'The Handmaid's Tale' stars see show as 'scarily relevant'

In episode three of Hulu's "The Handmaid's Tale," quietly fierce protagonist Offred (Elisabeth Moss) delivers a chilling monologue that in just a few lines encapsulates why this dystopian story has found new life more than 30 years after the book on which it's based was released.

"Now I'm awake to the world," she says, as she moves bonnet-clad down a haunting street, surrounded by armed officers. "I was asleep before. That's how we let it happen."

She walks silently next to a fellow handmaid, also wearing their standard-issue red robe. In her head, her thoughts continue to swirl.

"When they slaughtered Congress, we didn't wake up. When they blamed terrorists and suspended the Constitution, we didn't wake up then either," she continues. "They said it would be temporary. Nothing changes instantaneously. In a gradually heating bathtub, you'd be boiled to death before you knew it."

Opinions on whether the heat is rising in America following the election of Donald Trump in November may vary. But for Samira Wiley, who plays Moira on the show, the message of the show is clear.

"I think it's scarily relevant right now," she tells CNN. "I think one of the things we can see -- especially through the flashbacks [in the show] -- is how it doesn't happen all at once. And that's the thing that's so scary."

The flashbacks to which Wiley refers indeed paint a picture of a society that was stealthily slow to devolve, eventually rendering detractors powerless.

Before the full establishment of the totalitarian government and the Gilead (the name for the new United States), Moss' character and Moira were just friends who'd go on runs and enjoy a cup of coffee. They leaned on each other after women were let go from their jobs and participated in political marches as women's rights -- like the ability to control their own money -- were stripped away.

"I think right now we think that, 'Well, this can't happen.' And then it does. And then we think, 'Well, that next thing can't happen.' And it does," said Wiley. "People in the show -- and I think it's dangerous now -- become complacent and [aren't] vigilant."

Moira's internal fire and spirit were quick to attract Wiley, who'd just come off playing Poussey for several seasons on Netflix's "Orange is the New Black."

"She's just a badass," Wiley said.

Moss, meanwhile, immediately connected to Offred's will to survive. But after November, the role took on a whole new meaning.

"When you do roles and you do characters, you always try to personalize it and make it relevant for yourself, obviously. With something like this, it became more personal than anything I've ever done in a way that was unavoidable," she said.

Moss, fresh off of "Mad Men," first read the script for the series back in April 2016 and was the first actor to board the project. She is also a producer. Bruce Miller ("ER") is the creator and veteran TV executive Warren Littlefield is among the executive producers.

"I think if you are going to commit that time, you do want to make sure you're going to have some creative say," Moss said of taking on producing duties for the first time. "And you know, as a woman in this business, I so admire other women who have taken that step themselves and taken some ownership of their career and gotten either behind the camera or gotten involved as a producer. Those are the women I look up to."

On screen, Moss also looks to play characters with admirable qualities, but not necessarily perfect.

She speaks highly of "accidental feminist" Peggy Olson, but admired her "belief in herself" most of all.

"For me as an actor, I don't look for heroes. I don't look for someone who's inspiring or some sort of iconic person, I look for someone who is human and who is real," she said. "[Offred] is a hero in the end, but because she has to be."

Hulu released the first three episodes of the series on Wednesday. Subsequent episodes will be released weekly.

Elisabeth Moss as Offred in Hulu's "The Handmaid's Tale."
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Handmaid’s Tale Is Somehow All the More Terrifying as a Hulu Show

JUNE HAS A happy life, full of ordinary problems. Her slow Uber makes her late to dinner. She procrastinates by going to a barbecue. Her best friend criticizes her husband. But slowly, and then all at once, she faces problems of a different scale: A tyrannical regime takes control of her bank accounts, her child, her body. After that, it’s her flashbacks, those glimpses of a life that looks very familiar in 2017, that make the new adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale especially resonant—and its dystopia especially unsettling.

The first two episodes of Hulu’s show, out now, won’t be entirely familiar to the many recent readers of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 classic. (In the book, the protagonist, now called June, didn’t even have a name beyond the possessive Offred, or “Of Fred.”) But the differences from the novel make it much more prescient. Blurring the line between the two realities—one that Atwood envisioned 30 years ago, and the one you’re living in right now—creates a dystopia that feels frighteningly adjacent to the viewer’s world.

The main plot points of The Handmaid’s Tale carry over from book to screen: A religious coup has seized control of the US, and women have no rights. The lucky ones serve commanders as wives, cooks, or “handmaids,” conscripted to bear children for the barren ruling class; the unlucky ones, known as Unwomen, are shipped off to clean up toxic waste. Offred must reconcile her new life as a walking womb with the family, career, and life taken from her. Beyond that, though the Hulu series veers away from the novel, adding specificity to Offred (played by Elisabeth Moss) and developing independent plot lines around Ofglen (played by Alexis Bledel) and Janine (Madeline Brewer), making it all the more difficult to look away from the world of Gilead.

When read in 2017, the discordant reminders of Offred’s old life jolt a reader just as they jolt the protagonist: a familiar brand of dishtowel in the home where she now lives in servitude; the ordinary suits worn by tourists visiting the Republic of Gilead; the wall of a college library, now used to hang “gender traitors” and doctors who perform abortions. A visual medium makes the juxtapositions even more visceral, contrasting handmaids’ generic supermarkets with Offred’s flashbacks of a world of $4 cappuccinos and couch-hunting on Craigslist. “I wanted it to feel like today for a very coarse, dramatic reason,” says showrunner Bruce Miller. “It’s scary if it feels real.”

And, of course, the story of a male regime controlling women’s bodies takes on an additional layer of relevance under the Trump administration. For Miller, who developed the show throughout 2016, the presidential election served as chilling source material—and obscene misogyny provided some vivid inspiration. “A show like this rises and falls on how interesting the bad guys are,” he says. “With the rise of the alt-right and some of the things that candidates were saying, there were ideas that I thought people didn’t believe anymore that were being articulated so clearly.” For many, the Latin phrase that a previous handmaid scrawled into Offred’s wardrobe—”Nolite te bastardes carborundorum,” or “Don’t let the bastards drag you down”—now seems immediately applicable. As Aunt Lydia (played by Ann Dowd) tells handmaids-in-training, “Ordinary is just what you’re used to. This may not seem ordinary to you right now, but after a time it will.”

In the decades since Atwood wrote Handmaid’s Tale in West Berlin in the 1980s, the book’s themes of sexual freedom and women’s autonomy have invited adaptation, but allowed for update. It was reimagined in a 1990 movie just after the Berlin Wall came down, and an opera version in 2001 featured a fictional collapse of the Twin Towers (the bit was excised after 9/11). In the novel, the protagonist worked on a college paper about date rape; in the Hulu show, it’s about campus sexual assault. “The problems are the same kind of problem, but they’ve been augmented by technology,” says Atwood, who makes a cameo appearance in the show. Today, taking away women’s independence by seizing control of their digital information has new resonance. “None of that was predictable in 1985,” she says, “but the tendency—that you get data through something that people use, such as a credit card—that has just become so much bigger.”

The adaptation, which Hulu started to pursue in 2015, is exceptionally well-timed. Atwood’s novel has never gone out of print, but as book sales show, dystopian fiction is especially resonant now. “Any dystopia that’s realistically based—that is this planet, not a galaxy far far away in another time—they’re all blueprints,” Atwood says. “They’re blueprints that are asking me, reader or viewer, is this where you want to live? And if not, what are the steps that need to be taken to avoid going there?” Viewers won’t want to live in Gilead—but with Handmaid’s Tale, they’ll definitely want to watch it.

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