In the first episode of Hulu’s adaption of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Janine (Madeline Brewer) has her eye removed to get her to cooperate with her new subservient existence. Over the course of the show’s five released seasons, Janine has endured a lot, including the birth of a child she wasn’t allowed to keep and numerous losses in her immediate vicinity. Yet she retains a certain optimism about the world, one which she’s determined to survive to see in whatever way she still can.
Awards Radar had the chance to speak with Brewer, who does in fact still have both of her eyes, about connecting with Janine and the many talented performers she’s had the chance to share scenes with throughout the show’s run.
Q: It’s very jarring to see you with two eyes.
A: Yeah, I get that a lot actually.
Q: Does that get annoying after a while?
A: No, I mean, I’m happy to see me with two eyes too!
Q: This show is so good, but it’s also so emotionally draining. Is that a big part of portraying the role?
A: No, it’s not for me. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had. They do say that about working in a heavy drama, usually they’re the lightest and most fun sets to be on, because everyone’s always trying to break the tension of it, and if you’re going to be portraying something as harrowing as the kind of things that we portray on The Handmaid’s Tale, you really want to have a laugh between takes.
Q: What do you relate to most about Janine?
A: Janine is my girl! Janine is like my long-lost sister. I think the thing I relate to most is her humor, her ability to find a way to just sneak in something kind of silly and lighten the mood at any given moment, even the most tense times.
Q: Do you think she’s changed over the course of the show’s five seasons so far?
A: Oh my gosh, like day and night. Where these writers, these brilliant writers, have taken Janine and where they’ve let me play with her, and grow as a woman alongside her. It’s been the best part of my life, is growing up with her.
Q: Has there been anything particularly challenging for you to relate to about her?
A: I think I can be a really headstrong person. I can be very opinionated and loud about it sometimes. Playing some of those earlier seasons of Janine where she was very meek and very small and quiet and scared a lot was hard for me. But also to just tap into that part of myself, the part of myself where I let myself be scared. In Janine, I was allowed to do a lot of things that I didn’t allow myself to do in my real life. I was allowed to experience all of them within Janine.
Q: Is there a lot that’s not on the page that you add to the performance?
A: Yeah, I think that’s just kind of how it goes, you know? Eric Tuchman writing a line for Janine is going to write a little bit of it at least with Eric. And I’m not going to bring Eric, I’m going to bring Maddie.
Q: There was something very satisfying, but also sort of scary, because you know that there will surely be consequences, about the season five finale when Janine finally speaks up. What was it like filming that intense scene?
A: It was great. It was also great because Lizzie directed it. We talked a lot, especially in this past season, and bits and pieces of season four, about how Janine is letting is letting her June voice come out. The voice that she’s learned from her friend June, she is allowing it to come through her and to step into that power more, and to be a leader, and to be bold and unafraid in the way that June was. So to play that, and then to play it with Lizzie directing and then with Ann, it was one of those moments. It’s like, my gosh, we’ve done this for so long, and we still get to explore and grow together.
Q: What kind of working relationship do you have with an actress like Ever Carradine, who plays Naomi?
A: I love Ever. I do. I love Ever, she’s a friend. She’s a good friend of mine and a wonderful confidante and friend and coworker and peer. I had that kind of feeling in season one when I was doing, I believe it’s episode two, when I give birth to Charlotte, and then they immediately whisk her away and give her to Ever. And the first moment I met Ever was in rehearsal for that scene. And we didn’t even get to do like a hello, it was kind of chaotic. And the next thing I know, she’s sitting behind me on the birthing stool, and I was like, who is this bitch? And then it was just wonderful. A wonderful friendship blossomed, and I let a little bit of the character seep in. I love Ever. Wonderful, wonderful woman. Wonderful mother.
Q: In every interview I’ve ever seen with Ann Dowd, she seems like the gentlest and loveliest person. I think Janine sort of sees her Aunt Lydia in that way, somehow with the twisted world that everything is. What is it like working with her and having to have that dynamic?
