It’s never easy to adapt a popular novel, but the stakes are particularly high when that novel is as influential and widely read as Margaret Atwood’s 1985 allegory, The Handmaid’s Tale. Set in an unnervingly prescient version of America that could either be the present day or the near future, Atwood’s story unfolds in the Republic of Gilead, a theocratic patriarchal society where women have been stripped of their rights and separated into class systems. There are submissive Wives, stern Aunts, and servile Marthas. And then there are the Handmaids, the most controversial class. With infertility a republic-wide crisis, the men of Gilead turn to the biblical story of Jacob as precedent for impregnating other women in the marital bed they normally share with their Wives.
Scenes like that one have made The Handmaid’s Tale a staple on lists of the defining contemporary feminist texts and dystopian fiction for three decades and counting, cultivating a fanbase that spans generations in the process. And those fans will likely be tuning into Hulu’s adaptation of Atwood’s novel, which premieres on the streaming service on April 26, with a mixture of hope and dread. (It doesn’t help that The Handmaid’s Tale was previously made into a 1990 film that was largely seen as a disappointment.) But series star Elisabeth Moss — in the role of the central Handmaid, Offred, who has been assigned to childless couple Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) and Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) — says that fans have something special to look forward to. “I’m a fan of the book, so I get it,” the actress tells Yahoo TV. “I want it to be good too. And I feel that fans of the book are going to freak the f*** out.” We spoke with Moss about her experience, the traditional Handmaid’s uniform, and why she was proud to be slapped around by Margaret Atwood.
Yahoo TV: Within the world of Gilead, the Handmaids are defined by the red uniforms they’re required, by law, to wear. What was it like to put that costume on for the first time?
Elisabeth Moss: For me, it was really, really important that that dress be something I wanted to put on every day. It’s something that has to be restrictive in the sense that it can’t show a lot of skin, but we wanted it to be really comfortable. We wanted the fabric to be really soft and breathable and to move well. I knew I was going to have to wear it so much, so it needed to be a part of my experience that I was looking forward to putting it on every day, and that’s exactly what happened.
When we shot the flashbacks, I’d have to wear modern clothes, and every time I got to go back to the red dress after that, I was really relieved! I really did love wearing it; it felt very natural and normal, and it felt like a part of me. And because of the way that it moves and the way that you feel in it, it lent itself so much to the character. The bonnet was also very instrumental. When you put those on, your hearing is slightly muffled and you can’t see to the sides unless you turn your head — it’s like a horse wearing blinders. That became very much a part of how these Handmaids would walk, and how they would talk to each other.
Was it almost disturbing how natural wearing the Handmaid outfit became? That speaks to one of the most frightening aspects of the show: that the characters are required to accept the status quo as normal.
Not so much the dress, but the way that certain things that happen in the show start to become normal. I remember somebody saying to me, “Oh, you had that disturbing scene the other day.” I said, “What scene?” and they replied, “The [sex] ceremony.” And I was like, “Oh, right. That disturbing scene.” [Laughs] You can’t help but get a little used to it, which, by the way, is what would happen. I think that you would go to such a dark place that you wouldn’t be able to really think about what’s happening — it would be too disturbing. I think that’s what the Handmaids would also have to do, go to a different place.
One of the most significant departures from the novel is that Serena Joy is now closer to Offred’s age. How did you feel about that change?
I love that change for one very important reason: In the book, you have an older couple that are possibly past their childbearing years. But if you have a woman is in those years [who] just isn’t able to have a child for whatever reason, the tension between the two women becomes astronomical. It’s not just somebody who is taking advantage of a younger woman to have her baby — it’s a woman who feels very bitter about the fact that she cannot have a child at age 34. That tension between them is invaluable, and it sets up this great kind of give-and-take because they’re both miserable. Serena is not a happy woman; she’s not happy with her circumstances. She doesn’t have any rights, either, and is in this terrible situation that she kind of helped to create. So it’s more dramatically useful to have two women the same age.
