Spoilers below for the season finale of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Madeline Brewer’s first acting job out of drama school was on Orange is the New Black, in which she broke hearts with her portrayal of Tricia, the young drug addict who overdoses and dies in the first season. Brewer again is capturing attention with her turn on The Handmaid’s Tale as Janine, a broken young woman who is forced to get pregnant, give birth, and give up her daughter.
In an interview with Vulture, Brewer revealed why she loves playing Janine, why she thinks the character is faking her mental state, and how she reacted to Janine’s fellow handmaids refusing to kill her in the show’s season finale.
Tell me a little bit about why you wanted to be in the show. What attracted you to the role?
When I first read the scenes I got to audition, I just could tell there was obviously something there. The writing speaks for itself, but also it’s just the fact that The Handmaid’s Tale is such an amazing story. I had never read the book before I auditioned. When I told my mom I was auditioning for The Handmaid’s Tale, she lost it. She was so excited. She was like, “Oh my God, you have to do this!”
I haven’t read the book either, but I read about how the character of Janine is very different than she is in the book.
Yeah, in the book she’s a little bit more of a peripheral character. We have the opportunity in the show to explore them a little bit more, which is great. Janine in the book is more a source of annoyance for June. In the show, we managed to make them have this beautiful friendship that I really, really enjoyed playing with Elisabeth [Moss].
She isn’t as rebellious, right? She isn’t as fiery in the book.
Yeah, in the book she’s Aunt Lydia’s teacher’s pet a little bit, kind of a tattle tale.
Who is Janine to you? What resonated with you about her?
I loved Janine. To me, she’s really important. She can show you what happens to you in this world if you really let yourself go, if you really let yourself get swallowed by it. Janine, to me, represents — and the same is true for Ofglen and Offred and all these women — that you can’t extinguish their fire just because you put them in red robes and you force them basically into sex slavery. There’s still a human there, there’s still a fire there. I see Janine’s fire a lot.
How do you view her evolution? I think it’s easy to dismiss her, but I’ve wondered if she goes to other places on purpose.
Oh yeah, it’s a total choice. I think Janine was confronted with her own mortality. She was just like, “I don’t know if I can be here. I think I need to leave and stop living in this world.” I think she really has a moment of consideration and she decides, “I can’t accept this reality. I won’t make it if I do.” She chooses another one and she puts herself there and that’s her means of survival. That’s how she gets through every day.
Was it challenging for you to find this character?
I’d say so. That’s also the stuff I love the most. It’s just fun for me exploring and trying to figure out where she was on any given day. It was sometimes difficult to find Janine. Based on what was written about her and what I found about her in my own personal experience, doing research on the type of life she has had and how that affects you, it was just a blast. It’s always just a blast finding her and getting to know her and exploring [her]. The way Janine looks at the world is very different from the way that I look at the world.
It’s so brutal what happens to her in episode one. She pays a big price for mouthing off.
That first scene when I tell Aunt Lydia, “Eff you,” that’s who Janine was up until that point. Based on everything that happened to her in her life, that is how she would approach that situation. That’s who she is. She comes right out swinging. She doesn’t take any BS from anybody. And then is immediately met with that intense repercussion. To figure out how she goes on from there, I didn’t want her to completely implode and become this neat little thing. That’s not her. Yes, she’s afraid of speaking out, but that’s why she’s so strong. She finds another way to be herself in that world.
Trying to figure out how she’s feeling after this eye is ripped from her face was intense, but also trying to figure out how that affects her going forward, like how she approaches her interactions with people. Then in episode nine, Janine has a line that just breaks my heart that’s like, “Who would want to dance with me?” She obviously sees herself in a different way now and is very aware of how other people see her. That affected a lot of her interactions. I wanted her to have still her fierceness and her fire, but not lose the fact that she’s very aware how she looks to people.
In that episode, you also had the scene by the window when Janine talks about serving coffee. It’s so heartbreaking. Was she really breaking down?
I think that was the catalyst for Janine’s whole separation from reality. At that moment, she was really struggling with wanting to commit suicide or just escape this world somehow, but she goes somewhere else in her mind. The only damn thing she can think of is a simpler time when she just served people their frickin’ coffee and breakfast. That blossoms into “I’ll put myself into a new reality everyday even with the given circumstances. I will take everything and turn it and make it beautiful so that I can survive.”
Was that an intense scene for you to film? You were nude and it was very vulnerable.
The only thing I remember honestly in shooting that is I was so supported by Lizzy Moss and Samira Wiley and Nina Kiri and our director Reed Morano and our camera operators. I never felt like there were eyes on me or felt insecure about my performance because of who was around me. I just felt safe and welcome to do what I had to do, which is how you can make something like The Handmaid’s Tale. You can’t make it looking over your shoulder, like, “Is this okay?” You just have to go for it.
In the second episode, Janine gives birth with all those women around chanting. I know you’ve never had a baby. How did you prepare?
