The Handmaid's Tale's Joseph Fiennes Says This Season is the Most 'Expansive' Yet

CUL_PS_Joseph Fiennes
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"The season is all about freedom."

If there's one word to describe the fourth season of the Hulu drama series The Handmaid's Tale, it's "freedom," says Joseph Fiennes, who plays Fred, a high-ranking commander in the dystopian world of Gilead originally created by Margaret Atwood in her 1985 novel of the same name. "This season we geographically open up, we get to see outside of Gilead. And I guess the expanse played into that wonderful paradox of freedom." The dynamics between Fred and June, played by series lead Elisabeth Moss, show just how evil Fred is. "He's a man cognizant of his actions. You read awful stories about predators who manage to persuade themselves and anyone around them that actually they're the victim. I think that's Fred." But this season the tables have turned. "He has to have a long, hard look at himself. I think it comes as close as Fred can to understanding and accepting why he's there." Like many others, The Handmaid's Tale was impacted by the pandemic, but ultimately they were able to return to create the most "expansive" season yet. "We all felt so privileged to be able to do what we love."

What first attracted you to portray such an evil character like Fred?

What first attracted me was the power of the book and Margaret Atwood's vision. Bruce Miller (creator/executive-producer) saying, "Would you like to, quote-unquote, come and play?" was a lovely invitation. Fred is so thinly sketched within the book as a character, I really needed to wait on the script to run free, but it wasn't long before I made up my mind that this was extraordinary writing and vision and compelling. I had a sense that this was really special. [Fred] is there to articulate all that is wrong with his patriarchal nightmare. It's my job to lean into where it all went wrong for Fred. That's what I love about the flashbacks, actually. That's what television does so wonderfully; we can go right back to the beginning when he wasn't so evil. He had a vision—albeit a kind of extreme totalitarian regime—but it's interesting when one's interpretation of good can go horribly wrong and just ruin the lives of others.

When you're playing a character with a dark side, is it important to you to find things you like about him?

We've maintained that Fred has been completely cognizant of the pain he's inflicted. He understands just what an awful regime and how awful a part he's played within the regime. Humanizing him is understanding that people like Fred, as we all do, can do something wrong and try to rationalize it in order to feel less bad about themselves. I kind of translate that idea into Fred, but on a much more quiet and gentle predator level. You read awful stories in magazines or news articles about predators who manage to persuade themselves and anyone around them that actually they're the victim. I think that's Fred. He's also a PR guy; it's all about the optics. He uses that when it comes to his own moral integrity. What I found is that the power of the mahogany desk, the double-breasted suit, getting away with it every time because the regime allows him to get away with it means he will always continue to step over the line. He's partly addicted to it. I think the human element is that he can see where he's going wrong, he feels bad for it, he'll apologize to his wife profusely and too often, but he'll continue to give in to the situation where he has the power to continue to abuse. But I don't think it's three-dimensional, I think he's partly horrified and wished he wasn't in that situation. But in season four, there's a sense when freedom is taken away, he has to have a long, hard look at himself between the four walls. I think it comes as close as Fred can to understanding and accepting why he's there.

The show found early success because of comparisons many made to the Trump administration. How does it stay relevant in a post-Trump era?

I mean, God, that's a big thing. That's down to our amazing writers who seem to capture the zeitgeist. Certainly, when the Congress was stormed, there was a moment in season two, when they talk about storming the capitol. As soon as that happened, I had this flashback to that scene. What became apparent was just how fragile our economy and our democracy are, and how this cautionary tale really is one where we cannot be too relaxed or go to sleep on the fact that what we have is precious and has to be protected at all costs. I don't know if that answers your question, but certainly, the parallels are startling. That was one thing that really struck me this year, but looking back over the seasons there are lots of other parallels.

Elisabeth Moss went behind the camera to direct this season. What was it like working with her as a director, considering how intense your two characters' relationship is?

I don't know if she ever sleeps [laughs]. I've just been so impressed by her work ethic. To be directed by her was just a dream. I've always loved director actors, they're complicit in the journey that we go through, the secret stresses that we hold on to. So what better person could you have navigating your character? It was gold. She's just effortless. She brings all of her extraordinary years of knowledge to the moments and the scenes you're acting in that no one else can.

This season seemed bigger and more ambitious than past seasons. Considering that, it was filmed largely during the pandemic. Was that challenging?

Everyone faced huge challenges. Just not having the ability to go back to the family and being away for months on end. We were tested three to five times a week, we have doctors, nurses, cleaners, everyone wearing a mask, it was so extraordinarily organized. Kudos to the team who allowed that to happen and how lucky we were. I think we all felt so privileged to be able to be working and do what we love. What a brilliant question about the expanse of this season, because we geographically open up, we get to see outside of Gilead and we get to concentrate on Canada. The season is all about freedom. And I guess the expanse played into that wonderful paradox of freedom. It's a wonderful system, watching the psychological ramifications of someone being free.

When you play a character like Fred, reactions from fans seem like they would be all over the place. Do you ever find yourself being like, "I'm not really like THAT!"

I think they get the conceit of my role as an actor. I get funny looks, especially somewhere I might be with my beard shaved off. I do get sort of lingering scowls and looks where people can't quite place me but they know that I'm not good. But then I get lots of people coming up and quoting the show. So it's a mixed bag. Thankfully, I've not been physically harmed on the streets [laughs].