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Remote Controlled: Joseph Fiennes, Yvonne Strahovski on Parallels Between ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ and Trump’s America

Welcome to “Remote Controlled,” a podcast from Variety featuring the best and brightest in television, both in front of and behind the camera.

In today’s episode, Variety’s executive editor of TV Debra Birnbaum talks with the stars of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Joseph Fiennes and Yvonne Strahovski.

Fiennes and Strahovski play husband and wife in the totalitarian government of Gilead, a near-future of the former United States. Fiennes’ character, Commander Fred Waterford, and his wife, Serena Joy, are assigned a Handmaid — portrayed by Elisabeth Moss — who must oblige to ritualized sex to bear children for the commander and his wife.

The two leads couldn’t help but draw parallels between the adaption of the 1985 dystopian novel and present day.

“You’re seeing images that you see in the news, marches, women’s marches,” Strahovski said. “It all feels like it’s very much of today. It really shows how easy that road would be to get into a society like what Gilead portrays.”

Joseph Fiennes photographed exclusively for the Variety Remote Controlled podcast
Dan Doperalski for Variety

Added Fiennes, “It’s happening. It’s present. It’s such a modern piece, but not just here in America, worldwide and everything that’s in the book has sadly happened and is happening.”

While bringing the novel to life, the show took creative license in having their characters be younger than they were in the book.

Strahovski said this adds a “power play” element. Her character now, although infertile, is of a child-bearing age, whereas the book character had a cane and was arthritic. Having a handmaid to bear her children at her current age provides more of a power struggle than if she were older and couldn’t have children anyway.

This leads to one of the more controversial scenes in the series — the ceremony — which revolves around the Commander, Fiennes’ character, having sex with a handmaid to get her pregnant. There is just one caveat — his wife is in the bed as well.

“It’s an intense scene,” Strahovski recalls, likening the exchange to a form of rape. “We’re doing this because we’re in this new government, this sort of totalitarian fundamentalist regime where we have collected all of the fertile women and imprisoned them as sex slaves.

Fiennes concludes, “Nobody wants to be there.”

As uncomfortable as the interaction sounds, Strahovski claims it wasn’t as awkward as it seems.

Yvonne Strahovski photographed exclusively for the Variety Remote Controlled podcast
Dan Doperalski for Variety

“I think everyone expects for it to have been the most terrible thing we’ve ever all had to deal with in our acting careers,” she laughed.

That scene — along with every other scene in the show — is extremely meticulously produced. The unspoken words and gestures prove just as crucial as the written and spoken ones when one move out of line could cost the handmaid her life.

“Every tiny nuance, eye movement, prop, position, the way it’s blocked, nothing is by accident,” Fiennes revealed. “It’s all there for a reason.”

Given the circumstances, the commander and Serena Joy naturally have a complex relationship. Sex is illegal and they’ve lost physical contact, yet the commander still cares for his wife. Fiennes deems the couple “architects of their own unhappiness.”

“It’s like a cat with a ball of string,” Fiennes compared of his character’s rapport with his wife. “He cannot but help himself to play and abuse her, even when he’s trying to care for her and have a point of contact.”

As Strahovski peels back her character, she notes the duality of survival as she portrays a woman who is merely surviving in a world where she is considered on top of the “food chain” for women.

“If Serena Joy did have any empathy, it had to be squished for the sake of for her own survival and ability to carry on in this world where she is silently watching these brutalities occur and is okay with it,” she said.

Joseph Fiennes & Yvonne Strahovski photographed exclusively for the Variety Remote Controlled podcast
Dan Doperalski for Variety

His own character, which Fiennes poetically describes as having a “general onslaught of creepiness,” has a number of tough scenes to portray.

“The patheticness of him in general kind of left me wanting to scream out loud and have a shower,” Fiennes laughed.

The two circled back to the idea that the show is an allegory for the time we’re living in now.

“I felt excited and proud to be in something that was going to say something about the world that we live in and draw such parallels, very strong parallels, to the current state,” Strahovski said.

In reference to President Donald Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tapes, Fiennes said, “When you have your commander in chief make the most abhorrent remarks, so-called ‘locker room remarks’ and get voted in, this piece becomes very prescient.”

The show’s second season is set to premiere in 2018. Fiennes hints there is much of the book to draw from for coming seasons.

You can listen to this week’s podcast here:

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