Madeline Brewer details the creation of Janine, one of Gilead’s fiery handmaids in Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
One of the biggest break out performances in any drama this season is Madeline Brewer as Janine in The Handmaid’s Tale. Janine’s journey in Gilead is particularly violent and heartbreaking, but Brewer doesn’t ever make her pathetic or middling. Her Janine is full of tremendous heart and intensity. For the readers of Margaret Atwood’s novel that might have wondered how they would expand on this standalone classic, look no further than the expansion of Janine’s character.
When I first started speaking with Brewer, I kept mentioning that my heart went out to her every time she was in a scene. You can tell her mind and spirit are one with this character. She adores Janine.
“When I see her on screen, she breaks my heart. I want her to do well and have a good life,” Brewer shared.
Hitting Very Close to Home
Like most great dystopian fiction, the setting is both familiar and terrifyingly strange. The Handmaid’s Tale debuted on Hulu three months after Donald Trump took office. With this critically acclaimed series, the discussion of women’s rights is inevitable and immediate. The timeliness is not lost on members of the cast, especially Brewer.
“We were filming at the time of the election. It feels very current given our political situation. The good thing about that is that this show does a really good job of opening your eyes. It makes you draw the parallels of what is happening in our world now to what made the Republic of Gilead possible. It forces you to confront those parallels and situations and make you think, ‘Oh God we can’t let this happen.’ It makes you stay awake and aware. It’s paralyzingly terrifying to me at some points. We can’t cross that line or even step up to it. We can’t go there.”
Don’t Let the Fire Be Snuffed Out
Janine makes quite an entrance to Gilead. She’s defiant when first see her in the Red Center. Even though she faces violence in almost every phase of her life, her spirit is never completely beaten down. Janine always gets back up to live another day.
Within the first season, she loses an eye, has her baby snatched away from her, and she continually considered “the crazy one.” Your heart really goes out to Janine, and Brewer makes her a welcome presence every time she’s on screen.
“A lot of the time it’s people who have suffered incredible trauma that are some of the most incredibly strong, resilient, and powerful people. It’s because they are survivors really. They are people who have seen absolute darkness and found a way to keep going. I sometimes think the strongest thing you can do is keep going when all you want to do is stop. Stop living and stop being. She was gang raped when she was 15. To keep living you have to build a wall between you and the things that aim to hurt you. That’s her fire. She doesn’t take any of your shit, and she doesn’t have to. That’s why people enjoy Janine so much. They see this person who had this fire coming into Gilead and you think she’s had it stripped away from her and you think she’s batshit nuts. Her fire and her spirit are not broken. She finds, as humans do, finds a way to go on. Sometimes you want to quit. People can relate to that.”
An Easy Separation
With such heavy material, some actors would struggle with separating their real lives from what their characters go through–especially given the relevance of this series.
For Brewer, it was a lot easier given her physical transformation.
“It was because of the sense of freedom as an actor that I felt this responsibility to bring all of Janine in that moment. There is a lot of research that allows me to leave her on set and then go home and do my thing. There’s also the physical separation between us. By the time, I leave the set I have two eyeballs, and I’m not wearing those red robes. In that way it was really easy to leave here there on set. I can look in the mirror and see Maddie whereas on set I am literally putting on a different skin. All the research went into understanding Janine’s path and being a survivor of gang rape and sexual assault. Her relationship with men is very different than my personal relationship to men. Janine’s relationship with her mother is very different than mine. There was a literal disconnection from her when I would leave every day. It makes me feel like I am a very different person.”
A Supportive Set
One of Janine’s first big scenes come when she gives birth to her second child, but the baby is immediately given to Janine’s Commander’s wife. The scene is very detailed in Margaret Atwood’s novel, and it shows the strange practices the Republic of Gilead adopted for the birthing ceremonies.
You can almost feel the sweat dripping down Janine’s back, but Brewer insisted she felt nothing but supported by everyone on set.
“Honestly, I had a big group of women around me who were loving and nurturing and supporting. You don’t always get a set where you feel absolutely able and safe and free to let yourself be. And explore character and scenes. I found that every single day with every single scene. No matter what we were doing. Everybody was coming together—I can’t explain it. I don’t remember that being very strenuous. I remember being very supported and very able to bring myself to this point for Janine. Emotionally, it just rips your heart from your chest. I felt so much through them. I’m perpetually embarrassed. I have a hard time coming out of my shell sometimes. I don’t want to mess up. But I didn’t feel that at all—there was pure freedom. I’m very proud of Janine.”
A Complex Relationship
One of the most complicated and compelling relationships on The Handmaid’s Tale is between Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) and the handmaids. While Aunt Lydia is very strict and can be very violent, she surprises us with moments of tenderness that suggest that she cares more about these girls than we originally thought.
Brewer was anxious to build upon this relationship on set.
“I’m so happy they created more of a loving and kind of nurturing relationship between Aunt Lydia and Janine where in the book Janine is more of a teacher’s pet. It gives Ann Dowd much more to play with. We worked together on my first film ever and she was sort of a mentor to my character in that. That was only about a year before we shot Handmaid’s Tale. We already had this established relationship and friendship which is so fun to bring to our characters. All the characters on this show are so layered, and, especially with the women, there’s so much that you don’t see. We see Aunt Lydia is this tyrannical, sadistic woman, but there’s this tenderness between here and Janine. This woman really wants these girls to succeed and do well and enjoy their lives. The relationship was so fun to cultivate because we already had that bond and be there with her in this completely different setting.”
Solely a Feminist Show?
Before the show premiered on Hulu, there was a lot of press about whether the stars of the show thought The Handmaid’s Tale was solely a feminist project.
Some of the actors on the show have said that it’s not, and at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Brewer said, “I don’t think this is any sort of feminist propaganda. I think it’s a story about women and about humans.”
I was curious if that label of the show still followed it since the first season has concluded.
“The show is obviously a feminist show, and it is a feminist story based on a feminist book. It just is. I was also saying that it is a human story as well. It’s the story of a woman who is also a human being. There was also a gay man hanging on the wall, and a Catholic priest and a doctor. And, yes, they are men, but they are human beings. On that panel, in that moment, I wanted to clarify that it’s not just the Handmaids who are suffering. It’s about the suffering of these Handmaids is a parallel to how women have suffered over centuries.”
After the Bridge
Brewer’s biggest moment comes in episode 9 titled “The Bridge.” Offred is called upon to talk Janine off the ledge of a bridge as she holds her baby in her arms. After she is convinced to give her baby to the proper officials, Janine jumps off the bridge, but she somehow survives. Brewer is just as curious as we are as to where the character will go.
“No, I have no idea. I can tell you what I hope! I imagine that she would go to The Colonies, because she endangered the life of a child. In Gilead they will forgive a lot if you have healthy ovaries, and we know Janine obviously does. She’s clearly not well. I don’t know what’s going to happen to her. I am as curious as you are—I just want to know.”
In a show that is so full of gloom and violence, Brewer’s Janine manages to spread light. No matter how she comes back, she will surely keep that fire burning.
The Handmaid’s Tale Season 1 concludes today on Hulu.