Exploring Serena: A Discussion with Yvonne Strahovski of The Handmaid’s Tale

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By: Karen Valenzuela (@VictoriaNoir89)

If you’ve been watching Hulu’s splendid (painful, infuriating, brutal…) The Handmaid’s Tale, you know just how much of a conversation starter it is. Based on Margaret Atwood’s powerful novel of the same name which was published back in 1985, the series covers an array of timely issues: women’s rights, choice, freedom, misogyny, separation of church and state, fundamentalist religion in general, and an array of other human issues. More than anything, we see what happens to people when they’ve had their freedom, rights, and identities stripped from them – as women especially are reduced to homemakers (Wives), disciplinarians (Aunts), cooks (Marthas), or fertile wombs (Handmaids).

What makes the series so hard-hitting and fascinating? What makes every episode cause you to feel like you’ve just been on a 24-hour bender? The setting is horrific, the storyline is upsetting and maddening (understatement!), but nothing in Gilead is black and white. And no character is purely good or purely evil.

The character that demonstrates this better than anyone else in the series (arguably in any series I’ve seen so far, to be honest) is Mrs. Waterford, one of Gilead’s highest ranking Wives. We know her as Serena Joy, and she’s played masterfully by Yvonne Strahovski in the series. Serena is one of the show’s main antagonists, so we see her Handmaid Offred oftentimes pitted against her, being brutalized by her, oppressed by her. But the show also delves deep inside of Serena herself. What makes her tick? What drives her to do the things she does? What brought her to where she is when we first meet her in Gilead?

Episode six especially shows us more of who she was before Gilead. How suddenly her instrumental involvement in the coup that brought the United States to its knees, and her voice in the subsequent government Gilead formed in the aftermath, was erased, silenced.

When I was given the opportunity to talk to Strahovski about The Handmaid’s Tale, I wanted to focus on Serena Joy in particular. There isn’t a word in the English language powerful enough to describe how amazing of a character Serena Joy is in the show, so I’ll stick to fascinating. How, I wondered, does anyone with a working moral compass manage to make a woman who does so many inexcusable, cruel, selfish things into someone we, as viewers, want to understand better? How is Serena Joy so human? Why does her suffering hurt us so much in spite of the things she does? I wanted to get to know Strahovski’s process, and how she was able to humanize Serena for herself in order to bring to life such a deep, nuanced, complicated character.

What I found out is that Strahovski isn’t just incredibly talented. She’s also a deeply intelligent person, very much aware of the world around her and the many challenges too many of us face today and of the wild range of emotions humans are capable of. Not to mention how brave she is, because Serena Joy is not an easy character for a good person to identify with. Suffice to say, it takes a stone cold bad-ass to enter into this process and create from it such an absolute masterpiece of a character. And that’s exactly what Strahovski has done here.

How do you solve a problem like Serena? Here is the discussion I had with Strahovski about all things Serena Joy and the oppressive world she lives in:

NHQ: Have you guys been paying attention to the show’s reception? I know that it’s probably a lot easier to keep the blinders on and tell the story without letting the articles pervade what you guys are trying to do. But because it’s such a timely show and has all these feminist issues and with everything going on in the world right now, is this something you are paying attention to?

YS: I keep a little eye on what’s happening, definitely what’s happening in the world. I haven’t really seen any articles about the show since it came out, if that’s what you mean. But I do know just from what I’ve been hearing and the conversations I’ve been having with people that it is really speaking to people and it seems to me that people are connecting to the show because it directly reflects their concerns and fears about today’s current political and social state in this country especially, and in other places of the world.

NHQ: Every single episode I feel like I’m watching and just getting heavier.

YS: Yeah… (laughs)

NHQ: Right? It’s a heavy show. But it’s brutal and so beautiful and perfectly done, honestly. But right off the bat, let’s just go ahead and say it. The Handmaid’s Tale is a feminist story.

YS: Gosh yes.

