Amanda Brugel – who plays Rita in The Handmaid’s Tale – completely understands fans’ reservations about the new series. Here, the actress opens up about what’s to come in an exclusive interview with stylist.co.uk…
The Handmaid’s Tale is roaring back to our screens this month – and, while fans are understandably excited about this news, they’re nervous, too. Why? Because the emotionally-charged series, based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel of the same name, has now gone beyond the page.
This means that showrunners Bruce Miller and Warren Littlefield have been tasked with trying to maintain the dramatic stakes of the first season while letting the story progress—but not too quickly, and, by the way, without the narrative spine provided by one of the best living writers in the English language.
Of course, this isn’t helped by the ambiguity of the original text. As fans will already be aware, the first series of THT finished on the same intriguing cliffhanger as the book: June – or, to use her Gileadean name, Offred – is ushered into the back of a van, with no way of knowing if she’s on her way to freedom or capture. Which means that, for the past three decades, loyal readers have been coming up with their own answers, their own stories, their own visions for what happened next.
And Amanda Brugel – who not only plays the enigmatic Rita in the series, but also wrote her university thesis on Atwood’s seminal text – has admitted that her personal interpretation of the novel did skewer her reaction to the new series.
“I just hoped that Offred would be driven to a McDonald’s, and she would be OK, and it would all be better,” she admits to stylist.co.uk.
Sadly, this was not the case: the nightmarish trailer only hints at what’s to come for June – and press screenings have confirmed that the first 15 minutes of the new series are every bit as harrowing (if not more so) than anything that’s come before.
So, when Brugel was handed the script and finally learned what happened to June after she exited that van, her initial reaction was one of absolute horror.
“I didn’t like it,” she says. “I really didn’t like it. I had such a specific connection to the book, it’s been with me for over 20 years and I had such a different idea for where I thought all of the characters would go. They weren’t even really well formed ideas, but, upon reading the script for the first time, I was like, ‘Well, this is not my Offred.’”
Thankfully, though, the actress soon changed her mind.
“I had to take my ego out of it for a bit,” admits Brugel, “and I realised that it’s so well done, like a beautiful game of chess. And, once they add the cinematography and Elisabeth Moss’ remarkable acting and the phenomenal music, then we’re back in that lush world of Gilead. I think fans will immediately love it.”
Here, the actress answers all of our questions about Gilead… and hints at what’s to come next for June, Rita and all the other characters we’ve come to love in The Handmaid’s Tale.
Tell us a bit about Rita. What can fans expect from her in the new series?
All of the fans were confused by Rita – she’s a bit of an enigma. They were left not knowing whether she was an Eye, whether she’d been drinking the Gilead Kool-Aid, or whether she was just a woman who was trying to keep her head down and stay safe and stay out of trouble. Season two, you really find out which side she stands for: whether she fights for Gilead, or whether she will stand and fight for humanity. And for me it is truly shocking, the way it turns out. The end result is incredible.
Rita doesn’t feature as much in the novel – she’s much more mysterious than other characters. With this in mind, where did you draw inspiration from?
I wrote my thesis on the book in order to get into university – it’s part of my DNA. I read it when I was 15, I wrote a series of short stories on it, and, for me, Rita is an amalgamation for Rita and Cora (a character who does not appear in the first season). I was really inspired by the idea that there are these two women, two Marthas, who are coming at life from two very different angles. Cora is much warmer, and has a certain amount of humanity and kindness, and patience, and love for someone in her situation. Rita is much more closed off, much cooler. So I wanted to pay homage to Cora, so I tried to blend the two characters into one performance. I gave myself a steely mask for one scene, and would let the audience see my heart in others.
When I finally met [director] Reed Morana, we discussed my interpretation of the story at length, and how I felt about it when I was 15, when I was 20, when I was 25, when I was 30. We really connected on that level. And, after having this amazing pow-wow about the book and sharing my love for it, I went straight into the audition. I felt as if I was floating… it was the perfect circumstance.
As a fan of the book, how did you feel about producers taking the story beyond the page?
Margaret Atwood is still heavily involved, and it’s beautiful because she’s been sitting with these characters for over 25 years. She had a lot of ideas for what came next… and producers were so delicate with her creations. I know they have a long journey in mind for Offred and all of the other characters, so I think season two is just the beginning. This could go on for quite a while. We trust them so much, we trust their abilities, and we were just waiting to see what would happen when we got handed the script.
And how did you feel when that script was placed in your hands?
I didn’t like it. I really didn’t like it. I had such a specific connection to the book, it’s been with me for over 20 years and I had such a different idea for where I thought all of the characters would go. They weren’t even really well formed ideas, but, upon reading the script for the first time, I was like, ‘Well, this is not my Offred’. So I had to take my ego out of it for a bit – and, once I re-read the first script, once I had found out more about the series, I realised that they had dropped so many little hints about where all the characters will eventually wind up. It’s so well done, like a beautiful game of chess. And, once they add the cinematography and Elisabeth Moss’ remarkable acting and the phenomenal music, then we’re back in that lush world of Gilead. I think fans will immediately love it.
Who are the Marthas, in your opinion? Who do they represent from our own society?
