“The Handmaid’s Tale” has put Emmy voters in an incredibly tough position this year: In the Outstanding Supporting Actress for a Drama category, three slots are taken by women from its powerful ensemble — and two of them, Ann Dowd and Alexis Bledel, both won for their work on the show last year.
But Bledel, moving up from the Guest Actress to the Supporting Actress category for the role of rebellious Handmaid Emily, has a relatively zen attitude towards getting nominated for her second trophy this year. “It’s out of our control, what people decide,” she told IndieWire, “and then at the same time, everyone brings forward such great performances and you want everyone to win.”
“Really, we all win,” she continued, “However it sounds, it’s true. Just being nominated is such an honor and it’s such a privilege to get to do this work in the first place.”
Yvonne Strahovski, a first-time nominee for playing the vicious yet also complicated Serena, is equally appreciative for the opportunity to be recognized on this stage, after years of acting in genre fare like the cult favorite NBC series “Chuck” and Showtime serial killer drama “Dexter.” “I guess it has been a bit of a crossover,” she said of her shift into the prestige drama world. “I think it’s like anyone kind of battling any role in a professional industry. You become seen as doing a good job doing one thing, and then you kind of have to show that you can transition into another area. Having started out on an action comedy show like ‘Chuck,’ things are a little different now, when you’re kind of on a show that’s the polar opposite of that.
“But that’s always what I’ve wanted to do, is do a little bit of everything,” she said.
Both actors had incredible runs during the second season of Hulu’s dystopian drama, which received 20 total nominations this year after winning the award for Best Drama in 2017. Below, they reveal behind-the-scenes secrets about some of their most powerful moments on screen.
[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 2, including the finale.]
The Weirdness of the Birthing Scenes
Because of the nature of the show, Strahovski didn’t have much interaction with the show’s ensemble beyond those with scenes in the Waterford home. One exception, though, was group scenes featuring the Handmaids and Wives performing arcane rituals, including the simulated birth ceremony that features the Wives miming labor.
“It’s very awkward,” she said of those rituals. “I remember when we did it for the first time, it came quite early in Season 1, and we all thought it was very, very weird and strange.”
In Season 2, Serena has her own birthing scene, but Strahovski said that “I like to think that I separate myself from Naomi Putnam’s. I think hers was weirder than mine because I had candles and nicer things.”
IndieWire observed that that kind of silent judging seemed very in character for Serena. Strahovski laughed, agreeing: “I was totally silently judging her birthing.”
She was also, at the time of shooting, expecting her first child. “I kept thinking, ‘Oh, God, this is very, very weird.’ I’m shooting this scene, nobody knows I’m actually pregnant and I’m faking this weird birth,” she said. “And in between takes, all the women in the room were exchanging birth stories. So I was very eagerly listening to everyone’s story, wondering what my own is going to be like, while shooting this crazy Serena birth scene.”
Her due date is in September, a week after the Emmys, and she’s confident that new motherhood won’t be too much of an issue when Season 3 goes into production. “Everyone’s really excited, and I’m sure they’ll be very accommodating for the breastfeeding breaks and all the rest of the things that I’m gonna come with now,” she said. “It is ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ after all, you know? They’ve got to support me.”
An Unlikely Savior
In Episode 12, “Postpartum,” Emily finds herself at a new “posting” under the control of Commander Lawrence, played by Bradley Whitford, and finds herself completely baffled by his eccentricities, including a house full of banned art and literature, as well as the fact that he was responsible for designing elements of Gilead like the Colonies.
“Emily just assumes the worst. She’s been through so much at that point that she is just thinking the worst of him, and doesn’t know what to make of him at all because he breaks all the rules of Gilead,” Bledel said of that initial meeting. “Everybody’s kinda predictable, essentially, following the rules, and he just breaks the mold.”
This comes out in a big way during one late night scene where Emily and Lawrence share a beer, and it’s impossible to be sure what he’s thinking. “He has all this information about her which is really unnerving, so again, she just assumes the worst. And … but really, halfway through, isn’t entirely sure. At no point is she able to get a ring around what is … she’s usually so sure, and 10 steps ahead of the other characters,” Bledel said. “But in this case, she’s reeling a little bit, trying to figure it out, and can’t. But he does have some interesting quirks that suggest there’s something there.”
Bledel noted that the set design of Lawrence’s house was incredibly helpful for playing Emily’s confusion. “He’s got artwork up, he’s got books laying around, and so there are clues everywhere that he has a lot of power to get away with all this, and then when she learns from his wife that he was actually the person behind designing the Colonies, that’s horrifying, on a very deep level for her,” she said. “And yeah, she just goes straight into the mode of, okay, I have to defend myself because clearly this is the absolute end. If the Colonies weren’t the end, this is the end for sure. And I’ve gotta fight back, or… that’s her impulse.”
