The Handmaid's Tale Cast And Creators On The 'Big Story' They're Telling [Exclusive Interview]

"The Handmaid's Tale" is steadily inching towards its end: Season 5 of the Hulu series debuts on the streamer with its first two episodes today. The adaptation of Margaret Atwood's 1985 dystopian novel has been lauded for its ability to disguise itself as a metaphor for real-world issues. Its latest season is an honest depiction of its protagonist's trauma and how the past can sometimes be inescapable. The new season dives deep into June's (Elisabeth Moss) story, her actions, and the weight of their consequences, and highlights how they impact the people she loves.

Ahead of "The Handmaid's Tale" season 5 premiere, /Film spoke with its Emmy-winning showrunner Bruce Miller, executive producer Warren Littlefield, Emmy-nominated actors Madeline Brewer (Janine) and Max Minghella (Nick Blaine), and Emmy-winners Bradley Whitford (Commander Lawrence) and Ann Dowd (Aunt Lydia). The creator and producer shined a light on the creative partnership they share with actor/director Elisabeth Moss, while the cast teased the show's big season finale, the spin-off series "The Testaments," divulged their experiences playing characters that are neither good nor bad, and more.

'The big story we're trying to tell is the story about trauma'

(This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. Spoilers for the first two episodes of season 5 follow.)

This season is about June choosing the kind of person she's going to be. She has agency, and she's finally coming to terms with all the freedom she now has in Canada. How would you two describe what you set out to achieve this season with June's story?

Miller: Well, my intention is mostly just to bury myself in June's choices up until now and follow her. I think when you have Elisabeth Moss, and you write a scene, she pushes it in ways, and so you're trying to follow June. But I think the big story we're trying to tell is the story about trauma — that it doesn't go away so fast. And it's a long process, a life-long process. And I think, in some ways, television has done a sh***y job preparing people for the world, because every problem gets solved so cleanly, or someone who used to be a bad person becomes a good person and then you can trust them forever. It's not the way the world works. So I think that, in this case, we have a responsibility to the people who have trauma in their lives for real — like most people do have some sort of trauma — to show that what it's like inside of June's head for that process.

She took a big swing last season. And this season, she's trying to figure out what that means in terms of her being a person. But also, I think she's trying to wash it off — wash off the sin that she committed. And she can't. Which, why did she think she would be able to? Last season, I'm sure you would've been with her in the woods, screaming, "Yeah!" It's not so much fun to watch the aftermath.

I'd love to hear about your creative partnership with Elisabeth Moss, with Bruce as director and showrunner, with Warren as the executive producer, and with her being involved as an actor, but also as a director — she directed three episodes this season.

Miller: Well, Warren, do you want to talk about the triangle a little?

Littlefield: I was just going to say that word, Bruce. It's so funny. We both are so much in the same place. Very early on, what we defined was a triangle of trust for Bruce, Lizzie, and myself, knowing that this journey was going to be a partnership and that we were all reliant upon one another. Lizzie added a new dimension to that when she not only immediately rose up after season 1 to be a full executive producer, but —

Miller: And really, not in name only, but to do the work.

Littlefield: Yeah. And then, when she said, "I think I can tackle directing; I'm ready for this." It's a sight to behold.

Bruce: It is, really.

Littlefield: Her level of preparation, her desire to be absolutely in the trenches, making those decisions and learning more and more about how to be a better producer as she prepares to direct. And I thought season 4's work, from her, was outstanding. But there's another level of sophistication and another level that she's gone to in directing in season 5. And she loves it.

So, she has to, in moments, wear the director's hat. And then she also, in moments, has to say, "Well, as a producer, maybe we can't have 500 people in that scene." It's been fascinating and wonderful to watch. And she remains ... she is our partner, and she's a leader. On that set, she is the leader and everyone follows. Every show should be blessed with that kind of leadership, because everyone falls in line and tries to match what Lizzie brings to it.

