“I didn’t know if I could play her,” says Yvonne Strahovski, who plays Serena Joy Waterford on Hulu’s near-future dystopian series, The Handmaid’s Tale, which tells the stories of women trying to survive within the totalitarian and Christian fundamentalist government of Gilead, which has taken over what remains of the United States. The first three episodes premiered on April 26.
Most famous for playing Sarah Walker on the action-comedy series Chuck for five seasons and later for recurring roles on Dexter and 24: Live Another Day, The Handmaid’s Tale is unlike any show Strahovski has been a part of. “It’s kind of incomparable,” she says of her past work, particularly Chuck, which first premiered 10 years ago. “It’s always a learning curve. I feel like a different person now embarking on this project, The Handmaid’s Tale.”
On the show, which is adapted from Margaret Atwood’s celebrated 1986 novel and was recently renewed for a second season, Strahovski plays a barren Commander’s wife, who is in charge of running a household that includes handmaids -- in this particular home, Offred (Elisabeth Moss) -- who are still fertile despite the society’s declining birth rates. The handmaids are subjected to ritualized rape by the Commander of whose household they are living in in order to provide children to him and his wife.
As a woman who subjects Offred to her husband while also punishing her for not getting pregnant, Serena Joy is very much a villain in this story. At times, she is resentful of Offred, angry and unapproachable. “She’s not someone I relate to easily and she’s not someone I have -- even to this day -- all figured out. [Serena Joy] is everything you don’t really want in your life,” Strahovski admits, adding that she spent each night with Serena Joy as she tried to figure the puzzle of who she is in her head. “It was really hard leaving that baggage [on set] and to come home and relax. It was always at the forefront of my mind.”
With the story told from Offred’s perspective, not all of Serena Joy’s motivations are immediately clear to both the audience and the actress tasked with bringing her to life onscreen. “That was a process and it still is,” Strahovski says while adding that Serena Joy is also oppressed in many ways. The suffering on the show is not limited to the handmaids -- it extends up the food chain to the barren matriarchs who must watch each night as their husbands have sex with other women in order to populate their households. “I don’t know how anyone is comfortable in that kind of situation. She’s a woman of faith. Her government and scripture, which is all intertwined, is telling her this is the right thing to do. But at the same time, you’re sitting there and watching your husband have sex with another woman right in front of you.”
“She is one of the oppressors as well as suffering herself in this society,” the actress continues, adding that Serena Joy is also deeply saddened by the fact that she can’t get pregnant and provide her husband and society with a newborn. “And because she has to rely on somebody else, it’s going to be at that person’s expense. She will do what it takes to survive.”
A stark difference from the book is the fact that Serena Joy, who was originally much older, is now the same age as her handmaid. Both Strahovski and Moss are 34, adding new layers to the power dynamic between their onscreen characters. On paper, Serena Joy is technically more powerful as the wife of an elite member of society, but Offred is the one who is fertile. “You have these two women, who outside Gilead maybe could have been friends. They could have maybe related to each other once upon a time. But they’re in a society where they’re pitted against each other,” the actress says.
Adding new layers of context and resonance is also the fact that Donald Trump was elected President of the United States just as the show began filming and issues surrounding women’s rights have become threatened by the new administration. On The Handmaid’s Tale, women are stripped of any control -- not allowed to work, have money or even read, not to mention what happens to their bodies. “We explore a lot of the brutality that could happen in that kind of society and I feel like the show does it in a way that it doesn’t feel like it could be that far away,” Strahovski says of the parallels between what’s happening in real life and on the show. “It’s a very scary warning sign.”
But despite the burden of playing Serena Joy on a show as dark and as frighteningly relevant as The Handmaid’s Tale, Strahovski says being part of the series feels like a playground “because everyone is very invested and very much in the moment.” And that moment is now.
New episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale stream Wednesdays on Hulu.