Unleashing Emily’s Rage
Emily’s most shocking moment comes in the season finale, when she lashes out at Aunt Lydia with a clandestine knife. But it wasn’t her only moment of rage this season, an emotion that Bledel feels she knows more about playing. “Rage by nature is, I think, disorienting, and throws one off balance in a pretty extreme way,” she said. “But I think as we go, I learn more and more about Emily and I’m able to pinpoint where she’s at in the rage. What stage she’s in, and how that manifests, and what it looks like and how it feels. And it’s an ever-involving process.”
Bledel feels that Emily’s rage isn’t something that will go away, whatever might happen in Season 3. Because even if the character does make it with baby Nichole to Canada, “she’s gotta find some sort of healthy outlet for that in order to keep on going… I mean, she must have a really intense form of PTSD, so imagining her rejoining her family, I can only imagine that it would be a huge adjustment for all parties involved and they would take a lot of work to reintegrate not only into normal life, but family life.”
So many of Emily’s biggest scenes have played with a tight lock on her face and reactions. “I will have no fear of close-ups by the time ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ wraps,” she said with a smile. “It’s been incredible, it’s allowed me to let go of a lot of concerns that maybe I used to have about how things look. I gladly relinquished all control over that aspect of the job to our incredible team of artists, and I just focus on my part. And that’s been very freeing.”
This wasn’t necessarily easy for her, because “it can make you very nervous when you’re performing, because it’s such a visual medium… To just let it go, it’s great.”
Get Ready for Gloves
Speaking of the season finale’s most shocking moments: In “The Word,” Serena’s severed finger — punishment for daring to read out loud in front of the council of Commanders — is a truly devastating reveal.
But Strahovski also admitted, with a laugh, that as an actor, when she reached that point in the script, her initial reaction was extremely practical. “Oh, really? Are we gonna do prosthetics every time? Do I have to have my pinky bent backwards? What is happening?”
As she continued, “That’s the first thing you think of. The days are so long enough as they are. Now, we’re adding on an hour [of makeup].”
“Feels Just Like I’m Walking on Broken Glasssssss”
Emily’s path to freedom comes courtesy of Lawrence, but initially she doesn’t understand what’s happening when he puts her in the backseat of a car and they drive through the night…while he rocks out in the front seat to Annie Lennox’s “Walking on Broken Glass.”
During production, the actual song used on the set was Madonna’s “Borderline.” (Whitford’s head bounces still sync up well to Lennox.) While they didn’t play the song while actually filming the scene (as is standard practice, due to audio complications) Bledel, Whitford, and director Mike Barber did listen to it right beforehand to keep it in their heads.
Bledel noted that the scene was a tough one to shoot, though acknowledged the weird edge of comedy in it, largely courtesy of Whitford’s performance. “I was just deeply entrenched in Emily’s horror at it all, but Bradley definitely found the humor in there,” she said. “What an incredible thing he did with that character. I mean, in every scene he’s able to show so many different sides.
Saying Goodbye to Nichole
In the final moments of the Season 2 finale, Serena catches June on the verge of escaping with her child, but June is able to convince her to let them escape, and give the baby a chance at life outside Gilead.
As Strahovski put it, it was a moment the whole season had been building up to, “these very impactful moments that really led to sort of her demise at the end and making that decision.” “Demise” might be the perfect word to describe where she’s at, in fact: While Serena may still be alive, she has just given up everything she ever wanted — and she had already sacrificed everything she ever had to get it.
“It was always going to be emotional,” she said. “This is the one thing that this character has invested in this entire time. The one reason why she does all the horrible things that she does…And it’s over in that one moment.”
They shot the scene at 3:00 AM on a particularly cold Canadian night, and actually had to shoot it relatively quickly because they were running out of time for that day.
But it was all worth it when it came time for her and star Elisabeth Moss to actually act. “I think what is most exciting for me is the fact that between action and cut it’s anybody’s guess kind of what’s going to happen. And we get to play, and it’s so incredible to have a sparring partner like [Moss], who lets go and lets loose really, and is so in tune with what they’re doing that they can change at every take,” she said. “So we’re often discovering so many new things take by take that we previously didn’t see, or hadn’t thought of. It’s the best kind of work and fun that I can have, between action and cut. That’s what I think most actors live for, is that moment. It’s not all the rest of the stuff. It’s that’s moment where you get to do your thing, and it’s so much fun to get to do that thing with her.”
One Last Thing
The third “Handmaid” nominee in this category, Ann Dowd, has been an IndieWire favorite for some time, and we don’t mean at all to undersell her profound importance to the show. Because, seriously: Thanks to Season 2 of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” this is one of the toughest categories of the year. Good luck, voters.