Awards Daily TV talks to The Handmaid’s Tale‘s Joseph Fiennes about his role as the Commander and the political resonance of the classic novel.
Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale comes to the streaming provider at a scarily optimal time. Based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, the series brings to vivid life the story of Offred (Elisabeth Moss), a handmaid who functions as an unwilling surrogate mother in the near-future world of Gilead to infertile power couples. Both the novel and the series emerge as literary political horror. It becomes an even more vivid political horror given the eerie parallels to modern era international politics. Star Joseph Fiennes (Shakespeare in Love, American Horror Story: Asylum), the Commander, recalls filming the series during the hot-button American 2016 election.
“We’d all watched it unfold from the very beginning. [After the 2016 election] it was very quiet on set, I think,” Fiennes remarks. “It is prescient and made even more relevant because of the events. There is a great association to be made between this narrative and what unfolded and continues to unfold.”
The heavy mantle of political resonance weighs heavily on any project, but The Handmaid’s Tale feels born into it. It carries its political significance with ease and grace but also allows that resonance fall into the subtext. It’s there if you want to focus on it, but great storytelling comes first. The series offers that as well as great acting in spades.
On the Commander’s Motivations
Elisabeth Moss expertly sheds the skin of Mad Men‘s Peggy to take on Offred’s tell-tale red robes. Sharing several scenes with Moss (some comfortable, some decidedly not so), Joseph Fiennes provides shading and nuance to the role of the Commander. In the hands of a lesser actor, the Commander dangers on becoming a one-note character as the novel is effectively a first-person narrative through Offred. He’s something of a cypher to readers and audiences.
“The Commander is enigmatic at best. In many ways, he’s quite rightly underwritten because it’s the handmaid’s tale, not the main misogynist’s perspective,” Fiennes said. “I went straight to read the book. He’s still pretty elusive in the book. He’s complex to a degree, but you don’t really get to examine his marriage and his mind. That’s where Bruce [Miller, series creator] said we’d open it up as television does.”
Fiennes responded to Miller’s edict that they would open up the novel and engage thoughts and actions not included in the original text. The creative team strived to create backgrounds and justifications for characters where none existed previously. Fiennes enjoyed the challenge of fleshing out the character and becoming a part of the powerful story itself.
“He also said, ‘Joe, why don’t you come and play with us.’ I loved the fact that he said come and play rather than work,” Fiennes laughed.
To understand the motivations of the Commander, Fiennes referred to small clues placed within Atwood’s text. Offred commenting that she neither hated nor loved the Commander, in particular, fascinated Fiennes given Offred’s circumstances. The allusions to Stockholm Syndrome clued him into small character nuances and helped better define the complex relationship between Offred and the Commander. Additionally, Offred describes the Commander as a softer presence within the harder militaristic complex. Fiennes imagined the Commander as wearing a mask to hide his softer side.
“He wears this mask, this mask of authority, and he dangerously believes it. It becomes a thing that he wears, his uniform and his power,” Fiennes said. “The thing I really liked was trying to explore the complexity of power and how it slowly corrupts. Eventually, his male ‘right,’ as he sees it, gets the better of him.”
On Shaping the Future
This understand of the Commander’s motivation grounds Fiennes strong performance in reality. Unfortunately, the novel’s reality and our modern reality come uncomfortably close to intersecting. Many hold the novel up as a stark example of “what could happen.” Fiennes says it’s happening already.
“The book is all about not going to sleep. About waking up. It’s a stark reminder of how quietly repression can creep up upon us. In many parts of the world, repression is there and needs to be fought and exposed. I mean, just the other day in the European Parliament, the Polish European MEP [Janusz Korwin-Mikke] stood up and lambasted, in the most abhorrent way, women and where they are. It was something out of the Sons of Jacob in Gilead. Even worse,” Fiennes comments. “To say that [the novel] won’t happen… it has happened, it is happening, and it will happen. That’s why this narrative is difficult to stomach… it’s a cautionary tale, and one that holds a mirror up to all of us. Until the playing ground is level, this narrative needs to be watched, listened, and understood.”
All eyes – including the Television Academy – will be watching Joseph Fiennes, Moss, and the remainder of the talented cast when The Handmaid’s Tale premieres April 26 with three episodes on Hulu.
It’s an important series – and message – that is not to be missed.