Elisabeth Moss on Why She Chose Now to Direct Several Pivotal ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ Episodes

·7-min read

SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Testimony,” the eighth episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 4, streaming now on Hulu.

When Elisabeth Moss chose the third episode of “The Handmaid’s Tale” Season 4 to mark her directorial debut, she did so because she wanted the challenge of taking characters she knew so well to new places — literally and physically. But when she chose the season’s eighth episode, “Testimony,” as the next one to helm, it was because she was looking for another challenge.

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“I felt like I had figured out who I was as a director on [Episode 3, “The Crossing”] and then it ended. And I wanted the opportunity to do more,” she tells Variety on the latest episode of the “Awards Circuit” podcast. Listen below!

Moss ended up stepping behind the camera again for a two-episode block that began with “Testimony” and concluded with Episode 9, “Progress,” which streams June 9.

In “Testimony,” Moss’ character, June, has been living in Canada, reunited with her husband Luke (O-T Fagbenle), best friend Moira (Samira Wiley), baby daughter Nicole and Emily (Alexis Bledel), the woman who got Nicole out of Gilead for June. But, Moss notes, “she doesn’t know who she is in Canada.” After “floundering” when she first arrives there, June learns Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) is pregnant and that fuels her fury, which leads her to agree to testify in person to the Canadian court. She makes her case for why Fred (Joseph Fiennes) should stand trial for his actions within Gilead, as well as invites Emily’s former Gilead aunt to their support group so Emily can have a catharsis or at least confront the woman responsible for her mutilation and the death of a former lover.

“After having been through everything she’s been through and seen everything she’s seen, I think if you went through that experience firsthand, you would be angry too,” Moss says of June. “And she says that in [Episode 8]: ‘Why can’t we be angry? Why do we have to write our feelings down in our journals? Why can’t we be like, “Fuck this shit.”‘ And I think there’s validity to that argument.”

Yet, when June testifies, she doesn’t allow the anger to take over. Instead, she is mostly calm and collected as she reads a prepared speech, only allowing emotion to slip in when she begins to talk about the other women she knew in Gilead, Moss notes.

“The reason why I suppose I chose to play it the way that I played it was because June is not an actress delivering an angry speech,” she explains. “She’s written this speech…she’s practically memorized it, she knows that the way that she has to deliver this is in a calm way to get the information across.”

The scene in which June testifies is presented as one long shot, with the camera starting wide and oh-so gradually pushing in closer on June as she reads. Moss shares that she did shoot “a bunch of coverage” of everyone in the scene with her to give herself options in the edit in case what she tried with the long take didn’t have the impact she wanted, but ultimately she didn’t use those other pieces because her initial instinct was right.

“I didn’t want to give the audience a chance to look away, just as June is doing in that courtroom,” she explains. “I wanted you to look at it from the point of view of the judges and I wanted you to not be able to breathe or distract yourself or take yourself away from this story that June has to tell.”

By contrast, though, some other equally emotional scenes were purposely done in fragments. When Emily is on her way to visit the aunt and sees her hanging, in order to keep things in her point of view, Moss shares she just wanted to show “flashes” of what became of the other woman. “It’s impressionistic, in a way,” she says.

And when Serena and Fred walk outside to find a mob of supporters waiting for them, Moss purposely cut back and forth between the couple and various people in the crowd.

The fact that there’s “anyone supporting them in Canada was chilling,” Moss notes, but she was also mindful of not making the crowd too large — and not only because they were filming amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was only recently that the news about the pregnancy would have come out, and so their fandom couldn’t be outrageous. They’re not Justin Bieber all of a sudden,” she says.

New health and safety protocols implemented to keep the Toronto-based set of “The Handmaid’s Tale” safe during the pandemic did not hinder Moss from capturing what she wanted. When it came to that crowd scene in “Testimony,” there was a 10-person on-camera limit, she confirms, so the end result is a combination of principal photography and VFX moving those 10 day players around to fill out the shot. Furthermore, to her recollection, only one scene needed to be rewritten to adjust location due to COVID-19.

“The scene between Luke and Moira on the porch [in ‘The Crossing’] originally was a scene at the vigil,” she reveals. “There was a pastor speaking and then they have their conversation on a bench, because he doesn’t want to really be a part of the vigil.” But, she adds that the way the scene turned out became “one of my favorite scenes” and “one of the best scenes I’ve seen [O-T] do.” She explains: “He’s beautiful in that scene and I don’t know if we would have gotten that if we were somewhere else and that that baby wasn’t in it.”

For the third episode, Moss worked with cinematographer Stuart Biddlecombe and the production design team on shooting style and color palettes as her character June was brought back to Gilead from the safety of the farm at which she had been hiding out, but to many new set pieces. “It’s ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ on speed,” Moss says of that episode. But for “Testimony,” it was all about “experimenting with taking the Gilead look that we had done for so many years and bringing it with June into Canada,” she notes.

And just as the Gilead look followed June into her new home, some of the Gilead ways and how she reacted to or coped with them did, too.

“How are you ever a normal person again? How do you ever interact with anyone you once would? I feel like she’s just trying to keep it down, she’s trying to bury it, she’s trying to keep a lid on it, and I just I’m not sure if she’s going to be able to,” Moss says — quickly adding, “Or if you want her to.”

“That’s how I feel and that’s how June feels in [‘Testimony’] when she’s like, ‘Really? This is what we’re doing?'” she continues. “Is what they’re doing and the resistance movement in Canada really going to get anything done? That’s the question June faces.”

Immediately in “Progress,” though, June faces a tough conversation with Luke. At the end of “Testimony” she said she needed to tell him about the last time she saw their daughter. When she first arrived in Canada she lied and said that interaction was OK, when in truth, Hannah (Jordana Blake) was imprisoned in a glass box, afraid of her mother.

“When she goes home and and says that to Luke, it’s because she’s starting to get herself back. She’s starting to be able to release things,” Moss says.

“Progress,” thematically, “is about love — old love and new love, and how love can change and morph and how relationships can change into something that you never thought they would be,” she continues. “It’s really about choice, and so is [the finale]: What choice are you going to make that will ultimately settle your future?”

Also in this episode, we chat with “Allen v. Farrow” filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering about the unexpected focus on that series. But first, on the Variety Awards Circuit roundtable, we discuss the rise of genre programming at the Emmys.

Variety’s Emmy edition of the “Awards Circuit” podcast is hosted by Michael Schneider, Jazz Tangcay and Danielle Turchiano and is your one-stop listen for lively conversations about the best in television. Each week during Emmy season, “Awards Circuit” features interviews with top TV talent and creatives; discussions and debates about awards races and industry headlines; and much, much more. Subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or anywhere you download podcasts. New episodes post every Thursday.

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