Yvonne Strahovski of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale talks Offred and Serena Joy’s power struggle and what’s likable about the Commander’s wife.
Yvonne Strahovski played everything from a CIA agent on 24: Live Another Day to a murderer on Dexter, but as Serena Joy on The Handmaid’s Tale, she’s discovered her most challenging role to date.
“She’s probably the person I’ve played that I least relate to,” says Strahovski. “I mean, what’s to relate to?”
Very true. One of the most brutal Serena scenes in Season 1 comes at a Gilead dinner function when she dismisses the injured handmaids from participating, like the one-eyed Janine/Ofwarren (Madeline Brewer), because they don’t fit the particular look of the handmaid (meaning, no one wants to see disfigured handmaids). Ouch. And interestingly enough, Serena Joy is even less sympathetic in Margaret Atwood’s novel.
“You just want to hate Serena Joy when you read the book. She doesn’t have that empathy, levels of any kind of sympathy. As an audience member, when you’re reading the book, you don’t get that from her. It was important for me to at least attempt to humanize her in some way.”
Humanizing Serena Joy
Part of the humanizing of Serena Joy comes from a script change compared to the book. The Commanders’ wives are the same age as the handmaids. In the book, they were much older, which may have accounted for the trouble conceiving babies.
“I think [the age change] adds a real need for a child and a real sadness about the fact that Serena couldn’t provide that herself. She’s not over the fact that she can’t deliver that. I think it’s very real and in her face at the time that we meet her.”
This story change also adds tension between Offred (Elisabeth Moss) and Serena Joy, adding a competitive edge between the two.
“Offred can be touched and have sex with her husband, and she cannot. It’s so stripping of Serena Joy. She’s not allowed to read and write anymore, and she was an author back in the day. When you add to that that she’s not allowed to be intimate with her husband and that she isn’t the one to have the baby, the dynamic between her and Offred is more rife with a power struggle.”
But the other part of humanizing Serena Joy comes straight from Strahovski. One of the most memorable scenes of Season 1 comes when Serena Joy accosts Offred for failing to get pregnant. In the scene, Strahovski’s face goes through a series of emotions in a matter of seconds.
“I loved that scene. I see Serena as this boiling pot of water on a stove, a steel pot with a lid on it. And the water inside is raging and boiling and every so often the steam gets too unbearable, the lid lifts, and steam releases. But then the lid has to come back on. And I just keep seeing her as this woman who has rage and emotions and feelings, but doesn’t feel like she has an outlet for them. But Offred is often her one outlet. And she catches herself in that moment of rage. She lets loose at Offred’s expense. It speaks to her one shining light in this whole thing: Things could be so much better if she had a baby. And when that one dream she has, that one hope she holds on to, shatters like that, I think it’s very devastating for someone like Serena.”
TV’s Most Likable Villainess?
Even though Offred is the protagonist, the audience can’t help but feel disappointed, too, for Serena in this moment. Despite her brutalities, Serena Joy is still a very sympathetic character, especially when the audience learns she’s a smart and capable businesswoman and author who actually helped spearhead Gilead—and she’s not even getting credit for. Might she even be a likeable villainess?
“I don’t know that there’s anything likable about her,” laughed Strahovski before seriously considering the question. “I think what’s likable is the potential for her to change and stop being a passive bystander in this whole dynamic of Gilead. It would be interesting to see her own belief system be challenged so much that she has to say something and do something because, right now, she’s not—she’s just surviving in her own bubble. And she was part of the reason why it became that way, along with other people, so she wanted it to be this way. I don’t think she’s in a place yet to even acknowledge that. Obviously, she is affected by it and oppressed herself in the system. I know I’m not supposed to be super judgy of my character, but it’s hard not to be because she did do this to herself.”
So maybe it’s the potential for change that makes Serena Joy one to watch, but it’s the potential for scene stealing that makes Strahovski one to keep an eye on.
The Handmaid’s Tale episodes are streaming on Hulu.