a long talk

Elisabeth Moss on Tackling The Handmaid’s Tale Season 4 From Both Sides of the Camera

Moss directing Joseph Fiennes, a.k.a. June finally telling Fred what to do. Photo: Jasper Savage/ HULU

The following interview contains spoilers about The Handmaid’s Tale season four and its finale.

The fourth season of The Handmaid’s Tale pushed June Osborne into new situations, including finally getting her out of Gilead and, as revealed in the season finale, enabling her to seek retribution for the horrible things done to her by her former commander, Fred Waterford. Elisabeth Moss, the Emmy-winning actress who plays June, also explored new territory behind the camera in this most recent season, stepping for the first time into the role of director to helm three of the season’s ten installments: “Progress,” “Testimony,” and “The Crossing.”

The stretch into directing turned out to be a natural one for Moss. As she explained during a phone call from Boston, where she is currently at work on the Apple TV+ adaptation of the novel The Shining Girls as both a star and the director of two episodes, she’s the kind of actress who has always visualized the finished product in her head during her performance. “I’ve always thought, in a way, that is actually the way a director thinks,” she says. “I just never realized it.”

During the conversation, Moss talked more about her first forays into filmmaking and, of course, about some of the major events in the finale.

In the finale, June finally gets her revenge on Fred and asserts justice in an intense, violent scene. What was it like to film that?
We did it over two nights, and it wasn’t that bad. Liz Garbus, our director, had a wonderful plan with Stuart Biddlecombe, the DP. Everybody was game, everything was straightforward, and everybody knew what we were going to do. Joe [Fiennes] was very, as always, professional and game and just really giving it everything he had. It wasn’t his last scene — we had a couple of days left of shooting, so there wasn’t any of that sort of drama. I think he just did it really well — you know, for a salvaging.

How do you think audiences will respond to that scene? On the one hand, it is cathartic; Fred deserves to feel the pain, as he caused June’s. But it also feels like one of those “eye for an eye and everybody goes blind” situations, where you have to wonder, Where does this end? Is this satisfying enough for June?
I don’t think it’s satisfying enough for her. I think what Lawrence says about “It’s not enough” is true. I think it’s incredibly satisfying for these women. It has to be. Of course, it’s not everything, but it’s certainly a huge something.

There was an FYC event last night at the Rose Bowl, and Warren [Littlefield, executive producer] was texting me and saying that everyone’s watching from their cars and that everybody was cheering and honking their horns and screaming, from the moment that he is crossing that bridge and he realizes he’s not going free. I just get chills even talking about it. I wish I could’ve been with that audience because that’s what we live for, you know? We live for that. We work so hard to generate that response from our fans and from the audience. I totally get it, and I get the triumph of it and I get the satisfaction of it. Of course, we do have another season, so it’s not going to solve all the problems. There will be more story, but I love that we really give the audience something this year that’s like, Yes, we’ve all been wanting this, and here you go.

You do that on more than one occasion during the season. It felt like there was a lot of payoff.
Oh, good.

In the last scene of the finale, June comes back to see Nichole, and it seems obvious that she’s leaving again — maybe for good. But it’s sort of ambiguous as to what her plan is from there. Is there anything you can say about that?
You know, I don’t know exactly what the plan is, but I think you’re right in terms of I don’t think she can stay. She knows she’s just murdered somebody with these women and that most likely, fingers are going to be pointed at her. I don’t know that she does have a plan, but we have not broken season five yet, and obviously there’s no scripts or anything. So it’s all mulling around with Bruce [Miller, series creator] in the writers’ room right now.

When you were playing the scene, were you playing it with the assumption that she may never see her daughter again?
I don’t know about may never, but may not for a second.

