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How Elisabeth Moss Handles Portraying Trauma on ‘Handmaid’s Tale’

Elisabeth Moss has been dealt her fair share of trauma throughout her on-screen journey in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” an experience the Emmy winner said has forced her to portray suffering in as many new ways possible as for the experience to not become monotonous.

“I just have to keep on trying to do new things, to not do the same thing. To not get the same trauma, the same challenge, the same darkness — that to me, is boring,” Moss said ahead of the screening for the Season 3 finale at the Regency Village Theatre on Tuesday night in Westwood, Calif. “But if I can go to new places and find new ways for things to be dark, then that’s interesting to me.”

The Hulu drama is known for its often distressing storylines, following a group of handmaids whose fertility has not yet been compromised by environmental contamination and are used to bear children for the elite upper-class. As the third season sees the titular character June (Moss) lead a quiet rebellion against the draconian government, the show’s disturbing plot continues to steepen, a trend that even the showrunner Bruce Miller had to mitigate to ensure it wasn’t too unbearable for viewers.

“June is in a terrible situation and she’s going through terrible things, and I don’t want it to be a hard watch for the audience,” Miller said, noting that he’s more squeamish during those scenes than most of his audiences. “But I do want them to experience the things that June experiences so they can understand her. My rule of thumb is I don’t show anything at all unless you have to see it to feel what June feels.”

Miller went on to say that he inserts comedy and upbeat music to ease viewers into harsher scenes, like the last scene in episode eight which sees June turn her vengeance onto the other handmaids in a cruel attack. Despite the horror, however, Doris Day’s “Que Sera, Que Sera” spills out as June leaves behind a trail of blood.

“The music in that scene is kind of counter to what is going on,” Wendy Martin, an editor on the show, said. “It’s really opposite to the feeling you’re supposed to be feeling which is dread, which hopefully perks you up a bit.”

However, Martin noted that Moss, who also serves as an executive producer on the show, pushed back on some of Miller’s ideas to lighten the mood. “She wanted it to be more serious and more focused about the children. And so some of the lines got dropped in the edit,” she said. “We created a balance.”

Others on the carpet were on the same page as Moss, saying that the unrelenting trauma of the show is hard to watch, but also necessary to fully understand the story. “Is it any worse than real life right now?” cinematographer Zoë White noted.

The show has become a political symbol over the past three years, both for women’s rights and also immigration policy, as we see characters flee to Canada to seek refuge over the course of the last season.

White went on, “It’s relatable, so I think the relevance with what’s going on right now is all the more potent and all the more essential.”

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