Over the past two seasons of Hulu’s dystopian drama The Handmaid’s Tale, first-time Emmy nominee Joseph Fiennes has had the thankless job of portraying the closest thing to an archetypal villain—a man who commits endless crimes against women—at a politically charged moment when society is up in arms against just such a man.
While Season 2 offered Commander Waterford’s venomous wife Serena Joy a humanizing path, revealing some semblance of compassion, Waterford himself remained steadfast in his fundamentalist, cruel ideology. Portraying this man—a rapist who beats his own wife and allows her to be maimed—Fiennes, too, has been steadfast, working tirelessly to find ways to render the character in three dimensions, in spite of his sins.
Looking back on Season 2, Fiennes is in fact convinced that Fred’s conscience is “beginning to raise itself—but it’s conditioned in one way, and he’s battling to understand this sense of conscience that he feels.” By digging into Waterford’s backstory for the first time in Season 2, the actor was able to “prize open a bit more of Fred,” taking the first steps on a path he intends to follow through Season 3.
Reading the scripts for The Handmaid’s Tale’s second season, what were your first impressions?
I loved the journey that Offred and Serena took. It was all about birth and motherhood, with those two strong dynamic women whose stories ran parallel, and I felt that very compelling. I loved the efforts to get into understanding Serena, following her journey as a mother and really understanding how complex and haunted [she is]. She’s a despicable person, but to get the understanding of how someone becomes despicable, and their frailties, was really interesting.
Were there moments in Commander Waterford’s journey this season that you were particularly excited to explore?
I liked the backstory that we got to examine with Fred and Serena, the moment after she gets shot and how Fred was forged partly into becoming the creature that he is. There’s a moment where he shows his feminine side, his fragility, when he’s looking after her in the hospital. She shuts him down and he recoils back and represses a lot of emotions and feelings, and we see a bruised brute emerge and shoot the wife of the man that tried to take his wife. I really enjoyed getting under the skin of what makes Waterford tick.
While Season 2 humanized Serena to a great extent, Waterford remains one of the series’ true villains. What has your approach been to making this unsympathetic character three-dimensional?
It’s a tough call. The actor is always here trying to search out the nuance, trying to make him human. At the same time, I’ve been tasked with the job in many scenarios of being the face and device which our protagonists resist and fight. I would love to make their job much more difficult and complicated in seeing the antagonist much more multifaceted and dimensional, and that has been my struggle and my challenge that I throw down to the writers as much I can, and the cinematographer, in terms of finding the inner life, finding the nuance and making him complex and human, even in the face of being the monster which the protagonist has to resist.
I hope that in Season 3 we [won’t be] worrying about making him a villain because he will always be a very nasty piece of work. Now we understand that as an audience, I hope that we can trust and enjoy maybe seeing a different facet of the man that belies the truth of what we know.
Could you give your take on the evolution we’ve seen in Fred and Serena’s relationship?
I truly believe that Fred and Serena started with a love for each other. As it came apparent that they couldn’t have children, I think that began to haunt their relationship. When you introduce the rape culture and you introduce into their lives a third person going through this ceremony, I think it has a big effect on all parties and of course on their relationship. Not that we would find that important in the face of Offred and what she is suffering, but nevertheless, there is a component of that relationship between Fred and Serena which is also suffering, which is also haunted by a lack of fertility, whether it’s Fred or Serena’s. Their one dying wish would be to have a child. For Fred, as a high-ranking official in Gilead, to be able to complete that picture with a child would be a dream.
So, it’s been interesting looking at those dynamics, seeing through Season 2 the birth of a child and that child being ripped away, and the repercussions of having that dream so close and then ripped. Of course it’s a dream that has been realized through brutality, torture, and rape, so we’re not going to feel sad for the two of them. But at least we can see them with a complexity, rather than just through a villainous lens.
After Serena meets before the leaders of Gilead, why does Waterford have her maimed? Is he trying to maintain his power by disavowing his wife, or simply angered by the way in which she’s challenged his principals?
I don’t think Fred made that decision himself. I think that was made by the committee. But Fred, and we’ve seen it before, didn’t stand up and say no. So, I think it’s a mixture of feelings. There was a warning before, when she was looking after Fred’s paperwork and invited Offred into the study, and we saw the repercussions of that with the whipping, which was brutal.
I think for Fred, to see her not have learned from that experience is painful. I don’t think Fred takes any joy in exercising his power. But his main agenda is to keep the house in order, and Serena keeps jumping out of those parameters and challenging his manhood, his power. So although I don’t believe that he said, “We should chop a digit off,” or quarter of a digit, it’s just as bad he didn’t stand up and say no.
I think he’s repulsed that she had to go through that. He’s pained by it, and I also think he feels that she, however much he loves her, deserved it by shaming him, shaming herself, almost bringing about shame on other families and other wives by including them in this dangerous agenda. So, I think there’s a whole host of complex issues. I don’t think it’s black and white. I do think it’s a mixture of shame and anger, control and pity, and I think he’s lost.
What was it like filming that whipping scene with Yvonne Strahovski?
It was a brutal scene. Anyone that was on set would agree. Although you don’t see it for so long on film, what we did film didn’t all make the edit, and went on for at least an hour. I think it was 70, 100 times, although we got the message with just doing several and a close-up on Lizzy [Moss]. But I, myself, was exhausted; my arm was screwed for a week, and I felt repulsed, like I do with most of the actions I’ve had to enact on behalf of Fred. Every scene we do is kind of tainted with that level of anxiety and emotion. That one and also the rape, those were both particularly horrendous things to see, to have to film.
How do you see the Commander’s relationship to Offred at this point? It’s often in these interactions that we see a different side to him.
Fred oscillates between feeling remorseful and taking control, between brutalizing and taking pity, and this oscillation is almost like a terrorist to a victim. It keeps the power in his court. But slowly, I feel that power is slipping because the resistance is so great with Offred, and I believe that his conscience in Season 2 is pricked.
I think that he is wholly remorseful and repulsed at himself after the rape. I think there’s a moment where he catches himself, he sees himself for who he is. He’s been hiding and camouflaged behind the movement in Gilead and what it is to be a Commander; he’s been hiding behind the power and the desk and the double-breasted suits, and there are one or two moments I love in Season 2 when his conscience is pricked, whether he sees Offred after the rape, or whether with Luke, he is confronted with the reality that his Handmaid has a name, and was a wife and a mother, or whether it’s Moira confronting him, catching her eye in the limo as he goes through this very angry protest. Suddenly, his conscience comes hurtling back, even if it’s fleetingly, and I think that’s a really good basis for beginning to build to this man opening in a new way for the audience in Season 3, I hope.
It’s not uncommon for fictional characters to stir up strong—and sometimes powerfully negative—emotions for viewers. It must be interesting to be associated with this particular villain in our politically charged #MeToo era.
I think it’s a vital part of the movement and discussion that we look at characters like this, and I really have asked the writers to look at them in a way that isn’t just black-and-white villainy. There are a load of complexities that [come] with the male psyche and monsters like this, and I think it’s incumbent upon us to get stuck into the conversation. It’s part of the feminist conversation.
It’s been extraordinary to look at this character join this movement. Of course I can’t help but reference Fred with the news that I read, whether it’s in America or all parts of the world. There are aspects of Fred living with us today, so I think it’s incumbent upon us and me to take him away from the easy villain into the more complex human, and to understand what makes these monsters tick. What is it within the male psyche that goes down that hideous route? I think it’s an important dialogue to explore.
Where are you at in the process with Season 3?
I have now grown my beard, and every time I look into the mirror—although we are not in production, and probably won’t be till September at the earliest—Fred sadly is in the mirror, and beginning to emerge in the filtering of my own mind. The clock’s turning, I’ve got Fred’s beard on me, and I’m really looking forward to eight months’ time when I get to shave it off again.
I am ignorant as they come, in terms of where we might go. I’m the last to know and quite frankly, I get scripts sometimes a week before we shoot. Often those scripts are rewritten and you get the pages a day before you shoot. So although I may have a sense of the movement of the narrative that we’re about to shoot, I’m left in the dark pretty much till the last minute. I can only guess with the rest of us where this might go.