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July 22, 2019

The Handmaid’s Pawn

Ashleigh LaThrop’s Handmaid, Ofmatthew, is nothing like her.

Juli Schafer
  • Hulu
  • Courtesy Ashleigh LaThrop
  • Hulu
  • Hulu
  • Hulu

In Hulu's hit series, The Handmaid's Tale, Ashleigh LaThrop's character, Ofmatthew, is blessed by the fruit but not by any friendships.

"Blessed Be the Fruit" is how the Handmaids must greet each other in Hulu's original, The Handmaid's Tale, based on Margaret Atwood's 1986 dystopian classic. The critically acclaimed series is halfway through its third season and shows no signs of slowing.

A Handmaid is a fertile woman who is assigned to a Commander and his wife for two years to conceive a child for the couple. Commanders are the highest-ranking officers in the Gilead regime which is what the United States has become after the takeover of a theocratic military dictatorship.

A Handmaid is forced to undergo a monthly "ceremony," or ritualized rape, in hopes that she will be able to do what the wives cannot - conceive and carry a child to be taken upon birth and raised by him and his wife while the Handmaid will move on to another "assignment."

Ofmatthew (read: Of Matthew; Matthew is her current commander) is the new Handmaid on the block, but unions are not easily formed "Under his eye," especially when the character sides with her oppressor. LaThrop, however, sees Ofmatthew's pure heart and good intentions and hopes viewers will, too.

"I love Ofmatthew. She is so challenging because she is so conflicted. I am not like this; if I feel a certain way, I will tell you. Of Matthew is someone who doesn't show emotion beyond her smiling face which is why she is so good at making the system of Gilead work. Someone who suppresses so much of how she feels is really fascinating to me.

"Her belief system is very different than mine. One of the exercises that I would do is I would watch the news and I would think, 'How would Of Matthew feel?' and try to see it from her perspective."

LaThrop landed the role after a quick audition and callback process. "I knew the part was for Offred's (Elisabeth Moss) new walking partner. I got it on Wednesday and was in Toronto on Friday. It was good, actually, because I didn't have time to think about the magnitude of this show."

The pockets of the plot are swift moving, so some details are left to be inferred, or created by the actor to give depth to the character. "Part of your job as an actor is to create the rest of the back story so I have a whole history for her. Ofmatthew's real name is Natalie and she is the most devoted handmaid in Gilead. That's what I was given.

"The story that I've created is that I come from a really strict Christian household so Gilead wasn't that far off from what my life was. And I had a son, a three-year old, before Gilead, as a very young teenager with my then boyfriend whom I was going to marry."

"I already had a child and that's how they knew I was fertile and was made a Handmaid. The other two I had in Gilead. I had one right after the other and they were also boys. I didn't allow myself to connect with those two, so it was much easier to accept that they weren't mine and that it was God's work for me to be a surrogate."

"She has these moments, and I think it's particularly because of June, where she thinks, 'This can't be right,' but doesn't want to go to hell for having these thoughts so she is constantly yo-yo-ing between her doubt and convincing herself that this is right.

"When you are presented with a system and you don't have a way to break the system, the easiest way is to assimilate. Ofmatthew has never seen a way to break this wheel until June comes along and now her beliefs are questioned, and she starts wishing for a better life."

The storyline and most of the subplots are extraordinarily dark and intense. Off the set, however, the mood is just the opposite.

"What's really great is that Elisabeth (Moss) and Bruce (Miller, show creator) and Mike (Barker, director) are great at creating this atmosphere on set that is really lovely and warm and kind. Everyone's friends on the show so the second that we heard "cut" we would go back into the green room and chat and play games, watch YouTube clips and have random dance parties."

The exchanges between Ofmatthew and Ofjoseph/June played by Elizabeth Moss lend the few bits of comic levity in the show, albeit by way of biting sarcasm.

"Some of the moments were us and the director thinking it would be funnier if one of us just walked away. Working with Lizzie is wonderful. It's really inspiring just to watch her because she is so open and so vulnerable and sometimes terrifying. "

LaThrop, who attended her first Screen Actors Guild Awards ceremony as a part of the nominated acting ensemble for Netflix's award winning The Kominsky Method alongside Michael Douglas and Alan Arkin, would really like to play a villain, but is currently filming her next project for Amazon, another dystopian drama, Utopia in her hometown of Chicago.

"It's a little bit of both (laughing.) It was created by Gillian Flynn who wrote Gone Girl and Sharp Objects and focuses on a group of nerds who meet online and all believe that a book called Dystopia predicted a series of world events like SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) and the Zika virus.

"They find out there is a sequel to this book called "Utopia" and agree to meet in person to find the book to save the world from its problems. It's not set very far in the future."

LaThrop attributes some of the wild popularity of the dystopian genre, and The Handmaid's Tale in particular, to what's happening today. "It's permeated our psyche as culture because we are living in times that are frightening. Having these shows is a way to escape, but also confront these issues in a safe way and using them as cautionary tales."

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