Margaret Atwood, Elisabeth Moss, and the Women Behind the Disquietingly Vital The Handmaid’s Tale
In conversation with the prophetic novelist and the star of the new Hulu series premiering April 26.
In February of this year, a novel from 1985, by a Canadian author now 77, shot right to the top of the bestsellers lists. Though popular for decades, The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s chilling vision of a near-future dystopia in what was once New England—where a toxic environment, a cruel theocracy, and a plague of infertility have turned a sector of women into enslaved concubines—suddenly seemed all too timely. It was then that a trailer for the book’s upcoming TV adaptation aired during the Super Bowl, just a couple of weeks after Donald Trump was inaugurated and a nationwide spread of marches for women’s rights turned into the largest protest in American history.
Atwood did not seem upset by the sudden renewal of interest in the single most enduring work of her back catalogue, despite the fact that she’s still churning out book after book today. “How could I be?” she said on a recent morning in Washington, D.C., in the historic Hay-Adams hotel not even a block away from the White House. “But on the other hand, the circumstances that have given rise to it having this sudden uptick are quite frightening. If I had a choice of two things—book not popular, circumstances not arise, or book popular, due to certain circumstances—I would of course pick the first one. But those were not my choices.”
Right alongside her book on the current bestseller lists is another prescient dystopian vision, George Orwell’s 1984—which happened to be the year that Atwood started writing The Handmaid’s Tale on legal pads and a beat-up typewriter in West Berlin, punctuated by echoing reminders of the East German Air Force. It was not her first experience with political unrest. Born in 1939, which, as Atwood is wont to remind, “takes me all the way through World War II,” she seems to consider her “deep background in dystopias,” accumulated both in history books at Harvard and on the ground in places like Afghanistan, tantamount to her destiny.
Atwood grew up in Canada on a steady diet of dystopian novels like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which HBO will be making into another all-too-timely TV adaptation. Eventually, in her forties, Atwood decided to try her hand at writing one herself. She wanted to locate what she calls her “speculative fiction” in the real world; everything in the book, she decided beforehand, had to be something that humans had done at some point throughout history, meaning her primary sources were newspaper clippings and texts like the Bible. Humanity didn’t let her down—the world she built out of existing histories was chilling enough that the book, which has been translated into over 40 languages, has reportedly never gone out of print, a staple of both high school syllabi and banned-books lists alike.
Among her young readers was Elisabeth Moss, the 34-year-old actress who was first struck by the novel, which she now calls her favorite book, as a teen, and who plays the protagonist in Hulu’s 10-episode adaptation, which premieres on April 26. (The first three episodes will be available immediately, with one each week to follow.)
Moss had planned to take a break from TV after years of playing Mad Men‘s Peggy Olson, another fictional figure celebrated as a feminist, and her more recent work on the Sundance series Top of the Lake, but she jumped at the chance to play the lead, Offred, whose assigned role it is to bear the child of a Commander high up in the hierarchy of the Republic of Gilead, as this version of America is known. (Her character’s name is a combination of the words “of” and “Fred.”)
Admittedly, Moss did experience some initial hesitation. “It wasn’t that I didn’t want to do it; I just wanted to make sure that what they wanted to make was the same thing I wanted to make,” Moss said. “I really felt like if we were going to attempt this great, prolific novel that’s meant so much to so many people, it had to be really—as we’ve said many times—balls to the wall. It had to be dark, it had to be realistic, it had to be beautifully shot. And it had to live up to the book.”
It was something Moss decided to take into her own hands by signing on as a producer at the behest of the series’ writer and showrunner, Bruce Miller, but which she said she would have asked to do anyway, “because as a woman in this industry, I think it’s so important to take ownership of your career and over the projects you do.”
What emboldened Moss, in fact, was the show’s unavoidable politics. “I think art is one of the great ways of communicating how we feel about our government, and that’s something that’s a privilege to do,” Moss said. “It’s a TV show, and you want it to entertain people, but if you have the chance to do something you actually believe in and can stand up for and gives you a chance to say things that you do believe, I consider that a total benefit, and I don’t shy away from any of that stuff.”
In the months after Moss signed on in April 2016, and as shooting ran from September until February of this year, politics became—for Moss and the rest of the cast (along with the rest of America)—an unavoidable and immoveable part of daily life. Moss recalled watching the election results come in during the wee hours of the morning with Reed Morano, who directed the first three episodes, and O-T Fagbenle, who plays her husband in the series, even though they had to be up to shoot at 5 a.m.
“That was an odd day. That definitely felt like things got a little too close to home,” Moss said of being on set on November 9. She was scheduled to shoot a particularly dark scene that day with Joseph Fiennes, who plays the Commander. “He explains something to me that he’s done to a woman that’s really shockingly terrible,” she recalled. “He says the line from the book, ‘Better never means better for everyone… It always means worse, for some,’ and that line definitely had an impact that I don’t know it would have had the day before.”
