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The Handmaid’s Tale Star Amanda Brugel on the ‘Underground Railroad’ of Gilead

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Not many actors would dream of playing the role of the suppressed servant. But 20 years ago, an 18-year-old student wrote her university entrance exam about Rita, one of the seen-but-rarely-heard Marthas from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Amanda Brugel received a scholarship from that essay, and two decades later is playing that very character in the critically acclaimed Hulu adaptation of Atwood’s novel.

And now, Rita’s time has finally arrived. In the season-two finale of The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s the Marthas who save the day (well, try to save the day). They’ve been shut up and snuffed out, made to serve their Commanders and nothing else. But don’t underestimate the quiet servants in the corner. The Marthas are way more savvy, way more connected, and way quicker than any other faction in Gilead, so in the season finale, it’s Rita who rises up to help June and her baby daughter escape the Waterfords.

When the auditions rolled around for The Handmaid’s Tale, Canadian casting director Robin Cook — who knew about Brugel’s long-term obsession with the story — got the native Canadian in the room. “I walked and announced to all the girls sitting in the waiting room to go home,” Brugel tells Vulture, half-jokingly. “Even though I said it as a joke, I meant it in my soul. This was the only part that from the moment I heard that they were auditioning I knew it was mine. It had to be. I wasn’t accepting any other answer.”

Rita’s escape plan is pretty clever: set fires to distract the guards and Commanders, while Martha after Martha run June through their backyards to the edge of town. The Marthas are “badass,” to steal one of Rita’s rare lines.
I feel like it indicates how fast information travels between them. When they were lighting fires, they would have had no idea Emily had just stabbed Aunt Lydia. Maybe there was another way to save her, but through the network, the Marthas were able to make it a dual escape with the two friends. It shows how powerful they are as a unit, and no one would ever expect them to be. The Martha network is essentially the Underground Railroad — and this is not their first rodeo. Which is why, at the beginning of the episode, you see how distraught and upset Rita was about [Nick’s wife] Eden. That was Rita’s admitting that she has power to get them out. She realized she couldn’t let another woman fall.

We don’t know much about Rita’s background. Do you make one up for her?
The only thing that’s mentioned is that she did have a son and that he fought with the resistance against Gilead and was killed. I’m hoping next season we’re going to find out a lot more about her. I have my ideas about who I think she is, though. She was a lawyer or someone extremely successful. She’s quite savvy, strong, and manipulative. She’s someone who’s familiar with the human condition and who knows how to play her cards right. If she didn’t hide all this, she’d probably be sent to the Colonies — a woman that successful and that bright would automatically be a threat to the men.

It was about time for Rita to do something, no?
To be frank, it was about time. I love the character, how quiet and mysterious she is. I hope they always keep that. Rita gets to walk that line of someone who could be working for Gilead or could just be keeping her head low. She keeps fans guessing about that. But I needed to sink my teeth into something. I needed to cut someone or someone needed payback for some of this!

How early on in the shooting did you know you were going to get this comeuppance?
I got the script six days before we started shooting! I was on vacation with my family in Niagara Falls. I read it, standing up with the falls in the background and then had to read it again. I was so shocked. My husband asked if I was okay because I was pacing around like an animal.

You have a few really funny moments in season two. How much of your direction is written into the script and how much is improvising?
The writers are brilliant and they do add so much for us in on the page. But Elisabeth is present, so in-the-moment, and I like to perform like that as well. I like to do things to try and make her laugh. Like when all the Wives are having the baby shower, I sip the Champagne. That wasn’t written in. There were actually a lot of little things I did in that scene that didn’t make it into the cut. I went around the room and gave more Champagne to one Wife who I wanted to get drunker, or I’d switch some Wives’ glasses. Because I don’t have a lot of dialogue to go on and a lot of the directors are so trusting, they sort of just let me go with it. But it doesn’t always make the cut.

The Marthas are meant to be neither seen nor heard. Those are challenging constraints for a TV character.
It’s been the most challenging job of my life. Actors rely on dialogue to communicate. Not having anything to say other than “praise be” is really difficult at the beginning. To combat this, I write out a monologue for myself, or my own opinion of what she would say. I also rely on physicality. I put rocks in my left shoe — rocks from the gravel outside the trailer door in Toronto — to give her a limp. I rely on breath or blinking. As an actor, it has changed the way I approach every role.

How did it feel to finally get some dialogue?
Girl, when I read the scene about June asking me to become a godmother, I was so excited that I had words! But I was scared, too. It was a season-and-a-half of me mostly silent and I got very comfortable in that. Suddenly, I had to find a voice of this character that was voiceless, and I was insecure about it. When we started rehearsing the scene, that fear melted away. I have such a wonderful off-camera relationship with Elisabeth Moss that it just felt like me and my girlfriend finally being able to show our connection onscreen. That really helped me find her voice. Now, at the end of season two, I know where she’s going. Now I have her voice, so I’m ready to use it.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Handmaid’s Tale Star Amanda Brugel on Rita’s Big Moment