‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Star Elisabeth Moss Talks Season 1’s Momentous Finale

The star and producer of the Hulu original talks working across Ann Dowd and Max Minghella in the Season 1 finale, "Night"

Handmaids Tale
Courtesy of Hulu/Vimn

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched “Night,” the June 14 episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

The last shot of Season 1 of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is June, now called Offred, sitting in the darkness inside a black van with a peculiar serenity on her face. The finale’s last scene is identical to the last moments of Margaret Atwood’s book, which leaves its protagonist in an ambiguous, vulnerable spot — either on her way to a certain punishment or on a path of constructive resistance. Unlike the landmark novel, Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” will give us a sense of what happens next; the show has been renewed for a second season. In the meantime, we are also in the dark.

Elisabeth Moss has been lauded for her performances past, such as Peggy on “Mad Men” and Robin in “Top of the Lake,” which returns for a second season in September. But the response to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” of which she is both star and producer, has been entirely different, she tells Variety — “a whole other kind of level.” Moss’ turn as the lead of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is both gutting and inspiring, filling out a character that is more like Katniss Everdeen from “The Hunger Games” than any other protagonist. She’s luminous, especially in the finale — in which the show’s phenomenal use of light and gorgeous cinematography provide a stark backdrop to her own turmoil. Here, she tells Variety about filming the season finale, her character’s relationship with Nick (Max Minghella), and that epic showdown with Ann Dowd’s Aunt Lydia over poor, helpless Janine (Madeline Brewer).

“Night” has a lot of tonal shifts, partly because of how tumultuous and risky Offred/June’s life has become. What was behind that?

I think the finale is actually really hopeful. There are a lot of dark moments, but I do feel like we ended with this sense of hope, which I think is really important. And for me, I think that she’s been learning about her power for a few episodes now. What happens in [“Night”] is that she kind of just doesn’t give a s—t anymore. After what happens with Hannah (Jordana Blake), she’s so broken and horrified by the world she’s living in that she just chooses to live a life that she can live. With that stoning, she’s like, I‘m not going to live in this world if this is the way it’s going to be. I feel like there’s no option for her. She’s not going to stone Janine and she’s not going to subscribe to the way that these people want to live life. It’s about power, but it’s also about just the idea of, Well, I’ve got nothing to lose at this point.

The Handmaids have transitioned from a somewhat contentious group to a unit with a lot of solidarity. From your perspective, how did that happen for them?

Well, it’s about humanizing people, isn’t it? I mean, one of the ways you divide people is by dehumanizing them. Whether it’s immigrants, or women, or anybody that is considered somebody that you’re not comfortable with, you dehumanize them in order to not feel compassion. And that’s what Gilead does to these women. They separate them, they don’t allow them to speak to each other. They don’t allow us to be people to each other, we’re just these hosts. And they are not people, they’re strangers. They instill fear by this idea that they’re spying on each other — that every partner is a spy, which is obviously very heavy in the book. And so, yeah, they’re not humans to each other. They’re not people.

With Janine — they know Janine. She’s a person to them, and especially to Offred. She has this very older sister, motherly relationship with her. She cares about her very much, she loves her. When you have somebody who’s been humanized — who is a person and not a stranger and not just a body — it’s not just some random guy that they take their aggression out on, or some stranger in a red robe. It’s now a person. When faced with it being an actual person, they can’t do it. They all know that. Offred leads the charge — and because she’s pregnant, because she knows Hannah is alive, because she knows that Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) has to keep Offred alive to protect the baby — she knows that Hannah is protected in that way. So she’s able to have the strength to stand up for all of those women, and to stand up for Janine.

The flashback to the Red Center has a voiceover where Offred/June talks about how they used to only see terror in flashes before, and now in Gilead it’s where they exist all the time. She talks about it in the lead-up to getting her ear tagged, which evokes not just terror but a primal, animal terror. As a performer, how do you get to that place?

Everything I do, I’ve always just — essentially, it’s really quite simple. I’m just trying to imagine how that would feel, and what it would be like to be in that situation. Quite literally, just in that situation, in the ear tagging scene — I’m imagining what it would be like to not understand what was going to happen to you, and to understand the capabilities of these people. She doesn’t know if they’re going to take out her eye or they’re going to cut off her ear; she doesn’t know what they’re going to do. They basically can do anything that’s not going to hurt her fertility.

She doesn’t know. That’s an easy, a very simple way of doing it. It’s kind of just how I’ve approached a lot of what I do; it’s very instinctive. And that fear, I mean, that’s something that I’ve actually — that was episode 10, so I had been doing it for about five months and thinking about it for a year. I don’t want to say I was comfortable, but just definitely had had some practice.

And working with Ann Dowd, I have to just say, is like the most glorious, fun, amazing experience. Every scene I have with her, I end up kind of just wanting to watch her act, because she’s just so brilliant. She makes my job easy, honestly. She’s so wonderful to work with.

I would love to speak to Ann Dowd at some point and not be terrified of her. Every time I’ve seen her on screen, she’s the scariest person I’ve ever seen.