Of course, not every day, or every scene, can be so burdened with symbolism. “Other than that, you know, it’s work,” Moss said. Atwood is even more no-nonsense. Of her cameo in the show, in which Atwood plays a guard in the center where fertile women are trained and brainwashed, and in which she has to slap Moss’s character violently in the face, the author only shrugged and said: “It’s acting.”
Moss, for her part, took the blow in stride. “You know, we’re there 15, 16 hours a day, working 70, 80 hour weeks, and then we got Margaret Atwood to come to set,” she said. “For us, it was like Santa Claus is coming.”
Atwood is no Santa Claus, though, if only because she has a keen appreciation of mischief. After nearly 60 books, including 15 poetry collections and upcoming Netflix and comic book series, she maintains a playful, lively twinkle in her eye—even during a marathon press tour. “Caffeine is my friend,” she declared after a few sips of coffee at the Hay-Adams, plopping down her many bags, including a reusable grocery sack covered in sharks. She then pretended to run headlong into the photographer’s paper backdrop. She followed this up by slinking off the set in exaggerated knee bends, and egged Moss on as the actress put up a middle finger in the direction of the White House.
“As you know, she’s sort of very interesting to speak to,” Moss said of Atwood.
Atwood does appear to be blithely enjoying herself at the moment. None of this current fervor was her doing; she merely came along for the ride when Miller and his co-producer, Warren Littlefield, visited her in Toronto in 2016 to coax her onboard as a consulting producer, after Hulu had already secured the rights and put the adaptation into motion without her participation. (“What’s the name of that other man?” Atwood leaned over and whispered at one point. She gestured to an empty seat—which Littlefield had just vacated. “I think he’s high up in the hierarchy.“)
Moss, along with the rest of the cast, including handmaids Samira Wiley, Alexis Bledel, and Madeline Brewer, many of whom have voiced support for causes like the Women’s March and Planned Parenthood on social media, has recently drawn the internet’s ire for stating at the series’s Tribeca Film Festival screening that she doesn’t think the book is a feminist story. It was a statement Atwood later attempted to clarify on Twitter, and which Moss elaborated on last week in D.C. “The book is about humanity,” she said. “Yes, it is considered one of the great female feminist tomes, but it’s about humans, and [Atwood] will tell you in a heartbeat that women’s rights are human rights.” She went on: “I’ve never had to think about losing certain rights, and it’s scary. Before, it was like, Oh, nobody will ever take away Roe v. Wade. I didn’t think that was an actual thing you could do.”
Indeed, the surreal and the real are becoming increasingly indecipherable. (The series’s flashbacks to a pre-totalitarian America, where the streets host both protests and men casually calling women sluts, bear an eerie resemblance to those of today.) Signs at various women’s marches have popped up with phrases like “The Handmaid’s Tale Is Not an Instruction Manual” and “Make Margaret Atwood Fiction Again,” and women have even taken to donning the handmaids’ scarlet robes, along with their shield-like bonnets, at places like the Texas Senate in protest of legislation regarding access to abortion. “The still shot of them looked exactly like a still out of the TV series,” Atwood said. “It’s surreal, but they knew what they were doing.”
Atwood would be the first to remind us that history repeats itself, and that what was once thought unimaginable can quickly become history. “When Hitler first published Mein Kampf, everybody blew it off and nobody took it seriously,” she said. “And then he went underground with his ideas and pretended he was really just a jolly fellow and won people over. As soon as he got the chance, he did all the things he said he was going to do. So I do not believe and never have believed, no. 1, it can’t happen here, and, no. 2, that people are just farting around when they say those things during elections.”
Though she’s now a Canadian icon, Atwood never considered setting the novel anywhere but in America. “It has to be,” she said, before adding, “Because that’s where it would happen. The book was written in relation to the question, If you were going to have a totalitarianism in this country, what kind of totalitarianism would it be?”
“We’re building to another one right now,” Atwood went on. “And I mean Mr. Erdogan in Turkey. We’re not here in this country yet. That’s a whole other question: Is America diverse enough, ornery enough, and devoted enough to democratic principles to resist rolling over for an authoritarian dictatorship? I’m betting that it is.”
Atwood, to her annoyance, is often called a prophet and a seer. She has hopes, though, that the reach of the TV series will ultimately result in action: “I hope it will motivate people to be aware that what we take for granted as our inalienable rights don’t come from the sky. They’re not just conferred upon you. They’re there because people fought for them, and people can just as easily fight to take them away,” Atwood said, picking up her many bags and making her way toward the door. “If you want them, defend them,” she called back over her shoulder, giving one last knowing look before she disappeared.
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