Interview: Yvonne Strahovski (‘The Handmaid’s Tale’) talks playing Serena and where she sees her at the end after this explosive season
The Handmaid’s Tale, based on the novel by Margaret Atwood and adapted by Bruce Miller for television, is a brilliant albeit terrifying dystopian story about the new world’s order where women are forced to bear the children that are then taken away from them.
The Hulu Original has been talked about on a weekly basis since the fourth season premiered. With June (Elisabeth Moss) now free, the Waterfords – Fred (Joseph Fiennes) and Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) – must prepare for and face trial in Canada for their actions in Gilead, including rape.
Serena, as brilliantly portrayed by Strahovski, is up against a formidable foe. With only one episode left in season four, she’ll do anything to get out and be free, especially since she’s now pregnant. Strahovski was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series for her role as Serena in 2018, as well as a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Series in 2019. With The Handmaid’s Tale‘s fourth season eligible for this year’s Primetime Emmy Awards, the actress has a great chance to repeat a nomination and possibly win for her portrayal of Serena in the show – as she certainly should.
The series’ new season is a heartbreaking spectacle, with each episode leaving us speechless. One scene in particular from episode seven, “Home,” written by Yahlin Chang and directed by Richard Shephard, forces us to return to the beginning and observe the works of karma as June visits Serena in a detention center. The reunion is, to say the least, violent, and it’s one of the most electrifying moments in season four.
I recently had the pleasure of chatting with Yvonne Strahovski about the aforementioned scene, among other things. She also told me about her experience playing Serena, and we even exchanged a few sentences in Polish, which made my day.
Zofia Wijaszka: I’m here talking to you on behalf of AwardsWatch because I really want you to get that Emmy nomination [laughs]. How are you doing?
Yvonne Strahovski: Oh, thanks [laughs]! I’m doing good. How are you?
ZW: Oh, it’s going. It’s quite hot here in Los Angeles. It’s kind of too hot for me because I’m all the way from Poland, I moved here five years ago and I still cannot get used to this heat.
YS: Oooh, a to Pani mówi po Polsku? [translation: So you speak Polish?]
ZW: Tak, tak, dokładnie! [Yes, exactly!] I remember, actually, I was watching one of your interviews with a Polish journalist. And then, I think, she asked you about speaking in Polish and you started speaking in full-blown Polish. And I was just, whaaat [laugh]?
YS: Yeah, I know. I guess not a lot of people know it was my first language.
ZW: Yeah, definitely. But yes, I wanted to talk to you about The Handmaid’s Tale and, you know, I’ve been watching The Handmaid’s Tale since it started, and I’ve always been intrigued by your character because, you know, it’s kind of a love-hate relationship with her.
ZW: I want her to stand up [against Gilead] and, you know, I cheer for her and then I hate her sometimes [laugh]. So I was wondering how it feels to play someone cruel and a total opposite, especially as a woman, knowing that Serena is essentially against them?
YS: Yeah. I mean, it’s been an interesting ride playing Serena. I think I’ve gone through all the kind of rollercoaster dips and highs with her. And I’ve kind of ended up in a space where I feel like I am her best friend, but that also feels really like an ugly thing to say [laugh]. Because she can be such an ugly human being. I have felt conflicted, at times, playing her because there is a lot of choices that she makes that I do not agree with, but at the same time, my job is to really understand her and understand what really humanizes her. So I think that’s where I feel most like her best friend, because I understand her, then I can justify everything that she does and why she does it and have empathy for her. While objectively not agreeing with her. So I guess that’s kind of confusing, but it makes sense in my brain.
ZW: No, I completely understand because I also am very conflicted sometimes. Because I like her and then she does something and I’m like, really, why?
YS: Yeah [laughs].
ZW: I really enjoyed, in the earlier seasons, when Serena and June actually collaborated together against Fred and Gilead. They have such a fascinating chemistry and a power dynamic that is just through the roof, especially in the new season. And is there anything that helps you two, you and Elisabeth, to keep this dynamic going?
YS: Oh, I think we’re just so invested in the show and in our characters that it just kind of becomes explosive when we get to do scenes together. I’ve always loved our scenes. They’re so well-written, and they really give us a lot to play with. The stakes are so high and we’ve both just kind of managed to create, you know, these characters that have a lot going on. And so when the two meet, it is explosive and I find it to be the most fun and I’m pretty sure Elisabeth enjoys those scenes as well. Even though they look traumatic to an audience, I really love the opportunity to do those scenes.
ZW: Yeah, they’re really something. And you’ve played Serena for many years now. Is there something in particular that intrigues you about her?
