PaleyFest 2018: The Handmaid's Tale Panel and Q&A

Throughout the last week, stars from today’s hottest TV shows flooded the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles for PaleyFest 2018, an event aimed at bringing audiences closer to their favorite stories and the people who bring them to life.

One of the opening weekend sessions – which all involved a screening, panel and Q&A – was dedicated to The Handmaid’s Tale, the Hulu drama based off the 1986 book by Margaret Atwood. Debuting in April 2017, the show (as with the book) is about a world where America’s turned into this radical theocracy which in the wake of a global pandemic of infertility, virtually enslaves all the women who can somehow still have children, making them baby mills for the men in power and their wives.

The show met with significant success, both for its uncomfortable-yet-important timeliness, its overall compelling narrative, and its talent-rich cast. Some of the most buzzed-about cast members – Elisabeth Moss, who plays lead heroine Offred; Alexis Bledel, the guest star who in the role of Ofglen, defied her type-cast dainty image so well she was promoted to series regular for next season; American Horror Story alum Joseph Fiennes, who plays Offred’s assigned commander Fred Waterford; and the highly regarded Ann Dowd, who plays handmaid overseer Aunt Lydia – did not make it to the event, though they were initially scheduled to appear.

Nevertheless, their cast-mates delivered an excellently charming and energetic session filled with insightful comments on the show, intriguing insider’s info and hints at the second season, and more. Those on hand were: Samira Wiley (Orange is the New Black fan favorite who plays handmaid-turned-refugee Moira on The Handmaid’s Tale), Yvonne Strahovski (who plays Serena Joy Waterford, and has a legion of fans from roles in Chuck and Dexter), another Orange is the New Black alum Madeline Brewer (who plays Janine), and Max Minghella (Nick Blaine), Amanda Brugel (Rita), and O-T Fagbenle (Luke),  as well as executive producer Warren Littlefield, and executive producer/showrunner/creator Bruce Miller.

The session began with a screening of highlights from season one and preview clips of season two, including a reveal that June/Offred will encounter an ally at the doctor’s office.

Something special

After the screening, the moderator – Debra Birnbaum, executive editor/TV for Variety – got the conversation going by asking when they knew the show was a hit. Brugel said that as a Canadian, the book has been in her DNA from age 15 (author Atwood is Canadian) and she’s seen many iterations of the story, so she went into the role with some judgment. But when she got on set for the first time and they were doing the ceremony scene, and she saw everyone play the characters she’s loved so long, she felt it was something special.

Littlefield said it dawned on him as they looked at the first dailies. Miller credits the show living up to that initial notion in part to Atwood’s involvement and Moss’ talent. He said Atwood gives them even more creative license than they want, and that having her on hand is a source of energy and ideas. For Moss’ part, Miller praises her endurance through the sheer number of scenes and shots-within-a-scene she’s in and notes that through her, they get even more out of the character.

What they’ve gotten out of Moss – and the cast and show as a whole – was award-winning magic. The group chatted about what they love most about the show and the impact it’s had on people.

Can’t deny its impact

Strahovski remarked, “Bruce never takes the most obvious road, you never know what to expect. If that [surprise] happens [for us as the actors], the scenes are [extra] juicy and challenging for us, then it translates into the show.”

Brewer likes that the story includes so many small acts of resistance to Gilead – acts that are more natural and not too in-your-face.

They all appreciate the conversation it’s started as well.

“If two people who don’t think the same way sit down and have a conversation because of something we’re doing… I’m honored…” said Wiley. “What we’re doing can elicit real change and I’m so proud to be a part of it.”

Strahovski added, “Yes the show is make-believe, but you can’t deny its impact – I mean people are wearing handmaid outfits at protests.”

The show has impacted the actors themselves on a personal level, too.

Brewer said that Janine being the survivor she is and the honest way she feels her trauma inspired her to read more #MeToo stories and think about her own real-life #MeToo experience. Wiley said playing Moira has bolstered her own courage to be more vocal about her beliefs.

Given feedback from fans, Brugel’s come to feel Rita represents housewives who feel devalued by others because they don’t have careers outside the home – to them, Rita proves they have a different kind of strength. Brugel is glad that the show contains so many different women with so many different types of strength.

That sense of valuing diversity exists in other ways on The Handmaid’s Tale. The group spoke during the panel about using primarily female directors and female writers, and the decision to overlook the original story’s all-white population and cast non-white actors anyway.

Before the panel was over, the guests of honor also got a little looser in answering a question about which character they’d most likely be if Gilead were real.

Who’s Who?

Miller, Strahovski and Littlefield said they’d be dead. Brewer said that she personally is meek, and Janine has more will to live than Brewer would. Fagbenle said he’d probably be Janine because he has a similar “crazy optimism.”

Wiley said she’s pretty happy with Moira’s course, since she rejected being a handmaid, rejected the brothel, then got to Canada. Minghella said he feels uncomfortably similar to his character – but even less brave or heroic. Brugel, delightfully shamelessly, said that she’d be Serena.

“The outfits are better, there’s good food, 100 percent I would be a wife,” said Brugel, laughing.

 

(L-R): O-T Fagbenle, Yvonne Strahovski, Amanda Brugel, and Executive Producer Warren Littlefield discuss The Handmaid's Tale at PaleyFest. Photo by: Brian To for the Paley Center

Earlier in the panel, the group touched on an even more important question: What’s next for everyone?

