[This story contains spoilers from the season five finale of The Handmaid’s Tale.]
It’s been nearly a week since The Handmaid’s Tale released its finale. And Madeline Brewer, who has played fiery handmaid Janine on the Hulu dystopian series for all five seasons, is in London preparing for a nightly performance in the West End revival of Cabaret.
“Right now I’m doing theater in the West End, which I’ve wanted to do my whole life, and this character has an abortion as well,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter, drawing a line from the iconic Sally Bowles, who she will play on stage through the end of January, to Janine, who just wrapped her season five story on a cliffhanger. “I was preparing this audition during the overturn of Roe. I was playing Janine, preparing this audition, and now every single night I play a woman who goes through the feelings of getting pregnant, wanting to keep it, deciding not to keep it, because of the life that she wants for herself.”
Janine’s experience of having an abortion was told on the fourth season of the Bruce Miller-created TV saga, which stars Elisabeth Moss as the leading handmaid (now, a Gilead refugee). That flashback episode, titled “Milk” and written by Jacey Heldrich, showed Janine before Gilead’s takeover as a single mom seeking out an abortion after an unplanned pregnancy. But her Google search led her to an anti-abortion crisis pregnancy center, which served to manipulate women into keeping unwanted pregnancies due to the dropping fertility rate in the world of The Handmaid’s Tale. After being fed propaganda and misinformation, Janine eventually seeks out a safe abortion — all of this before Gilead would invade and force women, including Janine, to become reproductive slaves.
The “Milk” episode aired in May 2021, a little over a year before the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson decision would overturn Roe v. Wade. The fallout from the decision highlighted the role crisis pregnancy centers play in the U.S. anti-abortion movement. Janine’s flashback episode also had a profound impact on Brewer.
“When I filmed Janine’s scenes where she was getting an abortion and being manipulated by these crisis pregnancy centers, Roe v. Wade was still intact. But having that storyline was actually a really incredible grieving process for me for my own abortion that I spoke about online in June after the overturn of Roe,” says Brewer. “People talk about how much they love Janine and how much Janine has inspired them, and it felt important to me to talk about my own experience.”
Shortly after the decision, Brewer revealed in a brief post on Instagram that she had an abortion when she was 20. “Today my life is mine,” she wrote, in part. “I can’t wait to be a mother someday on my own terms.” A few months later, she explained why she spoke out in a guest essay for Self, writing, “When I decided to write that Instagram post in June, I was one in a cacophony of voices sharing fear and anger at the overturn of Roe and any information on how to access abortion pills. I wanted anyone who saw it to know that I understand how important it is to have abortion as an option because I’ve needed it myself.”
She also explained that when she was younger, she never saw abortion being represented onscreen the way The Handmaid’s Tale showed Janine making her choice.
“There’s no one way to tell why someone would get an abortion because there’s no one way a woman or a person decides to have an abortion,” she now explains to THR. “I do feel like sometimes we talk about it like it’s one thing: ‘Oh, that was the abortion storyline.’ But there are thousands upon thousands of reasons why even one individual would decide it’s not right for them. And for me, it was the very singular fact that I was not ready.”
Below, in a chat with THR, Brewer opens up about her decision and the power she hopes it has on people watching The Handmaid’s Tale‘s post-Roe and digs into the season five finale cliffhanger and where she thinks Janine is headed after being thrown into that van.
When we spoke earlier in the season, you gave me a finale Easter egg when you said “the only way you survive Gilead is with a June, or some sort of June” (the rebel leader character played by Elisabeth Moss). In the finale, Janine indeed becomes “a June” when she refuses to return to handmaid life. How long had you been waiting to see Janine rise up?
I was really surprised that they took Janine on that journey. I was, obviously, really grateful because June Osborne is one of the great heroines in all of television. So to be able to channel a little bit of that energy was amazing for me as a fan and as an actor, who loves a really rich, interesting character. Janine has changed so, so much that it does feel like it was the only place they could take her. I don’t imagine we’ll ever see season one/season two Janine ever again. She’s changed too much. She’s been through too much.
Elisabeth Moss, who directed the finale, said the two of you worked on the physicality of Janine, like no longer averting her gaze and standing up taller and more confident. What was that like to play out her physical transformation?
