The Handmaid's Tale: Why it would have killed Elisabeth Moss not to play her part

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The Handmaid's Tale is now streaming on Lightbox.

Elisabeth Moss was in Australia making a second season of Top of the Lake for Jane Campion (The Piano) when she received the script for The Handmaid's Tale

The actress, who came to prominence on West Wing and Mad Men, had read Margaret Atwood's 1985 dystopian novel and knew she would have to be sold on the idea of making such a difficult subject into a television show.

"No matter how good a book is or who you are working with, if the scripts don't hold up then it's not going to work," she says.

Elisabeth Moss says she feels lucky that she is at a point in her career where she can make choices about the projects ...
Neilson Barnard/Getty

Elisabeth Moss says she feels lucky that she is at a point in her career where she can make choices about the projects she works on.

"I read the first script and loved it, and then I asked for the second script just to make sure that it wasn't a fluke, but I thought it was even better than the first."

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In the series, Moss plays Offred, a handmaid to The Commander (Joseph Fiennes) in Gilead, a fundamentalist dictatorship built on 17th-century Puritan roots formed after the United States has fallen apart because of an ecological disaster. Because of a "plague of infertility," women like Offred who can bear children are assigned to a prominent couple that can't conceive.

The Handmaid's Tale is set in a fundamentalist dictatorship built on 17th-century Puritan roots formed after the United ...
SUPPLIED

The Handmaid's Tale is set in a fundamentalist dictatorship built on 17th-century Puritan roots formed after the United States has fallen apart because of an ecological disaster.

In fact, all women in Gilead are part of a colour-coded caste system. Some are Wives like the commander's spouse, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski). Marthas are domestic servants, and Aunts are women allowed to hold administrative positions. Handmaids wear red as a sign of fertility.

Despite being intrigued by the role, Moss held off on committing to the show since she was already in the middle of making a tough series (the actress won a Golden Globe for her performance on the first season of Top of the Lake as a detective in Queenstown).

"It sort of selfishly came down to me not wanting anybody else to do it," says Moss about playing Offred. "Seeing anyone else in the role would've killed me."

All women in The Handmaid's Tale's Gilead are part of a colour-coded caste system.

All women in The Handmaid's Tale's Gilead are part of a colour-coded caste system.

Once the actress jumped in, it was with both feet. Moss is a producer on the series, which was adapted by Bruce Miller and executive produced by Warren Littlefield.

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"I think when you've been around as long as me, you have to be involved," says the 34-year-old Moss, who has been acting since she was 6. "At this point to not have a say would be really hard for me. I have to have some way of ensuring that I'm making something I want to make."

The actress says nobody expected her to do as much as she did on the producing end, but she quickly became involved in everything from casting to cinematography and directing.

Moira (Samira Wiley) and Offred (Elisabeth Moss) in The Handmaid's Tale.

Moira (Samira Wiley) and Offred (Elisabeth Moss) in The Handmaid's Tale.

Several of the directors for the 10-part series are women. "You've gotta bring in women," she says. "This is The Handmaid's Tale written by Margaret Atwood. Besides, there is a huge pool of talented female directors out there."

Reed Morano, known for her cinematography on films such as Frozen River, was chosen to direct the first three episodes. "We had originally just asked her to do the pilot, but then we felt strongly about what she was going to be able to do, so we asked her to do the first three," says Moss. "It really feels like a three-hour movie."

The actress says one of the reasons she was drawn to doing The Handmaid's Tale was that it was being made by Hulu, a streaming service, and they assured her they were committed to quality and not ratings. "You don't have the same limitations," she says.

The Handmaid's Tale author Margaret Atwood.
STEFAN WERMUTH/REUTERS

The Handmaid's Tale author Margaret Atwood.

While the series is based on Canadian novelist Atwood's book, unlike the 1990 movie starring Natasha Richardson, the series plans to explore the world of Gilead further.

Moss says that it was always the plan for the series to expand the scope of the novel.

"As a fan of the book, I want to know what happens next," she says.

Elisabeth Moss rose to fame with her role as Peggy on Mad Men.

Elisabeth Moss rose to fame with her role as Peggy on Mad Men.

Interestingly, in an essay in UK's The Guardian newspaper for the 30th anniversary of the book, Atwood wondered if she had been too optimistic about the ending.

"That's what I love about her. She doesn't pull any punches. She is a truth-seeker and a true-talker," says Moss about the novelist.

"I asked her at dinner once if she thought that what she wrote predicted the future," relates Moss, "and she said when she wrote the book everything in it had already happened or was happening, just not in America."

In that same essay, Atwood wrote that her rule was not to put any events into the book that hadn't occurred in history.

"The group-activated hangings, the tearing apart of human beings, the clothing specific to castes and classes, the forced child-bearing and the appropriation of the results, the children stolen by regimes and placed for upbringing with high-ranking officials, the forbidding of literacy, the denial of property rights: all had precedents," she wrote.

Recently, there have been reactions from some accusing The Handmaid's Tale of being anti-Trump despite the fact that the book is more than 30 years old and that plans for the Hulu show were well in place before the election.

"It was relevant then," says Moss, "and it's more relevant in America now."

The actress feels lucky that she is at a point in her career where she can make choices about the projects she works on.

"I've had a really good run the past few years and been able to do things I've been really proud of," she says, adding that she's planning to do more producing.

"I'm a big admirer of women and men who are able to produce their own projects and choose their own material," she says.

The actress is hoping The Handmaid's Tale does well enough to bring a second season (something which has recently been confirmed), and early reviews are already talking about an Emmy nomination for her.

"It sounds cheesy, but sometimes something comes along where you feel like you were meant to play the character," she says about Offred.

"I'm now a 34-year-old woman in America. I don't have children, but I would like to. So women's rights are important to me," Moss continues. "I felt a connection to her that I never really felt with any other character. She's very close to me."

The actress explains that unlike Robin in Top of the Lake or Peggy in Mad Men, she would never be a detective or a copywriter. But Offred, who we learn in the book may have once been named June, is something else to the actress.

"June is close to me and who I would be in that situation as a handmaiden in Gilead," she says. "I'm a fertile woman, so I'd be in her place, and it's really interesting to me."

TNS

The Handmaid's Tale begins streaming on Lightbox on June 8.

 

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