For two seasons on “The Handmaid’s Tale,” June (Elisabeth Moss) had to repress her feelings and anger for fear of retribution. In Season 3 of the Hulu drama, she was finally able to forge her own path as a leader, to “give people a piece of her mind,” as Moss puts it.
Many of the biggest female roles on TV this year involved capturing that same restraint. From Kaitlyn Dever playing sexual-assault victim Marie Adler in “Unbelievable,” to Michelle Dockery portraying the mother of a potential murderer in “Defending Jacob” and Octavia Spencer’s titular character breaking barriers as she faced discrimination in “Self Made: Inspired by the Life of Madam C.J. Walker,” several top performances involved carefully choosing when to hold things in, and when to let it all go.
For Moss, it was June’s need to hide her emotions that attracted her to the role in the first place, but the way the character has drastically changed over time has led to fresh nuances for her as an actor.
“Playing June has always been a study in showing as little as possible or choosing when to show certain things to certain characters, building an entire season to that moment when you explode. Getting to build to that crescendo is the most fun thing to do and you can’t do it unless you keep it under wraps for as long as humanly possible and hold that tension,” she says. “It’s been an incredibly complicated path full of mistakes and wrong moves, but she’s finding herself. As she’s become more of a leader, it’s sort of shifted into not showing her fear, not showing her anxieties, not showing her insecurities about whether or not she’s the woman for the job. She’s had to button herself up in a different way now.”
Similarly, Madam C.J. Walker often had to keep some of her emotions under wraps when trying to carve out a name for herself as a businesswoman at the turn of the 20th century.
“I think she was very honest and true to herself in how she represented herself. She was not a shrinking violet, and I don’t think there was ever a door that was shut in Madam’s face that she did not open,” says Spencer. “I think that’s also important because we’re now living in a society where social media and all of these things present that everything is perfect and there is no adversary, no hardships to achieving goals — and that’s incorrect. You’re going to be faced with a lot of adversity, but it’s what happens in the adversity that Madam represented really well.”
While none of these characters are inherently quiet people, situations had them turning inward. Dockery’s Laurie Barber did so after her son was accused of murdering one of his schoolmates in the eight-episode Apple TV Plus series.
Laurie, a respected member of her local community, becomes an increasingly isolated figure when her fears that Jacob really did commit the crime gnaw at her relationships with both her husband and her son.
“This role was, emotionally, one of the most challenging because every scene there is devastating news, there’s hope, there’s anxiety,” Dockery says. “It was a real roller coaster each day, and we really had to be quite specific about how far to go in each scene. She could very easily be a ball of tears in every shot, so it was a very careful process to decide how far we go in each scene.”
Dever encountered that same creative dilemma regularly in Netflix’s “Unbelievable,” for which her character was at first interviewed by a pair of severely unsympathetic detectives. In that complicated scene, Dever says, she “felt like a little kid who was in trouble” and felt closest to understanding the real-life Marie and her struggle to cope with the weight of what happened to her.
“The most inspiring thing about Marie is that she has this on-and-off switch. She can basically control her emotions and shut it down and act like nothing is wrong. That is something that I think is an act of bravery,” Dever says. “There were moments of losing control and wanting so badly for everything to just go away, but then there were also happier moments of release for her, and those were equally important for me.”
Interestingly, though, whether a performer chooses to lean into emotions in a scene or not, the work does not differ.
“I would love to tell you that crying is easier than running, but if you’re not a runner that running scene is going to be more difficult. It all takes the same amount of preparation; it all just depends on knowing where you are on the character’s emotional journey,” says Spencer.
Danielle Turchiano contributed to this report.