YS: The way her brain works intrigues me the most and how it clashes with what her heart desires. I’m pretty fascinated in general by that aspect in most people in real life and the characters that I play. But in particular with Serena, when you have someone like her living in the circumstances that she’s been living in, and also being oppressed by Gilead, but also being one of the oppressors – it’s a very complex situation and it’s never really that black and white in her head, even though her actions sometimes seem incredibly black and white, and definitive in her mind. I think it’s a constant tug of war between the things that she wants and desires versus how she truly feels about everything. So that’s the most fascinating thing about her.
ZW: Yeah. I can definitely see that. And then during season four, which is absolutely incredible, I was commenting every episode, I was tweeting about it all the time [laughs]. In this season, everything changes because her long-held desire that basically began all of it, it came true and she becomes pregnant. And she has to make choices and decisions, not only for herself now, but for her child. Do you think that she now regrets her actions and that her apologies to June were sincere?
YS: I think there is a part of her that maybe regrets her actions to an extent, but I think more than anything, she just desperately wants June to forgive her no matter what, because she still holds the belief that God can take her baby away from her at any point in time. And, I think, she feels like she needs to beg for June’s forgiveness in order for God to grace her with a healthy baby that she gets to keep. I think it’s the kind of superstition embedded in her particular religious faith. So in a way, it’s a little more selfish than genuinely apologetic.
ZW: Mhm. And, you know, I absolutely have to talk about this scene you had with Elisabeth this season. I genuinely wrote over a thousand words solely about that scene because it was so amazing.
YS: Oh, wow.
ZW: And obviously, that connects to the scene in the first season where your character kneels and yells and hovers over June. She yells the same sentence: Do you understand me? And I liked how it translates and what it says about Karma’s works because Serena could absolutely end up in the same way as June. And she says that in this week’s episode [note from the writer: it is the episode “Progress” that aired on June 9th], because she says that she could be a Handmaid if they were to come back to Gilead. Would you agree that she would deserve that fate?
YS: I think, objectively, yes [laugh], if I’m an audience member. Yes, she definitely would deserve that fate. I mean, obviously, that would be an incredible choice to witness, you know, on television, if the writers decided to go that route, My personal feeling is that they won’t do that because it is the obvious choice. And I know Bruce Miller, he’s so clever and likes to go with the unexpected that perhaps he has something else up his sleeve for Serena’s future. I don’t actually know, but this is me speculating.
ZW: Yeah, I’m still wondering how she’s going to end up. I didn’t watch the final episode yet, so I can’t wait to watch it, I don’t know what’s going to happen.
YS: Oh my God.
ZW: Yes, so I’m really excited. Is there anything you can tell me about the finale?
YS: I think it’s going to knock your socks off. I personally think it’s the best finale we’ve had in any season.
ZW: I’m super excited. And just for you, where would you like to see Serena at the end? Where would she end up in your imagination?
YS: Oh, I mean, in my imagination, I think, and in true Serena’s fashion, I can see her ending up with a following in Canada. I can see them writing something for her, where she ends up free with her baby and campaigning, either politically, or writing a book and becoming the poster child for all her beliefs and, annoyingly, sticking to them. And developing a fan club as you’ve seen her develop already in the season, you know, when she walked out with Fred and she realized the people were cheering for her and Fred. I think it’s compelling. And also kind of very unsettling because we live that in real life, in our current world. And it’s actually probably the most realistic ending for her.
ZW: Yes, definitely. That scene where they walk out and you can see the smile on her face, I’m thinking that she actually liked it. I think she enjoys that fanbase.
YS: Well, I think she enjoys it but I think the other part of her, in my mind, was realizing that she has another pod in her back pocket to use if she ever needs it, it’s something she can lean on and use to her advantage.
ZW: Do you think she can ever change and realize what she did?
YS: I think, if she would have suffered the same circumstances that someone like June had suffered, then yes, potentially. I think she could change, but I don’t think she will, if she doesn’t suffer the same thing.
ZW: You are doing such an amazing job playing her, and in this season, that one scene with Elisabeth Moss, I was just completely knocked out, my jaw was on the floor. Amazing.
YS: That’s great, I’m so happy. Thank you.
ZW: I think that’s all the questions I have for you. So I’m going to be, you know, following everything that’s happening, Emmy voting and, you know, cheering you on the way [laugh].
YS: Aw, thanks. Thanks for being my cheerleader [laugh].
ZS: I wish you all the success and I hope you’re going to have a wonderful weekend.
YS: Okej, dziękuję bardzo i tak samo życzę Pani. [Okay, thank you very much and I wish you that as well.]
ZS: Dziękuję bardzo, dziękuję, do widzenia, papa! [Thank you so much, thank you, bye-bye!]
YS: Do widzenia, papa! [Bye-bye!]
The season 4 finale of The Handmaid’s Tale airs Wednesday, June 16 on Hulu where the rest of the series can be streamed. Yvonne Strahovski is Emmy eligible for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series.
Photos: Sophie Giraud/Hulu