Elisabeth Moss on ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ Margaret Atwood and Our Era of Peak TV

I'm a big girl and I can admit when I'm scared...and I was shit-terrified of meeting Elisabeth Moss on-set of<em> The Handmaid's Tale</em>;

Elisabeth Moss in The Handmaid’s Tale. Hulu

All week long, we’ll be rolling out coverage of my Toronto visit to the set of The Handmaid’s Tale…two days before the election. Previously: showrunner Bruce Miller on why diversity trumps experience in the writers room.

I’m a big girl and I can admit when I’m scared…and I was shit-terrified of meeting Elisabeth Moss on-set of The Handmaid’s Tale; a truncated 10-minute interview bookended between her shooting one of the most iconic scenes from the book (read below to find out which!) and a table-read for the following episode. Several of my friends had mentioned horror stories of trying to interview cast members of Mad Men, a famously closed set that kept its actors pretty tight-lipped about plot developments. Another friend said Moss was just famously aloof, and didn’t “give” a lot during their time together. I had images of frantically tripping over a couple questions while Moss’ appropriately green-blue eyes cooly stared at me in judgement and disgust. What was I even DOING in Toronto? I needed to have a cigarette before I sat down with her.

Which, naturally, is where Moss found me; furtively trying to light a Parliament behind one of the vans of the Eyes, the secret police on the show. Before I could introduce myself, Moss’ eyes lit up.

“Oh, you smoke?” the actress said. “Thank god.”

And maybe it was because I had gone in with lowered expectations–assuming I’d be met with exasperation, annoyance and the off-chance of getting a dress-down Peggy from Mad Men–that made our actual interview seem way better than it was. But no, listening to the audio back to transcribe this piece, it’s hard at times to tell whose voice belongs to whom: Moss and I both have a tendency to talk fast, giggle nervously and we both have a habit of finishing each other’s sentences when we’re excited about something.

All in all, Elisabeth Moss gave me a pretty great interview, and I walked away with a new daydream wherein me and the new Offred are best friends and take road trips together. Below, our full interview.

How did you get involved with this project?

Elisabeth Moss: I hadn’t read the book before this project. I knew about it, of course. It’s one of these legendary books. I read it when this came my way. I was in Australia, doing Top of the Lake.

Which, sorry to interrupt, but was one of my FAVORITE shows of 2013…

Really, thank you! We were up in Australia filming season two when I got the call about this, and you know, my first thought was that I didn’t really want to do another TV show so soon after Mad Men, but I’ve got to tell you, it’s where ALL the best material is.

Yeah…just being honest, it really is where the best writing is going these days.

It really is! At a certain point, you have to go where the great writing is. I read the first script, and it was just so brilliant and beautiful. And it was one of those things where if I heard anyone else was doing it, I would be really jealous or upset….do you know what I mean?

I do. Even telling some of my friends that I was going to Toronto to visit the set of The Handmaid’s Tale made them turn green with envy. One friend had a great point though when he heard about the casting. He said, “Well, Elisabeth Moss will be perfect as Offred, because so much of this book is about the expressions, what isn’t being said, what just goes on behind the eyes.” And in that way, he compared Offred to Peggy in Mad Men. Offred needs to work within this insanely brutal and misogynistic new world order to survive, just like Peggy did.

Totally, that’s exactly right. It’s all internal, and in some ways, this story far more so than Mad Men, because there’s so little dialogue in this show. Which, we’re about to go do a read-through for this, and it’s funny because there just isn’t that much to read! It’s just a lot of description sometimes. It’s very, very spare but there’s this whole interior world we’re attempting to show.

But I really think what these writers and Bruce are doing in adapting this book…look, they’re really doing the impossible. It’s definitely one of those things where you’re like “I wouldn’t even know how to begin to attempt this,” and then you read these scripts and think “Oh my god, they’re fucking really doing it!” They’ve found a way to turn Atwood’s voice and P.O.V.–and Offred’s, the voice we get in the book as a first-person account– into something you can watch. It’s brilliant.

The vans for the Eyes, Gilead’s secret police, were the first things I saw when I walked onto the set. And I just assumed they were the cast’s Uber rides back to your hotel. Did making this a contemporary story, set now instead of the future, affect your read of the character?

The ‘Eye of God’ vans, belonging to the secret police of Gilead. Hulu

Right, because the book was written in the mid-80s, but it’s set, I think, 30 years ahead. Which would be around right now. Here we are: 2017.* It’s just something we’re constantly putting into the show and constantly reminding ourselves in every department. It’s so important that this show is now and not the future.

There are so many scenes from this book that stand out so distinctly in my head from The Handmaid’s Tale, and when I got to set today, I was told you’d be shooting the first Scrabble scene between Offred and the Commander. Which is obviously one of those moments you can just see in your head while reading.

I know!! You kind of came on the coolest day to visit a set…just in time for the most epic Scrabble game of all time.