'Especially the finale, you'll see a confrontation between the two of them'

/Film spoke with Madeline Brewer, who has portrayed Janine in "The Handmaid's Tale" since 2017 and earned an Emmy nomination for her role last year. Janine has been on a rollercoaster ride for the most of the series, and continues to experience highs and lows this season ... particularly a jaw-dropping betrayal that is seen at the end of episode 2.

Madeline, you've said before that Janine is a cat with nine lives. We've seen her get back up stronger every time things don't go her way. Is this a season where Janine gets to exact her revenge for everything that she's been put through? What do you think is going on in her mind?

Brewer: I don't think that Janine is a revenge seeker. She's unlike June in that way. I think that this season, she's metabolized all of the things that have happened to her. And I think that she's just trying to get what happiness she can out of this life, what purpose she can out of this life. I think, when we see her toward the end of the season, just enough has happened to her that something has turned, not in the direction of vengeance but in the direction of numbness, which is new for Janine. She's not a numb person. She's has not numbed herself to things. But I think she's just so, she's just so...

She's tired.

Brewer: Yeah, she's tired.

What was your experience working with Mckenna Grace, who plays Esther? You share such great chemistry with her on screen. 

Brewer: I adore that little girl. She's not even a little girl, she's 16. But it's so much fun, just getting to play with Mckenna. And she's such a pro. She's definitely more professional than I am. It's just stunning to watch her work, and to watch her work through what Esther is going through. I love her. I love working with her. She's great.

I want to talk about that Janine and Esther seen at the end of episode 2. I'm sure a lot of people are going to be shocked. I was. Is that going to change the relationship, the dynamic between Janine and Esther, a little bit? How do they move on from something as terrifying as that?

Brewer: For Janine, everything else that Janine has been through, the cat with nine lives situation, it's either been of her own doing or at the hands of the men and Aunt Lydia and the Republic of Gilead. This was done to her by a friend. This is someone that she trusted and someone that she loved and someone that she respected, who, before she tries to kill her, tells her that she hates her. It's really devastating, and I think that it breaks something in Janine, who has such a well of love in her. And then I think it causes the relationship between Aunt Lydia and Janine to morph as well. And then Aunt Lydia's relationship to Gilead. It sets off a chain of events that's really unexpected.

Going into the second half of the season, how do you think Janine is beginning to feel about Aunt Lydia? We've already seen Aunt Lydia being more compassionate and understanding than she was before towards Janine. But is Janine able to trust that? She's been betrayed so many times.

Brewer: I think that Janine doesn't have that kind of hopeful, wide-eyed, innocent energy anymore. I think she sees things in a very practical way. And I think she does see the ways in which they're helping each other. And she loves her she does want to be in her good graces. Also, being in Aunt Lydia's good graces is beneficial to her.

Especially in the second half of the season, and especially the finale, you'll see a confrontation between the two of them that is the culmination of five years, and how much they have changed, and the tables have turned. They've just changed as individuals. Their relationship has changed.

'I think we all contain the capacity for good and for evil'

Nick and Commander Lawrence have always been gray characters. But in this season, it's really clear that they're trying to make Gilead a better place. I'd love for you to take me through your shared experience of playing characters that are neither good nor bad.

Whitford: I can start with that. They're the best kind of characters to play, because I think we all contain the capacity for good and for evil, and circumstances can bring out the best and the worst within us. I think both of us, as characters — part of the power of the character of June Osborne is that she is able to elicit decency, blow on the spark of decency. And it's amazing [that she] surprised me by actually showing me a path to redemption, in the wake of my wife's death, that I didn't know was going to be there. But the circumstances are tough. It's not easy in a totalitarian regime.

Certainly. Max, do you have anything to add to that?

Minghella: I love it. I'm drawn to that in fiction in general. I like storytelling that isn't didactic. I like fiction that allows the audience to participate and bring their own perspective. And as Bradley said, this is a show that's all about the spaces in between and the subtext and the gray. And it makes every day interesting.

