Joseph Fiennes: The Handmaid's Tale is about female voices full of resistence

With series two of dystopian drama The Handmaid's Tale hitting our screens in the midst of the #MeToo movement, star Joseph Fiennes can't ignore how timely it feels. He chats to Georgia Humphreys about the hit show

Joseph Fiennes as Commander Waterford in The Handmaid's Tale, with onscreen wife Serena, played by Yvonne Strahovski

IT HAS won countless awards, has prompted conversations about women's rights, and a season three is already confirmed – it's fair to say The Handmaid's Tale has struck a chord with audiences around the world.

The critically acclaimed first series, starring Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss, followed life in the dystopia of Gilead – a totalitarian society in what was formerly part of the United States – as depicted in the 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood.

We already know the second series, which began last night, goes beyond Atwood's narrative, but will continue to show the struggle to survive of women who have become property of the state – the handmaids – in a world where a rape culture is the norm.

For star Joseph Fiennes, it's hard to ignore the irony of returning to play Commander Fred Waterford – a "predator", he calls him – in light of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein, and the #MeToo movement that has followed.

"I think the big takeaway from the show is inspirational female voices full of resistance," he says. "So, there are great parallels, great irony. When I pick up a paper where I read about certain males and what they perpetrate, I can't help but think of Fred, and think about men in high positions of power where they feel they are untouchable."

Here, the 47-year-old Shakespeare in Love and Enemy At The Gates actor tells us about what's in store for season two.


For those not sure how Gilead came about, here's the background. With the US facing environmental disasters and a plunging birth rate, a fundamentalist regime took over and decided to try and repopulate the world by forcing fertile woman into sexual servitude.

Fred, one of the men in power, has a handmaid named Offred (brilliantly played by Moss) and her purpose in life is now to give him and his wife Serena a child.

Season one ended (spoiler alert) with Offred pregnant – but we know the father is actually Fred's chauffeur Nick, played by Max Minghella.

And in the new series, there is a huge focus on Offred's fight to free her future child from the dystopian horrors of Gilead.

"This is the first time I've done a season two," reveals Fiennes, whose other TV credits include American Horror Story and Camelot. "It's remarkable how when you are in the room with your fellow cast members and you've got a whole year of work behind you, it's all there. All the moments, all the memories."


By intertwining telling and chilling flashbacks, we get to see some of the characters going about their daily lives before the government collapsed, and the religious group took over to create Gilead.

Asked if he's come up with more of a backstory for Fred, Fiennes says: "I think he's probably come from a good home and a nourished town, but I've always had the sense that he is a man [who believes he] is doing good for the world.

"It might be militant, it might be fanatical in some people's minds, but for him, it's redressing the moral decay, the imbalance."

There is another thing Fiennes keeps in mind when performing the role.

"Part of the journey and the fight for me is making Fred at least cognisant of his actions," he notes. "There's a moment [in season two] when he goes to Canada, he's outside of the protected zone of Gilead, and there are great movements and protests which he cannot help but recognise and hear. So the truth becomes a lot more relevant and prevalent."


In fact, all of the commanders – who are the highest ranking members of Gileadean society – have to face up to truths in the new episodes.

"What's interesting about season two is there's this explosion, so we see the vulnerability that the commanders are now having to take on board, in terms of how the least powerful person in the room could potentially be a terrorist," explains Fiennes.

We will also see a huge power struggle between Fred and Nick, as he susses out that his employee must be the father of Offred's child.

"Fred decides to keep his enemies closer to his chest rather than further away," father-of-two Fiennes says.

"Rather than exact punishment or have him expelled from the house, he really lays down a contract, which is: You'll get a wife, you'll get the opportunities to maybe rise through the ranks of Gilead... and you will never mention that you might have any paternity towards this child."


Trump being President of the US, and the issue of fake news comes up, and Fiennes is asked if he could see the terrifying world of The Handmaid's Tale becoming our reality one day.

"I think that there are great parallels to draw from the current north American administration," he muses.

"But going back to when the book was written 30 years ago, I think those parallels were all there at that moment. And so I think, sadly, you can go through history and look at parallels.

"I think we should point fingers at Trump and the administration, but it's not the only area in which to be concerned."

The creator of the show, Bruce Miller, and the executive producer, Warren Littlefield, have discussed how they took some inspiration from the Brexit vote when they were creating the on-screen version of Gilead.

What are Fiennes' thoughts on that?

"I think the effects of Brexit, we're still gonna feel for many years to come. That sense of polarisation that is based on fear, fear of immigration... all the fear that has been thrown into that movement is just appalling.

"If you look at the actual statistics about immigration, they are so low, they are so not impactful. But of course, it's a fearful calling card when someone wants to come into power."

:: The Handmaid's Tale is on Channel 4, Sundays. Catch up on 4OD

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