I had a wealth of knowledge, even just on set. I was surrounded by women, a lot of them, who were mothers. Our director has two children. The woman who was playing the midwife was an actual midwife. She’s helped give birth to over 1,000 babies. She knows her stuff. Also, I asked the Facebook hive mind. I was like, “Anybody who’s had a kid, let me know what that was like for you. How did it feel physically, emotionally? Like, were your hormones crazy?” Just so I could try to understand what that’s like. Some women would talk about the emotional response after you have your kid, and you hold your child for the first time, and that was something I really wanted to know because Janine doesn’t get to do that. She doesn’t get to hold the baby. She doesn’t even get to touch the baby until she has to feed her, and the first thing she has to do is look at her baby with this other woman. That was interesting because I have to be looking at Ever Carradine, who plays the wife, as though I just loathe her, but in reality, she’s the sweetest person. Filming that scene, I felt welcome to just make it as real as possible whether it be screaming or sweating. That’s what makes it believable. It’s definitely unlike every other birth scene I’ve ever seen in film or television.
You had the lovely scene with the baby where you sang “Three Little Birds.” Do you like to sing?
Oh, yeah. I grew up doing musical theater. I went to a school for musical theater, so that was always what I wanted to do growing up. I don’t get any chance to sing. But what I loved about that moment — it was really emotional for me because, sorry to my mother, but my mom’s not a singer. [Laughs.] But she would sing to us when we were little, and my heart is so full thinking about my mom singing to me. She didn’t even sing lullabies, which I think is great about what Janine does there. You just think whatever song comes to your head. The kid doesn’t know the difference. You’re just gonna sing it.
It took on the life of a lullaby, really. It was so sweet.
Yeah. I love in that moment that her singing to her child and saying, “You are my baby,” is an act of resistance in itself.
Also when she bites the commander’s wife. That’s resistance!
Oh God, yeah. She was seeing how much she could get away with, really.
Moving forward to last week’s episode, tell me about filming that scary scene on the bridge. Were you surprised Janine ended up there?
We shot the bridge over two days. I’d done a lot of talking with the director Kate Dennis about what’s happening in that moment and how we were going to shoot it. Everybody was so amazing. Everybody wanted to make sure I felt safe and that I was okay on the wall. That was great. But also trying to do justice to that moment for Janine, how she got there, why she’s on the ledge with the baby. I struggled a minute, thinking, “Was she going to jump with the baby?” She was never, ever was going to jump with the baby, I quickly realized. But Janine is smart. She knew that if she handed that baby right over, they’d just take her away in cuffs and do God knows what to her. She stood up on that ledge with the baby in her hands and no one could touch her. She had the opportunity to just say what she needed to say. She was absolutely lucid: “This is what has happened, and you all think I’m crazy, but I know exactly what’s going on.” You think that she’s gone far away, but she’s been here and watching and observing and experiencing. And then, she calls everybody out on it.
Was that your hardest scene?
I guess. It was a big scene; it was difficult. The thing that is important to me in a moment like that, with high tension and high stakes and high emotion is — I know I’m going to sound super pretentious saying this — but it’s not a vanity for me as an actor, which I’ve definitely done in the past. I’ve been like, “Oh yeah, this is my moment! I’m acting right now.” The moment serves so much better by just doing your character the justice they deserve and where they would be emotionally, realistically at that moment. It’s not about this big performance. Where are they? What is going on with them? Where are they mentally? That was difficult in trying to gauge exactly, because you think if someone’s at the end of the bridge, she’s crazy. It’s so much more calculated than that. I had to figure that out, with some help from our writer Eric Tuchman and from our showrunner Bruce [Miller]. I couldn’t have figured that out alone. My ignorance would have taken over and I would have been like, “Oh, she’s nuts!” Just calling her crazy — calling anyone crazy — is just an inhumane thing to do. There’s something happening there and I learned a lot with Janine. I really did.
She jumped, but she doesn’t die. What did you think about that?
I’m stoked. [Laughs.] I’m over the moon about that. I do think everybody pays their dues in Gilead, whether you’re the most high-up commander or not. Everybody has to face the consequences of their actions. Obviously, Janine is supposed to be sentenced to death and then she isn’t. I truly am very curious what happens to her because I immediately think, “Oh, they’ll just kill her,” but then they’ve got this whole other thing on their hands with the handmaids dropping the stones. What are we going to do with her now? She has two healthy ovaries!
What was it like to film the stoning scene? All of the women were there, and it’s such a tense scene to watch.
That was my last day, so the whole thing was very bittersweet. It was crazy to round out the season with my last day on the same field as we shot my first day. To have the tables turned here, after all that has happened, being in the center of the circle myself was really crazy. It is an incredible thing to look up and see a sea of red around you. I can’t really explain how that feels. But I can tell you there was a lot of love that day. Everyone was cold. It was the beginning of February. I can remember feeling so proud of what we had accomplished thus far.
Janine asks the girls not to throw too hard. She’s still her funny self. Did you interpret it that way?
I believe Janine understood that what she did was endanger the life of her own child. She understood her punishment. Which is why she is so conflicted when she looks to June. She so appreciates that her fellow handmaids are not stoning her to death, but she understands that there will be consequences — both for her and for her friends.
We see Offred being picked up by The Eye in the end. As she says, it could be the end or a new beginning. Nobody knows.
Yeah, it definitely leaves you in a place of “Holy shit.” [Laughs.] Who? What? Where is everybody? We don’t even know where Ofglen is anymore. Where does Moira end up? What’s going to happen to Nick? The whole thing leaves you in a confused place. I can’t wait.