That was really interesting, because I’ve gotten so used to Janine’s physicality. It’s like muscle memory now to bring the shoulders up, put the head down and have that nervousness, that energy where she wants to just crawl inside of herself. I knew that if she was changing this much, it would show in her physical form and that she would channel a completely different energy. I wanted to honor that she’s really taking it all in and not hiding anymore. Lizzie and I spoke a lot about that physicality. And how, especially in the finale, Janine uses the old Janine, her former self, to make her life a little bit easier. Like, right before the wedding photos are taken with Commander Lawrence (Bradley Whitford) and Naomi (Ever Carradine) and Janine, where Naomi is telling Janine this is going to be a trial handmaid run and that her daughter isn’t even there, and she’s with her grandparents; as soon as Naomi and Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) leave the room, it kind of all falls down. And Janine releases this character that she’s been playing to make her life easier.
The season ends with Janine being muzzled and thrown into a van to an uncertain location. Where is Janine thinking she is going in that moment?
I think Janine thinks she’s going to be hanged. That she’s going to the wall. That’s what I would think.
And yet, she’s so calm. She tells Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) she’s OK, and she consoles another crying woman in the van. We’ve spoken before about Janine trying to find her purpose. Where does she find her strength here?
I think she’s made up her mind. Janine would rather die than be subjected to the [ritual raping] ceremony again. She knows that Charlotte [renamed “Angela”], her daughter, is loved. She knows she doesn’t really have a great shot of ever getting out of there. She’s tried for so long to make these things work to be with her child, and to make the most of her life. But what has happened between her and Esther (Mckenna Grace) has really broken her, and I just don’t think she feels like she has any reason to be there anymore. She was OK sticking around if she didn’t have to do the ceremony, but if they’re going to make her do the ceremony, she’s not sticking around for it.
Of course, what the audience knows that Janine doesn’t is that Commander Lawrence doesn’t do the ceremony. He’s an awful human being in his own way, but not in the same way that Warren [Janine’s previous commander] was. But that’s something that Janine doesn’t know. Janine thinks she’s going back into a house where she’s going to be raped every month and then have to give another child to this horrendous woman. She’s chosen for herself that’s not what she wants to do, so that’s why I think she’s calm in the van. She’s like: I knew this would happen; I chose this for myself.
[Handmaid’s Tale showrunner] Bruce Miller gave me a more hopeful impression.
Well, Bruce knows things that I don’t know!
Before I share what he said, does that mean you were playing that scene like Janine is marching toward her end?
What else am I supposed to think when they don’t tell me? But I do think, because Bruce Miller is a good and honest human being who is kind and also a friend of mine, is that if he were going to be killing my character, the character I’ve been playing for five seasons now, he would have told me. He would have let me in on the secret, I think. So the fact that that hasn’t happened, I don’t think Janine is actually going to be killed. What I really think, honestly, is that there is a Martha [underground rebel] network, because of that Martha who came up to Janine in the finale and told her about June. And I think they’ve gotten her out.
So, you think this is an escape van?!
I do. What did Bruce say?
He called June “June Appleseed” in the sense that, she’s at her lowest moment, but look at all the seeds she has planted that are out there growing: “Janine acts very rationally but very powerfully because of June; she hears something about June and that impacts her from such a distance.” What I took from it is that the rebel seeds are growing.
Right, like we’re carrying on the legacy that she gave to us.
And Moss called Janine dangerous: “The protégé is all grown up now! She is dangerous.”
Well, I think that as well. But not in the same way that June is dangerous. June is a little unhinged. June is dangerous because she has a blood-lust now, because she’s been so terrorized. I think Janine has been radicalized for something different. She’s been radicalized because they’ve taken the lives and endangered the lives of her friends. That’s where Janine, I think, draws the line. Janine’s friends are what got her by and helped her to survive. And she’s basically been living the last several months thinking, “June is out and my friends Alma (Nina Kiri) and Briana (Bahia Watson) aren’t suffering anymore, and I’ll be here and I’m not doing the ceremony and I can live this way.”
If Janine is in a Martha van and gets a shot at freedom, this will be the last season, when the show returns, and anything can happen. Have you given any thought to how you want her story to end?
I don’t really see a world in which Janine gets to Canada and goes on and tries to live a normal life. I don’t want Janine to be a martyr of any kind because I have a feeling that’s going to become our June Appleseed, as much as I hate that. Janine is one of the warriors in a cause and her bravery is going to get her killed, but it’s going to inspire other women. That’s what I think. I think that’s what’s going to happen with all of the handmaids we’ve fallen in love with over the series and have been so in awe of their strength. We love them because they are powerful and they are on the front lines. But often times, being the brave one means you are the legacy that other people follow.