A: It’s fun because it’s safe. Ann is like a family member to me. I love her that much. So I just feel safe in exploring Janine with her, and then also, just as an actor, getting to watch her work is beyond any school or experience I could ever have hoped to get. I deeply love Ann as a human being and as an artist, and as a woman and as a mother. It is hard for me when people say, oh god, Aunt Lydia is the worst! I wish when Ofglen had pushed her down the stairs, I wish she had died then, and I’m like, don’t say that about my sweet Ann!
Q: I’ve also been very impressed with McKenna Grace, who plays Esther, and that relationship, especially from the start of it, has been so interesting to watch. What is it like watching her as an actress and working with her?
A: She has this thing behind her eyes. She’s like the sweetest girl ever, but she’s such a pro. She takes herself seriously at work. She really does. But she’s also just a fun kid. I mean, she’s sixteen. Oh my god, is she almost seventeen? How many years has it been? Her birthday is in June, so it’s soon. But she’s still a kid. Let her be a kid. But she does have this thing behind her eyes that can come over her that’s so perfect for Esther. I just love watching her work. I love being in a scene with her and seeing how she’ll maneuver that Estherism in and out of it. I get to work with like the best actors ever. I do. I’m just very blessed.
Q: In such a large cast like this, who have you not gotten a chance to work with yet and you would love to see Janine somehow interact with?
A: I love O-T. He’s just a buddy of mine. I haven’t really shared space with him on the show. I’ve gotten to be a little bit with Yvonne. I would love to have like a scene with Yvonne, that would just be amazing. Also, Bradley. We pass each other, really, but there are so many great actors, Sam Jaeger, Amanda Brugel. I’ve gotten to be around her at the end of season three. But it’s like, how are we ever going to get all of these people together? Max! Samira I got to be with in the first season and then she just went to Toronto and I never saw her again. There’s everybody. I would say Joseph, but he’s dead.
Q: I’m thinking about some of the action scenes – I don’t know if that’s the right term – that Chicago episode and then also just playfully running away from Aunt Lydia when they’re trying to get away? How do those scenes feel as compared with some of the more dramatic conversational material?
A: It was kind of fun to be out in the world. It was definitely fun to be in jeans and a beanie, a tuc, if you will. Yeah, it was really fun just to see a whole different side. The big production of it, especially in those scenes in Chicago, I mean, I knew it was going to happen and I was thoroughly weeping. Oh god, after the explosion, don’t get me started. But I do like the very intimate stuff, I do, because it was really fun actually to do, this past season in the hospital bed, when Janine kind of comes at Aunt Lydia more. That’s her embracing the June and also just embracing the circumstances of her life, and finally, a moment where Janine isn’t masking for safety. She just doesn’t care anymore. That was really fun. I got to yell at Ann.
Q: I don’t know how much of season six has been finished or what you know. I don’t want to get anyone in trouble, but how do you feel audiences will respond to whatever’s next?
A: I have no idea what is happening! I’d love to know. I’d love for our writers to get paid what they deserve so that they can write it and I can know what happens. But, no, I feel very confident that we’re in good hands and that Janine is in good hands.
Q: What would you like to see from Janine, if you were writing season six. What would happen with her next?
A: I have my theories. I won’t speculate. If you had asked me this two seasons ago, I would have said that I want her to take Charlotte and just get out. And I do still want that, but I have a soft spot for Ever and for Naomi. Me, Maddie, speaking, I want her to get the hell out. Since that’s what Janine wants, I want that for Janine.
Q: What else are you working on that in the meantime while we’re waiting for season six?
A: I am out about an hour and a half southwest of London getting prepared to shoot an indie out here. And then I go to Dublin to shoot another, and then Handmaid’s Tale! I’m really just staying busy. Also prepared to strike if necessary! So a lot is up in the air! I’m doing what I love, which is to work.
Seasons one through five of The Handmaid’s Tale are streaming on Hulu.