The Handmaid’s Tale cast and crew were out in force at the Toronto Film Festival on Thursday evening for the world premiere of the two first episodes of season five, ahead of their release on Hulu in the U.S. on September 14.
In a Q&A after the screening, creator Bruce Miller announced that a sixth and final season had been greenlit.
Miller was joined on stage by executive producer Warren Littlefield as well as lead actress Elisabeth Moss, who directs this season, and other key cast members Yvonne Strahovski, Max Minghella, Bradley Whitford, O-T Fagbenle, Amanda Brugel and Sam Jaeger.
“It’s an honor to be showing it here in Toronto, where we shot the show,” said Moss, adding that season five had been the hardest one to make so far due to its bigger scale and the challenge of shooting over the winter during the Covid pandemic.
Picking up from the final scenes of season four, the new show opens in the immediate aftermath of the brutal killing of Gilead co-founder and commander Fred Waterford by June Osborne and other handmaids in the no man’s land on the border with Canada.
Moss revealed that the challenge of both acting and directing had forced her to think about her role of June in more depth
“I always wondered if it would distract me from the performance and from acting and I happily discovered that it deepened my understanding of June,” she said.
“Normally, to be honest, when I am just acting, I don’t pay much attention. I don’t do any of the thought that you’re supposed to do,” she said, laughing. “But when you’re a director, you have to think about it, you have to talk to the writers and actors, so I found I did a lot more work as an actor being a director.”
Season five sees Waterford’s wife Serena Joy step into her husband’s shoes as June’s main bête noir. Strahovski, who plays Serena Joy, said it had been fine taking Serena on a fresh journey, even if she missed not having Joseph Fiennes on set in the role of Waterford.
“There are so many juicy things to do with this character. This is an exciting set-up for this season,” she said.
“But I would say don’t let it fool you, because we really had an opportunity to really truly explore, dare I say it, the ‘Juliet and Juliet’ love affair that is the June and Serena relationship this year, [with] new heights and depths.”
Whitford, who returns as the unpredictable character of Commander Lawrence, recalled how he had first met Moss on the set of The West Wing when she was 17 years old. He said that now seeing her behind the camera filled him with pride.
“I just remember this poised kid… and then I get to meet this woman and have this incredible creative experience and I’m so proud of her. It feels the way I feel about my grown kids, it’s like, ‘I can’t believe where you became’,” he said.
“There’s a lot of things about being an actor that are really kind of humiliating and corrosive. Because you’re a pawn in a story and you kind of develop this psychology of submission,” he continued.
“To see an actor saying I can take what acting has given me, the instincts to know when a moment is working, and I can take more responsibility for the story and to do it, [it’s] like Jesus Christ,” he said.
Minghella praised Moss’s ability to lead on set and juggle her role with directing the rest of the cast.
“We’re all weird people. All of us up here are pretty eccentric, and we all have our own stuff, and our own particular psychologies and egos, and she is so elegant,” he said.
“There’s a scene in episode two when she has to deal with all of us and she does it effortlessly. And that’s a really hard part of, directing. I’ve done it very, very briefly but I think one of the hardest parts of it is the leadership aspect of it and creating an environment where everyone feels not only good but that they can do their best work. She has this ability to extract something that is so vulnerable.”
The Handmaid’s Tale premise of a world in which women are stripped of their reproductive rights has taken on fresh resonance in the light of June’s overturning of Roe v. Wade
Miller said, however, that this event had not fed directly into season five because it had been completed by the time of the ruling in June. He credited writer Margaret Atwood for the prescient nature of the show.
“Margaret Atwood and her novel is really responsible for this. We’re starting from a territory that was predictive when it came out 30 years ago and is predictive now,” he said.
“All those questions she proposed about women and reproductive rights, and women and their bodily autonomy, all of them are still in play. It’s really the prescience of Margaret Atwood and us being comfortable, to lean on her and her story ability.
Aside from announcing season six, Miller also revealed some details on his plans for an adaptation of Atwood’s 2019 novel ‘The Testaments’, a sequel to ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ focused on the character of Aunt Lydia.
“I’m thinking about The Testaments in terms of what I’m doing here, to try not to make it so it’s impossible to do, you know to kill people off who we would need,” he said.
“When Margaret started to write [‘The Testaments’], she gave me a list of people I was not allowed to kill and also a list of names that certain people we had to have. Fortunately, Margaret’s been talking to me about it for a few years so that stuff that was going to be a precursor to The Testaments was already being incorporated in our show.”