Have you been watching The Handmaid’s Tale and marveling that the emotions that travel across Elisabeth Moss’s face always seem perfectly in sync with the voice-over of Offred’s sometimes funny, sometimes horrified thoughts? You’re not alone.
When I spoke to Handmaid’s Tale showrunner Bruce Miller for a Vulture profile on Moss, he told me he knew from the beginning that voice-over would be essential for giving viewers a window into the true personality of Offred, the titular handmaid in his adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s seminal 1985 dystopian novel. Without voice-over, the series would be a humorless slog through Offred’s tortured existence. With it, we know she’s a smart, sarcastic young woman who’s been torn from her family and forced to become a reproductive slave, subjected to ritualized rape as part of a government-sanctioned breeding program. If she speaks her mind, she could lose a hand or be sent off to clean toxic waste in the Colonies. Reed Morano, who directed the first three episodes, zooms the camera in on Moss’s face so close that the actress would sometimes bump into it, adding to Offred’s sense of claustrophobia. And Moss delivers Offred’s humorous asides (“I wish he’d hurry up,” she thinks, during a particularly awkward breeding ceremony) in hushed tones, as if worried that anyone other than the viewer will hear it.
But even Miller was astounded at how well the prerecorded voice-over matched up with the silent close-ups of Offred. “We shot these bits of Lizzie just sitting in a room, quietly going through emotional phases, and when I watched it paired up with the voice-over, it worked perfectly,” he told me. “And I said, ‘That’s lucky!’ And Lizzie said, ‘No, it isn’t lucky. I memorized the voice-over and I did it in my head while I was sitting there.’ Paragraphs and paragraphs and paragraphs of stuff that she memorized and walked through emotions while she was sitting there silently. But none of it was sitting there silently. It was all following the emotional trajectory.”
Memorizing dialogue isn’t that amazing of a feat; theater actors memorize two hours’ worth and are supposed to perform it flawlessly eight times a week. But to run through it silently, while telegraphing that level of emotion, while also playing a character who is actively trying to hide her emotions for fear of death, as a camera captures every tic of every facial muscle — that is something else.
Not that Moss will brag about it. “[Bruce] brought up [my memorizing the voice-over] at a panel the other night and I looked at him like he was crazy because, well, yeah!” she told me. “Like, obviously. It’s a part of the script. Why wouldn’t I memorize it? How else am I supposed to know what I’m thinking? I’m sitting there for 30 seconds. I have to be thinking about something.” She agrees with the people who think that memorizing lines, whether anyone sees you deliver them or not, is an actor’s job. “I just thought that was Basic 101 of being a good actor,” Moss said. “I actually said to Bruce, ‘Do I not have to do that? Because if I don’t have to do that, that would be great to know.’ I just thought that was part of my job. But yeah, here’s this girl sitting there for 30 seconds thinking about something and it’s going to look pretty terrible if I’m not actually thinking about what I’m supposed to be thinking about.”
In fact, having scripted voice-over actually cut out half of Moss’s usual process for scenes when the camera zooms in on her while her character is silent. “Usually, I have to sort of make up what I’m thinking by myself,” she said. “Now there’s this voice-over that says what I’m thinking! It’s very helpful for me. I was actually like, ‘I’m cheating right now!’”