Is No Serena Joy
arrives on set sporting her signature outfit: a gray T-shirt, denim shorts, and white sneakers. It’s August and the sun is shining in Toronto, where Strahovski, 40, is filming season 5 of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Barefaced and wearing her blonde hair in its natural texture, she only vaguely resembles her character, the austere Serena Joy Waterford.
The steely demeanor that drives fans to love hating Serena is nowhere to be seen: Strahovski jokes about her lopsided boobs from breast pumping for her son, Henry, who was born late last year. When a spider crawls onto a camera lens, she carries it outside to safety. And she eschews Jimmy Choo heels to be photographed barefoot.
Witnessing Strahovski interact with her newborn son and husband, actor Tim Loden, who visit her at her cover shoot, makes it clear that she deserves her numerous accolades, including two Emmy nominations, for portraying the villainess on Hulu’s dystopian drama series based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel. Now in its fifth season, “The Handmaids Tale” depicts life in Gilead, a totalitarian society in what was once the United States. Ruled by a fundamentalist regime, Gilead treats women as property of the government. Any fertile woman becomes a Handmaid assigned to a Commander and their barren Wife, and is subjected to monthly rape in order to procreate for the couple.
Serena Joy is one of the influential Wives, and as viewers discover, an integral architect of Gilead. Her onscreen husband is Fred Waterford, played by Joseph Fiennes, who was killed at the end of season 4 by their former Handmaid, June, played by Elisabeth Moss. “[Serena] is devastated in her own way about the loss of Fred and then she just gets right back into revenge mode,” Strahovski says about her character’s storyline this season. “We haven't seen this unhinged version of Serena. She loses her mind and wants to get back at June with vengeance.”
For STYLECASTER’s World of Style issue, Strahovski sat down to discuss Serena Joy’s complicated moral fabric, fashion’s role in delineating social classes in Gilead and the show’s eerie propensity to mirror current events.
She goes from one end of the spectrum to the other, and then sits in the middle in that gray area between good and evil, but never quite makes it to the good side. Which is probably why she's an interesting character to watch. [Laughs]. Audiences do end up rooting for her, as she and June in past seasons have gotten closer or when she's shown a friendlier side. Then she just backflips and goes right back into being her true self.
"I go to work to have a good cry and a good scream—and then I come home and have myself a nice family dinner."
It's a woman against another woman. It’s representative of this hierarchy of women at the top in the political game versus women at the bottom, which is displayed in the wives and handmaids. The dynamic where one woman is supportive of basically enslaving another woman for rape every month for her own benefit.
Initially it wasn’t, but it’s fun now. It was difficult for me to come to terms with how evil she was at times and try to justify everything because, at the end of the day, it's my job to humanize her. It's not like I'm playing a villain for villain's sake. She’s a woman who is also surviving in a terrible situation.
Initially, when we met her way back in the pilot, she didn't trust Fred. Fred had obviously had an affair with a previous handmaid. She's got her own bag of things that have wounded her and traumatized her. I'm not saying that's an excuse, it's a platform for a regular person having gone through certain things to turn you into something. Serena's turned into a bit of a monster and like all characters in Gilead, she is surviving in her own way and the only way she knows how to.
"It’s my job to humanize Serena. It's not like I'm playing a villain for villain's sake. She’s a woman who is also surviving in a terrible situation."
Dress & Bolero: Demascare. Earrings, Bracelet, Rings: ARMED
Top & Dress: Greta Constantine. Belt: UNCUFFED. Stockings: Wolford. Shoes: Jimmy Choo. Earrings & Rings: ARMED
SC: How has Serena evolved throughout the seasons?
Serena often receives more ire than Fred. Why do you think that is?
Is it fun to play a character like Serena who's very flawed?
Honestly, the fact that she’s lonely. She had a slither
of hope with Fred and having someone she could rely
on, and that smashed into pieces. She tried with June,
and I think June might have tried with her as well.
She's so lonely and so devastated by the fact she has
no one. She will go to great lengths to sabotage.
I want to say she doesn’t believe in any of that, but she
does. I don't think she likes or buys the fact that
women are out of the picture in terms of decision-
making. She doesn't agree with it, but I do think there's
a part of her just in terms of faith and clean living.
