What Keeps ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Creators and Stars Up at Night
Showrunner Bruce Miller, director Reed Morano, and actors Max Minghella and Samira Wiley tell us how much they think our reality resembles Gilead.
Actors Max Minghella (left) and Elisabeth Moss in 'The Handmaid's Tale'. Image: George Kraychyk
Ever since its publication in 1985, The Handmaid's Tale was destined for television. Beloved Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood may not have known it at the time, but it was an inevitability. Fiction this cinematic is meant to be transported onto the silver screen. The first season of the series premiered on Hulu on April 26th and has already been given a second season.
Set in the unsettling near-future, the series (faithfully adapted from the book) is quick to establish milieu through the eyes of Offred (Elisabeth Moss). She resides in Gilead, a portion of the US now operating under a totalitarian and Christian fundamentalist theocracy. Plagued by widespread infertility, women have been stripped of autonomy. They exist without money, profession, or freedom. Those who remain fertile are assigned the role of Handmaid—a sex slave-like position in which they must conceive and produce children for "commanders," military men of a certain rank, who also have separate wives. In this arrangement, the handmaids are mostly empty vessels used for the proliferation of mankind.
Moving past the conversation of whether the show is feminist (spoiler: it is), we were interested in having a different sort of dialogue with some of the show's cast and crew (including showrunner Bruce Miller, director Reed Morano, and actors Samira Wiley and Max Minghella). The series presents an unrelentingly bleak worldview—some of which contains parallels to modern life. But how do the artists behind the hit program feel about where we're headed? Are they fearful or hopeful? Is The Handmaid's Tale pure fiction, or is the dystopia not too far off? Answers among our sources varied. At times similar responses arrived in unison. In other instances, they would contradict one another. But all offered interesting insights from working on a show that seems eerily plausible here from our vantage points in the year 2017. Editor's note: The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How worried are you about our reality turning into Gilead?
Reed Morano (director): In the book, when everything started to go to shit, there was a scary issue of infertility—and the babies being born were not living. We're not there right now. Though, there was a moment, earlier this year, where every single day there was a new thing that we had done that was being undone. It could be a gradual decline into something much more serious. The inspiration for what happens in Gilead is taken from what is currently happening in other countries (and what has happened in other countries). It isn't made up. Don't take for granted what we have, because things can change.
Bruce Miller (TV creator and showrunner): Well...ah...no. The world of Gilead in its entirety is really a work of fiction. I hope that even seeing it laid out that this is not the way we'd like the streets of America to look. Having lived and felt what it might be like to live in Gilead, it's very difficult to maintain and took a certain set of circumstances to allow it to rise.
Max Minghella (actor, "Nick"): I get worried when I'm not worried, you know? Normally I'm weary of political storytelling, but what's great about this show is that it does keep a conversation going that needs to be happening.
Samira Wiley (actress, "Moira"): To be honest, I'm optimistic. I have real faith in my fellow people who walk the Earth with me. I want people to remain vigilant thought. As we see through the show, things didn't happen all at once. They happened gradually.
What are you worried about in the future?
Morano: Women's reproductive rights. Instead of being made by intelligent people of both genders, these choices are being made by one gender. That is an image from Gilead. A bunch of white males in a room, signing a bill about reproductive rights. Get the fuck out of here. There are women in politics who could be in that room. There are women in politics who should be in that room representing our bodies. It's not up to a bunch of men who don't even respect women enough to let them be in the room.
Wiley: Women losing rights of their own bodies. I identify that as something I'm afraid of because of the extremities in this show. Especially being a bunch of different minorities myself—a black, gay woman—there are things that I can't help but think of about people infringing on my rights.
"A bunch of white males in a room, signing a bill about reproductive rights. Get the fuck out of here."
Miller: Immediately, there's an assault on women's rights and sovereignty over there own bodies and reproductive rights. Short-sighted and mean-spirited laws that are being proposed in all sorts of cities and states around the country. That right now is a terrifying wave. Democracy is a difficult experiment and it always has the chance to slide into authoritarianism or, more like Gilead, totalitarianism. When we were making the show, during the presidential debates, I remember for the first time in my life thinking, "Someone in the government might get mad at me and come after me for something that I was making on TV."
Minghella: We're all concerned about the equality of rights. That men and women are treated the same. This seems to me to be fundamental human right, and the fact that is challenged is so crazy and anachronistic. Who thought the Nazis would come back? I thought we all agreed these are bad people. I've been playing video games for a long time and the villains are always Nazis. It's a real third-act twist.
Do you think audiences will look back on the show as a cautionary tale or something that's prophetic?
Wiley: (laughs) I hope, with every piece of me, that it is something that could be prophetic but ends up being a warning sign. Even the fact that this television show is on right now, and that we're even having this conversation, is progress. People being aware is progress. At the end of the day it's a television show, but it can elicit real change. We can't erase the memory something being taken away. I want that to become a warning sign for people to become aware of the world they live in. Awareness is always the first step to change.
Minghella: I don't know if we can take that responsibility. Margaret's book has so much foresight. Bruce has also done an amazing job of making the show feel contemporary. There's something very much "of the now" about it.
Morano: What I know is that TV has a long life, and a series can get rediscovered again in a way that's unique to the medium. If for nothing else people might look back on it just for the fact that the timing was uncanny.
Miller: I think people will look back on this show and see it both as a cautionary tale and prophetic. Margaret's book always felt that way to me. Cautionary tales work a lot better when there's some prophecy involved. When things start to come true, the caution level goes way high. I don't know if we increased the volume of the clarion call, but I hope that it will be looked at as an extension of the very clear warning Margaret put out 35 years ago.
What are you hopeful about in the future?
Morano: People are starting to realize that they can't just wait for someone else to fix this problem; they have to be part of the solution. Hopefully enough scary shit has happened within the last 100 days that people aren't stupid enough to keep watching. I think we've learned our lesson. You have to have some opinion. You have to like one of the candidates at least 1% more than the other, or hate 1% less.
Minghella: There's been an amazing response to the administration, in terms of how people are banding together and fighting back. I didn't think ten years ago that I'd be somebody who finds themselves at protests. We're all being forced to become political in a way that we collectively didn't expect. There's beauty in that. As an 80s baby I feel slightly discombobulated by it all.
I remember for the first time in my life thinking, "Someone in the government might get mad at me and come after me for something that I was making on TV."
Wiley: I think it's really dangerous to live in fear, so I try not to. Both of my parents are baptist pastors. I wouldn't call myself religious - I haven't been to church ever since I left home, but I can't deny my upbringing. There was also a belief in my home that "we don't need to worry because everything is going to be okay." There's a difference between saying that and not doing anything. Sometimes this world can make you feel a little less than for having those beliefs. But I think I have a lot of faith in not just the world, but literally my fellow man. That's where I'm at right now.
Miller: One of the things that this show has made me really hopeful is the way Elizabeth [Moss, the lead actor and producer] has approached the subject material. Every conversation we've had about how she's brought this story to life has shown this great amount of stubbornness and orneriness that is at the core of June. She is not easily toppled. That to me is the most optimistic part of this. Even with great powers allied against her she finds a way to maneuver and change things. That kind of fight and tenacity is a human trait that is particularly wonderful. It bugs the hell out of us sometimes, but it's the thing that makes us who we are. As Margaret Atwood said, "I'm counting on America to be true to its ornery self."
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