NHQ: Yeah! I’ve seen a lot of people trying to push that to the side – not anybody that’s directly attached to the show, but bloggers who’ve written articles and I’m like “no, you’re wrong” but…

YS: Oh, I haven’t seen those.

NHQ: Yeeaah. Apparently I roll in the wrong circles. But have you done any outside research on your own? Besides just reading the book? Articles about feminism? And considering who Serena Joy is (in the book, Offred recognizes her as a televangelist who used to be on TV before Gilead), and the things that have gotten her to the place where she’s at when we first meet her in the show, have you done any research on Christian fundamentalism, and what causes women like her to buy into that ideology?

YS: I stuck to the book and script really religiously. Pun intended. (laughs)

NHQ: (laughs) Good one!

YS: The story, for sure, is a feminist story. A human story. It speaks to so many issues and it speaks to so many current issues of the day, for sure – particularly pertaining to women’s rights. But in order for me to tackle someone as difficult as Serena, I felt like I had to stay away from all of those headlines, you know?

NHQ: Yes!

YS: And typical descriptions of what the show is about. Because I just really had a hard time relating to Serena. And so for me, it was more about stripping away all of that televangelist…You know, I had it in one ear, but then it was really about taking it away and just treating her as a human. You know in the book she’s very evil, and on paper, she’s very brutal and evil, so for me it was about even stripping away that title. Stripping away the fact that Serena Joy’s evil and figuring out what makes her tick and what makes her heart cry and what makes her heart hurt. And I think that was the biggest task for me: to try to humanize her behavior and the choices that she’s made and that she continues to make in her life. Yeah! So I hope that answers your question.

NHQ: Absolutely it does. And it totally comes through in your portrayal of her one hundred percent. I think that’s what makes her character so complicated and so hard for us as viewers to just be like, “I hate her.”

YS: Yeah.

NHQ: As somebody who has watched the show, I don’t hate her even slightly. There’s so much that goes into her story. And that’s actually super smart that you didn’t dig deep into that televangelist – watching people like Tammy Faye Bakker – because it would be too easy to let the seriousness of the character slip away and she’d be more of a joke.

YS: Well, and I didn’t want to make this cliche sort of evil villain, either, you know? It was really important for me to make her human. Even though I personally don’t agree with who she is and what she does. The biggest thing for me was that duality that she has gotten herself into this mess. She was the one that wanted society to change and become Gilead. And she wanted women to follow their biological destinies, but somewhere along the lines, she lost her voice and her right to speak about it. And somewhere along the lines, things turned into what they are now, as we see them, you know, when you first meet everyone in Gilead. And now she’s living in that world of her own creation where she is oppressed and unhappy as well, and going through pain and hurt. So it’s a really interesting character – to see how she struggles with that, and how she abuses her power, and how she finds an outlet where there is no outlet by screaming at Offred. And how she holds onto this hope of having a baby, but how she shuts her eyes to this monthly rape that happens with this other woman. And how she tries to connect but gets rejected constantly by the Commander, and even by Offred. And that power play. Like, there are so many things going on in this, and for Serena.

NHQ: Ooooo yeeeaahh. I just think of that scene when Offred is walking out, and she looks up and you see Serena kind of looking down from the window. And it’s right after Offred has manipulated the Commander to get herself released from her room.

YS: Yes.

NHQ: You don’t know what that conversation was like between Serena and her husband, but you know that he was like “Let her out” and she was probably just like “GRRRRRRRR!!!” You know?

YS: Mmmhmm. Livid, yeah.