Let’s talk about the directing you did this season. Is this something that you wanted to try for a while?
It has been a really slow burn for me. It was something that I thought maybe eventually I would try in my career because I’ve been acting for a long time, and at a certain point, you want to find ways to deepen your experience and deepen your knowledge of filmmaking as well. So I thought at some point I’d do it. And then it became an idea in season two. It was like, Maybe next year. Then it didn’t work for our schedule to do it in season three. I was the one who made the call to Bruce and Warren and said, “I’m going to pull the plug on trying to make this work, because it just doesn’t make sense for our schedule, and as an EP, I can’t endorse this.”

Then in season four, we were like, “Okay, we should definitely try to make it work this year.” It just worked out really beautifully. And I thought, Well, if I’m going to try my hand at this for the first time, what a gift to be able to do it on something that I know so well, that I’ve been prepping for for three seasons in a way.

I loved it so much more than I ever expected I would, so I put myself forward for the next two episodes, eight and nine. I felt like I had learned a lot on episode three, and I felt like eight and nine were very different scripts and would challenge me in a different way, where I was not able to rely on gigantic setpieces and effects. How do I make two people in a kitchen washing dishes interesting? How do I make all these conversations between Fred and Serena interesting? That definitely was a challenge I wanted to give myself.

Photo: Sophie Giraud/ HULU

Many actors have directed themselves before, but for some reason here, I was like, How is she doing this? I guess it’s because your scenes are often just so intense that I feel like you’ve got to be expending so much of your energy already. Did you find it difficult to direct yourself?
It’s funny, because that question obviously comes up first and foremost, and I get it. I get why. It’s actually the easiest part for me, because that’s the part I’ve done for over 30 years, is acting and being conscious and aware of my performance, and being aware of where the camera is and aware of what’s going on around me. That I’ve done for the longest amount of time. I’m just not an actor who is completely unaware of what I see or of the effects that I’m creating.

One of the reasons why I chose episode three as the first episode that I wanted to do was because June was in it so much, and I thought, Well, okay, there’s this one element of it, the acting of June, that I really know how to do. Let me give myself a leg up here and know that there’s a huge part of this episode that I know how to do. The hardest thing is not directing yourself in the scene when you’re acting; it’s directing the other actors in the scene when you’re acting.

Yeah, what was that like?
Well, it was only easy because they made it so easy on me. We all have a lot of respect for each other, and they really wanted me to do well. They gave me everything they had. They pushed themselves — I think a bit more in a way — because I was there on the other side of the camera. But you do have to compartmentalize in a way that’s very interesting, because you’re in a scene and you want to give them the performance that they need from you as June so that they can react against that in their performances. But you’re watching them in a way that you’re remembering something that you want to tell them when you say “Cut!” Which is a very funny part of it, by the way, that no one will ever see and no one will ever get to experience: the very strange thing of me being in a scene, playing June and being very, very, very dramatic and then saying, “Okay, cut.”

Maybe it’ll be on a DVD extra or something.
I wish we did more of those. I do, honestly.

So it sounds like you turn off the director part of your brain when you’re in the scene and then flip it back on once you’re done. Is that fair?
Very fair. That is what I would do on my coverage, is quite consciously take off the director hat and put on the actor hat, and just be there as the actor playing June and do exactly what I would do if I wasn’t directing. Then they cut and then I’d be a director when I was watching it, thinking, Okay, let me try that again. Or, The camera needs this, or whatever. It is an extreme exercise in compartmentalization, but I do happen to be good at that. I really enjoy having a lot to think about and a lot to do.

I think that’s why people often ask the same question I just asked about directing yourself. A lot of people are not very good compartmentalizers, so the fact that you can do that is a little mind-blowing.
Thank you. Yeah, I discovered after doing three episodes that I never realized how much I think like a director. I think there are actors that are brilliant, that are in their lane and they come in and they give everything, just to their job and that scene that day. And that’s a wonderful thing. I’ve always been a different kind of actor, who is aware of where the camera is. I edit in my head while I’m acting in a very clinical way. I know when we’re going to use that shot. I’ve always thought, in a way, that is actually the way a director thinks. I just never realized it.