The thing is, when you meet Ann, you will fully understand what a brilliant actress she actually is — because she’s probably the nicest person you will ever meet. She’s so generous, she’s so kind, she’s so big-hearted. She takes care of all of us, all the girls. She’s always asking everybody how they’re doing. I get texts from her randomly saying, How’s it going? How’re you feeling? Just checking in! She’s just one of the kindest, kindest people.

Aunt Lydia is so interesting because of the fact that she does seem to care so much, for Janine and the rest of the Handmaids.

Yeah. In that stoning scene — I’ve seen it a million times, being a producer on the show — and it kills me every time, because at the end she honestly seems so hurt at this betrayal. And just so hurt by her girls who she loves.

One of the things that struck me about that stoning scene is how Offred’s pregnancy gives her this immunity.

Honestly, when we were shooting the stoning, I wasn’t thinking about the fact that she was pregnant. I didn’t think about it until way later. I think that she would have done exactly what she did, regardless of whether or not she was pregnant. I don’t think that’s why she did it — as the actor playing her, I really wasn’t thinking about the fact that she was pregnant, and that would protect her.

Because you never know in Gilead. Like maybe it would, but that’s not enough. To not do something you’re supposed to do… maybe that’s enough to kill you, you know? She doesn’t know. So you’re never completely safe. So I wasn’t thinking about it and I don’t think Offred is. I think she would have made that choice regardless of whether or not she was pregnant. I mean, if you were in that position — honestly, most of humanity wouldn’t do it. How do you do that?

Certainly, she’s reached a breaking point that goes beyond whether or not she’s pregnant.

Exactly. And there is a power in that. And there is a peace in that.

Tell me about your character’s relationship with Nick. It’s both hard to trust him and hard not to sympathize with him. He has a soul that’s kind of in the right place, but also, he’s the enemy.

Yes and no. Any sort of movement, there are people that sign up for it that don’t necessarily want to hurt people — that don’t necessarily believe in whatever they’re believing in. And don’t realize the consequences, maybe, right away. Don’t realize they’re not told the whole truth. They’re not told what’s actually going to happen, and what that means.

Nick is searching for answers. He’s lost. He thinks that this is actually going to be something that is good for the country. H’s been lied to about everything that they plan on doing in Gilead. And obviously — then he realizes that.

That’s one of the great things that we like to do with the show, is set somebody up as one thing and then turn it around and show you a different side of them. Even the “villains,” like Serena and the Commander (Joseph Fiennes): We never wanted them to be one-note, we always really wanted them to be multi-dimensional. and try to show that they had their own story.

And it’s the same with Nick. I love the dynamic between Nick and June. That love story is really special to me. And the idea that she’s just so conflicted about being pregnant and when he has the reaction — and she doesn’t know how he’s going to react — when he has the reaction that he does, of love, it gets me. That scene — and it got me when we were shooting it — it was just so simple and so compassionate and full of true love coming from him. And I think that breaks down her barriers, as well.

It’s a beautiful scene.

It’s just a complicated thing. She’s pregnant, and it’s not necessarily the best thing, but it’s also — she’s pregnant with this man who she’s fallen in love with, you know? It’s very complicated.

And we are sure it’s not the Commander’s child, right? No ambiguity there.

No, he’s sterile.

In some ways that makes the pregnancy more hopeful.

They become their own little family. But it’s a family that has the potential to become broken apart.

As I’m sure you’re aware, there’s so many women around the country who are staging demonstrations in their legislatures wearing the Handmaids’ red robes — and when many more women and men are thinking about resistance and real-life dystopias. Is that a strange feeling?

It feels very hopeful to me. I am very moved by that. People are searching for a voice for the way that they feel, and for their frustrations. And I think that the fact that they are finding that voice in this story is incredibly moving. The way that people have responded has been like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. I’ve had people say [before] that they love my show, or they love the character. or they love what I’m doing. I’ve had people be complimentary and responsive. But to have people say things like, I’m inspired, I’m moved, I’m strengthened by this story, is a whole other kind of level.

We intended to tell a great story, but we believe — as the makers of this show — we believe in what we’re saying. And I think that I’ve also been inspired — by the show, and by Offred, and her strength. The fact that people are finding a voice in that is incredible, really. There’s no words for it. It’s beyond words. And it’s why it was so important to us — to have the finale be something that was strengthening, and inspiring, and was something that was sending people off with a little bit of hope. There is humanity out there.

A line in the show and from the book: “You can mean more than one, you can mean thousands.” I wanted that line added to the show. Because I felt like it really summed up — not only things that were happening in the show, but things that were happening in the world, and in my life. This season is so much about this concept of — when you separate people and you don’t allow them to have a voice, they lose their power. And then in the last episode, it’s all about humanizing people, and people gathering together and using their voices — with the letters. With Offred telling Serena off. The stoning, and everyone standing up. You can see how just one person wouldn’t do anything. But if you get everybody to drop their stone, you can actually change something. It was meaningful to all of us, I think, to extend that message through the show.