Joseph Fiennes on The Handmaid’s Tale and portraying actors that write
Grace Phillips using La Mer and Laura Mercier
A familiar face on the silver screen Joseph Fiennes is now mesmerizing audiences as Fred Waterford on Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. Fiennes portrayal of the enigmatic patriarch dazzles fans through the suspenseful storytelling and the cat-and-mouse game with Offred, played by Elizabeth Moss. The actor discusses being versatile across theater, movies, and television and about how he enjoys doting on his children.
From the second season of American Horror Story to the current Emmy winning The Handmaid’s Tale your trajectory seems to focus on storytelling. What aspects of this dystopian novel attracted you to the role?
It’s all about storytelling…from an early age it’s what we are nourished on and it’s also how we are as children able to negotiate the more complex and darker themes later on in life, hopefully before encountering them. At some level I’m drawn to cautionary tales and dystopia. The aspects I was compelled by in the book and the role was the depiction of fundamentalism and the corrosive effects of power, in this case in a patriarchal theocracy of which there have sadly been a few to many!
Many argue that shows like The Handmaid’s Tale exists in the golden age of television. Do you like the longer arc to develop a character such as Fred Waterford?
We have certainly entered the golden age of TV. The iPhone is now the small screen. With so many new platforms, the need for content and incredible production value we get to explore in a more in-depth way characters over years. It relieves us from the generic arcs of cinema and without those constraints characters explore continued dimensions that is hard to reach in film. TV continues to break new ground and as an actor it’s exciting to be a part of that.
Your relationship with Offred (Elisabeth Moss) is so tenuous that it seems like it can snap at any scene. Do you find yourself lost in their sneaky cat-and-mouse game?
The relationship here is so complex and subtle. The tension lies in the idea of who’s really in power, how Offred navigates her survival and how Fred trades on that. At any point it could snap. It’s also about his need to have contact, his need to atone for what happened to the previous handmaid but whilst all that is happening he can’t help be a predator, he can’t help but groom and abuse. Because he is high on power and believes he’s untouchable. And in that labyrinth of cat and mouse with Elisabeth I do get wonderfully lost.
Your portrayal of Fred Waterford is very different from the novel’s version of a “pathetic, soft, withered limb that lives inside a tough military boot.” How do you view your interpretation, and do you believe it lends to the show’s nail biting suspense?
I do believe he is still that pathetic limb inside a tough military boot. And he’s hidden behind that facade of power. But slowly he is also becoming the mask he wears. Ultimately the tension and suspense come from the characters bouncing off each other in a world of suffocation… All the actors are lending to the suspense.
The Handmaid’s Tale is going into its second season with a lot of excited fans of storytelling. What do you hope to achieve in this season that may have been missed in the first season?
Season 2 I feel is very authentic to Season 1 and the book. However, it will explore narratives that are mentioned in passing in the book. We will explore those narratives in detail. like the colonies. It might look at how Gilead was formed and how it negotiates and trades with neighboring countries. Most importantly it will continue to achieve the inspirational way Offred survives and resists.
There have been murmurs that The Handmaid’s Tale may go beyond the finale of the book. How do you feel about extending and exploring this world?
Should we believe the murmurs? If so its good news… I’ve a job to go back to! There will inevitably come a point where we depart from the book if we go into more seasons. But it will always be underpinned by Margaret Atwood’s original work. I feel in this political climate we have to extend because when we explore Gilead we explore ourselves… And that’s a dialogue we really need right now.
From Shakespeare in Love to The Merchant of Venice you seem to have a passion and delight when it comes to the esteemed author. Are there any Shakespeare plays that you want to bring to light?
Yes, but most of his great work is constantly being played and the audiences know them so well. They could practically mutter the lines along with the actor… Not too inspiring!
For many of the aspiring actors that admire your ability to transform into a role. Can you explain how much of an impact two seasons with the Royal Shakespeare Company can aid in the understanding of acting?
I remember doing two plays on alternate nights and rehearsing another in the day and then playing three plays over two years. My time at the RSC was exhausting but certainly, aided me in understanding how to maintain one’s energy. More importantly I was a dresser at the national theatre for four years and that taught me how things operate backstage, and not unlike a film… There are many amazing people behind the scenes making the actor look good… It’s all about team work.. And that more was important to remember than anything.
With illustrious careers in both the United States and across Europe, is there preference as to where to work?
Not really, I love variety, and cultures!
“Radio, it’s the one medium that requires the listeners total imagination and is the one medium I can fully submerge into. It is the best for storytelling.”
Where to live?
In the presence of my loved ones.
You often portray characters that write. Is there an art that you dabble in?
I feel that one form of discipline in art can take a life time to master…and I’m at the infancy of understanding my craft. So, no time to dabble elsewhere!
With experiences in stage and film. Is there a medium that you find to be better for storytelling?
Radio, it’s the one medium that requires the listeners total imagination and is the one medium I can fully submerge into. It is the best for storytelling.
Actors can get lost in their work. Often times feeling drained and depressed because of the characters they portray. How do you unwind in order to be ready for another day of shooting?
The laughter of my children and a date night with my wife is my happy escape.
If provided more time to rest and relax. Where would you like to be? And what do you want to do?
To rest and relax I dream only of being in Spain on a mountain top in the Tramuntana surrounded by family.
Your career is incredibly robust because of the range of characters that you have played. Is there a role that you want to either expand on or revisit?
I’m currently working on a TV adaptation of a role I played in the theatre.. And am excited to expand and revisit that character.