'Handmaid's Tale' Star Opens Up About the Horrors of Rape and Victim-Shaming

"That is so demented to me, to even question anyone other than the rapist," Madeline Brewer tells THR.
Courtesy of Hulu

[This story contains spoilers from the first three episodes of Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale.]

There are a lot of harsh components in the first three episodes of Hulu's The Handmaid’s Tale to digest. Institutionalized rape. Body mutilation. A totalitarian regime and segregation, among others. For some, living in the fictional world of Gilead is better than for others. And for still others — namely the handmaids — it’s a wonder they continue to survive.

As Ofwarren/Janine, Madeline Brewer has shouldered more than most. From her introduction at the Red Center, when her “insolence” cost her an eye, to the victim-shaming scene and the eventual birth of a child she was forced to conceive and carry but could never keep, the actress has had a lot to play in a short period of time. As Janine’s mental stability continues to decline and her grasp on reality weakens, it seems as though the worst is yet to come for the character in this crazed world.

Hot on the heels of the first three episodes, The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Brewer to get her take on playing the notable character first imagined by Margaret Atwood. Below, she breaks down Janine’s escapism, victim-shaming and the research that went into the role.

What’s your take on Janine’s mental state?

I say “nuts” for brevity. But Janine is so much more than that — as anyone is. It is one of the most ignorant things you can do to a person, to say they’re nuts or they’re crazy. It diminishes the layers of who they are as a person. None of us are just nuts. There’s something else happening in their mind. That’s Janine.

How dangerous is that in a world like Gilead?

She isn’t dangerous to anyone other than herself. The only reason she is dangerous to herself is that she’s constantly teetering on the edge of “Should I stay or should I go?” That’s where the necessity of finding a new reality of the mind comes in. Janine is constantly looking off a little bit to a different place because she’s dying to be there. She’s trying to live in that space because the reality that she’s facing is too hard. It’s too difficult; she’s not strong enough to sit and stay in the same way that Offred is. She has to make the escape in her mind; otherwise she will off herself. She’s already been through so many horrors in her life that this one is just the last straw for her. She uses her strength to consciously make the decision that she can’t face the reality right now and needs to escape somewhere else in her mind.

What kinds of conversations did you have around victim shaming in terms of filming Janine’s rape recount scene at the Red Center?

I did what research I could about people who are survivors of sexual assault and rape, how it shapes them going forward and how they dealt with being victim shamed — being told that if they were wearing something different it wouldn’t have happened, or if they weren’t in that place at that time it wouldn’t have happened. I wanted to know how that affected them. That is part of what shaped Janine and why she needed to escape in her mind. That was a horror; it’s too difficult for her. When she has all of these people telling her this horrific thing that happened to her is her fault, it makes her question whether it was her fault. It was very important to me to play an accurate representation of someone talking about their sexual assault in that scene.

At that point, she had almost come to terms with the fact that it had happened. She almost tried to make it into a joke. It was her fiery nature; she was trying to piss off Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) by talking about it. There were so many layers to that moment that I wanted to play, and I wanted the scene with Janine saying, “Yeah, this happened to me, and f— you. It doesn’t change who I am, and I’m still me for it.” And then that breakdown of, “This is your fault, you led them on.” I mean, how damaging is that to someone who is a survivor of sexual assault? How screwed up is that? To do that to someone’s psyche.... And how we do it all the time in the media and on Twitter and in the world. “What was she wearing?” “Was she drinking?” That is so demented to me, to even question anyone other than the rapist. It’s f so f—ed.

How much pressure did you feel to portray a handmaid who gives birth and then has to nurse the baby and eventually give her up?

You can research that too; I had a wealth of information because I had women all around me. I asked [director] Reed Morano and Ann Dowd. We had a real midwife there on set who played the midwife, and I was talking to her — she’s been present for more than a thousand births. I asked mothers. I wanted to know what giving birth and nursing are like. I asked my mother how she would have felt when I was born if she had to give me to another woman. She told me it’s like a horror beyond explanation, to put a person through that. There’s a crazy connection that a woman has with the child she carries.

How will having her child taken from her affect Janine when it does happen?

Janine lives in her own mind. She has created a home there that is different from the reality that all the other handmaids are seeing. So I can say that just what you see isn’t what you get with Janine; there’s something else happening.

What is one message you hope viewers take away from watching this show?

This show has so many messages. The most important one is to stay awake and keep your eyes open. Don’t let people in power make decisions for you. We have a beautiful right in this country, which is freedom of speech. Let your voice be heard. Don’t stand idly by and let things happen to you. Question everything, be informed. Whether people agree with you or not, take an active role in what happens in your life. Be present in it and don’t let anything happen to you or your family without consent or being heard. It’s to stay awake. Stay aware. We can’t, as a society, allow our fellow humans to be victims of sexual assault and then blame them for it and shame them for talking about it. It’s something that happens in our world for some, I don’t know where it stems from, but it makes me sick to my stomach.

New episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale are released Wednesdays on Hulu. Thoughts? Sound off in the comments below. Bookmark THR.com/HandmaidsTale for full coverage.

Twitter: @amber_dowling