Joseph Fiennes laughs when prompted to identify any redeemable qualities in the rather profane character he portrays in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Now in its fourth season, the Emmy award–winning television series based on author Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel of the same name is set in a dystopian world called Gilead, where fertile women are deemed “handmaids” and subject to child-bearing slavery. Fiennes plays the nearly universally disliked Commander Fred Waterford opposite Elisabeth Moss.
Over the course of the series, Fiennes has always been aware of the passion that viewers have toward his character, making the redeemable qualities hard to find. “Most actors would probably tell you that they look for the virtue even within the most unvirtuous character and concentrate on that, because you’ve got to have some sense of likability or connection with a role,” Fiennes says. “What I feel is that Fred is deeply human, and what I love about Margaret Atwood’s world and series creator Bruce Miller’s reimagining of it is that it’s the human elements which are the most terrifying.”
Despite the bleak dystopian world the show inhabits, its themes of systemic gender inequality, reproductive rights, abuse and rape are all relevant today. Since he began portraying one of the show’s most influential, power-hungry men, Fiennes admits he has taken note of what qualities to avoid in his own life. “Fred is constantly reminding me of the dangers of power, the dangers of being diluted in your sense of entitlement and your sense of superiority,” Fiennes says. “When it comes to certain moral lines, he crosses them big time, and that’s something I find repugnant, criminal and unacceptable.”
“The sense of having no contact or stimulus outside of a condo, except for going to Gilead…suddenly, that need for my wife and children was just huge.”
Mixed in with the new season’s focus on motherhood and the unwavering strength of women even in the face of tragedy, there is a spotlight placed on revenge. “What permeates through this season is witnessing how deep lacerations, those deep scars, have teeth,” says Fiennes. “What’s exciting is seeing how June [Moss] and those teeth bite back. Because they’re going to bite back.” Of Moss’ portrayal of such a fierce character, Fiennes says, “Even in the worst way that she’s been treated, she still has humility and she’s still humble. She’s still got this extraordinary spirit as a fighter, but isn’t a terrorist quite yet. She’s bruised, and that’s a really pathologically, psychologically wonderful thing that Lizzie is dealing with.”
As a husband and father of two young daughters, filming the fourth season of The Handmaid’s Tale amidst a global pandemic proved to be a massive endeavor for Fiennes. Shooting was halted for a few weeks, but then Fiennes spent nearly a year alone in an apartment in Toronto throughout the filming process while his wife and daughters were back home in Spain. “For the first time in my life, I was hit with a mild depression and felt very emotional about not being able to have control of going back to see my children,” he says. “The sense of having no contact or stimulus outside of a condo, except for going to Gilead…suddenly, that need for my wife and children was just huge.” Not to mention feeling guilty about not being at home to lend a hand. “As a father, you feel like you’re there as a force to help protect. My wife had been holding down the fort with the children and the dogs! I felt like such a failure that there I was in a condo doing nothing.”
The guilt Fiennes felt for not being able to be physically present with his family is a testament to his humanity and humility–something Fred doesn’t share. “I’ve loved trying to humanize Fred and not make him a two-dimensional monster. He does have feelings and he is conflicted. We have to remember that in our real lives, even with terrible things going on, the majority of people are wonderful and good.” These human frailties are what he loves about Fred. “In many ways it’s just honing in on human fallibility. He’s a predator who is aware of the pain he inflicts but is able to rationalize it. I find that duality really interesting.”
So, which characters are most challenging and interesting to play? “If I look back over the years I’ve been doing this, the toughest characters are the ones closest to you and the easier ones are the extremes of yourself. I wouldn’t say Fred has been easy to play, but trying to win back the element of the humane and the nuanced complexity has been my task.” Though exposing his villainous character’s extreme duality on screen may not always be easy for Fiennes, it is clear that his own empathy for humanity wins out.