There is a part of her that does believe in that. You'll
see her saying things like that this season. You know,
‘I'm pregnant. We did it. This is Gilead in action. It’s
because we cleaned up our act, we cleaned up the air.’
She finds genuine validity in that.
What do you think motivates her?
Do you think she still believes what Gilead preaches?
There are two sides to cancel culture, aren't there? That’s a really fine line. I feel like the people who truly want to rehabilitate themselves as better people need that support back in order to change. If you've been fully canceled by everybody, how do you do that? When you're talking about predatory things—that's different. That's a lot harder. It’s really subjective and case-specific.
Oh my God. [Laughs.]
Exactly. Isn't that exactly what June has been trying to do? To cancel Serena, but then she gives her another chance. She believes in Serena. She does believe at the end of the day that there is a good person in there. Then Serena goes ahead and does something heinous again, which then it's like, alright, you're canceled. The last bit of that second episode is a perfect example. That's probably enough to cancel Serena Joy. All the audiences are going to want to cancel Serena Joy. You want to see what she does next because it's a TV show, right?
Every season has been potent because we've somehow aligned ourselves in a weird crystal ball way with something that's going on in real life. It's never been because something's already happening and then we write the show to reflect that—it's always the other way around. Suddenly, we're making a documentary. That's why it resonates and people have such difficulty watching it.
Today, many people would cancel Serena. What do you make of cancel culture?
Would you cancel any characters on the show?
Or who wouldn't you cancel in the show?
Do you think season 5 will be received differently in light of Roe v. Wade being overturned?
Top, Pants & Coat: Mr.Haque. Shoes: Christian Louboutin. Earrings: Oscar de la Renta. Rings: ARMED
Top & Dress: Greta Constantine. Belt: UNCUFFED. Stockings: Wolford. Shoes: Jimmy Choo. Earrings & Rings: ARMED
A lot of people fear that Gilead isn’t a far-off possibility. Are you worried?
How do you handle filming scenes relating to sexual assault and domestic violence?
How do you protect your mental health when you're getting into this dark subject matter and playing such a dark character?
The show uses fashion to differentiate between class and societal roles. It creates a powerful visual especially in the funeral scene this season. How do you think that mirrors how we differentiate between classes?
Do you feel that way about clothing?
What’s your uniform in real life? Do you have designers you gravitate towards?
Are there any designers that you like or do you mainly stick with thrifting?
Do you have a stylist when you go to events?
Who takes the lead when it comes to choosing what to wear?
Suit: COS. Necklace: ARMED
Jeans. Shorts, cutoff shorts are probably my go-to with a white or gray T-shirt and socks that go up to my calves with Keds.
There's a town, Annecy, it's kind of like Venice with the canals. I'll randomly buy a red dress, and that’ll be my uniform for the entire vacation. And then I'll put it away and then I'll go back to the jeans shorts and T-shirts.
Of course! I could never manage without a stylist.
I used to really lean into a stylist’s opinion.
Photographer: Carlyle Routh
Stylist: Amber Watkins
Makeup Artist: Susana Hong
Hairstylist: Cia Mandarello for P1M Artist Management
Photography Assistant: Ness Devos
Studio: The Primrose
WORLD OF STYLE
Doesn't that exist already in certain areas of the world? If you watch Margaret Atwood’s interviews about the book in 1985, she based everything on real life back then, and she drew upon things that were going on around the world.
There was that scene way back in one of the seasons where my character held down June, while she was pregnant, while Fred raped her. That was really difficult. I remember Joe [Joseph Fiennes] and I just felt gross about it. As a female actor, you never think you're going to play the part of a rapist.
I don't think there's any protecting my mental health. [Laughs.] You're just kind of in it, you know? My husband jokes with me all the time that I go to work to have a good cry and have a good scream and then I come home and leave that over there. I come home and have myself a nice family dinner. [Laughs.]
You can definitely tell someone who's shopping at Rodeo Drive versus not. I also think clothing is such an artistic expression. Someone's body is like a canvas. What are they going to paint it with that day? Some people have such a strong sense of self.
No. I always envy people who have that sort of strong sense of self when it comes to their clothes. I've never really cared that much about clothing. I do get made fun of for buying shorts at CVS and stuff like that.
