Handmaid’s Tale star ‘repulsed’ by new season
WHAT'S it like filming the bleakest show on TV?
Elisabeth Moss is perched in the back of an ambulance. As the door swings open, her wide-eyed character, Offred, peers out. She's pregnant and wrapped in a billowing red robe. She looks frightened.
A helping hand appears. It belongs to Nick, Moss' stony-faced co-star, played by Max Minghella, who might be the baby's father. He reaches up and helps Offred make the large step down on to the frozen road.
Offred clutches her bulging belly. She's clearly been through an ordeal.
Moss is going through one too. It's nearly 5pm and temperatures on this chilly set for The Handmaid's Tale in Hamilton, near Toronto, which doubles for the gloomy city of Gilead in the show, dipped below 0 degrees at least half an hour ago.
She has a cold. "I've been sick for a few days. I've been laying a little low," Moss will later say. Her eyes are watering, and when cameras stop rolling, Moss dabs at her nose with a tissue buried in her red sleeve.
You could interpret this as the pressure getting to her. After all, Moss, possibly the finest actress of her generation, is filming the most-anticipated television show of the year, one that has helped lead a worldwide cultural shift and won eight Emmy Awards in the process.
Season two has the weight of the world on its shoulders. The show's red costumes have become a symbol of uprising, worn during real-life protests. More than once during today's set visit, its creators and stars will be asked if the show's second season can offer answers for the real-life problems the show mirrors - Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, #timesup and #metoo.
It's a big question. As extras dressed as handmaids rub their hands together to keep warm and crew huddle with the hoods of giant jackets hugging their heads, it seems too big. In these freezing temperatures, surely everyone is just focused on survival.
Moss finally reveals where her head's at. Nick is supposed to lead Offred up the stairs and into the Commander's home where she's imprisoned until she gives birth, but Moss goes off-script. In front of the ambulance, she leans in and pretends to give Minghella a ferocious tongue pash. He laughs and wags his tongue back at her.
Moss turns, bounds up the stairs and greets a stern Yvonne Strahovski. During season one, Strahovski's character Serena Joy put Offred through horrific mental and physical torture, including ritualised rape sessions with her husband, The Commander, played by Joseph Fiennes. Because of this, Offred's baby could also be his.
But that doesn't matter right now. The cameras aren't rolling. This is just a rehearsal. "La di da," chirps Moss, grabbing Strahovski's hands. "You don't know anything. F*** off now. Bye!" Moss delivers her last word in a singsong squeal, then struts inside The Commander's house and shuts the door.
Later, Moss tells me that once the door closed, she and Minghella started singing Taylor Swift songs together to keep warm. "I'm glad you're here to actually see this. It's not as serious as anyone would possibly think it is."
Fiennes agrees, calling it a typical day on set. Despite the weighty source material, which is based on Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel, the stars don't spend their downtime discussing the show's themes. Instead, he says they're more focused on "levity".
"Weirdly, I've worked on comedies that are much more dark and depressing off camera," he says. "We all know we have to navigate a quite dense, complicated narrative. In order to go there, there's got to be a lightness, so we don't spend time breaking it down.
"If you caught us talking on set, you'd be like, 'Really? I thought they were intelligent'."
He's laughing, but ask Fiennes about his scenes with Moss, in particular the rape ceremonies undertaken in an attempt to deliver Joy and The Commander a baby in a world where precious few are born, and he soon gets serious.
"I am genuinely affected by some of the things we have to do," he says. He quickly admits Moss, as Offred, has it far worse. "It's so weird for me to say (that) ... Who am I, when I have my co-stars there, to say how brutal it is for me?"
It's about to get worse. Season two, Fiennes warns, has been much harder to shoot than the first. "Personally, I am repulsed by it ... This season, I've found it very, very, very difficult."
He's not the only one struggling. Ann Dowd plays Aunt Lydia, a surrogate mother for the handmaids, with the blunt force of a police baton. The actress is a mother of three children and says she struggles to discipline her children at home. "I can barely stand to put a consequence in place and keep it there," she admits.
So she's appalled by how Lydia, has to treat her handmaids. "There's no denying her actions are cruel. But if my job is to play her, it's my job to understand her. Despite the fact that this hurts my girls, it's my responsibility to do it. Otherwise, things will get much worse for them." She's conflicted. "I love her deeply, therefore I'm interested in why she is who she is."
Aunt Lydia plays a central role in the second season debut, and there's one moment - you'll know it when you see it - that might be the most harrowing thing she's filmed.
"I was walking across that field at 3.30am. It was very cold, it was raining ... we're out in the middle of nowhere. To see those poor handmaids, they deserve an Emmy, all of them. It was freezing, you could see them visibly shaking, it was a Thursday night ... you go 'til the sun comes up. It adds to the grimness and unbelievable nature of that thing ... Who could come up with something as terrifying as that?"
Bruce Miller, that's who. He, along with Warren Littlefield and author Margaret Atwood, have penned a second season that's even bleaker than the first. Despite all the questions about life imitating art, Miller says he's not trying to comment on social ills or offer a way forward. "I try to let the audience figure out how it fits into their life. How it's interpreted ... is not my job. The more I try to do that, the less interesting the show gets."
Instead, he's just trying to make a good show. "Of course you feel sorry for Offred. But if you don't feel sorry for The Commander and Serena Joy, the show's boring, it's just evil people. It's harder to figure out how to be sympathetic to them."
Luckily, they've got solid source material - and access to its author. "Usually when you adapt a classic the author is long gone," says Miller. "[Margaret Atwood] is very much around and has a spectacular memory about what she was thinking when she wrote The Handmaid's Tale. The conversations I have with her are so picky - you can't ask Dickens those questions."
Back on set, Moss is all smiles. She's had major roles before, from Mad Men's scheming Peggy Olson to uncouth cop Robin Griffin in Top of the Lake. She received Emmy nominations for both, but it's for Offred that she finally, and deservedly, won.
She's hit the jackpot, and she seems to know it.
"I'm attracted to strong, complicated characters," she says, sniffling and chewing gum between takes. "Did I anticipate this crazy storm? Of course not, but if we're giving someone a symbol of the resistance, that's cooler than any TV show."
Does she think the show's too bleak, too disturbing? "It's never gratuitous," she replies. "If we were to shy away from the reality of this world, of Gilead, that wouldn't make any sense. As long as we're truthful, we're doing what we're supposed to be doing."
Moss is whisked away to do another take of the scene she was goofing around with earlier. This time, there are no fake kisses, no mock conversations. Extras are on their marks. Snow machines are humming. Cameras are rolling. Things are serious.
As the director yells, "Action!" Offred walks up the steps, stops and is greeted by Joy, who kneels down and quotes scripture to her pregnant belly. "We did it, Offred," says Joy. "This is God's will. Rejoice and be glad in it."
Offred eyeballs Joy. So many emotions pass across Moss' face, it's impossible to list them all. Resignation, pity, disgust, and hope are just the start.
Finally, her face tenses, settling on a gaze of pure hatred. Offred spits five words at Joy, each more vicious than the last: "No. One. Knows. God's. Will."
She turns, walks up the stairs, and shuts the door. Then Moss breaks into song. Taylor Swift, it seems, is here to save the day.
The Handmaid's Tale is available to stream on SBS On Demand and airs Thursdays at 8.30pm on SBS.
This story originally appeared in the NZ Herald and is republished here with permission.