Yvonne Strahovski and Sam Jaeger
Yvonne Strahovski and Amanda Brugel
Elisabeth Moss and Yvonne Strahovski
Joseph Feinnes and Yvonne Strahovski
For four seasons, the characters of Hulu's A Handmaid's Tale have kept viewers guessing.
Perhaps no character is more unpredictable than Yvonne Strahovski's Serena Joy. As the wife of a Commander in Gilead, she has privilege, but is also expected to abide by the strict rules of the society. Yet, Serena never quite fit the Gilead mold, and her actions over the past seasons have not always been the expected reactions of someone in her position.
Even Strahovski never quite knows what to expect. She says, "I think she feels unpredictable to me, as well. It has been a very kind of very little, teeny tiny little tightrope that I feel like I walk playing Serena Joy. Because you really don't know which way she is going to go.
"And there have been moments throughout the seasons where I've read certain things in the script and kind of been really jolted about, how does this fit into what we've already done or established with the character?
"And it's been really challenging, and sometimes I haven't necessarily agreed with her behavior, and what I'm reading, what's on the page before we shot it. But this crazy thing happens where I spend time with it in my brain, and occasionally I spend some time chatting to Bruce [Miller, series creator] about it, as well. And in doing that, I kind of find that knife point that she exists on.
"And I think in a lot of ways, it's really those moments that are the challenging ones. Where I am not quite sure where that knife point is. And then I find it has really allowed me to take Serena to that next level of complexity, which I'm so grateful for.
"I think it's incredibly rare. It's such a gift as an actor to be able to read your lines, your material, the scripts that you get handed, and feel challenged in such a positive way. Where it really, truly pushes you beyond the boundaries of where you even think that character fits.
"And I think it's kind of like a roller coaster for me to play, and I love it when I hear audiences say that they're not quite sure which direction she's going to swing. I think that's kind of exactly right. I think she's so conflicted, there's so many layers to her, she's so complex, that it's exactly where you want to be. As both me the actor and the audience."
It is remarkable that even four seasons in, the characters continue to evolve and change in unexpected ways. Sttrahovsky notes, "In a lot of ways it echoes just how weird and wonderful human nature is. And it's really given me license to explore the darkness within the human brain, and where certain decisions lie.
"Especially for someone like Serena, who is in her own kind of a survival mode in Gilead, and making these decisions based purely on her own selfish needs and her survival."
One aspect of the character that Sttrahovsky enjoys is the balance between the repression and oppression she had in Gilead and the comparative freedom she enjoys in Canada, even though the character is incarcerated. Strahovski explains, "This season, I felt like I wanted to add some flavor. I guess maybe freedom is the right word. Which is ironic, because obviously she's in a detention center.
"But this kind of care-free slash carelessness in her attitude of sitting in that kind of arrogance of like, 'I think I might be OK, actually, and I'm actually going to get out of this.' Because I know how to.
"And just kind of sitting in this place where she's going to push the boundaries even just a little bit more. Like the example with Rita [Amanda Brugel] and that scene of like, 'oh my God, I'm having a baby. Are you going to be my best friend?'
"And even the way she interacts with Mark Tuello [Sam Jaeger]. You know, there's that whole flirtatious element to their relationship that I'm not sure that she would have ever allowed herself to do when she was in Gilead. But now that she's in Canada, with this kind of careless, carefree thing - arrogant thing going on. I think I wanted to explore that side of her."
In approaching the role, Strahovski had to choose her way in. She explains, "I have 1000% always approached her from an emotional angle. And my first instinct was, rather to judge her for the bitterness and the coldness that she was so obviously carrying in that first season, the pilot, I was wanting to explore why she had turned into that person in the church that she had experienced as a human. The trauma.
"We all have trauma as humans in our lives, to whatever degree, and Serena certainly isn't exempt from that.
"And what stood out for me was the trauma of her husband having a prior relationship with another Handmaid. Prior to June [Elisabeth Moss] arriving at their residence. And what that would do to a woman.
"Forget about the hierarchy of Gilead, forget about what Gilead is, but just looking at what that would do to a woman in a relationship with a man. And the trust, the love, the self-worth issues. Everything that would come up in that instance.
"And that was where I anchored Serena. Which obviously felt really potent to me with the arrival of June, which is where we start the story. And so for me it was always that angle."
Strahovski has inhabited the character for long enough to know her well, even in those confusing moments. She notes, "She definitely knows how to play her cards, and play people. And I think more often than not, she might seem to be playing a certain kind of role or emotion genuinely.
"But I always think there's strategy and manipulation behind every little thing that she does, including that super potent scene with June and Serena coming together, and Serena begging for forgiveness. We see her crumble in the face of June, but I still think there is strategy behind all the emotions that are pouring out of her in that moment.
"And perhaps a lot of that has to do with the misogynistic environment that she's been in for an incredibly long time, of being punished for having feelings and intuitions and emotions."
In the current climate, portraying a woman undergoing such repression can be troubling for an actor, but Strahovski understands her role, both in the series and in life. She says, "I think for a long time - and especially in the first season, maybe second, as well - I was quite confronted by my part in representing, being sort of the representative out of the television show, being the reflector of that in the real world.
And of course, Serena Joy is always - you always see Serena Joy's photo in social media being compared to many things in real life. That was always confronting. It was always confronting to me, as well. And I said this before, too.
"As an actress, you never really think you're going to be playing the role of a rapist. It's not something you consider. And that certainly wasn't something I considered. And that part of it was always incredibly confronting. But I mean, there was also - I mean, I take incredible joy, pun intended, at the same time. Because it's just endless, endless possibilities."
A Handmaid's Tale is currently streaming on Hulu