NHQ: Yeah! Totally. And she’s just watching from this spot up in the window, and it’s perfect. But I think your portrayal, specifically, has heightened Serena into this multi-faceted, super layered character. What really spoke to me is the duality that you talked about. It would be really easy to say Serena is evil, you reap what you sow. But people are capable of doing really terrible things when they’ve had their lives totally wrecked. She’s been cut off from her identity, she doesn’t have any way to derive any amount of comfort, no sex, no intellectual stimulation. Her existence basically has no meaning. You can feel heartbreak for Serena in her suffering, and find these bad pieces of yourself that are reflected back at you through her, and at the same time not excuse her cruelty and selfishness or the way that she is punching down, right? Those two things don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

YS: Yeah. And you brought up a really great point. Like, it was really important for me that her behavior – even though I am trying to humanize her and get some sort of sympathy, empathy – I do feel like her actions are inexcusable at the same time. So that is a really important story to tell and that’s why it’s so complicated, you know, when you are playing someone like Serena. You spend so much time sort of justifying in your brain how and why this person does what they do and why they’re going to be okay with it. Because they justified it this way. And it kind of makes you think about real life and people in power. And it makes me wonder about how people who’ve put themselves in authority positions or have been elected into authority positions…how they abuse that in order to survive. Like, it’s just their pure survival factor versus the greater good of the world. And that balance, and how one outweighs the other often. And power is being abused, and the greater, bigger picture isn’t being looked at. So it was a really interesting process.

NHQ: Yeah, for sure! So transitioning into something that’s maybe a bit less heavy… I’m a writer. Which I think is a bit similar to acting, because both are, in a sense, creating characters. To really get a character I’ve created to come to life, I try to come up with random details, everyday situations, how they’d react to them. What they like, things they enjoy…What kind of driver are they? Do they curse somebody out who doesn’t use their signal when they’re turning? We know from Atwood’s book that Serena likes gardening. Are there any backstory details or anecdotes you thought up yourself to bring her to life for you?

YS: Yeah! There was one thing. I learned to knit to play Serena Joy. And I never knitted anything in my life. But I made a scarf and it took me the whole time we were filming to make one blue scarf.

NHQ: I can relate to that.

YS: (laughs) I gave that to [showrunner] Bruce Miller at the end of the show. And one of the things that struck me about Serena is this idea that, yeah, everything gets taken away from her…her ability to sexually relate to her husband and the intellectual stimulation…I thought, well, what does she do? They had her written as smoking and knitting and painting and gardening. And I thought, well, that makes a lot of sense! Because what else is there to do when all you have is this responsibility of a house that is so…barren of joy – pun intended – no outlet and personal freedom. And so the knitting was actually something that, you know, wasn’t just a physical thing but – this is gonna sound maybe a bit cheesy – but…kind of it was very much an acting point into the repetitive solitude of her life. And I don’t want to put down knitting, because knitting is awesome, and I know a lot of people who knit and have fun with it. But for me, I meant to turn it into just a version of the repetitive solitude that I feel like she always feels. And it’s very much a part of her. The knitting was very much the biggest thing for me.

NHQ: Is there anything that you’ve walked away from this experience with that you didn’t have when you first joined the production? Not, like, a physical object like Serena’s green dress, but something that made you change the way you see certain situations or people, or a change in your ideology, or even a strengthening in your ideology?

YS: Yeah! I think I walked away from this more of a feminist than I was already.

NHQ: Woo! Awesome. That’s epic.

YS: (laughs)

NHQ: I’m one of Nerd HQ’s resident feminists, so I love to hear that!

YS: Oh, yeah! Power to you! (laughs)

NHQ: Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate you taking the time out of your day to talk to me. It’s really given me some extra insight into what you were doing with the character, and the show. Thank you, Yvonne!

YS: Aw, thank you. I really appreciate the conversation!

Episode six of The Handmaid’s Tale was released today on Hulu! Put down whatever you’re doing, go onto Hulu, and watch it right now! Especially after reading how Yvonne approached Serena Joy and her portrayal of her, you simply have to watch this episode. I think you’ll agree with me when I say that Yvonne Strahovski is officially a gift to the art of acting. Watch the show, and watch this episode! YOU. WILL. NOT. REGRET IT.

Hulu has also renewed The Handmaid’s Tale for a second season after announcing it as the most watched show ever in the site’s existence, original or otherwise. Congratulations, Yvonne!


    One Comment

  1. roniMay 17th, 2017 at 1:41 pm

    Great job Karebear! 😀

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