INTERVIEW: Madeline Brewer Talks ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’

The Handmaid’s Tale brutally explores the fates of many complex women in the face of a dystopian not-so-future, and we recently had the chance to catch up with one of them. Madeline Brewer (Orange is the New Black) plays Janine, a young woman who becomes Ofwarren in the Gilead era and goes through plenty of trauma. She had a lot to say about her character’s development and the differences between the book and the show. Read her answers below.

Did you read The Handmaid’s Tale before you got the role?
Madeline Brewer
: I had not read it previously. I’d heard of it because it was my grandmother’s favorite book. So when I got the audition, my mom was like, “Oh my gosh! You’re going to get it.” So as soon as I got it, I read the book. I just think it’s so beautiful that they’ve kept a lot of Margaret’s actual words, because it’s so important. It can’t be said any better than she said it herself.

Are there any big changes for Janine from the book to the show?
Madeline: Yes. I guess in the book Janine loses touch with reality a little bit, but we’ve taken it to the next level, I think, in the show. I don’t know why the writers decided it that way but for me, it’s almost like Janine kind of shows the audience how I think most of us would react to this world. You know, she’s having a true and honest reaction to her surroundings, because anyone would just absolutely lose their shit.

Ofwarren with Offred in episode 2.

So what is it like getting to play both sides of a character, Janine and Ofwarren?
Madeline: You know, we haven’t touched on a lot of Janine before. But especially in that first episode, just in those few lines that we see Janine and hear her, it was a total transformation because of who she is at the start and who she is coming in, what she thinks of herself and everything she’s known up until that point. At that age you have an idea of who you are. You’re kind of settling into that idea. You’re not really exploring, you’re kind of just making yourself at home in yourself. Janine’s entire world and who she is, is totally flipped. Not that it is any different for any of the handmaids, but she has just the added layer of the missing eye and what happens in this world when she speaks out as she did in her old world and in her old life.

So do you have an idea of what Janine’s life was like before?
Madeline: I have an idea and I’ve spoken to Bruce Miller about her background and about what makes Janine Janine, and why Janine becomes the way she is after her eye is plucked out. Seeing those little bits pop up here and there is what’s really fun for me. It’s like playing two completely different people and two different realities and different parts of the brain.

How much did you work with Reed? Do you think that it was important to have a woman directing this world?
Madeline: Yes. I think that Reed set up this world in the most beautiful and heartbreaking way. She was so in it with all of us. I wasn’t even there as often as Lizzie or some of the other actors but to have her input and have her set us off on this foot … it just couldn’t have gone any other way. Her unique vision and voice for the story is just so [powerful].

It really does feel like it’s a story about women by women.
Madeline: She set the stage just visually, of the world that we’re going to stay in for all 10 episodes. I haven’t been on that many shows, so I don’t really know about the switching directors thing super well, but I know that you want to keep kind of the same vibe. I think she’s wonderful. I couldn’t sing enough praises about Reed.

Handmaid’s Tale was written in 1985, but it feels so relevant. Did you guys have any discussions about real life parallels?
Madeline: I think the only thing that we really discussed is just the idea that something like this could happen. Gilead is set in an alternate present, because it’s basically 2017 but not obviously right now, because I still have a credit card. So just the idea of that something like that could happen and how horrific it would be and how important it is to stay aware of it and how quickly it could turn. Not that we have to be wary of it right now, but just like …

It happens from night to day in the story, and it can feel like that in real life when there is like a big change.
Madeline: Yeah,  be strong and steadfast in fighting for the things you believe in, like women’s rights and LGBTQ rights and everything that’s important to you. The second you stay silent and you stay asleep to what’s happening in the world, that’s when you lose everything. You lose your life as you know it. Most people… something like that doesn’t affect you unless it happens or it doesn’t really stir a chord unless it happens to you or someone you know or someone you love, or happens to someone that you love who knows someone like that. It’s important to just have humanity and just care about your fellow man, basically.

Since you and Samira were both unfairly killed off in Orange is the New Black…
Madeline: Hulu just scooped us up.

Do you ever swap stories about the old days?
Madeline: No, because it was so long ago, you know? So much has happened since then. Also, when I was on Orange, I was just a silent; just like … I was afraid of the world. I wasn’t trying to be unfriendly, I was just like … it was my first job. So I was just really nervous.

What do you relate to most about Janine right now?
Madeline: She’s so fascinating. She really is, and I hope to do her justice. In this day and age, the way you look is so important. Janine’s past is not one of abundance or of abundance of love or affection, so I think Janine relied very heavily on her body and her looks. Then you pop an eyeball out. I guess I can relate in that way. It’s like, you know, you have a day where you just look in the mirror and you’re just feeling really shitty about yourself. That’s Janine’s kind of existence now in Gilead.

Conversely, what is the hardest part about playing a role in this universe?
Madeline: Just how some of it’s a little too close for comfort. I’m not necessarily saying we’re leading up to that, but… That could happen if we’re not awake, if we’re not watching and questioning everything. This could just happen right under our noses. That, and also having a prosthetic on my eye for, like, 14 hours a day. Luckily, I’m actually legally blind in this eye.

There are a lot of fates that are left ambiguous in The Handmaid’s Tale novel, which doesn’t really have an ending. Will the show have a more specific ending?
: I have no idea. As I’m getting more and more scripts, I’m like ‘what is happening?’ I don’t know. I know that for my character specifically, [her story deviates from the book]… They’re just spreading it out. So I think if there were to be a season two, they would still have aspects of the original novel in it.

If there is a season two, hopefully you survive.
Madeline: Who knows, I’ve died in every other show I’ve ever done.

Find out if Madeline Brewer makes it through the world of The Handmaid’s Tale by watching the first three episodes, now streaming on Hulu.