Playing a cruel barren wife on The Handmaid’s Tale hasn’t been easy for Yvonne Strahovski. The newly pregnant star reflects on her “harrowing” role and bringing her own baby into the world. By Jane Albert. Styled by Philippa Moroney. Photographed by Jake
Playing a cruel barren wife on The Handmaid’s
Tale hasn’t been easy for Yvonne Strahovski. The newly pregnant star reflects on her “harrowing” role and bringing her own baby into the world.
Serena Joy Waterford may be a fictional character – and a cold-hearted, brutal, vengeful one at that – but so believable is Australian actress Yvonne Strahovski in portraying her and her infertile state in The Handmaid’s Tale that when Strahovski tells me she’s pregnant, it’s hard not to shout “Praise be!” The breakout star of the Hulu original series is delighting in discussing her hitherto closely guarded secret, giving her first interview to Vogue Australia since announcing on Instagram in mid-May that she and her husband, actor Tim Loden, were expecting their first child.
“I’ve been dying to talk about it,” Strahovski enthuses, before confiding the concerns she had for her unborn baby during the recent shooting of season two of The Handmaid’s Tale, given the unrelenting sadism and seething hatred that drives Serena Joy.
The Sydney-born, Los Angeles-based actress is in Melbourne shooting Angel of Mine, Luke Davies’s adaptation of the 2008 French film L’Empreinte de L’Ange, directed by Strangerland’s Kim Farrant and starring The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s Noomi Rapace. It’s three years since Strahovski has been in Australia, and many more since she made an Australian film.
It often surprises fans of the cult TV series The Handmaid’s Tale to learn Strahovski is Australian, so convincing is her American accent. The only child of Polish immigrants, Strahovski grew up in Maroubra, Sydney, a studious child obsessed with dancing, acting and the outdoors. She honed her craft at the University of Western Sydney before landing roles in local television dramas, including Double the Fist in 2004 and headLand a year later. She decided to try her hand in LA, auditioning for the role of Sarah Walker in Chuck three days after arriving. She planned to stay a couple of months and now calls it home, 11 years later. The Emmy Award-winning series Chuck ultimately ran for five years and Strahovski has played a host of strong, complex characters ever since: serial killer Hannah McKay on the TV series Dexter, Rene Carpenter in The Astronaut Wives Club and Emma on the upcoming film The Predator, among many others.
Still, there will be audiences worldwide who have only come to know Strahovski through The Handmaid’s Tale, creator Bruce Miller’s 2017 adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s bestselling 1985 novel set in a dystopian future that sees America overtaken by a fundamentalist regime, the few remaining fertile women forced into sexual servitude to bear children for the Commanders of the Faithful. Starring Elisabeth Moss as Offred, a handmaid determined to fight back against her commander (Joseph Fiennes) and his barren wife (Strahovski), series one earnt eight Emmys and two Golden Globes and captivated television viewers worldwide, airing as it did in a post-Trump America that made Atwood’s depiction of new land Gilead seem frighteningly plausible.
Strahovski hadn’t read Atwood’s novel but was so captivated by the character of Serena Joy and the story laid out in the pilot that she signed on immediately. “I found her quite mesmerising, because I didn’t have all the answers to her and didn’t have her backstory [back then],” Strahovski explains. “So, to me, all that loneliness, bitterness and emotional instability were the first things I noticed about this character, and I loved the complexity of her and the rest of the characters.”
Fiennes has spoken candidly about the difficulty he has in portraying the violence his character commits against Offred each month during the so-called ‘ceremony’ in which he effectively rapes his handmaid in a bid to get her pregnant, while his wife watches on. Strahovski says there
is a conscious effort to keep the set light-hearted, but there is no escaping the violence. “We’re faced with these incredibly demanding, horrible themes and scenes … it’s really about being in the moment. Between ‘action’ and ‘cut’, you just have to go there.”
There is no let-up in series two, a departure from Atwood’s book, although “the divine Margaret Atwood” (as Strahovski calls her) has remained on board as a consultant. “I’ve found it’s been a little bit more harrowing, actually,” she explains. “There have been some moments when I’ve even noticed crew members audibly uncomfortable while we’ve been in a half-arsed rehearsal, not even doing it properly. We’re really pushing it, and you can feel it on set. It’s definitely a show where we throw it out there and it’s confronting, and it’s meant to be confronting.”
Possibly most confronting is the fact that present-day America has proved closer to Atwood’s Gilead than she could have considered, a world in which movie moguls and politicians alike have allegedly committed acts of sexual misconduct, albeit a world in which women are finding their voice and fighting back. How does Strahovski feel about bringing a new life into this world? “It’s a good question,” she ponders. “It’s a little scary. I do have to have faith that things will start changing, given that new voices are being raised and heard [through] the women’s march or the Florida kids’ gun rally. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned, but I also have faith in the people I surround myself with and the ideals I have. We just have to keep moving forward.”
Strahovski has her own remedies for escaping the madness and spends as much time as she can outdoors. In fact, much of her life is spent away from the red carpet glamour. Here’s a woman who chose to marry her partner in a quiet ceremony in Paso Robles, California, on a day that proved so hot the couple jumped into a nearby lake fully clothed to cool off; a woman who prefers her simple, elegant wedding band to the customary bling. And instead of flying directly to Toronto to begin shooting Handmaid’s season two, the couple threw a few clothes and their beloved dogs into the car and drove across America, making regular camping stops to go fly-fishing and hike the national parks along the way in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana.
“It’s something I’m very committed to in my life; it’ll always be a love of mine,” she says. “Just getting out, getting on the road and doing whatever I want, with no plans. It’ll be interesting to see how that goes [post-baby],” she adds with a laugh.
For the time being, she’s enjoying the 10- or 11-hour shoot days in and around Melbourne on Angel of Mine, a relative luxury compared with the unregulated shooting hours in the US and Canada. A psychological thriller, the film continues the motherhood themes for Strahovski, depicting the story of a woman’s descent into madness following the death of her daughter and her subsequent belief that another woman’s child is, in fact, her own.
Strahovski is using an Australian accent for the first time in many years, something that leaves her feeling a little uncomfortable, given how naturally she now speaks in her adopted homeland’s accent. “It does help being here in Melbourne and surrounded by an Australian crew and having friends here in Melbourne who are keeping it real for me and my weird, mashy accent,” she says. Neither Serena Joy nor Angel’s Claire is meant to be pregnant, so hiding the fact has been an interesting exercise.
Her next project is season three of The Handmaid’s Tale and Strahovski says she’s intrigued to see where it goes, as it too will have moved beyond Atwood’s storyline. “I know there are a couple of ideas on the table just by talking to Bruce Miller, but we’re now in brand-new territory,” she reveals.
Before that begins, however, she’ll be returning home to LA for a well-earnt rest and some nesting ahead of the birth of her baby, which coincides with filming recommencing on Handmaid’s. “I’m due for a break,” she says. “It’s been a little bit nonstop, and as my pregnancy carries on, I probably should take a break and buy a crib and do those baby things. I’ve got to go home and focus on my peanut.” The Handmaid’s Tale can be viewed on SBS On Demand. Angel of Mine has no release date yet.
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