“The timing has been uncanny,” says Margaret Atwood, marveling at how her 1985 novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale,” has not only been given renewed life as a TV series but has also gained disturbing urgency.
“Last Nov. 7, they thought they were making a fantasy fiction series,” Atwood says. “On Nov. 9, they thought maybe they were making a documentary.”
However you take it, “The Handmaid’s Tale” premieres Wednesday on Hulu with three gripping episodes. The remaining seven will be released each Wednesday thereafter.
The cast includes Joseph Fiennes, Alexis Bledel and Samira Wiley, and stars Elisabeth Moss as Offred, who, as one of the few remaining fertile women in the cruel dystopia of Gilead, is among the caste of women forced into sexual servitude in a desperate attempt to repopulate a ravaged world.
Such is life in this totalitarian society, where human rights are trampled and women in particular are treated as property of the state.
Needless to say, Offred is a career stretch for Moss, who remains best known as proto-feminist copywriter Peggy Olson on the advertising drama “Mad Men,” and who initially caught the audience’s eye as First Daughter Zoey Bartlet on “The West Wing.”
Now 34, Moss further expanded her horizons during the “Handmaid’s Tale” shoot in Toronto: She took on the additional role of producer.
“I had no interest in it just being a title card,” she says, “and I was extremely lucky. They listened to me and asked my advice on things in a way that I didn’t expect. It’s been an amazing opportunity for me to learn. And now I’m totally obsessed with it! I’ve got two different projects that I’m considering buying. I’ve got lists on my phone for actors I might like to cast!”
One thing she learned along the way: How to watch herself objectively on film.
“I was definitely one of those actors who did not enjoy watching myself,” she confides. “I’ve gone without seeing films that I’ve done. I have only watched about 50 percent of ‘Mad Men’ episodes. But there came a point where I had to start watching the (‘Handmaid’s Tale’) dailies, and it was a lot easier than I thought it would be. You’re not wearing the actor’s hat, but the producer’s hat. And it allowed me to let go of that preciousness about my own performance and view things based on what’s best for the show.”
The tone of “The Handmaid’s Tale” is subdued, reflecting the oppressive conditions the women live under. And it posed an acting challenge for Moss, one that Atwood, 77, as the novelist who created her character, calls “pretty difficult.”
Moss’ problem, says Atwood, “is to show someone who is unable to speak out, because it’s too dangerous, but who has to convey to the audience those emotions she is suppressing. We must be able to be inside her mind, while also being in the larger situation.”
“I want Offred to be the wife, mother or friend that you can see yourself in,” Moss says. “I want you to think, ‘That’s how I would react. That’s how I would feel.'”
During a season hiatus for “Mad Men,” Moss added to her roster of oddly relatable performances: She played an Australian police officer returning to her remote New Zealand hometown where she confronted the disappearance of a local 12-year-old girl in the acclaimed 2013 miniseries “Top of the Lake.”
“That allowed me to prove to myself that I could do someone else other than Peggy Olson,” says Moss. “I could have felt paralyzed after ‘Mad Men,’ but ‘Top of the Lake’ helped me understand there would be other great material out there post-‘Mad Men.’ It freed me up.”
Now, along with several other projects in the works, Moss looks forward to a hoped-for second season of “The Handmaid’s Tale” as unfolding real life seems to reinforce its power as a cautionary tale.
“Women who had taken for granted their rights as women are now really quite worried,” says Atwood, noting the women’s marches and other protests since Donald Trump became president. “I would say they’re right to be concerned.”