A big part of the third episode, the first one you directed, involves June getting waterboarded and tortured in various ways. I know this is an issue that comes up on the show a lot, but how do you decide what’s too much and what’s not? I’m wondering what that conversation was like for you.
Originally in the script, it was three women that got thrown off of that roof. We downsized it to two. There were things like that, that you’re going, What do I want to see? It was very clear to us that we were not going to actually show the full waterboarding. We were not actually going to do the fingernail [removal], obviously. But I do think that it was maybe our last hurrah, in a way, of that element of the show. Not to say — I don’t write the show — that we won’t ever do anything so terrible again. But I do think it was like, Let’s go to the very bottom.

Unfortunately, torture at the hands of a government is not something that we invented; it’s the reality. But there were things that we could have done. When June was going through that hallway, there were other things that we could have shown in those rooms, and we ended up not. We ended up scaling it back a little bit. You see the prisoners on their knees as you pass by, but you never actually see anything happening. It’s just the impression of it. We could have gone much further, but we checked it a bit to imply what was going on but not go too far. Because that stuff is scary. The story that we wanted to tell was a woman who was pushed to the absolute edge, and she’s not going to give up her friends, the sisters she left — what would be the thing [that made her crack]? That ultimately is, obviously, Hannah. That’s the story we needed to tell.

In episode eight when June finally gets to testify about the Waterfords’ crimes, you filmed that whole scene in one take. Why did you decide to do it that way?
I didn’t want the audience to look away, because I wanted them to have to hear the whole thing and be in that entire experience with her. Originally, the whole speech wasn’t written; it was just fragments of it that it was going to fade in and out of. I asked the writers, “Can you write the whole speech for me? And if we don’t use it, we don’t use it. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.” Then we shot it. When we shot it, I did a bunch of coverage on other people because I still wasn’t sure if it was going to work in the one take or if we’d move to cut away. Then when we got into the edit with Wendy [Hallam Martin], my editor, we tried it both ways — we tried it the way with the coverage, and we tried it where it was just the one take.

As soon as you started cutting away to other people, you stopped listening to the story, and it wasn’t as emotionally impactful. I almost would love for the audience to watch both versions and see what I mean. There was something about the impact of the whole thing being in one take and then going to the other people and experiencing what they just heard. That got you way more than the other version. It was a passive kind of discovery of what it would be with the planning of the shooting and editing of it. But it ended up being just — you felt something that you didn’t feel if you cut away.

With the whole season done, if you go back and look at that scene again, it feels even more important that she gets to be fully heard.
Absolutely. The experience of being in that courtroom would have been: Everybody’s standing there looking, and the judge is sitting there listening to the story. I wanted the audience to experience it the way that the courtroom would have.

And this is another instance of compartmentalizing, because in making that choice, you put extra pressure on yourself as an actor to do the whole scene in one take.
[Laughs.] Yes. I very much remember saying to Stu — I said, “I don’t know if the actor can do it.” I don’t know if — not that I couldn’t do it, but that it is going to be interesting, so we have to cover everybody else. We have to have a backup plan, because I don’t know if it’s interesting enough to sustain one take. Yes, that is an example of extreme compartmentalization.

There’s a moment when your gaze looked more directly into the camera.
The entire last few lines of the speech are directly into the camera. That was a very conscious choice that I also came up with with Stu in prep. Originally, we wondered if the whole thing could be straight down the barrel, but we wanted to start wider and come in closer. So I chose this moment where she makes this plea, and I wanted it to be, really, to the audience. I wanted to feel like I was talking about something more than just the show and break that fourth wall and really talk to them.

I didn’t back myself up there and do a take where I didn’t look down the barrel. I do remember leaving that day and being like, God, I hope that works, because I didn’t do anything else.

Do you see yourself directing a feature at some point? 
I definitely would love to do a feature at some point. Because then you get to really do something completely your own. I just want to find the perfect material that’s the kind of story that I feel like only I can tell and something that I really see. I think you have to really visualize something as a director. When I find that, that’s what I’ll do.

Elisabeth Moss on Her ‘Slow Burn’ Handmaid’s Directing Debut