'The Handmaid's Tale': Elisabeth Moss Opens Up About the Hulu Drama's Harrowing Start

The actress also reveals the "literal beginning" of Offred fighting back.
George Kraychyk/Hulu

[This story contains spoilers from the first three episodes of Hulu's The Handmaid’s Tale, "Offred," "Birth Day" and "Late."]

Elisabeth Moss has come a long way from Mad Men

The star (and exec producer) of Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale has been put through hell during the first three episodes of the highly anticipated drama, which debuted Wednesday. 

The series takes place in Gilead, a futuristic but simplified world in which fertility issues abound and women's rights are a thing of the past. In order to keep the population up, government officials in a totalitarian society send young and fertile women — the "handmaids" — to affluent families, where they are forced to help couples procreate via sexual servitude.

The first three installments followed Moss as June, a happily married mother who suddenly loses her job, money and, in a not too distant future, has her daughter ripped from her arms as her husband is seemingly shot to death. Having one of the few successful births in the city, June is forced into a life of servitude and rape as she becomes Offred and her body becomes a vessel for a hopeful pregnancy.

Later, she is forced to watch a fellow handmaid give birth to a baby she could never claim as her own before finally befriending her shopping partner/resistance member Ofglen (Alexis Bledel), only for her to completely and mysteriously disappear.

To break down some of the harrowing scenes from the first three episodes as well as the weight of the series, The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Moss.

The ceremony scene — effectively state-sanctioned rape — was so memorable from the book. What kind of conversations went into executing that?

A lot of us didn't watch the film version of the book because we wanted to bring something unique to it. We followed our interpretation of the book. It's highly disturbing. It is a rape. It's shocking when you first see it; there's nothing else like it. I've never seen this kind of scene. You have to give credit to Margaret Atwood for creating that moment. It's incredibly disturbing and unique, and we wanted to give it that weight. It is not a sex scene; it is a rape scene. The interesting thing has been as we go along obviously there's more than one time that we do it, so it's finding different ways to show the visuals and finding different ways to tell the story and not just doing the same thing over and over.

As a producer, what kind of input were you able to give into Ofglen's (Alexis Bledel) storyline and her genital mutilation scenes as well as the hanging of her partner?

Every scene was approached with an attitude of not holding back, no fear, no dumbing down or making it easier to watch. That was how we approached everything. That was extremely important to me before I signed on to the show. I wanted to make sure we were going go all the way. “Balls to the wall” was a phrase often repeated. I didn't want to make the show unless it was going to go all the way and tell the story the way it deserved to be told.

What kind of weight did you give the first Scrabble scene and walking across the "threshold" into The Commander's (Joseph Fiennes) office, knowing what a large part of the book it was?

It's so weighted already in the scene, but I was so excited and it was so thrilling. It felt like such a momentous occasion, the first Scrabble scene. It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime moments when you get to bring something to life that is such a prolific literary moment.

After the first three episodes, how does Offred view the Commander's wife Serena (Yvonne Strahovski)?

She cannot understand how someone who is also a woman could just stand there and watch what's happening to these women and not do anything. It's infuriating and very painful. Of all people, Serena could actually do something to save them and she doesn't. As Margaret Atwood says in the book: Ignoring isn't the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.

Serena gives Offred a cookie during the birth scene — but Offred, in a show of resistance, spits it out later. Was that a win for Offred?

The cookie scene is about humiliating Offred, but the most interesting part of it for me is when she spits it out and looks in the mirror and there's that slight tiny smile. Viewers as they watch the coming episodes may recognize that moment as the beginning of Offred's resistance. In one of the original cuts, that shot wasn't in there, and I insisted it be put back in. It's the literal beginning of her fighting back.

There's also the lunch scene, where everyone thinks Offred is pregnant. Creatively, what did you make of that? 

I love the lunch scene; I actually find it hilarious. The choice to do it all in one shot was so great. It cracks me up because it's just so weird. In this world where everything is so bizarre, I love that Offred finds the most bizarre thing is people being nice to her. And Amanda Brugel, who plays Rita, is a comedic genius quite frankly and such a beautiful actress, and she just kills me with laughter every time with her timing in the scene, it was so hard to keep it together when we were shooting it.

Did Offred let down her guard in not claiming Aunt Lydia gave her a miscarriage, rather than just admit she got her period?

Blaming something so serious on Aunt Lydia would be the worst possible thing that Offred could do. She would be severely physically punished. Not killed, because of her fertility, of course. But also lying is not on Offred's mind. The whole point of the end of that episode when Offred tells Serena she isn't pregnant is that she let her guard down. It's been so long since she's felt any love at all, any care, any kindness at all, that when she feels it from Serena she gets lost in the warmth of it. She thinks that maybe just maybe, there's hope. She's so heartbreakingly starved of love like an abused animal, that any slight kindness is everything to her. And she does let her guard down and forget who she is in this world. And she hopes beyond hope that her new protector Serena will not be mad at her for not being pregnant. But she also knows deep down that she is stupid for hoping. But what do you do when you have nothing but hope?

At this point does Offred want to get pregnant? Would that be easier or harder on her in this world?

For any handmaid, it's neither. Because it's both. Quite simply, if you get pregnant, you have a pretty good shot of surviving for the rest of your life. They will still have to move to a different household and do it all over again, but they will never be sent to the Colonies where they are told they will most certainly die, and die a painful death. But the baby that they have carried, birthed and then nursed will be taken from them unceremoniously, and they will never see their child again. So, is it easier or harder? Neither. It's both.

How did you decide on Offred's physicality and how does it change as the series goes on?

It was making it up from scratch. I became the handmaid teacher on set. We had a cast dinner, and I remember standing outside with Samira Wiley (Moira, Offred's college friend and a fellow handmaid) and Madeline Brewer (Janine, a handmaid who had a baby) and being like, “All right, so you put your head down and look down and put your hands together.” And we were just standing in the middle of the street practicing being handmaids. What’s been cool is figuring out that physicality and then also breaking those rules as we go on this season. So there is the whole beginning or, if you're a good handmaid, your head is down and you certainly don't look men or your superiors in the eye. There's not a lot of movement. But as we get deeper, it's breaking those rules, for me especially. As June comes out in Offred or as those characters merge and Offred becomes stronger and tougher and starts to fight her way out, it's been cool finding those moments where I look people in the eye or walk in a more modern way. Sit in a more modern way or loosen up a bit, especially depending on who's around in the scene. 

Was there a trick in balancing the voiceovers?

It's a fine line. You don't want to do too much because you want to tell the story with visuals. But at the same time, you're trying to communicate a world that is very foreign. You're also trying to bridge that divide, that gap between the first-person narrative of the book and a television show. Our guiding rule has always been that the narration has to add; it cannot be a replacement or a band-aid. It cannot be distraction. It has to be something that adds to the story and adds to the visuals. So we're very cautious about it and very willing to throw it out. I've recorded things several times to get exactly the right tone. It's an ongoing exploration of it. We shoot the scenes before we record the voiceover. That was something we had to discover as well; if you recorded it before, it wasn't necessarily going to enhance the scene. But as June and Offred merge, as more of June comes out in Offred, there's less and less narration. By episode three there's barely any. It's very interesting.

What did you think of the first three episodes? New episodes of The Handmaid's Tale are released every Wednesday on Hulu. Bookmark THR.com/HandmaidsTale for full coverage. 

Twitter: @amber_dowling

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