When Yvonne Strahovski pops up on Zoom, it takes me a minute to remind myself that I am not, in fact, speaking to Serena Joy. The actress has her hair pulled away from her face in a tight bun—her Handmaid’s Tale character’s signature style—and the room in which she sits could easily pass for the Toronto detention center where Serena has resided for the past season. But when Strahovski speaks, her Australian accent creeping into her warm greeting, I am reminded that I am not faced with Mrs. Waterford, but the woman who has been successfully bringing her to life every season going on five years.
It’s clear that Strahovski has a complicated relationship with Serena Joy, the manipulative, often sadistic woman who helped create the hellscape of Gilead. But throughout the seasons, the actress has honed the craft of getting into Serena’s head—which requires the actress to avoid judging her character for the decisions she makes.
“From an actor’s point of view, it’s fun because it is complicated,” she says. “It’s not always easy. I get challenged with some of the material.” Below, Strahovski discusses season five of the hit series, how being a mother changed the way she saw the role of Serena, and why she doesn’t think she will ever be able to wear teal again.
Serena is such a complex woman. When you play her, do you attempt to bring any humanity to the character? Do you want the audience to feel compassion for her?
I tried very hard for the audience to have compassion for Serena, and I think I had my work cut out for me with that. I’ve always tried to approach her from a more human perspective; it’s the only perspective that I can approach her from. I don’t ever see her as purely evil or spiteful and bitter for the revenge. It’s always coming from some place that is a very real, true emotion—fear and sadness. That’s important because it humanizes her and it hopefully makes her a wee bit more relatable to audiences who find her behavior heinous.
How much of Serena’s behavior can you explain away by saying she was just trying to survive in Gilead?
I think I can explain all of it away, basically. It’s really complex—there’s a whole political setup here. She has one foot in the architecture of Gilead and one foot out of it. There’s her relationship with Fred, who betrayed her many times and became abusive. If you ask yourself what it would truly be like to be in that position, you would have a lot of trauma. And I think that’s the foundation of anyone’s bad behavior.
What do you think went through Serena’s head when she heard the news of Fred’s death?
I think her raw emotion was thinking about what could have been, what should have been, and what was never going to be. There was a very real connection between Fred and Serena way back when they first met. They had so much potential and real love between them. It just all went pear-shaped and then some.
Do you think Serena deserved to get pregnant?
I don’t know if she deserved it. It seems to have come into her life to perhaps teach her some kind of a lesson. It’s very meaningful for her, and certainly hit quite close to home for me personally, as a mom of two. I started shooting this season when my second son was only eight weeks old. So that parallel was definitely very impactful.
How has being a mother affected the way you approached this character?
Obviously, I still have to imagine the scenarios and the emotions. I’m not actually in that situation, but it suddenly makes it a hell of a lot easier to imagine anything to do with children and any kind of loss or grief or sense of protection you feel. You understand the lengths you would go to protect your baby. That stuff is automatically built into your system as a mom. You don't have to go into the crevices of your brain and imagine all those things, it exists within you already.
What has it been like to explore the new dynamic between Serena and June with Elisabeth Moss this season?
We have a pretty good laugh about it because we joke that it’s a Juliet-and-Juliet love affair situation. They’re in this crazy toxic, dysfunctional relationship and can’t seem to get out of it. But it’s always important for me to find the new dynamic, because it’s easy to fall back into older patterns. We’ve been doing this for quite some time now, so it is really important for us to find the new flavor of the relationship.
It got pretty raw in past seasons, but it gets even rawer this season. I don’t know how to explain it any other way. They just have some kind of a no-bullshit language between them, where they can really see and hear each other. They can’t lie to each other very well. And that relationship is also really, really complicated, and it’s been great to go even deeper into those complications.
Do you feel like Serena is a true believer in God? How much of it do you think is a front and how much do you think she truly believes what she’s saying?
She’s a true believer. There was definitely a period of time where I thought she was second-guessing it a lot, but for the most part, she is a believer. Especially in this season, because I do think she truly believes she’s been given this gift of pregnancy from God, and it’s for a reason.
Will it be hard when you have to eventually say goodbye to this character after playing her for so long?
Yes and no. It will feel great to say bye, because it has been a lot of emotion. But it’s been five years so far, and that’s a lot of time spent with all of these people, getting to know the cast and the crew and everyone we work with. So it’s a chapter that will be an emotional one to say goodbye to.
Will you ever wear teal again?
Oh my god [laughs]. No, it’s ruined it for me. I really can’t wear it. It just ends up looking like Serena Joy. And I usually wear my hair back too, so then I really look like Serena. I certainly can’t wear it to any red carpet affair. I wonder if the women that play the Handmaids feel the same way about the color red on a carpet.