Gilead is within you

The actors and creatives took turns explaining where everyone’s characters will be at the start of season two.

Brewer said that Janine is in the colonies because she endangered the life of the child and the handmaids refused to stone her. Brewer said the colonies in the show are exactly what she pictured when she read the book.

“There’s these beautiful hills and corn fields, but when you look closer, it’s very sinister and gut-wrenching and terrible,” said Brewer, later explaining what Janine’s mental state is. “In the first season Janine takes herself out of Gilead in her mind so she doesn’t have to take in this reality because it’s too hard to bear. Now she’s happy to be alive after so many brushes with death. She has a gratitude even with these new horrors. She’s come back down a bit. She’s looking for the bright side but in a different way. We’ll find her there, and that’s really exciting to explore.”

Miller added that more of the real Janine before Gilead is coming out. He noted the same goes for Offred, as she’s having more and more trouble hiding June, partly because her relationship with Serena Joy is getting more honest, Offred/June is getting feistier.

“June is in this explosive chess game,” noted Littlefield. “All the moves now are for the unborn child.”

Bruce Miller and Madeline Brewer listen to Max Minghella (right) at a PaleyFest session dedicated to The Handmaid's Tale. Photo by: Amanda Ostuni

Minghella said that for Nick, he’ll continue to make risky decisions because of his romance with Offred and the fact that she’s carrying his child.

Wiley said Moira is in Canada, with Luke, thankfully, but she’ll have to adjust to being away from what’s familiar to her. Wiley also hinted they’ll explore Moira’s family outside of Luke and June, including her briefly-mentioned pre-Gilead love Odette. Fagbenle said they’ll explore more of how and why Luke, even though he’s supposed to be a good man, left his wife for June.

Littlefield noted that both Luke and Moira are going to be coping with their Gilead trauma – “they may both be in Little America (in Canada) but they haven’t really left Gilead and Gilead hasn’t left them. Gilead is within you,” said the EP.

On the state of Serena and Fred’s marriage, Miller said they’re at an uneasy peace, united against Offred, and Strahovski said Serena’s particularly not happy with Offred.

“The one thing making her life more tolerable is this child. It’s the light at the end of the tunnel she’s held on to. The fact that Offred challenged her on it and has been taken away under whatever circumstances, [Serena’s] pissed,” said Strahovski.

Miller noted at a different point in the panel – in response to a fan question about what Strahovski thinks of Serena – that the child is what drives her now because there’s nothing left in her life to salvage since she’s convinced herself into such an evil role.

Strahovski’s response to the question was that although justifying Serena’s actions is increasingly difficult, she doesn’t think anyone is evil because they set out to be – but rather, they follow a belief they think is right. The actress says Serena started out simply believing women should embrace their biological capabilities and applying that belief to solving the problem of the dying human race. Things just spiraled horribly from there.

As for learning more about Serena’s past, Strahovski noted they’ve explored much of her background already, but she is interested in knowing more about what shaped her – how she was raised, lovers, boyfriends.

Brugel, on the other hand, isn’t sure she wants to know more about Rita. She said that as a performer she loves not knowing how to take Rita – whether she’s bad or good. Brugel admitted she even takes notes to keep track of when Rita seems to lean one way or the other. For another insider’s tip, she said she walks with rocks in her shoes while filming in order to create the servient walk Rita has. On where Rita will be next season, Brugel notes if the Madam – Serena – is pissed, then Rita, as a “Martha” is in trouble, the most perilous state Rita’s been in yet.

On behalf of Bledel, Miller said Ofglen is in the colonies. Referring to the idyllic setting of her most iconic, polar-opposite role in Gilmore Girls, Miller joked, “it’s not Stars Hollow.”

“Alexis is astonishing. She continues to bear up in increased brutality,” said Miller. “She and Janine both find ways to live a life there.”

Finally, for Aunt Lydia, Miller said she’s very excited about Offred’s pregnancy because that’s a victory for her as an “aunt,” and she’s going to make it her mission to see the pregnancy through. However, she’s also not happy because she’s losing her grip on Offred, and she’ll express this anger in “interesting ways.”

New and Noteworthy

Miller hinted at other things in store for the future – i.e. new characters and thus, guest stars. He said Cherry Jones (24, The Village, Perfect Storm) joins the cast as June’s mother, in a plot that will explore different versions of feminism and how June’s mother’s version impacts June herself.

Samira Wiley signs autographs at PaleyFest. Photo by: Amanda Ostuni

 

Actor Bradley Whitford (The West Wing, Billy Madison, Get Out) will play a commander in the colonies – Miller later implied the character rose to power because he was an economist and helped build Gilead’s economy. Miller also mentioned Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinny, Spiderman: Homecoming) as a guest star, and Clea DuVall (Heroes, American Horror Story) – who will play Ofglen’s wife.

Other hints for the future included: no character is safe from actual death, there will be an escape, and there will be more of June and Luke’s daughter Hannah.

We may not know more yet, but at least we have the nuggets of information covered during PaleyFest to hang on to until The Handmaid’s Tale returns April 25. The cast and creatives were engaging, charming – they even signed autographs after the panel – and satisfyingly open with event attendees, making that Sunday one to remember, and the second day of PaleyFest TV show sessions a great success.

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