When I first read the book, I thought that the Marthas represented estranged, silenced refugee-type women. Since the show aired, though, a lot of housewives have messaged me to say that the character really resonates with them. Every single day I get a letter from a housewife saying there’s a look or an emotion that’s come across my face that helps them feel like they’ve been recognised on television. These women are, like Rita, those who work hard, work impossible hours to keep domestic bliss – but are not credited for any other action.
Rita has no power, she serves no value to Gilead – she’s not a Handmaid so she can’t produce children, she’s not a Wife so she has no status. There are a lot of housewives that feel underappreciated and unrecognised in what they do.
You mention power and, of course, the Handmaids found their own sense of power in resisting at the end of last year’s finale. Where does Rita’s come from?
Well, without saying too much, there’s a new character that’s introduced to the household in season two. And, because she is the lowest on the totem pole, Rita – who has so little status – is able to exert a certain degree of control over the situation. The power dynamics, especially between the women, are really interesting. You would think if you had no power you would want to help someone else, but the constraints of Gilead pit women against one another. Every single woman, whether a Martha, or Handmaid, or Wife, want a modicum of status, because it’s the only thing that they can cling to.
Is it safer for Rita and the other Marthas than it is for other women in Gilead?
I have a very specific theory about Rita. In doing research and in preparation for the character, I learned that she has such disdain for Handmaids – so much so that I suspect she isn’t infertile. She somehow tricked the system and can, in fact, have a child. And, in season one, my suspicions were confirmed: you see Rita has a child. With this in mind, I think she tried to secure herself the role of the Martha because, objectively, it did look safer: if you can get inside the household, and get into a routine, you won’t be ceremoniously raped every month. If a baby is born within the household, then you’re assured a job for at least 18 years to raise the child. But it’s a slippery slope, because you don’t provide any value. If the mistress of the house were to find a problem with you, you could immediately be shipped to the colonies – your life means nothing to people.
How do you get yourself into character each day?
All of us – myself and Elisabeth especially – really rely on music to get into character. Lizzie and I share playlists, we share songs. Before every scene, I send her a song to inspire her, and she sends me one. This means that half of my playlist is classical music and a lot of very moody interesting contemporary classical, while the other is gangster rap – because I think Rita is a gangster. I like the contradiction in her. If it’s a really heavy, emotional scene, I’ll play gangster rap – because I want that tough side of her to come out, even though she’s broken and subservient. In a scene where she is powerful, I play classical to slow her down.
There have been times where we’ve been filming a take and halfway through, they call ‘cut’ because Lizzie still has her wireless headphones in… it’s instrumental in finding our voices and our physicality. I rely so much on music and costumes for this role.
Is it strange working on a show where you are required to wear the same costume – almost a uniform – for every single take?
The colouring of my costume is so muted and so dull that it blends into the background of almost every set piece. Marthas are supposed to be invisible and the outfit Ane Crabtree has created for me really helps me feel smaller – in heels, I’m 6ft 1in, and so I’m a tall woman, but it helps me feel insignificant. Also, it’s so loose that I forget about my body underneath… it is helpful on so many levels. I always say that my uniform is my armour. And, at the end of every shoot, I hang it up and say thank you.
Filming on Handmaid’s obviously involves a lot of close-ups and handheld cameras – how does that impact performance?
The first season, I thought I couldn’t do it – my face was almost pressed up against the handheld camera. Now, though, I’m used to it, and I’ve trained my body to work with it. And the intimacy has helped me to get to know the crew so much more, too: we are so much more than colleagues – maybe even more than a family. We all know how each other’s bodies move… so much so that we [the actors] can forget that they’re even there filming us.
Margaret Atwood has pointed out that every aspect of Gilead’s culture has really happened at some point in history, somewhere in the world. With this in mind, how have current events – such as Trump’s inauguration and the #MeToo movement – influenced the story you are all telling?
We started filming the first season before Trump became president. None of us had predicted such a thing could happen and, the day after the election, the tone shifted on set – because, regardless of anyone’s political beliefs, it became clear that something had changed: we were suddenly in a new world, and on the other side of a line had been crossed. It was frightening, and unpredictable.
Then, whilst filming season two, the #MeToo movement exploded – and there are extreme parallels between this and the show. Maybe more so because, thematically, this season is about resistance, and so is the movement – it’s fascinating to me that, within almost two weeks of production, major watershed moments were happening within the real world and we were filming our version of them.
What would you like viewers to take away from the show this time around?
I would love for women, in particular, to consider how often we are encouraged not to say no. We are brought up to be subservient, and polite, and kind, and sweet – and, yeah, you can still do that, but you can also use the word no. This season will encourage us to stand up for ourselves and use our voices. I would also like people to really look at how they live their day-to-day lives. The Handmaid’s Tale may be a story and it may be fictional, but it’s still a cautionary tale. And I truly believe that, especially in first world countries, we are not as free as we think we are. We put on blinders and avoid feeling uncomfortable, but this season makes us uncomfortable – and ask hard questions, and be prepared to answer for our behaviour.
The second season of The Handmaid’s Tale will air on Channel 4 in May.
Images: Channel 4/Hulu