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On a set visit to The Handmaid's Tale in advance of its third season, Johanna Schneller talks to a cast and crew stunned by the show's prophetic urgency
Special to The Globe and Mail

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Saturday, June 8, 2019 – Page R1

When you picture The Handmaid's Tale, you think red robes, but the scene being shot this Friday night at Toronto's Casa Loma is a sea of green and white: 54 actresses in teal ball gowns waltzing with their tuxedoed partners to a live string quartet.

Curtains of white lights, banks of green plants, stands of white candles. Just outside the action, a smoke machine pumps, a camera on a dolly slides behind the musicians and a Steadicam operator performs his strange ballet.

It's the middle of shooting for Season 3 of the award-scooping, smash-hit series, and this ball is set in the epicentre of Gilead power, Washington. Commander Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) is climbing the theocratic ladder, his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski), gliding alongside him. (The scene begins with Serena composing her face into blank agreeableness, at which Strahovski is chillingly good.) What goes on in D.C.

makes Boston, the usual setting of the show, look like a pyjama party: The commanders are more outwardly pious yet more privately decadent. All women wear veils - or worse, some have their lips pierced shut. And the Washington Monument has been transformed into a giant cross.

Since its premiere two years ago, The Handmaid's Tale has been blessed - cursed - with extraordinary relevance. Season 1 captured a warning of extreme conservative politics just as Donald Trump settled into the White House and Brexit cast its anti-immigrant pall.

As people began to realize that Year 2 of the Trump administration was even tougher to live with than Year 1, Season 2 of Handmaid's escalated as well. And now, as some U.S. states crack down on women's freedom and the fundamentals of democracy are under attack, Season 3 is about fighting back.

It begins 10 minutes after where Season 2 ended, with our hero, June (Elisabeth Moss), handing off her baby, Nicole, and returning to Gilead. June has a new commander, Joseph Lawrence (Bradley Whitford), whose morality is murky: Although he seems sympathetic, he's one of the architects of Gilead. (Whitford likens him to Robert McNamara, who systematized mass killing in the Vietnam War.)

June also has a new side hustle - she joins the resistance - and a new mantra: Blessed be the fight.

Two days before the shoot at Casa Loma, I spend the afternoon at the series' home base, a vast Toronto sound stage. The giant costume department is awash in teal - the colour worn by Commanders' wives - as seamstresses sew sequins onto satin and tulle for that forthcoming ball scene.

(The production makes almost all of its own costumes. For the Handmaids' capes, it ordered so much crimson wool from Parker Brothers Textile Mills in Trenton, Ont., that the mill named the colour Off Red, after Moss's character.)

In one corner, milliners craft dozens of teal fascinators: Tiaras, pillboxes, feathers, rosettes. Two oversized dyeing vats are splashed with teal streaks. In the production office, the refrigerator is plastered with photos and drawings of Handmaids - including one of Trump in a white bonnet captioned, "Ofputin."

It's Feb. 27, Michael Cohen is testifying before U.S. Congress, and every cast member who drops by or phones in to speak with me comments on the uncomfortable confluence of their show with current events. The production has just returned from a massive location shoot at the Lincoln Memorial in real Washington, where 200 extras dressed as Handmaids - CGI will multiply them into more - lined up on the National Mall. Visitors crowded around, unsure if it was the show or a protest. Fiennes delivered his lines on the very step where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I have a dream" speech. It made the actor feel ill.

Moss and Strahovski spent the morning filming inside the memorial, "just me, Yvonne, the camera operator and Lincoln," Moss says by phone. (Spoiler alert: When the show airs, the statue won't be Lincoln.) "To be there, shooting this possible future, in that costume, while my President was a mile away, making decisions that seem really Gileadian - you can't even call it a once-in-a-lifetime experience, because nobody gets to do this.

"[Handmaid's] came along at a time when we were all woken up a little bit by the changes in the world," Moss continues. "I consider it a gift to offer strength and inspiration to the audience, to give people a sense that they're being heard, that we're not shying away from real things that are happening. June represents so many of us: anyone who's dealing with adversity or injustice, who's not able to be who they want to be, or not able to live freely as who they truly are."

June will spend most of this season in her new home, Commander Lawrence's house. The set spreads across two separate areas of the sound stage - "downstairs" here, "upstairs" there - with removable ceilings so cameras can shoot from above, and space beneath for plumbing (June likes her baths).