Bradley, Commander Lawrence is my favorite character this season. He's so hilarious in unexpected situations. I'd love to hear about whether his humor and his sarcasm is a choice that you also helped make and how much of that was already on the page?

Whitford: I always found him ... there was an irreverence there from the beginning. These writers, in a long-running show, they're watching what you're doing. And I can tell, especially this year, that they were writing that way. I was very excited because there was one moment where a writer of one episode thought I had improvised a particularly potentially inappropriate line that made it into a cut and called the other writer. And the writer of that episode said, "No, I wrote it!" So, that was a big victory that they thought I was being a smarta**, and that showed that we were in tune.

Max, one of the things I love about Nick is that he's so hard to read as a character. In this season, though, he's not just making decisions for himself, but he's also looking out for June, and trying to navigate how that works. Do you think he's maybe accepted that his future lies in Gilead and not with June, and that's something he's working towards?

Minghella: I don't know if it's ever occurred to Nick that there is an alternative path to Gilead. It's all he's ever known since he was very young. I think all of us, as human beings, need an inspiration or something that they can point to in order to make difficult, brave decisions. And I think Lawrence is really the first time he's had anybody in his life who has paid attention to him in a non-strategic way, and also has intelligence and has worldliness and these things that have never been available to him.

'I am so looking forward to that journey, let me tell you'

Emmy-winning actress Ann Dowd has always portrayed the stern Aunt Lydia in "The Handmaid's Tale," but things are changing this season. Fans of Atwood's novel already know that Aunt Lydia's journey continues in "The Testaments," a sequel to "The Handmaid's Tale," set 15 years after its events. Aunt Lydia is one of three characters narrating the story, and Hulu has announced production on the adaptation already. /Film asked Dowd about her continued association with "The Handmaid's Tale" universe, and the performer revealed she is looking forward to that journey.

There's a lot of internal friction that Aunt Lydia is seen wrestling with this season. Do you think she's beginning to see the harm Gilead has inflicted upon women, even if she won't outright admit it?

Dowd: Yes, I think so. What is important to Lydia is a relationship with God and putting these girls on the right path to a more meaningful life. I think that's real for her, but I think what shocks her — or now what she's willing to actually see — is the truth of what is going on in some parts of Gilead. And I think the notion of commanders deciding they can rape the girls whenever they want, I think that knocks her completely off her feet. It goes to a place where, "Have I been missing this? What was I thinking? What happened to my ability to know what's going on?" I think slowly she will see more and more. That's what I would say.

There's a turning point for Aunt Lydia in season 5 following an event that takes place with Janine and Esther — I'll stay cryptic about it because I don't want to give away spoilers, but it really helps Aunt Lydia see the handmaids in a new light, with so much more compassion. Do you think her journey will continue on a similar path in "The Testaments" and can we hope to see you return in the role?

Dowd: I am so looking forward to that journey, let me tell you. I don't want to give away spoilers either, but I think it's fair to say that Lydia is seeing things in a new light and that will not change. That will only increase. What she has is great patience in God and knows to keep track and aware and alert and to record it. So there we go, step by step. She's very smart. I like that.

She's always used fear as a vessel to train handmaids. What do you think Aunt Lydia fears in this season?

Dowd: About the handmaids?

Or in general. She always gets the handmaids to do what she wants, but is there anything that she is particularly afraid of?

Dowd: Well, when you come to realize certain things that have been going on right in front of you, your life becomes very unpredictable. By that I mean the walls are crumbling for her. That narrow road she traveled for so long is beginning to widen and that doesn't put you in a stable place at first. That's terrifying. It's like, "Wait a second, I want to go back to where I understood and my world was small." Not anymore. So I think that's a journey for her each day. "All right, just stay present. Keep your feet on the ground." I think it's going to be a very powerful journey and I think it will go to the right place. I don't know where the writers are going to go, but that's what I would say.

The first two episodes of "The Handmaid's Tale" season 5 are now streaming on Hulu.