Interview with Elisabeth Moss, star of The Handmaid's Tale
Q: Will you please tell me about the character you play and about the premise of the show?
A: The story takes place in an alternate world, called Gilead, where a fundamentalist regime has taken over. Gilead was once part of the United States. Due to environmental changes, and some environmental disasters, fertility has dropped exponentially in women. Only one in five babies are surviving, so this new regime has developed a way of procreating in hopes of continuing the race. The new ways that Gilead adopts are taken from some scripture in the Bible.
I play June, otherwise known as Offred, and I am the Handmaid that the tale is about. I play a woman who is fertile and any fertile woman is captured and enslaved and basically given to a couple who cannot have a baby. The husband has sex with the Handmaid in the hopes that they can get her pregnant. Then when she does get pregnant, they take the baby and she moves on.
Q: Can you tell me about the tone and feel of series? What was your approach in playing the character?
A: It's interesting…the show is about morality, but it is also so political. Bruce Miller (Creator, Writer and Executive producer) and I really wanted it to focus on the human aspect. Ultimately, it is the story of one woman who is in this world and in this situation. It was very important to us for the show to be relatable on a human level. We wanted it to be real and truthful. Stories that are told from the human level are the best stories. This story just happens to be in this world that is quite different from our world now. We want it to be beautiful looking and definitely cinematic but, at the same time, real and not look fake at all or overly art drafted or overly costumed. It has to have a reality to it for you to be able to believe that this is a possibility.
Q: In terms of genre, what type of show would you describe it as?
A: That's actually one of the most interesting things. We have found this show to be, genre-wise, very indescribable. It has a tone that is completely different from anything I've ever seen or been involved in. When you make something, especially when it's new, anyone will try to describe it by comparing it to other shows but The Handmaid’s Tale is unlike anything I've ever seen. It's very hard to put this show in a box.
The Handmaid’s Tale has darkness. It has complexities and horror and terrible truths in it. At the same time it has a very dark, but also humorous, side to it. It has love. It has romance. It has moments that are so inspiring and positive that it will make you cry out of hope and inspiration. It's very difficult to categorize this show into one particular genre. It’s a drama, yeah, but I think that the best dramas have a lot of humor in them, many different facets to them, and that was really important to us. It was important to all of us to make sure it was not something that was dreary all the time, that the show conveyed hope.
Q: What attracted you to this role and can you give us any additional insight into your character?
A: Bruce Miller, our Showrunner, and I talked when I was in Australia shooting. We got on the phone and we just kind of gabbed for like an hour and a half, like girlfriends. He's so funny and smart, personable and so easy to talk to and that was important to me. I knew he was a good writer. I knew the first two scripts were good before I signed on but it was important that I could have a conversation with the person that I would be working with day in and day out. I wanted to work with someone who I could laugh with and who would listen to me. Those are things that are important to me when signing on to a project. You must have a good relationship with the showrunner.
Immediately, I just kind of adored him and wanted to be friends with him. Luckily the feeling was mutual! He definitely had this huge job of adapting this prolific book. Really early on, after reading the first few scripts, I said to him, "I honestly don't know how you guys are doing this. You consistently surprise me with how you're adapting this. You're consistently wowing me. You are so smart." Bruce is such a genial, lovely, funny guy and you don't expect this dark, kind of complex world to come out of him.
Q: Can you just tell us a little bit more about your character? Who June is at the beginning of the story?
A: June, known as Offred in Gilead, is the Handmaid to Joseph Fiennes’ character Commander Waterford -- Commander Fred Waterford, hence the 'Of-Fred'. She is captured about three years prior and, in that capture, her husband is taken away from her and her daughter is stolen. She has no idea where they are or if they're alive. In fact, she thinks her husband is dead. She is placed in the 'Red Center', which is where they train the Handmaids, and then she is “placed” at Commander Waterford's. We pick up about three years in and she's not doing too well. She has had a lot of the fight and soul beaten out of her, both physically and emotionally.
Q: Can you share any creative challenges you faced and what your approach was to dealing with those challenges?
A: The biggest creative challenge at the beginning was playing a character who is essentially forbidden from speaking and from showing her feelings. For me as an actor, that is a fantastic challenge and was the kind of challenge I was up for. Given the construction of the story and the fact that she can't speak, unless she says very specific things, it became really fun trying to figure out when we show the audience what she's thinking and feeling and when she's allowed to say something.
Throughout the season, June and Offred come together, closer and closer until they become sort of one person – we no longer see them on opposite sides of the spectrum. June comes out in Offred more and more throughout the season. That was really cool, finding those moments and bringing a little bit of that person back. To say something she never would've said or to say something that would get her into massive trouble or even killed.
Another challenge for me was that I was playing this character who is from a very well-known novel. There were physical challenges, as well. I needed to figure out how my character would walk, how the characters interacted with one another. The Handmaids wear wings when out in public and I needed to figure out how my character would act while wearing them. I needed to figure out when it was okay for my character to make eye contact and when she could speak. I had to figure out what the rules were.
I remember having dinner with Margaret Atwood and, after she left, my costars Samira Wiley and Alexis Bledel and I were standing outside and trying to figure out the mechanics of our characters. They were like, "So, how far down do you put your head and how do you look from the side?" We were practicing on the street, at 11:00 p.m., trying to figure out how to be Handmaids. That was an interesting challenge because you want to do justice to the book but you need to be practical.
Q: Can you share a little bit about what your relationship with Margaret Atwood has been like and what it has been like to get to know her?
A: My relationship with Margaret Atwood has consisted of me being basically extremely intimidated and trying to not sound like an idiot. It is a bizarre experience to be in the same room with somebody who wrote the character that you're playing. The Handmaid’s Tale is a prolific novel and she is one of our greatest writers. It's a different experience. It's like if you were playing something and Hemingway was there when you're doing The Sun Also Rises. She has always said, if I ever needed to talk to her, to please reach out. She's signed off on everything that we've done which has been amazing for us and I am really grateful for that.
At dinner one night, she was sitting across from me and I tried to think of questions to ask her. I tried to think of anything that could be helpful to me in embarking on this project. She’s been so supportive and Margaret’s confidence in us being able to tell this story made us feel like we could do it.
Q: Is there something that you're excited for the viewers and for fans to discover when they watch the show?
A: I'm excited for people to discover how positive and inspiring the story actually is. We've really tried to find all of the moments of inspiration and positivity and bring them out. For me, this girl is a heroine because she's the Handmaid that the tale is about but she's also just like me or you. She's not a fighter. She doesn't know how to use a weapon. She doesn't have any special skills. She worked at a book publishing company. She's one of us. What attracted me so much at the beginning was how close she was to me. If Gilead happened now, I would be a Handmaid. That was something that really struck me
The Handmaid’s Tale: 9pm, 28th May