Commander Lawrence has refined tastes - his Martha is a gourmet chef - and the leaders of Gilead can loot whatever they want from museums. So the main floor is chockablock with books, sculptures, William Morris-style patterned wallpaper, mid-20th-century furnishings and famous paintings: A Vermeer in the kitchen, a Group of Seven in the foyer and, most intriguingly, a Georgia O'Keefe vulva-flower in the Commander's otherwise austere, Soviet-style office.

"Bradley and I had a long discussion about this set," Elisabeth Williams, the production designer, says. Commander Lawrence designed the Gilead economy, with all of its classes (Marthas, Handmaids, Aunts) and labour systems (the radioactive Colonies). We learn that his wife, whom he adores, views his work as a crime against humanity. "So he wanted one piece of art that throws us back to, 'Who is he?' " The character's motives may be muddy - as Whitford puts it, "He's not morally static. He's in play" - but Whitford's politics are loud and clear. He's an often angry, but always empathetic liberal voice on Twitter.

"This show is a reminder that you constantly have to be vigilant," he says by phone. "It took Donald Trump, this spraytanned, trust-fund Mafioso, for the progressives in the U.S. to see that they can't take women's access to health care for granted.

The reason our show has struck a chord and is so terrifying, is that it gets to a horrible truth: The reptilian brain stem of the rightwing ideology in the U.S. is misogyny. It's not a bug in the system, it's the feature."

Another wall of Commander Lawrence's office is occupied by an oversized acrylic map of Gilead. Alaska and Hawaii are the only remaining states. Arrows indicate exit routes into Quebec and Ontario.

"And we assume, Manitoba," Williams says, adding how the show has used real refugees' experiences as models for characters who cross the border.

A big chunk of Season 3 is set in Little America - the Toronto neighbourhood of refugees who've fled Gilead - where June's husband, Luke (O.T. Fagbenle), and her best friend, Moira (Samira Wiley), will struggle to keep baby Nicole as she becomes a pawn in Canada/Gilead relations.

(The scenes of Canadian kindness always make me cry.)

"It's something we're all dealing with, everywhere," says Fagbenle, who was born in England to an Anglo-Irish mother and a Yoruba father who was barred from returning to Nigeria. "What is our responsibility to humans who are having a tough time in their own countries? Luke isn't a commando; he can't put on a backpack and hike into Gilead and save everyone. That's the reality for most refugees. That's an undercutting thing for a human to deal with."

Also undercutting: Luke learns that Nicole's father is not Waterford, but Nick, Waterford's driver (Max Minghella). "That's a journey itself," Fagbenle says.

"How long do you keep the candle in the window? What if June prefers Nick? What if she's changed irreconcilably? She's stronger than he is, which he admires and loves. But it also makes him insecure."

One of the problems of toxic masculinity is how it makes men who aren't toxic feel weak. Handmaid's recognizes and explores that.

As well, the compelling love/ hate relationship between June and Serena Joy will continue to heat up and twist around. Warren Littlefield, the show's executive producer, calls it "one of the most fascinating relationships in TV."

Even in the midst of shooting Season 3, Littlefield can't help but speculate about Season 4 (the man once ran NBC, after all).

"There is talk about the coming U.S. election, and how that might influence our story," he says. "And Margaret Atwood's next book, Testaments, is set 15 years after The Handmaid's Tale, so we talk about when it will be appropriate to hand off the ball.

We look at all the events taking place in the world: rebellions, wars, systems of government that are collapsing and rising. We're not MSNBC; we're a political thriller. But every year, we've been swept up in the need for our show to confront chilling realities." He doesn't see that changing any time soon.

That's why, when fans tell Moss that Handmaid's is too dark or hard to watch, "I get my hackles up a little," she says.

"If you can't face our show, which isn't real, then how are you going to face what's actually happening in the world? It's important to hold that mirror up to ourselves and try to get people to face what's going on. Before it's too late."

Special to The Globe and Mail The Handmaid's Tale premieres June 9 at 9 p.m ET on Bravo.

Associated Graphic

Two hundred extras dress as Handmaids - with CGI adding even more - at the National Mall in Washington for a scene in The Handmaid's Tale.


Elisabeth Moss stars as June, the lead character in Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale. For Moss, the character 'represents so many of us: anyone who's dealing with adversity or injustice, who's not able to be who they want to be, or not able to live freely as who they truly are.'

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