sundays at 9pm.
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