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[This story contains spoilers to The Handmaid’s Tale‘s season four finale, “The Wilderness.”]
“I’m grateful to the Lord for His bounty, Aunt Lydia,” are surprising final words to hear out of the mouth of Mrs. Keyes.
The Handmaid’s Tale viewers last see Esther Keyes (Mckenna Grace) in the penultimate episode of season four, “Progress.” The 14-year-old Gilead wife who had courageously hid June (Elisabeth Moss), Janine (Madeline Brewer) and the rest of the Handmaids on her farm at the start of the season has found herself knocked down in stature by its end.
After her farm was raided, Mrs. Keyes was assumed to be captured by Gilead officers. Several weeks later, the ninth episode revealed that Esther was indeed captured and is now facing the life sentence of being a Handmaid. Her punishment for harboring the Handmaid fugitives — one that she is reluctant to accept, until heeding Janine’s advice about falling in line in order to survive — is that she will now serve under the ruling hand of Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) at the Red Center. In her final scene, the former cigarette-smoking fan of the rebellion and survivor (who had endured sexual abuse from Eyes and other Commanders on the farm and who was secretly poisoning her elderly husband, Commander Keyes), is seen suffering in silence while receiving an approving kiss on the forehead from Aunt Lydia.
“She’s going to put up a fight. I hope that she isn’t just done and gives up, because I don’t think that’s who she is,” Grace tells The Hollywood Reporter when talking about her character’s season four journey and potential for the already renewed fifth season. (Creator Bruce Miller spoke to THR about Esther and Janine being a window into the world of the Handmaids, now that June has escaped Gilead.)
Below, in the chat with THR, the young actress talks about the importance of casting an age-appropriate star to play the “uncomfortable” role of 14-year-old Mrs. Keyes and imagines how her breakout season four character could fit among the next generation of Handmaids, should she get the opportunity.
Your fiery character, Esther Keyes, became a fan-favorite after she was introduced at the start of season four. What was it like to see that kind of response?
The night after the episode came out, I was out at dinner with some people and one of the waitresses said, “I just watched your episode.” I was so excited, because it had just come out. I was super happy that people were already watching my work because I’m proud of what I did in Handmaid’s and I’m just so excited that it’s out there, because I love the show so much. As soon as I got the role, I was so happy because it’s things like this that I want to be a part of.
What attracted you to the role of Esther?
She’s such an interesting character. It felt like it was going to be interesting to figure her out, because it’s trying to figure out how to grapple with her immaturity but, at the same time, how mature she is. She’s this little woman who runs this household, yet she’s still a young girl dealing with all of these traumas that she’s been put through and cracking under the pressures of Gilead, her husband and all these men. It felt like it was going to be something important and interesting to play and, especially with the story of Handmaid’s Tale, being able to speak out against all of this abuse toward younger girls, I thought that it was a really important role to play.
How important was your age in the casting process?
They were looking for someone who was 13 or 14. I’m really glad that they casted me. I know sometimes they want to go for older, 18-year-olds to play these types of roles and I’m really glad they didn’t because I think it’s important for someone younger to play such an uncomfortable role. I know that some people were a little bit upset that there was this 14-year-old playing her, thinking, “That’s weird and gross.” But, isn’t it weird and gross to the little girls who are being abused that are aged 14 and younger? So I think it’s important that they chose an actual 14-year-old to play the role, and I’m really glad that I got to be that girl.
How did being the same age as Esther help you to understand her when playing her?
I have all the teenage emotions that are important to put into the character. Being a teenager is weird; it’s hard. You have so many emotions because your hormones are all over the place, so I was able to play all of her heightened emotions as I’m living them. I’m really glad that I got the opportunity.
Her cigarette smoking got a lot of attention. Were there any parts of Esther that you suggested or contributed to?
I think that was one of the first scenes, where June comes out and I’m standing on these hay bales, and they were going to leave the cigarette out of the scene after I had learned how to smoke — that’s one of my favorite things, by the way, that Elisabeth Moss taught me how to smoke fake cigarettes! I thought that was such an interesting part of the character. It’s so jarring when you first meet her and she’s out there standing on these hay bales, smoking cigarettes in her little heels. So I emailed them an hour or two before the scene saying, “I really feel like we have to keep it, y’all. If when we get on set it doesn’t feel right, then we can leave it out. But I think we should keep it. Something about it feels right.” And I’m really glad that we did. It was such a great moment for Esther, that she has her little cigarettes.
