Elizabeth Moss Has A 'Handmaid's Tale' Warning: 'This Could Happen Here' Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale won eight Emmys on Sunday, including Best Actress for Elisabeth Moss. NPR's Audie Cornish talked to Moss and co-star Samira Wiley when the show premiered this year.
NPR logo

Elizabeth Moss Has A 'Handmaid's Tale' Warning: 'This Could Happen Here'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/551897308/551897309" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Elizabeth Moss Has A 'Handmaid's Tale' Warning: 'This Could Happen Here'

Elizabeth Moss Has A 'Handmaid's Tale' Warning: 'This Could Happen Here'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/551897308/551897309" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Last night's Emmys had the usual song and dance plus a dose of politics. From the opening monologue to a cameo by former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, the political mood even extended to the biggest winner of the night.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OPRAH WINFREY: And the Emmy goes to "The Handmaid's Tale."

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

"The Handmaid's Tale" tells the story of what happens when a theocratic dictatorship takes over the government and gets rid of women's rights. The series took home eight Emmys. The show is on Hulu, and this was the first time a streaming service took home the Emmy for best drama. "The Handmaid's Tale" is based on a book by Margaret Atwood.

SHAPIRO: Our colleague Audie Cornish spoke with two of the stars of "The Handmaid's Tale" earlier this year. While she's on maternity leave, we thought we would revisit the interview in light of the show's eight wins last night. They began by talking about one element of the story. The dictatorial government takes away women's access to financial credit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ELISABETH MOSS: It was very important to us from the very beginning to make sure that people understood that this is present in a sort of this-could-happen-here idea.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: That's Elisabeth Moss. She plays Offred, the main character. In this imaginary country called Gilead, women don't even have the right to their own names. Samira Wiley plays Moira, Offred's best friend from before Gilead. In flashbacks, their world seems normal. They go for jogs, talk about Uber and Tinder and organize protests. So when the government suspends all women's bank accounts both Offred and Moira react with disbelief.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE HANDMAID'S TALE")

MOSS: (As Offred) They can't just do this. They can't.

CORNISH: In fact, Offred's husband at the time, Luke, assures her that he'll take care of her, and she and Moira call him out on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE HANDMAID'S TALE")

MOSS: (As Offred) It sounds a little patronizing.

SAMIRA WILEY: (As Moira) He's so patronizing.

O-T FAGBENLE: (As Luke) Go on, bring it on. I want to hear why I shouldn't take care of my wife.

WILEY: (As Moira) My wife?

FAGBENLE: (As Luke) Yeah.

WILEY: (As Moira) She doesn't belong to you.

MOSS: (As Offred) That's right.

WILEY: (As Moira) No, no, no, she isn't your property, and she doesn't need you to take care of her.

CORNISH: Samira Wiley, as you were going through this scene - I mean it's interesting. This is language that we hear all the time. We hear it today. And this is a character - like, he loves his wife, right? This is not supposed to be an insult.

WILEY: Absolutely. It's not supposed to be an insult. It's supposed to be, I believe, reassuring to his wife that everything is going to be OK. It comes from a place of love. But Moira is very, very sensitive to that language. She is in every way, shape or form a feminist. She feels like she's standing up 100 percent for what she believes in and where women should be in the present. And if anyone comes even close to jeopardizing that, it is her responsibility to nip that in the bud.

CORNISH: You know, it's one thing when you hear this language laughing over the kitchen table. It's another thing when someone is wielding it against you with a cattle prod.

WILEY: Absolutely.

MOSS: (Laughter) Yeah. Yeah, I mean that scene - you know, it's directly from the book. And it really sets up this complexity that Margaret Atwood is so good at of, well, what is my husband supposed to say? The women now don't have access to any of their money. And of course my husband loves me, and he just says what comes naturally, which is, I'm going to take care of you. And of course that brings up a sensitive issue of, oh, great, now I have to be taken care of.

