Sympathizing with Serena | Yvonne Strahovski from ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ On Complex Female Characters

by | May 18, 2017

photo courtesy of Dennis Leupold

I’m not sure how “The Handmaid’s Tale” missed my required reading lists in high school, but somehow it slipped through the cracks of my North Carolina public school. It wasn’t until few months ago, when the new administration took the helm in the United States, that it began circulation through my friend groups like a rite of passage. The dystopian novel, written in 1985 by Margaret Atwood, feels more realistic today than ever before – with women’s rights to their bodies and health care under attack and a seemingly slow-moving “religious” coup taking over the U.S. government.

In case you’ve been hiding under a rock since the end of April (or perhaps the daily news has left you raw and incapable of taking in any more heavy information), Hulu recently released their adaptation of Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” on their streaming service. Much like with the book, I find myself watching through covered eyes and heaving sighs of dread. On the show, Yvonne Strahovski has the difficult role of humanizing Serena Joy, an influential character in the formation of the militarized dictatorship of Giliad – a world which she helped form, and one in which seemingly holds her as its prisoner now. Below I chat with her about working on such a culturally relevant show and the work she did to find the empathy and compassion that would allow her to walk in Serena’s shoes.

The “Handmaid’s Tale” takes place in a dystopian (ahem, not-so-distant) future society, one which in which women’s value in society feels more historical than future thinking. Having walked in Serena’s shoes in the world of Giliad, and in an effort to prevent slipping backwards into these archaic roles, how would you say our current world is like this imaginary world?
Oh man. Where do we begin.

I know it’s scary.
One of the most exciting things about being a part of this show is – who could have even have planned for it to be so relevant and so topical? We were shooting this pre-election and post-election, and since then obviously we’ve had a lot of issues come up, like women’s rights pertaining to their bodies, maternity leave, and the women’s marches. There just seems to be a lot of stuff being reflected in the news – in U.S. politics, as well as politics around the world – that really have strong parallels to the show. And what I think has been so amazing is, since the show started airing, I’ve had conversations with people that I know or journalists who want to talk about it. People seem very passionate about talking about the show because it speaks to them in some way. It seems to me that there is a need for a show like this to reflect people’s fears and their uncertainty about what the future could hold. And where we might potentially be going as a society.

Oh, help us. My husband actually can’t sit and watch it. He has to leave the room.
It’s very hard to watch.

How did you find empathy for a character like Serena who can seem, on the surface, so easily unlikable?
That was my biggest challenge in this whole process. To try to humanize a character who I don’t relate to and don’t agree with a lot of the time. It was really hard to remove my judgemental self from someone like her. For me, it was a process of sticking to the actual writing – the writing in the book and the writing that’s in the script and taking away all of the labels. While I of course acknowledge that this is a feminist story, and a human story – and this speaks to so many people on so many different levels – in order for me to access Serena I had to strip all of those labels. I had to find what really makes her heart tick, what makes her cry, what makes her livid, what makes her happy and what makes her human. That in and of itself was a weird and scary process.

The fact that you could find her within you. That you liked her.
Ha! Not that I liked her, but that I could justify her behavior. It raises so many different things. I think she’s a very important character to humanize. I think it’s important that we see her struggle with the fact that she had a huge hand in creating Gilead, and this fundamentalist totalitarian sort of extremist, religious-based government of which she’s now a part. I think it’s important to see that love-hate relationship with what she created, and how it’s become a cage for her as well as a cage for everyone else, obviously. That was one of the biggest dualities that kept coming up for me – how she too, is struggling within that. She’s struggling to connect, she’s lost a lot of her identity and her ability to have intellectual stimulus and sexual stimulus. She’s lost the ability to connect with her husband sexually and intellectually. She’s lost a lot of her own rights as a female. So where does that leave her? How does she fill those voids and what outlet does she have? And that’s where we see a lot of that bitterness and emotions and rage in her. Because there are so many thick walls around Gilead and so many thick walls around these characters, that there’s no where to go really. So when we see someone like Serena lose it, it’s very powerful, but the lid always has to come back on the rage when we see that.

Absolutely. You do an incredible job of humanizing her. I believe it’s in the fourth episode where I really felt for her. I could see her as a woman that created this world, but is now very much stuck in it like the rest of them.
Yeah, and it’s interesting to watch someone like her. It could go so many different ways. She could become more of an enforcer of this society or she could have her own moral beliefs challenged and start to crumble. I just love this place where we meet her. It seems empty but also so full of rage and emotion as a result of that emptiness into which she’s put herself.

What advice would you give to young women coming up in the world today?
If there was ever a time to have conversations about feminism it seems to be now. There are a lot of conversations going on right now about what it means to be a woman, and what it means to be a feminist and how different people define feminism. I think one of the biggest things is to really create community with your sister-women. I think at the end of the day, we are all women. And therefore we’re all sisters. One of the things that this show is about, is women being pitted against other women, and that happens because a government does that, or society tells them they have to be pitted against each other. But they also show women resisting that notion and uniting and coming together as community, even though the parameters are very tight. And I think in real life this applies, too! Unite with your sister-women, have conversations, support each other, and figure out how we, as a community of sisters, can move to better our lives for ourselves in a world that is incredibly tumultuous at the moment and women’s rights are on shaky ground.

What is your favorite thing about being a woman?
Well, this might sound cheesy. But I feel like I am capable of so much. That I can do anything that I set my mind to, or at least I can try. We are so unique in the fact that we provide life. We birth life. We birth humans and that is something so powerful that only we as women can experience. I think that may be my favorite thing. Even though I haven’t experienced it yet myself. I think it’s something that’s very powerful, and, for those women that choose to, I think it’s a very extraordinary thing. It’s something that I look forward to doing one day.

Our motto at Of The Wolves, is “Magically One of a Kind, Powerfully Part of the Pack.” How does this apply to your life?
You know I think about the series “Cosmos,” when you asked me that. Cosmos is so interesting—and I’m going to do something super cheesy and quote it. But Carl Sagan says, “We are all made of star stuff.” Scientifically, it’s true. We are all made of the same thing. We are magical and unique. Not just women but men as well. We are all so different and unique. But we all are together and I think for me, this speaks to us, as a community – all humans together and how we are connected energetically in this world. And how important it is to listen to one another. That’s how it speaks to me.

I love that. It’s beautifully interpreted.

Follow Yvonne @yvonnestrahovski + tune into Hulu on Wednesdays

for new episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale”