Beloved by legions of fans for her turns in lighter fare—most notably, Gilmore Girls and the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series—Alexis Bledel has broken new ground with Hulu’s dystopian series The Handmaid’s Tale, evoking the ferocity of an unwoman scorned.
In Season 1, Bledel’s handmaid Emily displayed a strong, rebellious spirit—working with secret resistance group Mayday to bring Gilead down. In Season 2, Emily is forced to atone for her sins, banished to the radioactive nightmare that is The Colonies.
A peripheral figure in the acclaimed series’ first season, it’s in Season 2 that Bledel gets her time to shine, demonstrating the full complexity of a woman torn between compassion and futile rage, with new backstory provided to allow for extra dimension.
For Bledel, the biggest challenge with Handmaid’s has been to tap in fully to her character’s arc, charting the nuanced emotional progression of an unpredictable character over time. “While each scene is a different combination of things in each time and place, she’s got a different amount of trauma piled on,” the Emmy winner says. “So, it was about piling that on, or taking it off accordingly.”
What were your first impressions when you read the scripts for Season 2?
The scripts for Season 2 were thrilling to read. Without the book as a source this year, most of the story was our writers’ own—though there were some moments from the book we didn’t get into Season 1 that have been incorporated into this season. So, it was great to see how that was done. Questions about what happened to Emily were answered, more fully than I could’ve imagined, with the inclusion of her backstory, alongside the scenes in the colonies.
Was it exciting to get a glimpse into Emily’s former life this season?
Yes, it took time to wrap my head around the scope of her journey, even in the second episode alone. It did almost feel like a loss to me, to know that she decides to take justice into our own hands, knowing how strong she’s been up until that point under such enormous duress. But I soon realized as part of her continued fight under those circumstances, after the trauma she’s endured, she’s reached a breaking point, and has taken on a mission as if she’s some sort of vigilante soldier, a lone wolf.
In dramatic terms, what did you read into the revelation that Emily was a cellular biologist in her former life? What light does that shed on the character?
I think a lot about the way she’s always puzzling in her mind, trying to put all the pieces together. At first when we meet her, she’s doing that on behalf of Mayday, trying to find different routes for escape, or different bits of information she can collect, everywhere she is allowed to go. This season, she’s actually doing that less in The Colonies, because she knows it’s the end. But her knowledge of cellular biology allows her to tend to those worse off, and ease their pain in their last days. It’s just something she knows how to do. I think she’d rather do that then whatever else she could. It keeps her busy.
For you, with Emily, what has been the theme or the through line of the season?
We see her briefly as a mother, having to say goodbye to her child, which is a pretty harrowing moment to flash back to, and one that she’d carry with her throughout her time in Gilead and The Colonies. I’m sure it’s a motivating force at some points in the really torturous truth of her life that she’s always brought back to, in her own mind and her emotions. So, that’s one through line that’s always there.
Physically and emotionally, Emily is put through the ringer this season in The Colonies, a space contaminated by pollution and radioactive waste. Were you nervous or excited to take on this aspect of your arc, and the physicality it entailed?
I love the challenge of the role. The physical challenge of shooting in The Colonies just required a commitment to withstanding the elements for a week or so, alongside all the women who were in those scenes. There was some cold, and some mud, and we had a light snow tornado one day to walk through. It was challenging for a day of acting, but it’s nothing compared to what a handmaid would be forced to endure. So it was easy, keeping that in mind. It felt important to depict the physical and emotional effects of the place on the women, as fully and truthfully as possible, to do justice not only to the characters, but any women who suffer in real life. We had to put ourselves through a little bit to do that, but one week of that is nothing compared to what it would actually be. It also looks much worse than it was in actuality.
Can you describe your first experience of The Colonies, as created on set?
Driving up the hill staged as The Colonies, it looked bleak, as I’d imagined. But the scale of it was so vast. I mean, the production value this year was huge. I didn’t imagine that parts of it would also look idyllic on one hand, while actually toxic underneath. That juxtaposition makes it even harder to stomach Emily’s time there. It was easy to imagine it being brutal for her to be in that place, going through what she’s going through.
