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Behind the scenes with the cast of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

June (Elisabeth Moss) and Janine (Madeline Brewer) make their escape in "The Handmaid's Tale."
(Sophie Giraud/HULU)

When the Emmy nominations were announced last month, it was no surprise that “The Handmaid’s Tale” did well across the board, pulling in 21 nods. But the fact that the Hulu drama earned 10 nominations in the acting categories alone certainly was noteworthy and maybe more than a little unexpected. Except perhaps to the folks behind the show’s casting.

“When we put this ensemble together years ago, we didn’t cast just for the pilot,” says Sharon Bialy of Bialy/Thomas & Associates, nominated (alongside Sherry Thomas and Russell Scott) for eight casting Emmys since 2014, four of them for “The Handmaid’s Tale,” including this year. “We were thinking which actor, years from now, can keep climbing, challenging the writers. That’s why this group has been recognized.”

Here we asked all 10 nominees for some insights into their characters and life on set.

ALEXIS BLEDEL
Handmaid Emily Malek
(guest actress in a drama)

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Alexis Bledel as Emily in "The Handmaid's Tale"
Alexis Bledel as Emily in “The Handmaid’s Tale”
(Jasper Savage/Hulu)

What direction would you like to see the writers move your character? To continue trying to heal, maybe finding a healthy outlet for her anger.

Tell us a secret about your character that only you know: The way her mind works on things scientifically. I think a flood of emotions is tough for her to process.

What was your most challenging scene in Season 4? The scene where Emily is forced to confront the Martha who changed the course of things for her in Gilead. 

MADELINE BREWER
Handmaid Janine Lindo
(supporting actress in a drama)

Madeline Brewer as Janine in "The Handmaid's Tale."
(Sophie Giraud/Hulu)

Tell us a secret about your character that only you know: She’s a great karaoke singer.

What was your most challenging scene in Season 4? The most challenging, rewarding, delicate, wonderful, supportive moment that was still incredibly difficult because it was like trying to put so much trauma into one little body, one little Janine, was the scene with me and Ann [Dowd as Aunt Lydia] in Episode 8.

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If you could say one thing to Margaret Atwood, what would that be? I don’t need to say anything to Margaret Atwood. She knows what she did.

ANN DOWD
Aunt Lydia Clements
(supporting actress in a drama)

Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia in "The Handmaid's Tale."
(Jasper Savage/Hulu)

What direction would you like to see the writers move your character? I want Aunt Lydia to have a wild affair with Cmdr. Lawrence.

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What was your most challenging scene in Season 4? Truth be told, the most challenging scene was all of them. Each scene, like in every season, has its own complexity. Remarkably, production made it possible for us to work in the middle of a pandemic, and we were all so grateful to be back.

Who is the funniest cast member off-screen? There are a lot of hilarious people on that set, but I’m going to say Elisabeth. The two of us have been together a long time and she cracks me up. All it takes is a look and I’m in.

O-T FAGBENLE
Luke Bankole
(supporting actor in a drama)

O-T Fagbenle as Luke in "The Handmaid's Tale."
(Sophie Giraud/HULU)
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What direction would you like to see the writers move your character? Move me to the Caribbean. Toronto winters are kind of severe, and if my character could go through his trauma while being in the sun, that would really help.

What was your most challenging scene in Season 4? In Season 3, there was a scene where Luke kind of flirts with this other woman in Canada. And it got me thinking, “Is there a part of his private life we don’t get to see? Has he been a monk?” I made one decision about a secret romantic life, but when the scene was dropped, I kind of went back to Luke’s monkish ways.

Who is the funniest cast member off-screen? Oh, I mean, take your pick. But today, I’m going to go with Amanda Brugel [former Martha Rita Blue]. She’s just hilarious. There’s actually a video on my Instagram of her rapping and dancing while in her character’s costume, which is just one of the funniest videos I’ve ever seen.

MCKENNA GRACE
Gilead wife Esther Keyes
(guest actress in a drama)

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McKenna Grace as Mrs. Keyes  in  "The Handmaid's Tale."
McKenna Grace as Mrs. Keyes in “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
(Sophie Giraud/HULU)

What direction would you like to see the writers move your character? I would just be honored to come back and have some cool scenes. It doesn’t matter to me what they are.

What was your most challenging scene in Season 4? When I was sitting there holding the knife and giving Ms. Lizzie Moss my backstory. I was honored to be able to tell a story like that of Mrs. Keyes to raise awareness, but it just hurt to imagine what women like her have to go through every day.

Who is the funniest cast member off-screen? Ms. Nina Kiri [handmaid Alma]. She’s a hoot. We always had this thing where we’d walk onto set and do “The Real Housewives of Gilead.”

