How 'Handmaid's Tale' Stars Ann Dowd, Bradley Whitford, Samira Wiley and More Have Been Transformed by 4 Seasons of Gilead

TheWrap magazine: Fellow Emmy-nominated supporting actors O-T Fagbenle, Max Minghella, Madeline Brewer and Yvonne Strahovski discuss characters’ biggest changes

This story about “The Handmaid’s Tale” first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Along with garnering 2021 Emmy nominations for Outstanding Drama Series and lead actress Elisabeth Moss, “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 4 brought in a whopping seven nods for supporting cast members O-T Fagbenle, Max Minghella, Bradley Whitford, Madeline Brewer, Ann Dowd, Yvonne Strahovski and Samira Wiley (plus two more for guest actors McKenna Grace and Alexis Bledel).

With results like that, it’s pretty obvious that their industry peers realize the significance these actors had in the season. But what do each of them believe their roles offered — especially in comparison to how they began their journeys in Gilead?

“In some ways, there was a moment that happened in the series premiere that sent Luke’s life on a completely different trajectory,” said Fagbenle, who plays Luke Bankole, the husband of June (Moss). “And the resolution of that, (which) you’ve been waiting for for three seasons, is that reunification with June. What was great for Luke, and for me as an actor, was to explore that profound, complicated resolution.”

Wiley, who plays the part of June’s best friend, Moira Strand, said, “The thing that motivated Moira in Season 1 had a lot to do with revenge. She just wanted to get back at people. Many people, I think, identified with her being such a badass — she literally killed a man and escaped. (But) Season 4 is a softer Moira. She wants to experience love. She is raising June’s daughter. She’s got this easy relationship with Luke. She’s benefiting from a bunch of therapy. There are scenes in this season where June is saying things that Moira herself would have said in Season 1, and Moira balks at it.”

Minghella, who plays Nick Blaine, June’s lover and the father of her Gilead-born child, said this is “quite an easy question to answer,” because of Nick’s clear evolution. “We’ve seen him grow from boy to man, from yard boy to commander,” he said. “It’s a sharp transition. And in the context of the story, it’s been an accelerated transition. That’s been fun to play as this person who is rising through the ranks at a rate that is probably faster than he could handle. There’s been a lot of meat to chew on.”

Brewer, who has journeyed alongside June as fellow handmaid Janine for four seasons, said her character has experienced “an entire overhaul of her existence” in adapting to Gilead. “Especially by [Season 4’s] Episode 4 and then to Episode 8, they really put her through the wringer. But I think the biggest difference is that we have seen Janine rise into her power — power that she has had all along. We see her really own it this season, even in a way that looks like she’s giving up. She’s actually being the most powerful she’s been.”

As a person who has looked to take away the power from handmaids through the Hulu series’ four-season run, Dowd’s character, Aunt Lydia, is now feeling “the effects of time with these handmaids — what caring for or loving a human being does to this very narrow vision of Lydia that we begin with in Season 1,” said the Emmy-winning actress. “People change, don’t they? Her attachment to Janine and to June and to the girls, the handmaids, is real for her. She’s come to understand much more intimately what is really going on in Gilead with the commanders, that it’s not what we set out for it to be. There are a lot of things that are happening that she does not support, but women do not have the power. Lydia has that vision of, ‘I see what is happening here.’ (But) she has to operate to survive within the rules of Gilead, because it’s about survival, not just for the girls, but for her, too. Survival requires careful, alert, aware thinking. And that is what grows in her.”

Whitford’s Commander Joseph Lawrence is also stuck in Gilead, the season after the death of his wife, Eleanor (Julie Dretzin). “There is a kind of recklessness,” Whitford said. “I don’t think he’s a man who is worried about the danger he puts himself in. The love of Eleanor was real, and the horror of what I created was brought home to me in a very personal way, because it was basically Gilead that destroyed the love of my life. And it’s sort of pathetic that it takes that kind of personal loss for people to imagine the losses of others. But it’s given him a kind of daring that he didn’t have before. I think he has a debt to pay.”

As for June’s greatest enemy, Strahovski’s Serena Joy Waterford, Strahovski said that Season 4 has brought about the biggest change in her due to something she and her husband, Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes), never thought possible: a healthy pregnancy. “In Season 1, we met the really guarded Serena, who, for her own reasons, had a huge wall up and was incredibly bitter,” she said. “And although she still has those elements, we’ve taken a journey with her where she’s really shown her super-vulnerable side. We hit a new kind of vulnerability in Season 4, when she broke down in front of June to beg for forgiveness. And I think it’s quite the contrast. Whatever her motivation is for that moment– I still think it’s obviously manipulative in a lot of ways — but still, it was a begging, a flood of emotions. I don’t know that she’s learned too much, but it’s about showing her colors.”

Read more from the Down to the Wire issue here.


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