[Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 2, Episode 5, “Seeds.”]
In “Seeds,” the most recent episode of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” viewers got to see Alexis Bledel do something they hadn’t seen all that often before: explode.
In a pivotal sequence with Janine (Madeline Brewer), the two former Handmaids confront each other on the ways they’re coping with life in the Colonies, a brutal wasteland that is the last stop for women who choose to rebel against the authority of Gilead. Janine takes a sunny-side-up approach to their predicament, while Emily (Bledel) lashes out in anger: “You’re dressing up the fucking slaughterhouse for them and that’s the fucking problem!”
It’s one of Season 2’s most powerful moments so far, but when IndieWire asked Bledel about it, she seemed self-conscious about the scene. “How did that come across?” she asked. “I’m curious because that was a unique scene for me. That one, I think, challenged me in terms of finding what it was.”
Bledel’s performance style (which earned her an Emmy for Guest Actress after “Handmaid’s Tale” Season 1) doesn’t lean towards overt dramatics, which executive producer Warren Littlefield noted was something that came out in the editing room, rather than on set.
“From the moment we first worked with Alexis in year one,” he told IndieWire, “her choices were very small choices. When you’re shooting it, you don’t feel how remarkable it is until you’re looking at it in editing. Because it’s subtle. And the power of the subtlety all adds up to a great performance. I mean, we love and enjoy Alexis as a person, but we appreciate the actress when we’re in post, and go, ‘wow.'”
Bledel evaluates her work in similar ways. “I try for subtle. It’s funny because I think I started out that way, and then in order to find the most ideal level, I’ve gone bigger, and had to find it,” she said. “I like subtle acting. I like to watch something very naturalistic, so that’s what I aim for in most cases. What I love about this show is we get to do that, but there’s also plenty of opportunity to do something understated, but strong.”
While Emily’s fate after the events of Season 1 seemed extremely precarious, she found out that the producers wanted to bring her back as a series regular while Season 1 was still shooting. “I got some sort of indication that I wasn’t done, but at that time I was a guest star, and I didn’t know in what capacity I’d be back, or when exactly,” she said. “But I think later, a few months down the line, they told me I’d be in Season 2.”
But, she said, “I didn’t know exactly what to expect. I don’t think anyone knew exactly what was going to happen because we were going to be without the template of Margaret Atwood’s book in Season 2. So the writers, I think, they’ve been crafting it as we go. Nobody really fully knew, but I got a sense that she was going to be sent to the Colonies. Then to see what that would look like when we started filming was a huge revelation for me within the character.”
In the first five episodes of the season, we see Emily struggling to survive in the Colonies, more emotionally than physically. The first big indication that she isn’t doing well comes in Episode 2, when a need for vengeance led her to kill a former Wife (played by Marisa Tomei) who still remained loyal to the regime.
Working with Tomei, Bledel said, was “incredible. I really like her work… I can really feel the religious devotion of her character in her depiction. It was like an energy that she brought in. That air of superiority that a wife has. She gave something really interesting to that, because she was also so vulnerable, being sent to the Colonies, and having made this choice that alters her life so dramatically that it goes against her religious beliefs. She’s in total conflict within herself.”
But while the scenes between Tomei and Bledel played quietly, far louder was Emily’s Episode 5 fight with Janine, in which she screams at her fellow prisoner who still aims to find happiness in a world at which Emily is deeply angry.
“I didn’t want to take it too far,” she said of the latter scene, “but I had a hard time reining it in, because it is an outburst, and through no fault of her own, Janine has triggered something within, Emily who has become quite volatile.”
As Littlefield described the moment, “you’re in a toxic wasteland, and Janine finds beauty in it. She finds love. It’s an amazing and unique quality that the character and the actress, Maddie Brewer, brings to that. There’s this joy. And Emily is just, like, beside herself with, like, ‘grow the fuck up,’ and yet, ultimately, feels the beauty of what that character brings.”
“I struggled to find the right reaction,” Bledel said. “But then it didn’t seem to come out a lot of different ways. It kept coming out the same way. So, I stuck with that.”
In case it’s not clear, “The Handmaid’s Tale” is even more emotionally difficult to shoot this year. “I felt the weight of the show’s relevance more so than the first season,” Bledel said. “I didn’t really know how it would land, that people would have a strong reaction to it. So yeah, if you already feel one way about the news, then playing out some of these scenes, you do feel a heavier weight.”
At least Bledel didn’t have to report to set every day, and she was able to find ways to unwind in her downtime. “I just find other things to focus on mentally, right? And that pulls your emotion and your physicality away from the experience of shooting, which pulls everything in.”
One way she found to unwind: Home improvement TV shows. “I watch a lot of HGTV, which is kind of the most relaxing thing I’ve found,” she said. “I don’t know why the idea of a renovation, which is a very stressful thing, is so relaxing to me. But I’m just like, ‘Oh, look, it all has changed shape. Isn’t that amazing?’ I love it. It makes me happy.”
“The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 2 is streaming now on Hulu.