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MAX MINGHELLA
Cmdr. Nick Blaine
(supporting actor in a drama)

Max Minghella as Nick Blaine in "The Handmaid's Tale."
(Sophie Giraud/Hulu)

What direction would you like to see the writers move your character? It’s been exciting to receive the script a little bit blind as to where things may go. That’s one of the parts of this process I cherish, so I wouldn’t want to lose that.

What was your most challenging scene in Season 4? We shot a scene in Episode 9, Lizzie and I, that was outside. It was absolutely freezing. I don’t do particularly well in the cold, so you can see it in my performance [laughs]. My face looks swollen by icicles. I’m just trying to breathe.

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Who is the funniest cast member off-screen? It has to be Bradley Whitford. I might be biased, because he’s probably my closest friend in the cast, but Bradley does make me laugh like no other. He’s a great storyteller, a very charismatic person. I think that sort of comes through in his performances. He’s a real movie star.

ELISABETH MOSS
June Osborne
(Lead actress in a drama)

Elisabeth Moss as June Osborne in "The Handmaid's Tale."
(Sophie Giraud/HULU)

If you could ask the writers to move your character in any one direction, what would it be? One of the things I always try to stay on top of and keep present in the character is the reality of what she’s been through and the effect that that would have on her. I have pretty strong instincts about what feels right for June and I am always making sure we remember that this is a person who has been through extreme trauma and isn’t a normal person capable of having normal experiences.

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What was your most challenging Season 4 scene? Directing the train crossing scene at the end of Episode 3! We shot it over two days and had completely different weather on both days. One day it was raining, which was great for the end of the scene when they are running, and the second day was beautiful without a cloud in the sky, which is when we shot the interior of the van. Thank God for my DP Stuart [Biddlecombe] who was able to make it match and look gorgeous.

If you could say one thing to Margaret Atwood, what would that be? Thank you. Just thank you from the bottom of my heart.

YVONNE STRAHOVSKI
Serena Joy Waterford
(supporting actress in a drama)

Yvonne Strahovski as Serena Joy Waterford in "The Handmaid's Tale."
(Sophie Giraud/Hulu)
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What direction would you like to see the writers move your character? Gain political traction in Canada as a free woman with her baby, while being tormented that June will take the baby away from her one day, given what she did to [her husband] Fred.

Tell us a secret about your character that only you know: She eats Twinkies at night. Duh.

What was your most challenging scene in Season 4? Not so much a scene, but more about navigating the relationship with Fred [Joseph Fiennes], as well as navigating the relationship with Mark Tuello [Sam Jaeger]. It was a fine line this season of political game versus interior emotions.

BRADLEY WHITFORD
Cmdr. Joseph Lawrence
(supporting actor in a drama)

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Bradley Whitford as Cmdr. Lawrence in "The Handmaid's Tale."
Bradley Whitford as Cmdr. Lawrence in “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
(Sophie Giraud/HULU)

Tell us a secret about your character that only you know: Early in his marriage, a child was lost.

Who is the funniest cast member off-screen? The way Lizzie dresses when she comes to work cracks me up because she clearly just does not care. I think people expect big-time actresses to be worried about their clothes, and Lizzie dresses like a plasma donor. I mean, she should put out a line of sexless lounge wear.

If you could say one thing to Margaret Atwood, what would that be? I always have this insecurity because I live in her world, but she never wrote my character. I guess I would ask her what I want to ask anybody who’s connected with the show or has seen the show: “Do you think I suck?”

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SAMIRA WILEY
Moira Strand
(supporting actress in a drama)

Samira Wiley as Moira in "The Handmaid's Tale."
(Sophie Giraud/HULU)

What direction would you like to see the writers move your character? In the direction of love and romance. Honestly, seeing Moira have a girlfriend this season was so nice and so sweet. I feel like Moira is so deserving.

What was your most challenging scene in Season 4? Episode 6, on the boat, when June is trying to steal a lifeboat. No. 1, Lizzie and I haven’t had a scene like that in a long time, probably since Season 1. Most of our scenes have been flashbacks. But also, we were on a crazy boat in the middle of the night, in the middle of Lake Ontario. It was freezing cold. We were 30 minutes away from any shore. There was so much wind. It was so choppy… It was pretty intense.

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If you could say one thing to Margaret Atwood, what would that be? Margaret Atwood used to write on my Instagram sometimes [using] emojis. Having someone who’s such a great writer use emojis, I just felt there was so much meaning behind that. Since then, new emojis have come out. I really want to ask Margaret, “What’s your favorite new emoji?”


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