CORNISH: The rest of the story is about these women living in this period under this repressive regime. Because of widespread infertility, women are essentially commodities literally reduced to their fertility. And it's interesting. Other women are expected to police, train (laughter) and punish them. I mean they are the enforcers in this process. There are some characters known as Aunts who help do this training. And one in particular, Aunt Lydia - we have a little sound of her in indoctrination mode.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE HANDMAID'S TALE")

ANN DOWD: (As Aunt Lydia) You girls will serve the leaders of the faithful and their barren wives. You will bear children for them. Oh, you are so lucky.

CORNISH: That, oh, you are so lucky at the end is just so chilling. Like, in my living room, I was like, oh, I don't know. I don't know if I can do this.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: How did you think about, like, how women become a part of systems sometimes that hurt other women?

MOSS: I mean I think that, you know, it's - this is Elisabeth, by the way. It's another interesting thing raised by Margaret and by the show, which is, a really good way to control women is by using other women. And we also play the opposite, which is, women when they stand together can be incredibly powerful. Ann Dowd plays Aunt Lydia, and when she speaks about the character, she says from her perspective, she loves these girls. She believes she's actually doing a good deed and good service by protecting these women. And that's one of the things about this show - is we provide these different points of view and make these characters complex and not black and white.

CORNISH: Costuming plays such an enormous role here. You have the rich married women of privilege wearing blue, the barren Aunts wearing gray and the Handmaids, who are basically both sexual and birth surrogates, wear scarlet red and this white bonnet that restricts their vision. What kind of effect did the costuming have on you?

WILEY: I think - this is Samira, by the way - it highlights the differences between who I am and who the other is. It shows immediately how I am supposed to relate to someone. If I see a Handmaid who is of the same caste as I am, I know that we are equal. But if I see that you are a Martha, if I see immediately that you are a wife, then I know how I am supposed to react. And that is just another way to have the oppression right on top of these women.

CORNISH: The Handmaid's costume has appeared in real life in recent times. Silent protesters wore similar costumes in a demonstration against the passage of abortion restrictions in Texas. Have you guys seen these photos, and how weird was that?

MOSS: Oh, not weird, awesome - I mean so, so cool. This costume, this color, the bonnets, they're so iconic. And they stand immediately for feminism and women's rights. And you just take one look at that costume, and you know what that girl is doing. You know why she's wearing it. So for me, seeing something like that, it's a very moving thing.

CORNISH: It also reminds me or sort of drew something in relief I think the television show does different from the book - is underscored the idea of different kinds of resistance, that it's not - not everyone does it the same way. And how have you been thinking about that more because along this tour, I feel like everybody has asked you guys about the new administration, about Trump, about feminism. It's like they're kind of asking a lot of a television adaptation.

MOSS: (Laughter) Yeah. This is Elisabeth. I mean I think that's one of the great things about it - is there are many different ways of resistance and all of them should be used (laughter).

WILEY: Yeah, exactly.

MOSS: You know, I mean, marching, talking, conversation. Margaret has a quote that I love, which is, a word after a word after a word is power. And you can mean more than one. You can mean thousands.

WILEY: Exactly. I think that they are all valid. And the costumes and the world of Gilead strips people of their identities. And a television show at the end of the day can be art. And it can elicit real change. It can elicit real thought and real conversations for people who maybe necessarily wouldn't even be having these conversations. And I just feel so blessed to be able to be a part of something that can elicit real change.

(SOUNDBITE OF LESLEY GORE SONG, "YOU DON'T OWN ME")

CORNISH: Well, Elisabeth Moss, Samira Wiley, thank you so much for speaking with us.

WILEY: Oh, thank you so much for having us.

MOSS: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU DON'T OWN ME")

LESLEY GORE: (Singing) You don't own me.

CHANG: That was our colleague Audie Cornish interviewing the starts of "The Handmaid's Tale" earlier this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU DON'T OWN ME")

GORE: (Singing) You don't own me. Don't say I can't go with other boys.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.