Yvonne Strahovski (‘The Handmaid’s Tale’) on playing ‘uncensored emotional version’ of Serena [Complete Interview Transcript]

Yvonne Strahovski returned for her third season of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” this past TV season, playing the complicated Serena Joy Waterford. The actress was nominated for her first Emmy Award for the second season two years ago.

Strahovski recently spoke with Gold Derby senior editor Rob Licuria about Season 3 of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the experience of getting nominated at the Emmys and her recent reunion with the cast of “Chuck.” Watch the exclusive video interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: Yvonne, you star as Commander’s wife, Serena Joy, and I see her as neither villain nor ally but something more complicated in between. How do you describe her to people? Is she evil? Is she misunderstood, or something else?

Yvonne Strahovski: I don’t think she’s misunderstood (laughs). The way I see it is she sits in the midst of her own complicated layers and twisted-up version of who she is. I think the majority of people would see her as a villain, and there’s certainly a lot of hate out there for Serena Joy, as there should be, but she is a complicated woman, for sure. She’s constantly battling her inner demons and her inner feelings.

GD: When I spoke to you a couple years ago I said that your character, Serena, had become so pivotal to Season 2 and I couldn’t have imagined that even in Season 3 she even became more important to the storyline. You were given a lot of really great work to do, a lot of really great material. What were your thoughts when it was mapped out for you what Serena’s journey would be over Season 3? Were you excited, nervous? What was the feeling for you?

YS: I was excited. Obviously she’s given up baby Nicole and the absolute loss of that. I was really happy to explore that because we did get to touch on Serena’s more vulnerable side throughout Season 2 so in hitting Season 3 it was really about pouring out this kind of uncensored emotional version of Serena that is even more heightened when she’s around someone like her mother, those scenes. I was a little taken aback when I first found out that she would come to change her mind, but of course she would. She’s Serena Joy. It’s exciting. It’s exciting for me to play something like that, to really move through all those emotions only to figure out that very selfishly, she actually can’t do the greatest thing for her daughter and let her go into a newer and safer world. She must have her back because she can’t deal with her own emotions. She’s consumed by the need to be a mother, which is also partly a mask for her. It’s masking a whole lot of other stuff that she’s really not facing as she’s living in Gilead.

GD: Yeah, I never thought of it that was actually, that it is a mask for her, but before we go into Season 3, while we’re between Season 2 and Season 3, a really amazing thing happened to you a couple years ago when you were nominated for an Emmy, your first one, I think, for your role on “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Can you take us back? It was a while ago now, because you weren’t eligible last year. It was a weird thing that a lot of Emmy watchers would know, that “The Handmaid’s Tale” was only eligible in certain categories, but back when you were nominated, do you remember the morning of and how you felt when you saw your name being read out?

YS: I was very thrilled (laughs). Yeah, it was my first Emmy nomination so I was really, really excited. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t. This is my career and what I’ve chosen to do with my life. It’s all I’ve ever done, actually. To have arrived at the point where I’m part of a show that is received so intensely, I think is the right word for it, and to be recognized as a key player in that show is really, really beyond wonderful.

GD: And then do you have a favorite moment or highlight from the actual Emmy night itself when you think back to it?

YS: I’m blanking. That wasn’t the one where I was pregnant, was it? Yes, it was. I was fully pregnant. I was so close to my due date. From the excitement of being there, it’s so mind-blowing when you’re there ‘cause you see all these actors that you’ve grown up watching on television and you’re half between excitement and intimidation, just enjoying the night and all the things that you’re feeling and I thought, “My god, my water’s gonna break, give birth right here on the red carpet because I’m so overwhelmed.” But that didn’t happen, thankfully (laughs). It did cross my mind, though, that it was gonna happen.

GD: It was pretty cool and obviously soon after that Season 3 commenced on Hulu and we’ve got plenty of things we can talk about in Season 3 so I just thought we could cover some of your highlights. You got lots of episodes that you might wanna choose if and when you get nominated again and I thought episodes like “Useful,” where you co-starred alongside Laila Robins, who plays your mom, Pamela, “Unknown Caller” is a really good one where Serena is temporarily reunited with Nicole and then also towards the end when the Waterfords are in Canada. There’s lots to choose from. Have you got something in mind as your best work for Season 3 that you enjoyed doing or that you really liked?

