Why the British actor’s turn as the sadistic Commander Waterford in The Handmaid’s Tale is the most challenging role of his career…
The nice thing about filming The Handmaid’s Tale in Toronto is that, should the United States actually manage to slip the Constitution’s surly bonds and morph into an authoritarian theocracy like Gilead, the show’s fictional setting, at least you’re already north of the border. When Joseph Fiennes initially signed on for the show’s first season, such a possible future timeline seemed at least a little less believable than it does now. But if Hulu’s Emmy-winning mounting of Margaret Atwood’s distaff dystopia was relevant when it debuted early last year, then at this point the only thing on TV that’s more timely is the news.
Fiennes plays Commander Waterford (a.k.a. the somewhat less ominous-sounding “Fred”) —the sadistic, self-pitying master of the house who enjoys torturous power plays and impromptu Scrabble matches with his handmaid June Osborne, a.k.a. Offred, played by Elisabeth Moss. Fred is one of the show’s few male leads and, more than any other, represents the brittle masculine hypocrisy of a world in which fertile women are forced to serve as indentured wombs to the powerful and childless. Having exhausted the novel’s original narrative, the second season starts by stitching its own material. And while there are still some elements of the book’s rich universe to explore, like the land of exile known as the Colonies, the show is diving into terra incognita with its characters.
Luckily, Fiennes, 47, says getting back into Fred’s headspace was like slipping back into an old coat — albeit one that’s unpleasantly grimy and chafing. “We’re all contradictions, but his contradiction is especially abhorrent,” says the actor, “which is why at the end of the day I can’t wait to get away from him and take a nice, hot shower.”
Fiennes originally burst into public consciousness in 1998 playing famous 16th-century Englishmen in a pair of Oscar-winning films: Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in Elizabeth and Will Shakespeare in Shakespeare in Love star. Since then he’s taken on the mantle of a surprising number of real-life figures, from Martin Luther to T. E. Lawrence and, most recently, gold-medal runner Eric Liddell. But for Fiennes, inhabiting someone fictional like Fred feels no less tangible than playing a figure from history, especially in the current social climate. “He’s just as real as any of those other characters, as Shakespeare or Dudley or Liddell,” Fiennes says. “And Fred is, for me, just as relevant in light of what we are seeing throughout my industry and others across the world, and what we know is going on with men and power.”
This isn’t Fiennes’ first time doing TV — that would be the post-Lost enigma machine FlashForward — but he’s never before gotten the chance to return as a character. “This is the first time I’ve done a second season, and now I understand what a shame that was,” he says. “There’s so much that we did last season in terms of character investigation, it’s all there for the audience and it’s all there for the actors. So just the flick of an eye or a nod or a pause is loaded with so much subtext.”
Add to that the dump trucks of subtext that have rolled up from outside the confines of the series. It’s hard not to see some neon-bright parallels in The Handmaid’s depiction of institutionalised sexual abuse and gross power imbalances.
Those excruciatingly tense office and hotel-room scenes all hum at a throatier frequency now that people are showing up at real-world protests dressed in the Handmaids’ iconic outfits. “It’s amazing how powerfully Margaret Atwood and Offred have been seared into the public consciousness,” says Fiennes. “There is now this very evident totem of the red and white, and it’s brilliant to use in protest.”
Although he considers it an honor to be involved with something beating in such tempo with the general pulse, Fiennes understandably still can’t wait to take off that unpleasant coat. Spending all this time in a patriarchal nightmare just makes him want to get back home to his wife and two daughters, tout suite.
“My young girls are just getting switched on to all that women have gone through and are going through,” he says. “All the most important people in my life are women. I need to get back and balance out my awful Gilead experience.” And if the post-episode behavior of guilt-ridden male viewers of The Handmaid’s Tale can be taken as any indication, maybe pick up a few extra chores around the house. ■
BY KEITH STASKIEWICZ
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