Elisabeth Moss was your scene partner and also your director. Given the dark material, how did she help you to navigate this role?
The set was really fun and light to compensate for the dark material that everyone is dealing with on a daily basis. So, that definitely helps. But Miss Elisabeth is just incredible. She’s such a great actress; just working with her every scene felt so real. Watching the way that she acted helped me; she would listen to music to help get into character. She’s just so talented. I could go on for hours and hours about how much I look up to Miss Elisabeth Moss.
When I had my scene in episode nine, where I look up as a Handmaid, she told me to do “the June look,” where you look all serious and look up into the camera. And I freaked out, because it was with Aunt Lydia and [Moss was] directing me while I was in a Handmaid dress; it was very surreal.
That moment was like seeing the next June rising up, which is kind of what Esther wanted from the beginning.
Esther really wants to be her. Well, I don’t know if it’s to be her, but she’s very fascinated with June. She looks up to her, almost as a mother figure in this totally twisted sense. I feel like there’s only one June. But there is the whole rebellion and there are all of these other girls. So, there’s one June and I supposed there’s one Esther as well! We’ll see what she gets up to into the next season. I have no clue, but I have hopes.
When you signed on, was Esther intended to be a one-season role? Are you officially on board for next season?
I think it was an episode or two. I’m glad that it turned out how it did! It’s Handmaid’s, if they want me back for another episode, I would be honored!
In his THR interview, showrunner Bruce Miller spoke about how Janine and Esther could be a window into the world of the Handmaids with Aunt Lydia when the show returns for season five. How do you imagine Esther would handle her new situation?
I have no clue! She could take it in a bajillion different directions. Even playing her, reading the scripts and watching what she’s done, she’s surprised me as much as everyone else. Think about what she’s done on the farm, with tricking her husband and hiding these rebels. She’s kind of unpredictable. Everything is so secretive. I would be honored if they would have me back like that. I was just praying that I would get some cool scenes or maybe an episode, but Miss Madeline Brewer is so amazing and I love the dynamic between Janine and Esther. She was so cold to Janine at the farm and now they are kind of stuck together. It’s a great dynamic.
Viewers find out pretty quickly what life has been like for Esther; the abuse she’s endured on the farm and why she is so eager to join June and the revolution. What other backstory did you create for Esther?
I don’t think that I did, because I feel like her backstory is already set up. I always like to not assume too much about characters unless I’m talking with the writer or director. I feel the emotion with her in her backstory and I don’t want to turn it into something it’s not because, at the end of the day, she’s just this abused little girl and I don’t want to overcomplicate it or add anything that shouldn’t be added.
At the end of the season, she falls in line after heeding Janine’s advice. In Esther’s final scene, what is simmering beneath her politeness?
Wouldn’t anyone be upset to be a Handmaid? Wouldn’t anyone be like her? She’s definitely a fighter. Some people will just do it and take it but not her. She’s going to put up a fight. I hope that she isn’t just done and gives up because I don’t think that’s who she is!
How do you imagine she will react when finding out about Fred’s (Joseph Fiennes) murder?
I feel like she would think it was insane. “I’ve got to get out of here — yes!” She’d be stoked; it would definitely give her a newfound sense of hope given where we left her.
Earlier in the season, Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) spoke about how the rebellious Junes and Janines are a thing of the past, and how the new generation of Handmaids are more obedient because this is the only life they know. What are your hopes for Esther when it comes to this next generation of Handmaids?
I’ve never heard it worded that way, Esther being part of a new generation of Handmaids. That’s kind of crazy. We’ve all seen what she’s done. We’ve all heard her stories and seen her fight. I have a lot of things that I think she could do! I think she definitely can be part of this rebellion and the new generation of Handmaids. She will cause quite a stir.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
The fourth season of The Handmaid’s Tale is now streaming on Hulu.
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