When she read the script for “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 5, Episode 7, Yvonne Strahovski said her jaw dropped.
Part of that was the circumstance — June (Elisabeth Moss) ends up helping her enemy Serena (Strahovski) give birth in the woods — but it was serendipitous for the actor to embody this specific sequence with a newborn infant at home.
“I wanted certain elements to mimic my second birth in terms of the physicality that I had with my husband,” Strahovski told IndieWire in a phone interview. “I talked to Lizzie [Moss] about it and we ended up in that physical arrangement of my arms on her, sort of leaning on her physically for support. I remember thinking, ‘Gosh, if we did that it would be a really interesting dynamic,’ and just a very, very fascinating place to see these two women at after this entire journey. It was very personal.”
Season 5, now eight episodes in, sees Serena coping with the death of her husband (Joseph Fiennes), which June proudly claims as her doing. But both women are consummate survivors; despite no longer having a husband or position of power in the dystopic patriarchy of Gilead, Serena moves in with a Gilead family during her unlikely pregnancy, and after giving birth even suggests that June raise the baby so he does not have to reckon with his parents’ sins. As of Episode 8 she no longer has custody of her child or control of her life.
“As an actor, having to weave that that thread… there’s just so many complications along the way, and you’re walking this super fine line of trying to perform that and have it emotionally make sense,” Strahovski said. “The dialogue steers that ship, but it’s also just living with that character and how that feels. We’ve invested so much into these characters over the years that the moment feels [earned] in where she’s at. We see her in this crazy moment of really having to think on the spot, and then she really ends up with no one and her baby is taken away.”
As of Episode 8, Serena is back to living with a Gilead family who purport to care for her but seem intent on keeping her prisoner and eventually raising her child. It sounds a lot like what she put June through, so she enlists the woman she almost killed for a little survival advice.
“She is going to try and do anything get back with that baby,” Strahovski said. But what she does — and its success — are left to the last two episodes of the season.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
IndieWire: Have you known that this kind of shift was coming for the character and if so, when and how did you go about approaching it?
Strahovski: I didn’t really know it was coming like this until I was reading the episodes, which now that you’re asking I think is helpful. Because it’s an unexpected turn for Serena as well to be stuck in the house and slowly realizing that she’s kind of like a handmaid and that she’s not allowed to do anything or go anywhere and she has nothing to say about it. It’s been a really incredible journey reading these scripts and having it sort of unfold in front of my eyes. When I got into Episode 7, my jaw was on the floor.
Serena is definitely between two minds now and literally between Gilead and Canada. How is she handling that tension — especially now that she’s had a baby?
[Episode 7] was so intense. It was probably the closest that scripts have ever come to feeling very close to home to me personally, as a mom of a now 10-month-old. I was really postpartum then, and it was really intense to think about the birthing scene — how we were going to do it and then how that episode ends with her baby being taken away. It was just so close to home and so intense having just been through another birth myself in real life. There were so many genuine and authentic feelings bubbling up inside of me. It was very easy to draw from real-life inspiration and what you would do, how you would feel about about your child.
I didn’t realize that! The physicality really struck me when I watched, also the sound! The groaning and all was very striking.
I was really wanting it to be more representative of what a real — so many TV births and movie births are what they are, and I thought, “I really want it to be representative of something that sounds a little more real or looks a little bit more real.” Granted, the stakes in Serena’s situation are a lot higher and a lot riskier and a lot more panic-stricken, so there’s that huge element of anxiety and panic that I had to infuse. But the rest of it, there were certain elements that were important to me, and Lizzie and I spent a lot of time talking about it, even talking about the dialogue exchanges and what would really happen and how does this really go? It was all obviously very fresh in my mind having just done it myself.
These episodes have a lot of Serena being very raw, crying and pleading, and I was struck by the contrast with the early seasons when it’s a more buttoned up performance. What’s it been like now having both types of performance in the show and developing that over the years?
