Like the character she plays in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Yvonne Strahovski’s early motherly instincts were tested by a raging fire.
“We were holding our breath for a while because our son had just been born and here was this threat,” she says while nestled in a cafe nook that overlooks the Malibu shore not far from her home.
She’s thinking back to a windy November night last year, about four weeks after she had given birth, when the Woolsey fire was setting its destructive course inside the city limits.
“I didn’t know there was a fire, but I was breastfeeding my son all night long, and I remember getting up and going outside to look over the hills and I just had a really bad feeling,” she says with her Australian lilt unconcealed. “And, sure enough, the next morning, our neighbor knocked on our door and said we had to evacuate. There we were, still trying to figure out what the hell we were doing with a baby, how to be parents, having to pack it all up.”
It’s a strikingly different scenario than the one that unfolded in the Season 2 finale of Hulu’s dystopian drama, but no less emotionally charged.
In that case, a house in Gilead — the show’s brutal patriarchal base — is set ablaze as a distraction to enable June/Offred (Elisabeth Moss), the show’s central handmaid, to try to get her newborn out of the horrors of Gilead and into the safety of Canada.
In the process, she is stopped by Strahovski’s at times monstrous, at times sympathetic character, Serena Joy Waterford, the baby’s mother by forcible adoption and rape. In an emotionally charged scene, Serena says goodbye to the baby she’s long coveted and allows June to flee with her from the oppressive republic she helped forge.
“It’s been interesting,” Strahovksi says of how her real life journey into motherhood is converging with her character’s. “I think so much of motherhood is putting yourself aside, putting aside all your fears and all your selfishness and all your flaws and giving the best self to your child. I think Serena did that at the end of the season. It took her a big, long journey to learn how to do it, but she did it.”
On this slightly overcast day in Malibu, Strahovski is more genial than the often miserable and hardened character that earned her an Emmy nomination last year. She gets animated when she spots an orange starfish adhered to a pillar of the nearby boardwalk — “I have scoured this beach so many times,” she recounts. “I have so many shells at home from here.”
She’s been back home just a couple of days from wrapping production on the show in Canada. And continuing Serena’s evolution into Season 3, she says with hindsight, was a complicated undertaking. The actress gave birth to her son in October, about two weeks after her due date. That meant her planned eight-week maternity leave was cut to roughly six weeks. Production on the show was well underway, with Strahovski playing catch-up to shoot scenes that feature her character.
I think so much of motherhood is putting yourself aside ... I think Serena did that at the end of [last] season.
“It’s really weird because I love my job and I love what I do and, of course, I wanted to come back to work and continue playing this crazy-amazing character,” she says. “But at the same time, I was devastated knowing that I would go back to work and have to spend any bit of time away from him.”
She’s quick, though, to acknowledge it was hardly a dystopian nightmare. Her husband, actor and producer Tim Loden, and son came to work every day, and she continued to breastfeed on demand: “There were times, obviously, where I couldn’t break away,” she says. “I had to pump and send the milk to the trailer and my husband would feed him. But we did it as a family, we did it together — the dog came too!”
Still, the juxtaposition of her mostly joyous real-life motherhood journey and her tumultuous fictional one was something Strahovski worried about.
“That was the one thing I was actually unsure about,” Strahovski says. “I spend so much time in front of the camera being really miserable. So I’d be going from super miserable, then total joy going back to breastfeed. And then back to misery and then back to joy — every hour or two hours. Normally, I would just stay in that misery to keep myself in the zone. So it was a very different working process.”
After a while, she elected to lean into pulling from her own emotions.
“Unlike Season 2, where I really tried to separate my pregnancy from what I was doing, I think this time around I really used it,” she says of the new season. “I got a lot of inspiration from all the new-mom feels I was experiencing. Given Serena’s situation, having just let go of what she believes is her baby, coming into a very emotional story line after where we left her last season, it really worked for me to have all that going on in my personal life.”
[Yvonne] digs around in that stuff, in her character, in those little moments until she finds absolutely everything.
Bruce Miller, the series’ showrunner and executive producer, said it’s all made for a powerful performance in Serena’s journey to understanding what it means to be a mother this season. After an arc last year that saw Serena lose her faith in her husband and the society they helped create — losing a pinkie finger in the process — the new episodes see the character continue to mine her internal conflict. Viewers also will be introduced to Serena’s mother.
Miller points to a scene that unfolds midway through the first episode of this season, which airs Wednesday. June/Offred has returned to the Waterford’s home, sans baby, and Serena is consumed with anger that transitions to all-consuming anguish.
“It’s the most remarkable piece of acting you’ll ever see,” Miller said by phone. “That, to me, was the most pivotal moment for her character this season amongst a lot of them. That’s Yvonne. She digs around in that stuff, in her character, in those little moments until she finds absolutely everything. It’s a remarkable thing to see on television, but it’s even more remarkable to see in real life.”
While growing up in Sydney, Strahovski would grab her dad’s “brick-like” video camera and make up shows to film with her friends. Strahovski’s parents — her dad, an electronic engineer, and her mom, a lab technician — are from Warsaw but moved to Australia, where she was born and raised.
By her early 20s, Strahovski was doing commercial work and appearing in film and television roles there, including the 2004 drama series “Headland.” By 2007, she landed her first U.S. series, costarring in NBC’s goofy spy comedy “Chuck.” She says she hadn’t set out to break out in the States — it was more of an accident.
“I think I had six different rental cars and moved five times. I just lived out of a suitcase for that whole first year, not really knowing what was going to happen.”
Zachary Levi, her former costar on “Chuck,” described Strahovski as much sillier than her current role would have one believe — he teased that she had a penchant for belching on the “Chuck” set — and that she was known to be accident-prone. Her work ethic, however, was no-nonsense.
“She would come to work — I would give her [a hard time] for this — with her scripts so incredibly noted,” Levi said by phone. “She’d have little tabs and things and circled bits here and wrote thoughts in the margins. I would always tell her, ‘You make me feel like the laziest actor in the world.’”
She went on to build a notable list of credits: She played a serial killer’s accomplice on “Dexter,” a CIA agent on Fox’s revival “24: Live Another Day” and made her Broadway debut in the 2012 revival of the Clifford Odets boxing drama “Golden Boy.” She talks fondly of them all, describing them as bridges to “The Handmaid’s Tale.” (And it was recently announced she’ll have a role in a new Australian TV drama, “Stateless,” about four strangers in an immigration detention center that is produced by and starring Cate Blanchett.)
It’s Serena who is top of mind these days as Strahovski tries to understand what has led her character down such a frightful path and whether there’s room for redemption.
“It all comes down to feeling those emotional scars and her choices to survive,” the actress reasons. “I’ve really found that a lot of her choices were based off her own survival. She doesn’t really have much left for herself, so she wants this baby and she’ll do anything for that baby, at the expense of others.”
For Strahovski, though, imagining what decisions she would make if she were in that situation is too much to fathom.
“I don’t even want to think about it,” she says. “I can’t even watch movies or anything to do with children now that I have my son. I just can’t bear the thought.”
‘The Handmaid’s Tale’
When: Any time, starting Wednesday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)