Meet our JONES Autumn cover star Yvonne Strahovski
W o m a n o f t h e h o u r
When it was first announced that a TV series based on Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was in the works, the reaction was fairly muted. After all, how much relevance could a dystopian novel from 1985 really have in April 2016? That same month, Hillary Clinton announced her presidential campaign and it looked as if, come January 2017, there might finally be a woman occupying the Oval Office.
Cut to a year later and the TV show made its April 2017 debut in a very different world – one where its themes about the oppression and exploitation of women were suddenly, startlingly pertinent again. In a year in which women united to march for their rights, to strike in solidarity and to call out harassment, The Handmaid’s Tale had clearly struck a chord.
The blood red robes and stiff white bonnets worn by the series’ main characters became symbolic of the restrictions placed on women’s freedom and autonomy, and the outfits became popular with protesters, most notably pro-choice activists concerned about proposed changes to abortion laws in the US. The robes and bonnets even made appearances in SNL sketches, at Halloween and on the runway – the oversized black bonnets featured in Vera Wang’s Spring 2018 collection were evidence of just how influential the show had become.
Embraced by the critics and showered with awards, the series was also a ratings juggernaut, so it came as no surprise when a second season was commissioned. All the main cast will return, including Australia’s own Yvonne Strahovski, who plays the spine-chilling Serena Joy. During a break from filming on the series’ Ontario, Canada set, Yvonne reflects on the show’s surprising success.
“I remember feeling early on that this was going to make a mark in some way shape or form in the history of television, if only in terms of the performances that I was witnessing. It was palpable. But I didn’t realise the political and social impact it would have,” she says. “But, by the time Trump’s presidency started unfolding and as we got into the Women’s Marches, it became pretty clear that this was not your ordinary show, that we had accidentally started to reflect real life.”
Playing one of the series’ antagonists proved challenging for Yvonne. “The first season, I felt like I was grappling with her ideology. I was almost resentful that I had to not judge her because I had to play her, to justify her actions and moral compass and her level of integrity,” she admits.
Her character, an anti-feminist villain and ruthless enforcer of the patriarchy, is married to Commander Fred (Joseph Fiennes), a high-ranking member of the government. Together, the couple enslave Offred (Elisabeth Moss), attempting to use her to give them a child, since Serena is infertile. But Serena is far from being a one-dimensional baddie. Yvonne’s portrayal of a desperate woman in an even-more-desperate situation oscillates between moments of tenderness and moments of pure brutality.
“Her very first performance was extraordinary,” says series writer/producer Bruce Miller. “She made me feel sympathy for Serena, for this cruel, hypocritical, vicious woman. That’s when I knew that Yvonne was the right woman to play Serena. Her fearlessness as a performer, coupled with incredible emotional precision make her endlessly intriguing to watch.” As an actor, Yvonne’s come a long way – both artistically and geographically.
Born in 1982 to Polish immigrant parents, she spent her childhood bouncing around NSW – from Penrith to Ashville to Maroubra, making friends who remain in her inner circle today: “My oldest friend, Nell, we met on our first day of kindergarten and we’re still besties!” she laughs. Like so many entertainers-to-be, Yvonne spent her youth “goofing around” in front of her dad’s JVC camera, re-enacting classic sketch shows like Full Frontal before starting acting classes at the age of 12.
After graduating from an acting program at the University of Western Sydney, she was almost immediately signed up to an agent, earning her stripes on homegrown series such as Headland and Sea Patrol. It wasn’t long before Hollywood came calling and she quickly found herself cast in roles that showcased both her smarts and her striking looks. She was twice cast as sharp, stunning CIA agents in TV series Chuck and 24: Live Another Day and will return to the action genre in the upcoming Predator sequel slated for later this year. And, along the way, there was her star turn as another villain – murderer Hannah McKay in Dexter. For Yvonne, a career high point (terrifying though it was) was working with Robert De Niro in 2011’s Killer Elite.
