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The Handmaid’s Tale’s Joseph Fiennes on How He Views the Commander and Those Scrabble Scenes

Spoilers ahead for The Handmaid’s Tale.

The totalitarian regime in Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale takes specific form in the Commander, one of the leaders of Gilead and the patriarch of the house where Offred (Elisabeth Moss) is assigned. The Commander, real name Fred, seems inscrutable to Offred (she is “of Fred”) at first, until he asks her to come to his room for a secret rendezvous and Scrabble match. (This is after he committed government-sanctioned rape on her.) Over a couple of phone conversations, Fiennes spoke with Vulture about the real-world parallels he sees in the show, Scrabble, and how his character reminds him of Donald Trump.

I think this role can be seen as a thankless one, and I’m curious to hear what drew you to it.
Well, I’ll challenge you on that! There’s nothing thankless about it, although it’s called The Handmaid’s Tale, so obviously it’s her story, but we get full insight into the characters around her. It’s the same in the novel — he’s somewhat enigmatic and thinly drawn in comparison, but less so in the TV series. Halfway through, we get into the Commander, his wife, and their backstory. And their relationship, I think, is anything but — it’s a wonderful, complex relationship. I’m coming to a character who is examining power, hypocrisy, what it is to be one of the architects of a totalitarian theocracy. The prisons they put themselves in — of course, Offred is in the main prison of servitude, but they’re all in their own prisons, if you like. The Commander is nothing thankless.

The previous Offred, because of the arcane rituals they have to be put through (i.e. the Ceremony, which is nothing short of a rape), took her life in the abhorrent household she had to serve. So when the next offer comes out, I think the Commander wants to reach out and offer some care to make her living there more bearable. At the same time, he wants a point of contact between him and his wife because Gilead, the authority, says that all sex is banned except procreation, so there’s no contact. And plus, the Commander’s wife can’t conceive, because either she’s infertile or he’s sterile. So that’s an interesting complexity: We have [one of] the lowest forms of Gilead, the handmaid, although much prized for the idea that she’s fertile, and she holds all the cards in a house seemingly full of authority. So there are lots of delineations and complexities to be had. I love that, ultimately, he’s a man that cannot help himself. Like a cat with a ball of string, he plays with her. It’s delicious to have these interactions with Lizzy as Offred and chart how that relationship grows and how complex it is. There’s a huge amount to take away for an actor.

Yes, I guess what I meant by “thankless” was that you’re playing the face of a totalitarian regime. But of course as an actor it must be an exciting role.
Yeah, I completely see where you’re coming from. And to a degree, I agree. But at the same time, I think of why it’s so prescient, and I think of the Commander, and someone like Assad of Syria as a commander, and the commander-in-chief here, with his misogynistic remarks that make you wonder how he was voted in. This is amazing hypocrisy within men who have, to themselves, seemingly an untouchable status. I’m reminded on a daily level, not just in America, but across the world, the spectrum of hypocrisy across men in power. To me, there’s a lot for an audience to latch onto.

The scenes with Elisabeth Moss in your study are quite tense.
Yes, the scenes are very tense! He’s abhorrent, the Commander. He’s still fallible and human, and I think that’s what makes him more abhorrent, is he’s not a cardboard cutout. He’s a man with a moral dilemma and he says he only wants to make the world a better place, as a lot of people in powerful places want to do, but they slowly become corrupted. And certainly that corruption becomes abhorrent, or the ideology that Gilead has put in place in terms of women who are fertile, you know, this system in which they’re sort of bottom of the pyramid. They’re the walking wombs. So doing those scenes is — I find them actually very difficult. They’re very brutal.

Offred always has to be on guard.
He’s like a cat with a ball of wool. There’s this game being played all the time. There’s these boundaries, and as soon as her intelligence rears up, he shuts the game down. So it’s very dangerous, and the character’s life depends on surviving and getting to know him, and having contact outside of being locked in a room, and at the same time not overstepping the mark. Her nuanced judgment of how to walk that line is thrilling, breathtaking, and scary. So it’s a unique relationship. It’s great fun. Fun is the wrong word, but to have that sort of game to wrap yourselves around and enjoy — there’s not that much of that kind of narrative that gives you that depth and complexity, and then there’s not very many actors who can take it to the level that Lizzie does.

I’ve seen it only a little bit on the ADR, and I know where the camera is, I know who’s behind the camera, and yet I’m kind of biting my nails even in the ADR session because it’s just so tense! It’s dark and witty and intelligent and abhorrent and frightening and prescient and all of those things. God, how lucky we are to be juggling with these things, and how lucky we are to have someone like Lizzie at the center.

In the Ceremony, what is going through Fred’s mind in those moments, particularly the first one that we see?
I think that Fred comes from a place where he wants to do good in the world. He wants to reset the moral compass and restore it. That’s a big part of his drive, and like all theocracies, he’s using a piece of scripture to bring about an arcane ritual, which is really nothing short of abuse and rape, in order to procreate because the birth rate is so low. So he understands, from a political POV, why he’s there, but I don’t think he particularly enjoys it. No one enjoys it, or wants it, but they do it because it’s demanded. And that’s the starting point there: It’s difficult for a husband and a wife to have this third party, but there’s a belief system and a reason behind it — the birth rate — and they desperately want to have a child.

It’s so interesting that she’s [one of the] the lowest, in terms of Gilead, as a handmaid, and he’s the highest, being a Commander, but she’s the most powerful because she’s the most fertile. I love all those complexities. But in that first ceremony, the metaphor grows, and he begins to have eye contact with Offred. What I love about this show is that everything is so brilliantly and pertinently placed: the smallest flick of an eye, Scrabble, they’re not mistakes. They’re so nuanced, pointed, and there for a reason.

Did you actually play Scrabble during filming?
It’s quite funny because in the TV series there were some big, big words, but most professional Scrabble players will tell you it’s the small three-letter ones which win you the points, with the x’s and y’s and z’s. So we wanted to play, but because we were locked into continuity, we couldn’t risk ruining the board by having a game while we were playing. So what we played was what we played on set and what was filmed.

Have you thought a lot about the political climate and the show?
It’s sort of inescapable, whichever story you’re telling. A load of TV shows are saying, “ours is so prescient because of the new administration.” I think this is speculative, but it’s the future. You could draw parallels. I think the parallels go way beyond the administration, they reach into the sort of male-female psyche and relationship. As a man and a father and a husband, I found myself examining my conditioning, the subtleties of what it is to be a very privileged, middle-class white guy. I wasn’t beating myself up, but I think it’s easy to go to the administration, and I think it goes there for everyone, or it certainly did for me.

Were you talking about this a lot on set?
Not really many conversations. Certainly there were asides to the weight of the material and how there were parallels to what’s going on. Maybe there were parallels for the world 30 years ago when it was first written, and maybe there will be parallels in 60 years time. I think there always will be. It’s all cyclical, isn’t it? I think of that great poem, “Ozymandias” and “Look at me, ye gods.” Every administration ends up being a sort of historical footnote and a broken relic in the sand. It’ll always be prescient, possibly.

Joseph Fiennes on Handmaid’s Tale and Those Scrabble Scenes