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Warning: This article features an in-depth discussion about sexual abuse. Reader discretion is advised.
Spoilers for season 4 episode 2 of The Handmaid’s Tale, “Nightshade” below.
When Mckenna Grace’s character, Esther Keyes, first appears in the season 4 opener of The Handmaid’s Tale, there’s a childlike hope about her. “You’re the one I’ve been waiting for,” she tells June (Elisabeth Moss) when the rebel Handmaid is brought to the Keyes’ farm suffering from sepsis from a gunshot wound. “He sent me dreams of you. We were killing people together.”
Despite the violence in that statement, Esther is, at first, simply a child to June—even though she’s the one keeping the other Handmaids protected at the farm-turned-safe-house. But then we learn 14-year-old Esther was forced to a marry a man fives times her age, and she soon reveals she’s a survivor, too: Since Esther’s husband is unable to impregnate her, he brings in other men to routinely rape her. It’s in Esther that June sees her greatest fears for her own daughter, Hannah, come to life. “She views her as, This is what my daughter could be,” Grace tells ELLE.com. “I got to get her out of here.”
Ahead, Grace discusses embodying the complicated Esther Keyes, including the acting trick she learned from Moss, and the detail she fought to keep in the series.
What did you think when you first read about Esther?
I thought she was so cool. She’s such an interesting character to play, especially with how intimidating she is. The way she switches from being so anxious and upset to [saying,] “If you weren’t going to fight, then you shouldn’t come here.” She’s angry and then she’s regal and talking to the guards. She changes up so quickly. It was so fun to play all of her different emotions.
Did you watch the show before you got the part?
I was never allowed to watch Handmaid’s. I remember wanting to, because my parents really like it. After I got it, my mom’s like, “Well, I mean, okay.” Then we binge-watched all the seasons together. I remember sitting in our hotel room while shooting Handmaid’s and finishing the final episode. I was like, “But what happens next?” Then I was like, wait, I’m shooting the episode of what happens next. What am I talking about?
What did you think when you finally got to watch it? Were there any scenes where your parents said, “Hm, maybe not this one?”
It’s awesome. It’s so dark and intense and crazy, and it’s totally the type of stuff I love to film. It’s one of my favorite shows. There was a good bit of skipping, but also because I get uncomfortable in intimate scenes; I still cover my eyes. I’m in a college course right now for media aesthetics, and I’ve had to write about Handmaid’s Tale probably four times. The professor doesn’t know I’m in it. I tried not to expose myself.
And you’re 14, the same age Esther is supposed to be.
It’s funny because I’ll make a joke that, “Yeah, I'm doing this right now. I got a husband or something.” And people are like, “How old is your character?” I’m like, “14.” And they’re like, “What? That doesn’t make sense.” But it meant a lot that I got to actually play the age Mrs. Keyes is. I did think it was important for an actual 14-year-old to play the role, especially since this 14-year-old is being raped and abused and sold off, all of these things that are happening to 14-year-olds every single day. If it makes people upset or uncomfortable that an actual 14-year-old is having to talk about how she was raped and it’s acting, then maybe that will make you want to do something for actual girls who are going through this.
I also think your age made it clear that your character is an example of what June worries about so much with her own daughter in Gilead. Did you feel that too?
Absolutely, especially in the scene where I’m covered in blood and I walk in there and hold June. We just lay there, and I go, “I love you,” and she says, “I love you too, Banana,” which is what she would call her daughter in a moment where she feels really tired and safe and just lets it slip. That really lets you know what she thinks about Mrs. Keyes. She views her as, “This is what my daughter could be. I got to get her out of here.”
Most of your scenes are playing off Elisabeth Moss. Did you get any advice from her?
Any time I get to talk about Elisabeth Moss, I just like to say how highly I think of her and how she is one of my favorite actresses I’ve ever worked with. When I got to work with her as a director in episode 9, there was a lot of conversations about what we were doing and how the character feels. Something I saw that she did, which I thought was really cool, was that she listened to music for however that scene made her feel. Miss Elisabeth Moss also taught me how to smoke a cigarette for my character. Fake cigarettes. She was like, “Never use this knowledge for anything else.” But having Elisabeth Moss teach you how to smoke a cigarette, that’s my biggest flex. [Laughs]
When I saw you smoking a cigarette onscreen, I viscerally reacted, like, “You are too young to be smoking!”
You know, they had taken out the cigarette in one of these scenes, but I fought to keep it in because I thought it was so shocking. Mrs. Keyes with her tall high heels and her wife’s dress, her hair pinned back in a bun, smoking a cigarette—it was just such an interesting image that I’m so glad we got to bring to life. I think I actually have one of those fake cigarettes here. I stole one from set. No, I did not steal one from set—I borrowed it indefinitely, without permission. [Laughs]
Your character has so much nuance, as does June. Did you and Elisabeth talk about what it’s like to play these women who dream of violence because they’ve been violated?
I actually met her at her house she stays at whenever we shoot. We went over the script together with our director at the time and talked about every scene. We did the scene where I had to give my story about how I was raped. We did that one a lot. She wanted to make sure I was comfortable with the things I was talking about. [But the discomfort is what] makes the scene so great, because it needs to be talked about. My character being so young and married off, it happens. Technically, I could get married if my mom or dad or my legal guardian signed a document for me. That kind of Gilead stuff, it happens every day, even though we’re not living in a Handmaid’s Tale situation. It's just much more quiet.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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