Elisabeth Moss talks to Awards Daily TV about narration, the power of Offred’s real name, and filming during the most contentious election in U.S. history.
The women on Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale may not have any rights, but when it came to Elisabeth Moss’s narration as Offred, producers left it up to the direction of Moss herself.
“It took a little figuring out because we didn’t know whether to do it before we shot the episode or as we were shooting,” said Moss.
For the first episode titled “Offred,” they recorded the voiceover before they started shooting, which gave Moss additional insight into the character. Then, after they shot the episode, it was very apparent they needed to do it again. “Well, I felt we needed to do it again,” she said with emphasis on herself, “because now I felt like I had played the character. Now I knew who she was, so I had to record it again.”
They actually ended up recording it a third time.
“All because of me,” she laughed. “I wanted to make another adjustment to the tone of it. It was very important to figure out the very specific tone. It couldn’t be too dire, too dramatic or depressing. The tone also couldn’t be too light and humorous. I had to find a specific tone.”
Narration can make or break a show or film, but Moss nails it, speaking like she’s hidden behind closed doors.
Eventually, Moss and the Handmaid’s crew established that she only wanted to record after they had shot because it wouldn’t make sense for her to speak after having had shot the action, following the events she was talking about.
“The only thing that’s interesting—the last voiceover [in the final episode] is from the original recording we ever did, because that was the best one.”
And it was also the most revealing. While Margaret Atwood’s novel never explicitly states Offred’s real name, the first episode of Handmaid’s boldly goes where the book never did.
“I love it. In the book, it’s never really said what her name is, the only clue is that at the end of one of the chapters, all of these women are listed out and the last one is June, and she’s the only one not accounted for, and that’s where we got June from. For me, it’s such a big moment because it’s her saying her name. She’s had her identity taken away from her. Her individuality taken away from her. She’s no longer a human being. And she talks a lot about that in the book, and for her to say her own name and take ownership of that is very important. It’s a much bigger statement than saying her name.”
Moss Looks to the Book
When it comes to approaching the role of Offred, Moss says that Margaret Atwood’s book is the perfect cheat sheet, including the scene when Offred sees words for the first time in years and exercises her long-dormant mental muscles.
“The fact that she sees letters for the first time and that being something so unusual, almost sensual, is such an interesting part of the book. That scene had so much weight and importance to me. It’s kind of the most intense game of Scrabble in history. Although I know Scrabble can get intense for many people—it definitely takes on a new level.”
In addition to acting in the series, Moss also serves as an executive producer. For the book-to-TV show, the producers felt it was really important to have a lot of female directors, especially given the subject matter. Reed Morano directed the first three episodes, followed by Floria Sigismondi and Kate Dennis. Plus, female writers like Leila Gerstein, Dorothy Fortenberry, Wendy Straker Hauser, Lynn Renee Maxcy, and Kira Snyder contributed scripts. (Hulu is really a go-to network for supporting women in entertainment!)
“For us, it was really important to have a lot of female directors because I think that’s important on any project. The statistics of the male/female ratio of directors/cinematographers and many other positions is just shocking and terrible. There are so many talented women out there to work with. It was something we wanted and something we were definitely very happy to find.”
Filming During the 2016 Presidential Election
The series was filmed in Toronto during one of the most heated elections in United States history, and while the actress and crew were in a different country, watching the events unfold didn’t feel any different than being in the United States.
“I’ve never watched an election in another country, so I don’t have anything to compare it to, but I think this election was obviously so big and so important to so many people that I felt like I was in the States. The amount of care and compassion and interest in what happened in America that I felt in Canada was very noticeable. Obviously, we’re very close to Canada. There is an interest. The fact that maybe it was going to be the first female president was a world issue, something interesting to everybody. I felt like it was not kept at a distance at all thankfully.”
However, the series took on relevance when Donald Trump pulled out a victory.
“I think we felt what everyone felt. Shock and confusion—it was a wake-up call. A sense of feeling that someone had died. It felt very personal. I don’t have to tell anyone how it felt; a lot of people felt it, too.”
There’s been debate whether the show would have been as buzzworthy with a female in power should Hillary have won.
“I guess we’ll never know. Unfortunately. I do think that that book has been relevant for 32 years, so it’s something that’s always been part of the conversation that has been important to people in 1985, 1995, 2005. We felt it was relevant and important when we signed on for it, when we thought Hillary was going to be president. We’ll never know the answer to that question unfortunately.”
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 1 concludes today on Hulu.