Honestly, that’s been such a gift to have this completely fleshed out journey and being able to explore this character in all the different avenues and the unexpected shifts. I always talk about the gray area in humanity. So often, as a society, I think people are raised to be afraid of their emotions, and we’re not really taught to embrace our emotions. Emotions are kind of like a dirty word. This has been so fun to really step into that and go for it, and explore all of these areas and be able to go on this journey with this character who I think is trying, maybe sometimes, to be good — that is just not able to quite get there because of everything that she’s been through herself. I love that I get to walk such a fine line sometimes.
One of the hardest scenes was with that ending of Episode 6 where I find out that June has been apprehended by Mr. Wheeler and I’m getting out of that house. It’s probably the first time that we’ve seen Serena making decisions just on the spot and not having pre-planned anything or manipulating anything. She’s just taking it as it comes in and literally not knowing what she’s going to do. Is she actually going to shoot June when she gets there? What is going to happen? And knowing that she’s just starting that labor as well, it’s such an intense complicated on-the-spot decision that we’ve never seen that character in. I felt like a kid in a candy store getting to do that, and then the entire birth episode, that was like the biggest lollipop of them all.
A lot of it is also very internal, especially as her feelings shift about Gilead and her past. Where would you say that the character is internally at this point in the season, and how do you go about bringing that out physically?
A lot of it is always what’s not being said. So much of our show was founded on the subtext. So it’s these cracks beginning to open. Even when she’s saying “I’m sorry” to June or “I’m not worthy” — it still felt like Serena had to hold back a little bit, because if she fully open[ed] that floodgate, I think she would just break completely, and she still has to survive. She’s always been a survivor, I think that’s the thing that keeps her going, especially now with the baby.
That whole episode is absolutely heart-wrenching for her, but she’s still manipulating in that episode. She’s always trying to get out of a situation. At that point, as a mom, she would do anything. I’m curious to see how audiences feel about her, especially after watching 7 and 8, because any other person that you would watch going through that who hasn’t had a past like Serena’s, you would feel sorry for. Your heart would break, you would have so much empathy for that person, but because audiences have seen Serena be such a monster throughout the years… Are people going to think, she deserves it? Or is it gonna pull on people’s heartstrings a little bit.
I had a pretty visceral reaction, I will say. It’s a very fraught relationship and then they go through this together. Tell me about adding that layer to June and Serena.
I was curious also how people would feel about June deciding to come back and help Serena. I wonder if people were like, “Yay, you’re a good person, no matter what, that’s a good move,” or if people are going to be screaming at their TVs going, “What are you doing, leave her to die!” I think it’s fascinating. It’s just so complex, there’s no other word really to describe the relationship. This is just such a season that really is all about how do you deal with trauma. In June’s case, it is such severe trauma and the complexities that lie in that, in what you feel and deal with as a woman, and just how strange sometimes things must feel for you, especially when you still have your abuser in your life like that. It’s just such an extraordinary circumstance that we’re portraying here between these two women of what is actually going on.
Serena ends up comparing herself to a handmaid, but moving forward, June kind of gives her the keys to sabotage this situation. What can we look forward to or expect with that storyline?
I think Serena is not as savvy in terms of if she’s in a handmaid position like June was, June felt savvier in terms of her action plan, what she was going to do, how she was going to behave, how she was going to get herself out of this. I’m not sure that Serena is as savvy when it comes to being in that position and then having to manipulate the system from that position. That’s all I’ll say, as a little tease of what’s to come.
What would Serena say to the Serena of a few years ago? What would she think of that person now?
I think Serena Joy being Serena Joy, I don’t think she would have changed much, honestly. I want to be like, “Oh, she’d be like, ‘Walk away from Fred that day and the flashback scene where he didn’t let you in the boardroom where you didn’t have a voice anymore.'” I want to say that she tells that young woman to leave, turn around, get out, and go join the resistance — but I don’t think she does. I think she looks back and feels very justified in all the decisions that she’s made thus far, because from her point of view she too has been surviving in the best way that she can, and I’m not sure that she thinks that she’s made terrible decisions. I think she thinks that she’s been forced into making certain choices in her life and that prevents her from feeling terrible about monstrous things that she actually has done. I don’t think the veil has been lifted yet, for Serena, and I’m not sure that it ever will.
New episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” premiere Wednesdays on Hulu.