“It was very nerve-wracking. It was his first day on the movie. I’d already been working and, of course, everyone from the production office came down to watch his first takes. I was terribly nervous and hating the fact that they put the camera in my direction instead of his!” she laughs. “I failed miserably on that first take, I’m pretty sure. But it was still amazing – one of the coolest experiences to be able to hang out with him. I’m always observing people and their style, what they do between takes, and he was so relaxed and conversational between scenes.”
“I remember feeling early on that this was going to make a mark in... the history of television... But I didn’t realise the political and social impact it would have.”
What she does between scenes on Handmaid’s, mostly, is gather herself in preparation for the next one. “I had to take breaks within the episodes, to pause a couple of times and just recover,” she says. “You do have a show that is reflecting so many people’s fears and emotions about what is going on in the world, especially in the States, and it’s weird to be a part of it, but not be on the right side as the character. I’m on the other side, the villainous side.”
Describing one of her more surreal moments on set, she says, “Even just the other day, we were shooting a politically-charged scene and, at the same time, I was tuning in between takes to the live broadcasts on the postal survey on marriage equality in Australia. It was just insane playing this woman who is so extreme with her fundamentalist views but yet, as I’m being her in the show, there are real-life events that have me cheering while I’m in my costume as Serena! It’s a really crazy experience.”
When not on set, Yvonne spends much of her downtime recharging in the outdoors in Malibu, where she lives with her husband, actor Tim Loden.
“I’m usually down at the beach or up in the Malibu mountains doing a hike, or spending a lot of time with my two dogs,” she explains. “I’ve got a bunch of friends who love doing the same thing, so we’re always out in the bush somewhere, exploring.”
Most recently, as a sort of honeymoon (Yvonne and Tim were married in mid-2017 after a nine-year relationship) the newlyweds took a road trip across America to the set of the second season of Handmaid’s: “My husband, my two dogs and I, we drove from Los Angeles to Toronto; we did about 4000 miles.”
Like many actors, she’s a bit of a nomad. She credits her adult wanderlust to her parents, explaining, “I grew up travelling with my parents, they instilled that in me. We would always jump in a car to go travelling somewhere and explore beaches and national parks, so I still do that. I’m a big fan of road trips.”
Yvonne as Serena Joy in The Handmaid’s Tale
On the flip side of all this outdoorsy activity is, of course, another aspect of being an actress in a successful series – award shows. With Handmaid’s being nominated for (and winning) just about every gong going, that’s meant a lot of “glamming up” for Yvonne. A self-confessed lover of classic, simple lines, she has started to push her limits for recent red carpet appearances. “I’ve grown to be more appreciative of fashion because I don’t come from that world, but I’ve found myself branching out a little more lately,” she says. “I recently wore a Public School piece for one of the Emmys pre-parties. It wasn’t something I’d ordinarily put on... [but] it ended up being one of the favourite things I wore for some time. I feel like I’m becoming braver in the choices I make. But having said that, I’m most comfortable in a pair of jeans and a T-shirt.”
Of course another, more disturbing, aspect of being in the acting industry has recently come to light. The Weinstein scandal put the harassment of women in Hollywood – and the wider world – firmly at the forefront of the cultural conversation. “I don’t know any woman I’ve spoken to inside or outside of Hollywood who doesn’t have a story to share when this kind of thing comes up, which is alarming. It’s just been something that you’ve had to go along with and accept and carry on with your day and it just shouldn’t be that way,” Yvonne says carefully. “But at the same time, the fact that there’s a huge spotlight being shed on this right now is extraordinary. And as difficult as this is for so many people in so many different ways, it is an extraordinary movement that feels like a revolution, that we’re finally being heard.”
As a woman, as a wife, as a working actress, does Yvonne feel heard? “I think so much of it is about... accepting yourself and that requires a lot of fearlessness – to accept all that you as a human have to offer, all your flaws and positivity, and to move forward in life owning and respecting that and honouring yourself.”
Words by DIVYA BALA
Photography by CAITLIN CRONENBERG
Styling by TRUC NGUYEN
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