From the start, “The Handmaid’s Tale” — the Hulu series spun from Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel about a brutal patriarchy and the women who serve it — seemed destined to be a star vehicle for Elisabeth Moss. Her perspective. Her interior monologue. Her face.
Then Yvonne Strahovski transformed into a monster.
“No! No, I didn’t realize but it’s very exciting,” Strahovski exclaimed, sounding as surprised as anyone about the turn her character — Serena Joy Waterford, the Commander’s inscrutable wife — took once Moss’s handmaid, June, became pregnant in the second season. Her resulting tour de force leveled the playing field between Moss and Strahovski, who notched Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for best supporting actress.
“I’ve always wanted to be an actress, even as a little girl in Australia,” she said. “I remember thinking how cool it would be to play and act and then maybe win an award for it one day.”
Season 2 ended with a moment of clarity as Serena rescued her daughter from the savagery she helped create by having her smuggled to Canada. As the third season begins, Strahovski reaffirms her skill as a formidable sparring partner in scenes that shatter the show’s paradigm, transforming Serena into a potential ally to June.
Lithe and radiant, Strahovski — who’d previously played a killer and love interest in “Dexter,” and a C.I.A. agent and love interest in “Chuck” — wasn’t the obvious choice for the frail, but hardened Serena as Atwood wrote her.
But Strahovski pursued the role anyway and endured a two-month wait as the show’s producers decided who they wanted their Serena to be, finally settling on a version that was more of June’s equal.
“It’s an interesting choice for them to go much younger,” she said. “It really ups the drama and the tension between the two women, especially on the subject of fertility, and one being so envious of the other.”
It also upped the personal drama — and led to a thousand “Blessed be the fruit” jokes — for Strahovski, who shot Season 2 while pregnant and Season 3 just weeks after giving birth to a son with her husband, the actor Tim Loden.
In a chat over hot tea at an Upper West Side diner, Strahovski, 36 and raised in Sydney, spoke about the perils of playing Serena and what scares her the most. Not up for discussion: her latest role — only recently announced and still under wraps — in “Stateless,” a new six-part series about four strangers in an Australian immigration detention center produced by and starring Cate Blanchett.
Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
There will be no spoilers here. But early on in Season 3, I found myself really rooting for Serena. And then …
She has that look in her eyes. [Laughs] I think that’s the fun of watching a character like Serena. You root for her so much and she does something so good, and then just like that you can be like, Aww, nooo.
Serena is riding the Kingda Ka of emotions this season after giving her baby away.
I was so struck by how overcome with regret Serena would have been, because we pick up right after she gave the baby away. You’d be so upset and in such a low spot, considering that baby was the only thing she ever wanted and the only thing she looked forward to. So to have that one thing taken away from you just would be totally devastating.
And yet the grieving Serena still can’t quite fathom June’s own pain at having had one child stolen from her and then being forced to relinquish another.
I think she does understand it to a point but she thinks that her circumstances and position in Gilead trump June’s. More, “This is how it goes in Gilead and you are my handmaid and will make me my baby — and that’s what we all signed up for, supposedly voluntarily, right?” But I also think that Serena in her own brain has been through a lot and can’t see beyond her own trauma and her own emotion into someone else’s trauma and emotion — because it’s all pretty horrendous. So I don’t know that she necessarily thinks June is worse off than she is.
How did you approach such harrowing scenes with your infant son back in your trailer?
I came to work with a six- or seven-week-old. It was insane. I remember shooting really long days and running back and forth from set to the trailer and breast-feeding — shoot a scene, change the camera setup, run back to the trailer, feed, shoot more of the scene and come back, shoot more of the scene and come back. It was such a Jekyll-and-Hyde moment because Serena is so miserable and depressed when we first come into this season. And then I’m going back to the trailer and looking at my son, and he’s so cute and smiley and brings me so much joy.
You keep referring to Serena as a terrible person, even as I’m thinking she’s maybe not actually all evil. Really?
Yeah, I do feel she is … she’s a pretty terrible person. [Laughs]
Does playing her affect the way people perceive you or the roles you’re offered?
I do hear a lot from makeup artists and people that I work with. They’ll say, “My friend is asking, ‘Is she a bitch to work with?’” That’s pretty funny. I guess if you don’t know me you would wonder what the person was like in real life. I don’t think I’m much like her.
Do you personally hope that Serena starts wielding more political power?
I mean … [pause] that’s a really interesting question. I think what’s funny is when people — and me, also — would like to see Serena come good and lead that female resistance and turn her back on Gilead, but is that interesting to watch? I mean no, maybe not so much.
How do you and Elisabeth endure such grim story lines day after day?
Everyone is pretty goofy on set. I know that sounds weird that we have fun on set but we do. It’s a dream come true to be able to play June and Serena. These super powerhouse female roles are layered and complex, and the story lines are amazing, and it’s so fun as an actor to come to work and play with that.
It has been rumored that you sing Taylor Swift songs between scenes.
We do, we do. We have a bit of an obsession going on. And presumably she watches the show. On the Golden Globes, she made a video message for Elisabeth. Just very exciting. [Laughs]
You’re a Sierra Club ambassador who has car-camped your way through national parks and public lands. You’re also a surfer. So you’re essentially fearless?
I’m terrified of running into a bear. Everyone in the States always thinks that I’m crazy — that we have all the deadly snakes and spiders in Australia, which we do. But wouldn’t you rather get bitten by one of those than eaten alive by a bear?
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