I'm definitely someone who loves a good thrift and yard sale. It's always been more about comfort. Maybe that's my expression.
Only now I'm starting to find my groove with clothes and what I truly love and don't love. I definitely feel in a mood to wear certain things and not. Typically, I like things classic and streamlined.
I remember going through a phase where I thought, “Why do women have to wear dresses on a red carpet?” Women have to get made up and dressed and put on high heels and this and that. I thought, “Screw this.” I wanted suits.
We've seen it all before, haven't we? I think it's really easy, especially if you’re cut off from the rest of the world.
It's definitely made me far more sensitive. I struggle to watch the bits that I'm not in. When I see the other storylines, it's heartbreaking.
Once Serena realizes Fred's gone for good, the loneliness floods in and becomes full on for her. What is she going to do to take charge of her life and really secure herself a space in the world? Where is that going to be? How is that going to play out? Where does she feel safe?
‘What is she going to do to me and my child?’ is the biggest thing in her mind after she finds out June killed Fred. People are dropping out of her life. The absence of all of these people is terrifying to her. She really has to dig her heels in and figure it out. She’s in survival mode now, more than ever.
People watch the show and think “I could never think that way,” but we’ve seen throughout history how people can be convinced of conspiracies. Do you think people could be brainwashed in real life?
You became a mom while filming The Handmaid's Tale and now have two sons. How has motherhood changed how you view the show?
Season 5 will focus more on June and Serena’s dynamic without Fred. How will this change the show?
She was that terrified of staying in Toronto with an unhinged June who murdered Fred. A place like Gilead is better than staying in a city with June who could potentially do the same to her and her child. Her mind is spinning and this is her making a plan as she goes.
It's controversial to say that the Wives are seen as victims as well. To an extent, the system is oppressing everyone. You can't make a move without the system getting you in the end. The difference between June and Serena is that June is brave enough to make a different choice at the risk of her own life and Serena isn’t.
You root for June obviously, but I don't know that I've ever watched it rooting for anyone because I know everyone. I watch it through a completely different lens. If I remove myself from all of them, then yeah. You're rooting for June to get out. You're rooting for June to get Hannah back. As a mom, you just want all the women to be reunited with their kids.
I joke that it’s this Juliet and Juliet love story between them. It's this crazy long torturous relationship. [Laughs.] We always joke about the lover’s affair in their relationship because they behave like a toxic couple. They’re not going to end up happily ever after.
Playing Sophie Werner in “Stateless,” which was the six-part series based on a true story. We shot it in Australia about the refugees in Australia. I played a character who struggled with mental health and ended up in a detention center. Going into that, I didn't think that anything could be heavier than playing Serena Joy in “Handmaid’s.”
In the first couple of episodes of season 5, Serena returns to Gilead after she learns Fred is dead. Why do you think she does that?
It's clear the handmaids are victims of Gilead, but do you consider Serena a victim of Gilead as well?
Who do you root for in the show?
In your dream world, where do Serena and June end up?
Aside from Serena, what is the most difficult character/role you’ve ever played?
Definitely more. I went to my first marches with my wifey friend, Ever Carradine, who plays Naomi Putnam. We went to the Women's March together in Toronto where we film. Most recently, we marched for Ukraine.
I always have had a soft spot for Alexis Bledel’s Emily, she is a great character.
In the first season, there’s a classic scene where I throw June down on the ground when she tells me she's not pregnant and she'd been hiding it from me. I throw her to the ground and I was supposed to stay up in the doorway, but I had said, ‘Oh, I'm just going to try something.’ And that's when I ended up on the ground near her screaming, ‘Do you understand me?’ which has become a go-to line that we utilize.
No, I don't think a lot. I blend in when I wear my CVS shorts and thrifty tops with these sunnies.
I haven’t had a negative fan interaction. I know of people asking if I'm really like Serena Joy, which I always find amusing. [Laughs.]
Has starring on “The Handmaid’s Tale” made you more or less of an activist in any way?
If you could play any other character in “The Handmaid's Tale,” who would it be and why?
Does anyone ever improvise their lines?
Do you get recognized a lot by fans?
Have they all been positive? Some actors who play villains have negative interactions with fans.
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