'The Handmaid's Tale': Madeline Brewer on Janine's Past and Standing Up to June (Exclusive)
By Stacy Lambe
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Life in Gilead for Janine on The Handmaid’s Tale has been a brutal one, with the doe-eyed character the victim of one atrocity after the next. But none of that has diminished a genuine and heartfelt performance delivered by Madeline Brewer, who opens up to ET about how things change dramatically for both in season 4. “We’re seeing Janine understand more and more and more,” the actress says, getting to stretch as a performer in ways she hasn’t before on the Hulu series.
As seen in the first three episodes, Janine and June (Elisabeth Moss) once again break free from the clutches of Gilead amid the continued slaughter of their friends and fellow handmaids, with Janine stepping up while June recovered from a gunshot injury. And episode four, “Milk,” marks a major turning point for the largely fragile person audiences have come to know over the course of the series with Janine proving herself to be more self-aware and in control of herself than people gave her credit for.
“It’s not an easy role,” creator Bruce Miller says, adding that Brewer’s not playing someone who’s from reality despite what people may think. “It’s a very careful balance. She holds onto dear Janine and guides her through these episodes and it’s remarkable.”
After watching Brianna (Bahia Watson) and Alma (Nina Kiri) get killed by a passing train at the end of episode three, June and Janine find themselves on a harrowing journey in another attempt to get out of Gilead. This leads to a train depot, where the stowaway in a milk car headed toward Chicago, a war-ridden city that has painstakingly resisted Gilead’s takeover.
Soon after recovering from the gutting loss of her two friends, Janine comes to realize that getting out of Gilead isn’t June’s priority. “She wants to fight,” Brewer says, adding that it’s a far cry from what Janine wants. This leads to an intense confrontation from inside the dark and damp container car, where Janine yells at June for willing to let them all die before June responds by saying she should have left Janine behind.
“I was excited that Janine finally stepped up to June,” Brewer says of that moment. “They love each other, but with that great love of friendship and sisterhood, you come at each other. The people I’ve fought with the most in my life are my best friends. The people that I love the most I go at because we challenge each other and we confront each other. And I think that’s what we’re seeing here.”
The actress adds, “She’s just so betrayed and so angry. And she’s so worried about her friend while mourning the loss of her other friends. And I thought it was just a really great opportunity for us to see that Janine has known what’s been going on all along.”
For Brewer, it was important to her to see that Janine, who has been with these women since day one, is “now participating actively in challenging June, challenging June’s intentions and her loyalties.”
Miller adds that this is also the moment when the leader inside Janine finally emerges, after learning and watching June and others around her. And with so much focus on June becoming this rebellion figure, “the unexpected thing was that Janine would learn how to be a leader in her own right.” And by confronting June, she’s now very much Janine 2.0, standing up for what she believes is right for her.
Set up on a gimbal, the train car filled with a mix of vanilla soft serve and water to mimic an opaque milk was rocking back and forth while Brewer and Moss filmed inside for nearly 12 hours. “I’ve never done anything that intense. But of course, if I’m going to do it anytime, it’s going to be on The Handmaid’s Tale,” Brewer says, adding: “The scene looks incredible and I would not like to do it again.”
The episode also delivered Janine’s first flashback of the series, something Miller admits to have been wanting to do “for so long.” It briefly shows her life pre-Gilead as a young mother to her son, Caleb. She’s contemplating an abortion of an unwanted pregnancy but accidentally ends up at a pregnancy resource center, which actively tries to dissuade and guilt her into keeping it.
“If they were going to write this kind of thing for anybody, it would be for Janine,” Brewer says, acknowledging the “kind of woman that she is.” But she adds that “it’s so interesting to me that Janine, in her past life, would make such an incredibly difficult decision, which is ultimately in the best interest of herself and her child.”
It’s also a rare example of Janine getting to “exert her autonomy over her life,” Brewer continues. “And then it almost seems when we get to Gilead, no one has had more taken away. No one has been more changed.”
The flashback also shows Janine with Caleb, which is a tragic reminder of the fact that he was eventually taken from her after she was kidnapped and killed in a car accident. (Though, only June knows the truth about her son, telling Janine that he’s alive living in California.)
Brewer reveals that in the three seasons prior to this moment, she has kept random pictures of babies that she’s found on Pinterest on her phone so she could visualize what Caleb might have looked like or have a visual to reference while playing Janine.
“But to see him, it was like, ‘Yeah, of course that’s Caleb.’ He was so perfectly cast,” the actress says, adding that “to be able to have that moment as Janine with her son, just to have a snapshot of their life together and see how much she loves her child and how much joy she takes in being a mother and how much that means to her to play that role of mom, it clued in a lot.”
Playing those scenes, fully formed and shaped Brewer’s understanding of Janine and what her entire arc on the series has been about. “She just wants to be a mom," she says. "That’s all she cares about.”