Going into the series, how nervous were you to adapt a novel that’s been read and admired by so many people?
I was nervous, because it is such a prolific and beloved book. Which is why, after I got the first script, I asked for the second script. I wanted to see how they were going to continue the story. The first episode is very much about setting up the world and you think, “OK, I can see how they would do this.” But with the second episode, you go, “Well, now what do we do?” After the fourth or fifth script, I told the writers, “I can’t believe how you’re adapting this book. It’s so genius!” The really important things from the book are in the show, and the stuff that you wanted to know a little bit more about is elaborated upon. That’s not easy to do.
Peggy on Mad Men also lived in an era when certain restrictions were placed on women. Did you think about any similarities between her and Offred while filming The Handmaid’s Tale?
I feel like Offred is a few steps further in a much darker direction. Peggy, obviously, has a very important story of feminism. But Offred has had all her rights, as well as her daughter, taken away. I thought about it only in terms of, “OK, this is great because this is something I can be challenged by. I’m taking an idea that interests me and I’m taking it a lot further.” Also, with Peggy, I always wanted to make sure I was playing a human being. I wanted her to be an Everywoman.
In the very beginning of Mad Men, I was very inspired by performances like Ernest Borgnine in Marty or Jack Lemmon in The Apartment. I didn’t want to tell this political story of feminism; I really wanted to tell the story of a human. And it’s the same thing with Offred: I really wanted to tell the story of this woman who was not a heroine, but who is a mom, a wife, who has a job, and is a normal person. She doesn’t have any special skills to deal with the world she’s in, and she has to learn how to survive. I wanted to make sure she was identifiable in that way. She wasn’t any stronger than the rest of us.
You filmed this series against the backdrop of the 2016 presidential election, and current circumstances do make the story seem very timely. How do you feel the real world is going to influence how people watch the show?
Everyone takes what they want from [the story] anyway. For me, the ideas of the show have been relevant for a long, long time; all of the things that Margaret explored in her book and the things we explore in the show — violations of human rights, violations of different races, religions, and creeds, killing people for what they believe in or who they chose to love — those are not new concepts. That’s not something that just happened in the last couple of months. The fact that things are more present in America at this time is such a circumstantial thing that’s definitely timely, and it’s not necessarily timely in a way that we wished it’d be. We don’t want to teach anybody anything except maybe a few things about waking up, looking around, being observant, seeing what’s happening around you, and not sleeping through the circumstances that you’re in.
Margaret Atwood has a cameo in the series premiere as one of the instructors at the reeducation center where Offred has been sent. What was it like to have her on set that day?
It was so bizarre! She plays one of the Aunts, and it was really bizarre to see her dressed in costume, while I’m standing there, dressed in costume as this character that she created. She had to slap me upside the head in that scene, and for the first few takes she was tentative about it, because I think she didn’t want to hurt me. We kept doing it and doing it, and she kept getting better and better at it until by the last take, she really hit me! She didn’t hurt me, but she knocked my caplet off a little bit. It was a great reaction, and that’s the take that’s in the episode. It sounds weird but it was an absolute privilege being struck by Margaret Atwood in that scene. It was one of the cooler moments of my life, I have to say. She was so calm and collected, you’d think she was acting every day of her life and on set every day of her life.
That’s something to put on your résumé: being slapped by a Booker Prize winner.
Right? I’m like, “Yes, please, Margaret Atwood. Please hit me again!” [Laughs] I kept having to turn around, and she’d be like, “Are you OK?” And I’d say, “Yeah, totally. I’m fine, don’t worry. You’re not going to hurt me. Just don’t hit my ear.” And she never did. Then on the final take, she really hit me and it was perfect. After that, I said, “All right. We’re good. We got it.”
The Handmaid’s Tale premieres April 26 on Hulu with three episodes. Subsequent new episodes will go live every Wednesday.
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