Joseph Fiennes on 'Handmaid's Tale' Season 3, Dad Jokes and Exploring Egyptian Ruins (Exclusive)

Joseph Fiennes
Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Turner

The actor talks to ET about building a connection with renowned explorer Ranulph Fiennes as they trekked along the Nile.

On Egypt With the World’s Greatest Explorer, National Geographic’s new three-part docuseries, The Handmaid’s Tale star Joseph Fiennes and his cousin, renowned explorer Ranulph Fiennes, go on the ultimate road trip, retracing Sir Fiennes’ 1969 expedition along the Nile River in Egypt while also foraging an unforgettable bond between the two men.

And for the actor, that was ultimately why he wanted to go on this adventure. “It was so great to connect with my cousin,” Joseph says, adding that he personally wanted to create a “connection with a man who happens to be a relative of extraordinary legacy.”

That man happens to be someone who was once listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “world’s greatest living explorer,” having trekked to both Poles by foot, discovered a lost city in Oman, climbed to the summit of Mount Everest and 50 years earlier, led a team of six from Egypt to Uganda during an exploration of the Nile. 

“It’s wonderfully insightful to go on a journey with someone of that caliber and background,” Joseph says of their trip, which provides the actor an opportunity to experience his cousin’s world firsthand. As the two men retrace the original expedition, the actor visits the Great Pyramid of Giza, traverses the underground network of tombs in Tuna el-Gebel and goes off-roading among the dunes of the Sahara Desert. 

Although the trip may seem like an adventurer’s dream, it didn’t come without its risks. They faced three-digit temperatures, crocodile-infested waters, extreme feelings of claustrophobia and mechanical problems in the desert. But the most intense moments for Joseph were the ones caused by “your own human errors, which can undo you,” he says.

In fact, it was the times they were in land rovers that proved to be the scariest, from Joseph's attempt to drive over a steep dune and sending his vehicle high over the edge to another time when a tow line got caught up in one of the wheels causing him to veer off the road and nearly roll. “That was a wake-up call,” he says. 

But in those moments, Joseph is totally himself, “driving badly and telling awful, one-liner dad jokes,” the father of two says, explaining that “what I love about the Nat Geo adventure is that this is me. Most of my time is spent not being me in front of the camera.” 

National Geographic

And going back to Gilead, the fictional world of The Handmaid’s Tale, the actor adds, “was completely different.”

After filming the expedition from July to September of last year, Joseph returned to the set of The Handmaid’s Tale in October to work on season three, continuing his Emmy-nominated role as Commander Fred Waterford. With a premiere set for June 5, the Hulu series has been busy filming new episodes around Ontario, Canada. 

Recently, the show was spotted filming on location in Washington, D.C., with the cast taking over the National Mall. “It was a strange thing to be on the steps where Martin Luther King’s speech and to be at the memorial of Abe Lincoln,” he says of the monuments which represent “the most important values of America: freedom and democracy. So [it was] a bit ironic and spooky to be Fred Waterford on those steps, espousing everything but freedom.”

Standing at the edge of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, the actor says that filming there reminded him how easy it is to forget that “those freedoms and privileges are always under threat” in the same way that filming in Egypt reminded him about the impact of climate change. “We can go to sleep on those things,” he says, adding: “It’s slightly unsettling.” 


Egypt With the World’s Greatest Explorer premieres Thursday, March 14 at 10 p.m. ET on National Geographic