You know, it was such a toss-up for me! Do I want to watch the Scrabble game or, say, you as an unwilling participant in the world’s worst threesome? By the way, I feel like my analyst mentioned that out of all the TV that’s ever been on, that one scene–in the first episode, with you and the Commander and Serena Joy– would definitely need a trigger warning.

Oh, it’s completely triggering, completely traumatic. It’s just awful. But in a weird way…I mean, the whole show is shot so beautifully that hopefully, it won’t re-traumatize anyone.

I was being shown the production stills, and it’s like each one is inviting you to tell your own story about what is happening in that scene. You could just run the set photos as the only advertising for this show, and you’d still get massive traction.

I know! This is something we talk about all the time. Literally, this very same discussion, we’ve been having every day when we see the photos. It’s so funny! Every picture you want to say “Okay, this is the poster.”

Now having read the book, do you think the show is going to adhere close enough that even “purist” fans will like the adaptation?

I think we did a really good job including those scenes that are really memorable but also making it something that people can watch who haven’t read the book.

I saw from the stills that the book’s author, Margaret Atwood, makes a cameo appearance in the show. What was it like meeting her? Did you geek out?

Ha! It was definitely exciting…I’m not going to reveal what her part is, in the cameo, but it was obviously super surreal to be in a scene with her and…(starts giggling)…and it was the person who created what you’re wearing and what you’re saying and what you’re doing? How can you not geek out?

I feel like I’d be biting my nails, worried that she would hate (the show).

Oh, I know. Thankfully, she’s very, very happy. She’s been incredibly supportive while still giving us our freedom, too.

So, back to these vans–sorry to be fan-girling out–but it’s so exciting to watch an adaption of one of your favorite books come alive one piece at a time.

That’s totally okay! I feel the same way. The Eye vans are one of my favorite parts, as well. The decision to make them matte was so cool, and I love these things. They’re just so good.

I was talking to Joseph for a brief moment right before this, and I was saying “In my head, the Commander was always so old.” I feel like that’s going to be the biggest difference between my memory of reading the book and this show: a sexy Commander. But I can totally see how it works; in a way, it’s even more threatening to have him be a younger, handsome character. That blurs the boundaries a bit.

Joseph Fiennes as Commander Fred Waterford on The Handmaid’s Tale. Hulu

I think it’s great for this reason: it makes the relationship between Serena Joy and Offred much more intense. Because what is happening between Offred and the Commander, maybe that could be something. The fact that Serena is my age is really great**, because we’re not saying that she can’t have a baby because of her age. The fact that she can’t have a baby for ANOTHER reason is way worse. So I become so much more of a threat, because at the same age, I have something to offer (the Commander) that she doesn’t. And she has things to offer (him) that Offred doesn’t. It makes the stakes way higher, I think.

The Handmaid’s Tale is such a visually descriptive book, especially when it comes to the colors that connote women’s roles in Gilead: the handmaid’s red, the Commanders’ wives in blue, Marthas’ green. Seeing it all come together without being over the top must be breathtaking.

Everyone here is so talented, from the costume and props department to the writers to the crew to the actors. It’s like, okay, this may sound corny, but with this show more than others, you can tell everyone is just trying their absolute best.

You know? We have this thing about everything we do here, which is “this is great, but how do we make it even better?”

The costumes are amazing as well.

Yeah? The handmaids “wings”: that was probably the biggest costume conversation we had. Like, what are they? Should we do them? Should we not do them? Is it going to be a nuisance? Is it going to be silly? And they worked on it, everyone was working on it. We got to the place where photography comes in and takes pictures of the test. And we all kind of looked at each other and said, “Oh wow, this actually works!”

It becomes so meaningful, what we’re wearing, and then also anytime a character show any skin. Be we call the wings a bonnet, and the saying was “Anytime you take the bonnet off, it means something.” Anytime we show our hair, it means something.

It even means something in the flashbacks: you see me wearing a sports bra at one point, and it looks incredibly revealing all of a sudden, you know?

Did the Hulu model appeal to you at all? Releasing episodes once a week, more traditionally like a network, instead of dumping a whole season on its viewers and letting them watch at their own pace? I mean, even “binging” seems like the wrong word to apply to the hot-button topics this show addresses.

Totally. I like bingeing shows, even. But there is something once-a-week that we lose in all of that. It’s important, and it also helps bring the novel aspect to this show, where you read a chapter an evening, or read a book over the course of a month. You want that.

I’ve got to give it up to Hulu for the marketing of this show. I went from never having heard about it to being like “I’ve never been more excited for a series to debut.”

I’m so glad to hear that. And one last thing: we all want to make a show that we ourselves would watch. You know what I mean? I probably watch the same things you watch. And we want to make something where you’re like “Oh my god, I need to see this show!”

*It was in fact, still 2016 when I conducted the interview, but Moss was speaking to the release date of the show.

**In the novel, both Serena Joy and the Commander are much older than Offred.

  Elisabeth Moss on ‘The Handmaid’s Tale,’ Margaret Atwood and Our Era of Peak TV