As Commander Fred Waterford in the dystopian regime of Gilead, “The Handmaid’s Tale” star Joseph Fiennes walks a thin line between tough political figure and pure predator. It is not a line that Fiennes himself takes lightly, tasked with finding the humanity in a “warped, pathetic, brutal psyche,” as he says, so his work not only has nuance but also can further some uncomfortable conversations.
“Of course this is vehemently and quite rightly a female-focused piece, but on the sidelines of that conversation are elements of the male psyche,” Fiennes tells Variety. “You see it in [Nick], you see it in [Luke] and you see it in Fred — you see the good parts and the most rotten parts. For me as an actor to engage in that ugly conversation, it makes it more complex, and it raises my fellow protagonists’ job. If there is a complexity to him then it makes their job more interesting and harder and thereby more engaging for the audience, I think.”
Here, Fiennes, who is a first-time Emmy nominee for the second season of the Hulu drama, talks with Variety about what still surprises him about the role, the scene he refused to do, and the fallout from the finale.
What do you still find challenging about playing Fred, two seasons in?
He can be something of a device mechanism, and I have to find the nuance in what little moments I can. It’s lovely when we go back in flashback to see the loving connection between Serena and Fred and you saw the humanity and the light. My challenge and struggle is when you deal with the device, how do you reach for the nuance? You’re given very little moments and pockets to do that, and that’s kind of my job, as it was, to try and identify a moment — [to] reach into the character to bring his humanity to light.
Were there any moments in the second season that surprised you?
When he’s confronted in the car returning from Canada back to Gilead with all of the movement happening outside of the limo, the protests. I just think there’s a moment where it connects. He’s buried under the need for power — the corrosive need for power — but the human part of him, it comes hurtling back in that one second, and I think that jolts him and is deeply unsettling. And I love that because again he’s multi-faceted. The effects of his actions settle upon him, even if it’s brief, and you get a feeling that something, somewhere might be connecting with him. I’m not saying he’s good — he’s fallible — but in the deeper part of his nature, there’s a pinprick of conscience. And that shows he’s got somewhere to go.
Was there a moment this season you considered a turning point for him?
I think the turning point or the beginning of the change in Fred, at least from my perspective, [was] in episode 10 when Serena and Fred decide to execute the ceremony. … After that horrific moment we get a moment of pause where Fred is altered by the extreme brutality of what he perpetrated, really for the first time. It’s all mixed and confused with manipulation and power and control [but I think] decisions to reach out to June are based on recognizing that abhorrent part of his nature and seeing her suffer in that way.
Was that also a turning point for you as an actor?
I’m always struggling to find the nuance in him, and I was asked during a SAG question and answer session — and I didn’t expect it to hit the ‘net the way it did — about a scene in which I really stood up and said no. [Editor’s note: At the SAG event, Fiennes said a scene in the ninth episode of the second season, “Smart Power,” originally had Fred rape his wife Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) but the actor fought to get it cut from the episode.] Of course there’s a lot of brutality in the show, and I was making the show without having seen any cuts or edits, so I didn’t know the nature of how brutal it is for an audience because we were still in the middle of making it. But I felt to protect the character, if you like — my sense of the complex character that he is — and to honor Yvonne’s beautiful portrayal, it didn’t really need something heavy to come a point of justification for her to leave Fred [or] Gilead. … It [would have] foreshadowed what happened in episode 10, and also I felt like it made Fred more of a megalomaniac and not human, and I wanted to keep the conversation intelligent, relevant, difficult and engaging. And I guess that’s my job on the sidelines as a supporting actor. My day to day job is to try to enrich it on the side. … You know who Fred is; you know how he operates. What’s so wonderful about doing one, two, three seasons is the audience knows the history now, like the actors do, and it’s a wonderful challenge — I’ve never had the chance before — to rely on that wealth and thereby not have to always play the darkness of the guy, because we know what’s hidden behind.
He’s not a mustache-twirling villain, and yet he constantly gives in to more monstrous sides of his personality. To what do you attribute that?
I think the male hierarchy can really damage and cripple the psyche, and you feel that within the hierarchy of Gilead. And as a boy growing up, the way men are introduced through their childhood into the world, I think that moment in life reverberates with questions and conditioning. For Fred I think it could have happened really early, but I think given that we’re exploring this side of Fred in depth in the show, it is my job to have a thought process as to why and how, and it’s all about power at the end of the day. When his manhood is questioned or undermined or he feels it’s not evident enough, I think a lot of that stems from the male Gilead hierarchy and then he rising the ranks and is threatened by the machine. It invariably is taken out on the women in his household. When something fails in his life, they’re the first to be reproached.
How important is it for you to take some of the quieter moments where the camera lingers to depict some of his internal conflict?
To just be able to think on camera — those moments are usually reserved for our protagonists, not really our antagonists, but when those moments do settle and we get into the mind or get a flicker of a glimpse of a conscience, that’s very important. We get to create a thinking, multi-dimensional character. You’re wholly reliant on the architecture of the lens. You can do whatever you want, but if the lens or the light doesn’t get to a point to allow to see it, it doesn’t land. The actor can do what they want, but the architecture around us is what allows it to get to the audience.
Do you find you try to create those moments for yourself more than they may be written on the page?
There are moments — I don’t always win them, but there are moments! … You saw it a lot with Serena because the beautiful performance Yvonne gives us makes it much more complex for the audience. There’s humanity in the horror, and that gives us great confusion. And that is the real world — there is no black and white, and it’s not that you forgive rapists, but it allows us to understand where the root cause comes from and the fallibility begins, and it only makes the conversation that much more engaging.
Where do you think Fred can go from the events of the second season finale?
I imagine there’s a lot of fall-out, there’s a lot to resolve. … Fred is trying to keep the house together and in order, but it’s in such an ugly fashion it has the opposite effect. Serena is obviously cognizant of what’s happened, and he has a lot of catching up to do. The baby is gone, and that has to have tremendous effect, both in the emotions and in the hierarchy of Gilead. It’s always been the goal for Serena and Fred to have this sense of family in their lives — it’s been haunting them for so long — and to have it come so close and be ripped apart, there’s a sense of it all falling apart and a sense of abandonment. And when it comes to the others in the household, the way they’ve all been colluding, there’s certainly a lot to play with.