Has it been difficult to inhabit Emily’s dark psychological space for extended periods?
I’m able to shake it off, only because it’s so far removed from my reality, and the story is so precisely outlined, in terms of what Emily is experiencing. The way Bruce [Miller] writes it and can explain it to me, all the pieces fit in their place. Just as Emily would try to figure them out, he has them lined up for me, so that makes it pretty doable. It’s also limited, the time that I spend actually in character. It’s really like a couple days a month; it’s not an extended period of time. If I had to do that, I think I would be more challenged by the darkness of it.
While you’ve been apart from much of the series’ principal cast for most of this season, you’ve spent a lot of time with Madeline Brewer’s Janine, a character whose response to the trauma of her situation couldn’t be more different from Emily’s.
Yeah, they’re almost like magnets that repel. Madeline was so great to work with this season. She makes such strong, interesting choices as Janine that are always really fun to play against. She’s easygoing, and lovely to work with. But Janine is so deeply interesting. She’s such a great character. It did feel like this season, they’re in total opposition, she and Emily, and yet they form this bond. Because they know each other from Gilead, it’s such a relief to see a familiar face.
In Episode 2, “Unwomen,” you shared compelling scenes with guest star Marisa Tomei, who portrayed a disgraced Wife. What stood out about your experience with her?
The scenes I shared with Marissa Tomei were really charged with each woman’s own internal conflict, as well as the fact that you’d never expect to see those two characters interacting the way that they do in that setting. But in a way, there’s more freedom in The Colonies. In their final days there, when they’re not hard at work, nearly anything goes for these women. So, it’s interesting to see what comes out. Marissa brought such incredible weight to her character’s conflict. It’s almost as if she were at war with herself, while serene and perfect on the exterior.
In your mind, where is Emily at, psychologically? She has a profound anger within her, and yet she also shows compassion for those in similar circumstances.
She’s a character who has a really deep sense of justice. I think what she is able to keep with her is a real awareness that what is happening to her, what has happened to her in Gilead, and what is happening to her in The Colonies is not right. Because she knows that to her core, she’s able to hold onto a center point that keeps her grounded in something. That being said, she has been pushed to a breaking point and decided to take justice into our own hands. She is very fragile, but by nature, incredibly strong.
I think that in both ways, she’s trying to make it right. She’s trying to tend to the sick, because she knows that they shouldn’t be in this situation. They deserve to have some comfort in their final days, and she knows how to provide that, so she’s going to do it. And on the flip side of that, she’s doling out justice. In her mind, she is making things right. That’s clearly a departure from a healthy person’s point of view. She’s made a choice that this is what she’s going to do, and this is how she’s going to do it, and it’s extreme.
Was there a scene in Season 2 that was particularly satisfying for you?
For me, the flashback seeing her at her best— teaching, thriving in her professional life, in her home life—was satisfying. It was getting to show how amazing she was before it was all taken away from her so brutally.
While you’ve done a broad range of work in film and television, you’re still well known for performances in projects like Gilmore Girls, which are less intensely dramatic. Has it been exciting to depart so decisively from roles of this nature?
It’s really exciting to take on this work. I always have looked for the best challenge, I guess, that I could take on. I haven’t been producing my own work or anything like that, so I’ve taken the jobs that look most interesting that come my way. So this is incredible for me.
This character gives me so much to think about and analyze as I’m working, which is really creatively rewarding. I love the challenge of it, and I definitely look for more of a challenge as I go on. It’s great having more time, after doing this for a while, to know what is a challenge you want to take on, that’s right for you, and what’s maybe not so much in your reach, or not as interesting to you at that time. Being able to identify that takes time, I think. It did for me.
Outside of The Handmaid’s Tale, is there anything specific that you’d like to try as an actor?
I think about different things. I like period pieces. I like going back in time; I’d like to go back further in time. I think that’s a similar challenge, in the sense that you have many layers to apply to the character. It gives a lot to think about. Generally, I’m just focused on Handmaid’s Tale. But I’m happy to try a wider range of things now, I think, than I have been before. But I’m still seeing what comes my way, seeing what grabs me.