YS: I think for me, the one that comes to mind first and always has, I think it was [Episode] 5 where I reunite with Nicole. There’s so much to power through in that episode and I really love the stuff with the mother as well, with Serena’s mother, and that journey, the stuff where she walks into the water and it’s a metaphor for her drowning in her own emotions and really not knowing which way is up, but that scene really sticks out for me with reuniting with baby Nicole, just because it was a moment where Serena could really get lost in a very pure and raw emotion of being reunited with the baby but it’s so clouded with all this other stuff that’s happening because of Luke’s presence and the circumstances in general that she has to cross the border to see her child. It’s a very arranged thing that’s being watched by people like Mark and Luke and then maybe unknown people as well that are observing this from afar. It’s such a tainted experience for her, so I loved playing with the duality of having to still be the manipulative Serena whilst automatically losing herself in the emotional side of that reunion and what that would really feel like for her.

GD: Yeah, I remember watching that particular scene in the airport. There’s a lot of emotion that you’re playing and it’s very nuanced. You can see how Serena is so desperate to be back with Nicole. I got really caught up in it and then towards the end, the real Serena does come out where she throws out a veiled threat to Luke, if she doesn’t get her way then June’s gonna have issues. I’m just wondering how difficult was it to get that scene right? Did you have to do it many, many times to play that emotion so carefully or did it come out pretty easily at the beginning? How did that work?

YS: That scene was very clear to me. I knew exactly how I wanted to do that, what I wanted to do with it and we just went in and went for it. I can’t speak for O-T [Fagbenle] but I’m pretty sure he felt the same way. There was a lot of massaging and finessing as we went along but it wasn’t like we started off one way and ended up in a completely different way. It was sort of from the get go we were zoned in on one another. There’s two very clear opposing forces at work here in this scene with Luke and his animosity towards Serena versus what Serena Joy is going through, what I was describing earlier.

GD: You know what’s really interesting and it’s a credit to you is you normally would expect to side with Luke but you don’t really, necessarily. You do understand what Serena is coming from. She really loves Nicole and wants to be with her. The same thing happens at the end of the season when she’s finally getting her way and she’s in Canada and she’s free and she’s with Nicole and then her husband betrays her, just like she had done a couple of episodes earlier and then she’s then arrested. I felt really sorry for Serena. That was kind of bullshit that suddenly she’s being arrested for what happened with Nick and June. I felt sorry for her a little.

YS: You might be the only one.

GD: Oh no! I’m on the Serena train. What do you think? Did you not feel a little sorry for her that she’s just so messed up and this is where she’s landed?

YS: If I remove myself from being so attached to the insides of Serena Joy, having played her, I don’t. I don’t think I feel sorry for her. I think she has it coming and it’s exactly where she should be, actually (laughs). But, as the person playing her, of course in the scenes I think Serena feels sorry for herself but it’s pretty short-lived. I think Serena doesn’t really wallow in that kind of self-pity for very long. If anything, it just motivates her and drives her really quickly, deeply, into her next manipulative move.

GD: Yeah, that’s right. No doubt she will make a move and something exciting will happen. What can we look forward to for Season 4?

YS: Oh man. We can look forward to the start of going back to continue shooting what we started. How much did we get in the can? Maybe two weeks worth? It’s gonna be a long way and who knows when we get back. That’s first and foremost, really. I don’t know what to say without giving away. I don’t know how to…

GD: Just say nothing (laughs). One other question about Season 3 and we’ll move onto a few other things. Last time we spoke, you said that you were surprised that we could still be shocked by the show. The show does go there and every once in awhile I’m just like, “Geez, this show is so intense,” and that’s what happened in Season 2 when Serena was beaten. This season we got that episode in Washington called “Household,” which I think was directed by Colin Watkinson, the cinematographer. That was pretty bloody grim, seeing handmaids with rings in their lips and stuff like that. What did you make of that episode when you guys were filming it? Was it a really good one to shoot?

