21 behind the scenes facts about The Handmaid’s Tale

Everything you need to know about the adaptation of Margaret Atwood's novel starring Elisabeth Moss - including who Aunt Lydia was pre-Gilead

(Hulu)

Award-winning dystopian drama The Handmaid’s Tale starring Elisabeth Moss returns for a second season– but what does the future hold for the women of Gilead?

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Read on for 21 things you didn’t know about Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

1 Where is the series filmed?

Television’s current hot ticket is filmed in a sprawling lot in Toronto, Canada, and on location around the city. Which, as fans of the book and the show will know, is ironic, since Toronto is where refugees from Gilead — Margaret Atwood’s dystopian society, formerly the United States of America — escape to.

2 Is the new series based on the books?

Since the first series finished where Atwood’s classic novel did — with Elisabeth Moss’s handmaid Offred (real name June), pregnant, being bundled into a van — season two is an entirely new story, written specifically for television. “Even though we are moving past the book, there are some details we have taken from the book and just expanded upon — like the Colonies,” explains Moss.

3 When did Margaret Atwood write the books?

Margaret Atwood — herself a native Canadian — wrote the original novel on a rented typewriter in Berlin in 1984.

4 What was the filming like?

The 13 episodes in the second series were shot over a period of six months and three weeks, between September last year and this April. In the depths of the Canadian winter, temperatures on set dropped to –20C.

5 The iconic costumes have real-life significance

With the enormous success of the show, and its parallels with political issues in the real world, the handmaids’ uniforms have been copied and used in protests in the US at courthouses and on marches. “In a weird, twisted way, it makes sense,” says the show’s costume designer, Ann Crabtree. “Women are saying: this was used as a means of controlling women by the patriarchy. We are going to completely twist that around and re-use it.”

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6 Elisabeth Moss is also a producer

Moss is also a producer on the show. “It’s a sh*tload more work — it’s just constant — but it’s so much more fulfilling as well,” she says. “I don’t just show up, do my scene and leave. If I’m not acting, I’m making calls, I’m watching cuts of episodes.”

7 How did the show create that creepy atmosphere?

The eerie atmosphere created by the juxtaposition of modern environments with archaic ideas and dress codes is deliberate. “The handmaids [including Alexis Bledel’s Ofglen] look like they belong in a farmer’s market,” says director Reed Morano, who designed the look of the show, with a 64-page lookbook. “What is more weird and disturbing is handmaids walking around in a fluorescent-lit supermarket, where there’s no writing anywhere [women are not allowed to read or write in Gilead], and a very limited amount of product.”

8 The series has a great scheme to encourage female directors

Every director on the drama — in series two this includes Mike Barker and Jeremy Podeswa — is paired up with a younger female director who shadows the director on set.

9 What’s the overall premise of series 2?

If series one was all about “the building of Gilead, series two is the slight undoing of Gilead,” reveal the show’s writers.

10 Who do we get to meet in series 2?

Series one focused mainly on the lives of the Commanders (like Joseph Fiennes’s Fred Waterford) — the elite of Gilead’s ruling party — and their handmaids. Series two will introduce the Econopeople, Gilead’s working class.

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11 The show’s writers didn’t draw inspiration from the news…

While the show feels spookily prescient, in the era of Trump and #MeToo, the cast and creators deny they have attempted to align the storylines with real-world events in this new series. “The writers don’t see things in the headlines and then write them in our show,” says Moss. “But there is, obviously, a reason why this show is so relevant — because it is about us, as humans, and what we are going through, in the world, not just in America.”

12 … but the current climate did inform the series

Nonetheless, series showrunner Bruce Miller does admit that the polarised cultural context cannot help but inform the show. “You’re starting to hear people verbalise things you didn’t think people thought any more — open sexism d misogyny and racism,” he notes. “As horrible as that is, if it’s being expressed it’s a lot easier for us to understand how people with that attitude think, which helps us write characters who — while behaving in a horrifying way to the audience — believe they are doing good in the world.”

13 Those iconic ‘wings’ aren’t very hardy

The costume department hand-makes a constant supply of new Handmaids’ “wings”, their white bonnets. “They are very delicate and get ruined in the weather,” says Crabtree.


Watch the season 2 trailer here.


14 Gilead is environmentally friendly

“The philosophy of Gilead is all about traditional values,” says Miller. “And the people of Gilead believe the precipitous drop in fertility rates [which led to the forcible use of handmaids to breed future generations] was caused by environmental factors. So, as far as possible, everything on set is made of natural materials, or made to look natural, at least.” There are no microwaves or iPads in Gilead, and all the cars are electric.

15 The ‘Econopeople’ don’t have much to wear

The wardrobe for the Econopeople is limited. “They don’t have many clothes,” says Crabtree. “All their clothes were taken away when Gilead was established, and they were given one sweater and one skirt. Women of all classes are not allowed to wear trousers in Gilead.”

16 Moss has a Handmaid’s Tale keepsake

Moss owns a necklace — a gift from a friend — bearing the mantra Nolite te bastardes carborundorum. The faux-Latin, incorrect translation of “Don’t let the bastards grind you down” was a joke from Atwood’s school days, which she put in the book. Some fans of the show have reportedly had the slogan tattooed on their bodies.

The Handmaid's Tale (trailer screenshot, EH)
The Handmaid’s Tale

17 Why were the Commander and Serena aged down?

The characters of Commander Waterford and his wife Serena Joy have been made younger for the show than they were in Atwood’s original book. Fiennes believes this subverts the audience’s expectations. “I think of Syria, and one particular leader, who looks like a very nice academic,” he says. “You would never attribute the horrors happening there to somebody who looks like that. I love the complexity of wrongfooting the audience with someone’s age and the way they look.”

19 Serena is trapped in Gilead

“Serena has built her own cage,” says Yvonne Strahovski of her character, one of the architects of Gilead. “I think she’s probably come closer than ever to thinking that maybe this society isn’t the greatest thing for her, but she really doesn’t have an out. She can’t leave the Commander, she can’t divorce him — she just has to make do. And she’s so trapped — she’s a war criminal. If she leaves and goes to Canada, she’s going to be thrown into jail. And I think she’s smart enough to think of these things.”

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20 The Commander stole artworks for his home

The attention to detail on set is assiduous. “All the paintings on the walls of the Commander’s house are copies of pictures from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, because the idea was that they looted them and put them in their houses, like the Nazis did,” says Miller. But there are different styles of pictures in different parts of the house. “In Serena’s sitting room, the pictures are more pastoral, whereas in the Commander’s office the art is more edgy.” There are also books in the Commander’s study, but nowhere in the rest of the house, lest women be tempted to read.

21 Aunt Lydia was a schoolteacher before Gilead

One of the show’s most terrifying characters, propagandist Aunt Lydia, was a schoolteacher pre-Gilead, according to the backstory the writers have imagined. “That makes tremendous sense to me,” says Ann Dowd , who plays her. “I could imagine her in an all-girls’ school, being made fun of — ‘Oh, look at the hag’ — being humiliated and learning to develop a tremendously thick skin.”

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The Handmaid’s Tale returns to UK screens on Sunday 20th May at 9pm on Channel 4. It has already begun airing in America on streaming service Hulu


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