The biggest shift for Janine in finding her strength this season comes after she finds out about Esther (Mckenna Grace) being raped and impregnated by a commander outside of the ceremony. With Janine’s storyline so centered around bodily autonomy, what has it been like to act on this series as the show hits closer and closer to home?
We were on set the day that Donald Trump was inaugurated. It was distracting, to say the least. It was harrowing and a solemn day on set. Because that was around one of the days in the first season where Janine is being raped on a bed and being assaulted against her will. And when I was sitting in a handmaid circle talking about how Janine has been sexually assaulted multiple times, and Aunt Lydia has everyone tell her that it’s her fault, it was so mirroring what was happening with any woman who came forward to accuse Donald Trump. And it was exactly what was happening with Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford. These kind of things are surrounding us, and then we go on set and do this show.
I wrote something for Self magazine about [speaking out about my abortion]. I wanted people to know how common it is and also how much we are shamed into keeping quiet about it. So many people were talking about the medical reasons someone might need an abortion and I completely agree. But I also wanted to speak to the fact that I had an abortion because I did not want a child. Because I was not ready for a child. Ten years later, I’m still not ready. I still wouldn’t be able to give a child the life and the love and the attention that they would deserve. And I wanted to speak to that.
Janine made a decision for her own child and her own life, and I made a decision completely for my own life, and to be on set [filming that], I think that was part of [why I spoke out]. I think perhaps if I hadn’t been working on The Handmaid’s Tale at the time, if I wasn’t in Toronto and living inside Janine’s mind, I don’t know that I would have talked about it online. But when I’m working on this show, I’m deeply connected to Janine. She is a woman that I admire more than anybody, and she gave me the strength to talk about something that I’ve been whispering about for nine years.
When you first shared your story on social media you seemed to be, like a lot of people, still processing what was happening. How has it been since speaking out?
Since then, the most gratifying part has been for people to understand that my world with Janine comes from a very real place. I know her and she knows me, and it’s just very real and honest. I’m not playing something on TV that I haven’t experienced and that did feel very valuable to me. And it was cathartic to me to experience this onscreen as a grown woman, through the vessel of Janine, playing out the emotions that I didn’t know how to express when I was 20 years old.
I had no idea they would give me this storyline. When I read the script I was like, “Oh my God, do they know?” And I’ve said a bunch of times I’m completely honored they gave me something so delicate. While I don’t think it needs to be that delicate, I’ve never really seen it done the way it needs to be done or the way, selfishly as a viewer, that I would want to see it be done. I was completely honored that they put it in my hands.
With the sixth and final season on the horizon, where are you in your process of saying goodbye to Janine?
I am not ever going to say goodbye to her but I have not even begun, I’ll be honest. Even the thought of it makes me want to cry. I started playing Janine when I was 24, and I’ll be done playing Janine when I’m 31. That’s no small chunk of time; that’s also an incredibly transformative period of my life — an incredibly difficult and weird and rewarding and fascinating era of my existence, and I’ve experienced it alongside this beautiful woman. I will for every day, for the rest of my life, be the woman that I am in some part, in some way due to Janine.
When you think about Janine and the show’s larger legacy, what do you hope is the lasting impact?
There have been some iconic women, iconic feminist heroes on TV, just absolutely incredible characters, Miss Moss being another one of them on Mad Men. And the women who inspire us and who make us feel seen — something that I saw even as a viewer of The Handmaid’s Tale that I haven’t seen on television before is the lives of these women. So often on TV we see women fighting over low stakes. The arguments these women have on The Handmaid’s Tale are life and death, and yet there is still so much love between them. If nothing else, I hope people who have seen The Handmaid’s Tale walk away thinking, “Wow, that was a fucking great show. It was beautiful. It was brilliantly written and acted; it’s one of the best that there is.” That’s how I feel about it as a viewer and as a participant.
But what I really want is for people to take these women with them. I want them to remember them when they’re not feeling as inspired or as strong. I want them to remember Janine’s sunshine and I want them to remember how much she loved her friends, and how kind she would always be or try to be. I want them to remember June’s fucking balls. I want them to remember that to be a good and powerful person, you don’t always need to be kind. And that to be a good and powerful person, you don’t always need to be unkind.
Janine better be in that Martha van, because she’s not done yet.
She’s not ready to go.
Interview edited for length and clarity.