YS: That was really intense. Colin directed the one before that, though, the one with the scene with baby Nicole. Dearbhla [Walsh] directed the Washington, D.C. episode. That one was incredibly intense. I did not expect to feel so inspired in a very powerful and dramatic way by the actual space when we were standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial and standing on the steps. I think we had 200 extras there with the handmaids that were standing there. The rest were digitally inserted in post, but it was really, really powerful because of what that memorial stands for and how historically powerful it is. It was all parallels and relevance there but I didn’t expect to feel that. I remember reading in the script about the handmaids with the rings in their mouths. For me, that was one of the moments where I thought, “Wow, this is really pushing it in another direction I almost can’t take.” It’s one of those moments for me as a viewer when I step back from it.

GD: I totally felt that way. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised. The key art for Season 3 said, “Wake up, America.” It made me realize or remember that this show has never shied away from its cultural relevance and we’ve talked about this before. I’m sure a lot of people ask you about how relevant it is to today but my question’s a bit different. Are you proud of the way the show comments on feminism and religious extremism and power like it does? It really does not shy away and it really does go there. It’s very bold and it’s very intense.

YS: Yeah, I am. I’m not responsible for the writing but for my part in it, I’m absolutely proud of partaking in something like this. I think it’s necessary. I think a lot of people struggle to watch it, and I’m one of them. I’m not there for when the other actors shoot their scenes and some of it is really, really intense but I think it’s great that it’s out there. It’s art imitating life and that’s what we’re here for as artists. We’re here to hold the mirror up and this show does that in an extreme way and I think people walk away from it having very deep and meaningful conversations about where we are in the world and what are we gonna do about it.

GD: Absolutely. Now, completely changing tack, you recently reunited with your “Chuck” cast. I noticed it all over social media a few days ago. Tell us about that. That would’ve been really exciting.

YS: That was very cool. It was very exciting. A little strange, too, ‘cause so many years later to come together again, but we were texting. We have a text thread and sometimes, every so often we get on it and we touch base with everybody. We were tossing around ideas about what could we do, was there something we could do during this time to be helpful, and we just came up with the idea to do a read-through. We have such an amazing fanbase for that show and they are very eager always to see us reunite, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity to raise a bit of money to help Feeding America. We actually raised $70,000 now just by doing that “Chuck” reunion. It’s so great to be able to just do something ‘cause you feel so helpless sitting at home in this time not able to walk around and able to physically do anything.

GD: I watched a bit of it and it seemed like you guys were having fun. That’s nice to watch as well. Another question is that you’re currently starring in the awesome Aussie drama “Stateless.” Aussie to Aussie I have to at least go there with one question. I think it’s airing on Netflix globally but it aired on the ABC here. Was it exciting for you to be back home, so to speak, and working on a high-profile project alongside someone like Cate Blanchett?

YS: It was totally exciting. I was really blown away that she asked me to come and be a part of it. I was blown away by the scripts when I read them. Talk about relevance as well, that’s another very important series and set of stories within one story to watch. It was challenging in a lot of different ways and I have to say, it was one my most favorite experiences ‘cause it just became so real. It’s one thing to come into a project and lift a story off of the page but it’s another thing to actually meet people with you and be working in the same space in front of the camera between action and cut with people who have lived and breathed the stories that we’re actually telling in the show. That was really powerful when we got to the Port Augusta set of the detention center and I realized that all the extras, the background artists that they had hired were people who had either directly had an experience with detention and being stateless or had family or some kind of firsthand, secondhand experience within that world. So many stories, very harrowing stories and it just made it really real and it upped the stakes as a performer and it gave me a greater sense of responsibility in a way to really take pride and ownership in my part in that show.

GD: Yeah, it’s highly recommended when it does finally drop outside of Australia. Everyone should watch it. In the meantime, I’m really looking forward to Season 4 of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” I’m just dying to know what happens. Obviously we have to wait now until you guys are back on-set.

YS: So am I!

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