Eight months pregnant and due to deliver a baby boy shortly after the Emmys, Yvonne Strahovski has heard every variation of the “Handmaid’s Tale” catchphrase “blessed be the fruit” these past few weeks.
Playing Serena Joy Waterford, the sometimes sympathetic, often mad and monstrous wife using June (Elisabeth Moss) as an enslaved surrogate to have her baby, Strahovski knew there would be all kinds of complications if she became pregnant while shooting “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
The jokes, obviously, were the least of her concerns. Strahovski worried about what playing such a miserable and often angry woman would do to the child growing inside her. So she tried to separate her pregnancy from the roller coaster ride of Serena, a tumultuous journey that earned Strahovski an Emmy nomination last month.
“Some people might think this is strange,” Strahovski says over a recent lunch of ice chips and a bacon and turkey croissant sandwich. “I would envision a little safety bubble around my baby and any time I engaged in more intense scenes — well, they’re all intense, but some are more intense than others — I would just think of that safety bubble and it helped me keep it together.”
Strahovski learned she was pregnant shortly after shooting the season’s eighth episode — the one that ends with Serena’s husband, Fred (Joseph Fiennes), punishing her “rebelliousness” by lashing her 13 times with a belt. (“I’m glad we got that one in,” she says.)
Not long after that, during a break in shooting the scene in which the handmaids and wives and Marthas prepare for June’s labor (which turned out to be false), the conversation on set turned to birth stories. Strahovski pressed for details. She wanted information, though no one knew the nature of her interest.
“It was one sort of birthing horror story after another of people not making it to the hospital in time or it happening in different places and unexpected times,” Strahovski says. “It was very funny.”
But when it came to shoot the episode’s scene in which Serena holds down June so Fred can rape her (a rape outside the “normal” ceremonial sexual violation) to induce labor, Strahovski felt she needed to sit everyone down for a talk.
“For the first few weeks, I had been hiding it, but I was worried that Lizzie was going to punch me in the uterus from struggling in that scene, so, yes, that was the time to break the news,” Strahovski says.
Serena’s second-season story lines — she lost her faith in her husband and her baby, not to mention her pinkie finger — delighted Strahovski, who loved watching her icy, composed character lose her strength and ideals over the course of 13 episodes.
“I would call it the great unraveling of gangster Serena,” Strahovski says. “And it was such a special gift to me as an actress to play.”
Moss, reached by phone, recalls often talking to her costar about how to understand a character whose actions she found unfathomable.
“Yvonne is this smart, modern woman, and there were times when she just wanted to hate Serena and the choices she makes,” Moss says.
Remembering shooting that labor-inducing rape scene, Moss marvels that Strahovski managed to convey Serena’s belief that participating in this action was all for the good — or at least for Serena’s good, because that baby took precedence over everything else.
“Yet Yvonne also managed to somehow play it like it was the most terrible experience of Serena’s life and how it broke her own heart,” Moss says. “That’s really difficult terrain to navigate.”
Strahovski has already spoken to “Handmaid’s Tale” creator Bruce Miller about the upcoming third season. “I have a terrible poker face, so please don’t ask me for details,” she pleads. “But as always, know what happens is not going to be clear-cut.” She’ll have a little wiggle room after her delivery before she has to return to Toronto, baby in tow, for filming.
Meanwhile, Strahovski is hoping her little guy, who was often jumping around, showing off his limbs during the lunch conversation, will hold on until his due date so she can attend the Emmys.
“We’ll see,” she says, crunching on an ice chip. “It’s up to him.”
One thing she knows for certain: Her delivery will not include any of the trappings seen in those Gilead births.
“Can you imagine a harpist in the delivery room?” Strahovski says, laughing. “I would throw him out before he ever touched the strings.”