‘It’s alluded to in the novel … someday, something will happen to Fred. Quite soon.” In a neutral-looking cafe in central London, Joseph Fiennes is talking about the future of his role in The Handmaid’s Tale. “Why, though?” I plead with him. “Why does he have to die?” “It’s in the novel,” Fiennes explains very patiently. “He’s got to. Come on, there are some very angry women in red out there.”
When The Handmaid’s Tale first appeared on our screens in 2017, it was a bit like having an anxiety dream about the new politics, your subconscious supplying the sharp contrasts and glorious Technicolor, the brutally formal sexual violence and the intricate dystopian detail. There was a watchful intelligence in all the performances – particularly Elisabeth Moss as June/Offred, Fiennes as Fred and Yvonne Strahovski as Serena, his wife – which was arresting, and left you vaguely unsettled for a long time after each episode.
The programme’s makers understood immediately that they had done something prescient, but played down the political parallels in favour of the idea that this was just great drama that happened to arrive at the same time as Donald “pussy grabbing” Trump took office in the White House. (Nick Lee, who acquired the show for Channel 4 in the UK, said at the time: “Whether the original commissioners at Hulu had read those tealeaves or not, the drama is so compelling and the story so powerful that even without the parallels, it would still be a standout drama.”)
Seasons two and three have been even more chilling, and, in a sense, much more literal; partly because the writing has diverged from Margaret Atwood’s original and partly because the political context is so much darker. You can feel as if you are watching not a drama, but a public information warning. It repeatedly raises the question: at what point in the totalitarian journey do you run, and when is it too late?
Fiennes’s performance has become commensurately darker; his reading of the state of the real world is also pretty dark. “We knew at the start that the previous handmaid took her own life,” he says. “So I always used that as a basis for how dark that household was. He was pretty dark to begin with.” But Fiennes is playing something subtler than just any villain. “Really, Fred is pathetic. His voicelessness: that, for me, describes the man. There are brutal acts he didn’t command to happen, but he didn’t stand up. The last thing I want to do is talk Handmaid’s and then Trump’s administration, but somehow you can’t not equate some things. So you look at those Republican leaders who are not standing up, and they are all Fred.” It is a fascinating role to be in, acting the human weakness that enables the great disasters of history, as history unfolds before our eyes.
“There’s a scene we shot on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. You think about the Gettysburg speech and all that engenders, and the flag of Martin Luther. And you look from 1863 to 1963, and then to our dystopian future – Margaret Atwood’s future – and then at what’s going on in the administration today. Everything that went before, to build a government for the people, is now being torn down. And Gilead takes it down in flames. So, yes,” he finishes with grim irony. “We got lucky with the zeitgeist.”
And Fiennes, 49, takes it extremely seriously. In season two, there was a scene filmed in which Fred raped his wife during their visit to Washington, and he argued so strenuously against the plotline that it was dropped. “I felt that Yvonne had made such a beautiful, delicate trajectory of her character, it didn’t need a brutal rape to recoil back and find her hatred.” But more than that, “it just felt like an idea to push the misogyny. And I felt it was all already there. It didn’t need to be so brutally illustrated.”
The whole age, he says, has that “30s or 40s air of: whose side are you on?” OK, there probably wouldn’t be many actors (Charlton Heston, perhaps?) on the other side, but he clearly feels very keenly the responsibility, not just to take a side, but to fight it intellectually with everything he has. “In America, I’m careful not to talk too much about their politics,” he says.
Whether Americans can read what he says about them here and elsewhere isn’t a concern for his future prospects. But surely he must know when his stint on The Handmaid’s Tale will end just to plan his next job? “I don’t plan. I’m lucky to be working … I don’t have a choice, I’m not picking between the cherries six months or a year in advance.” Many actors, apart from the ones who have won Oscars, make this point – that three-quarters of them are out of work at any one time and some of them never work at all. Yet they are propelled by their vocation to never stop trying. How you deal with this, he says, “depends on if you feel you’re doing it to pay the bills or because you have to do it. There are the wannabes and the has-to-bes, and there are those that just have to.” This sounds to me like the most preposterous distinction ever. Before you have to act, you have to eat, unless, for personal wealth reasons, you think of bill-paying as something quite secondary.
But I’m making a mistake about Fiennes that people have been making about all seven of the siblings since the first (Ralph) became famous: that they grew up with these perfect, gilded prospects and went on to live perfect, gilded lives. (His father was a freelance photographer, and his mother a writer and painter.) It is an error made in good faith, since they are all incredibly successful (two actors, two directors, a composer, a conservationist and an archaeologist) and then there is that family tree, packed with industrialists, brigadiers, explorers – not putting too fine a point on it, the kind of jobs extremely posh people have. “It’s a name, isn’t it? I remember my mum being furious with publishers who wanted to use her married name because that would help the sale, and her just being so furious, all the time. The name can throw people off a bit, belie the truth.” He looks dismayed at having to explain this again, which is fair. “I understand it, if you don’t really look at the person and just look at the name. It’s easier to navigate the world and the people in it. It’s all easier with stereotypes, and everything is so immediate.
“When I was growing up, there were seven children and no real income. We grew up with debt. I grew up seeing that stress, and it has definitely informed me.” They moved constantly from one place they could almost afford to a cheaper place, 14 times during his childhood (or 12 times and 14 schools, he can’t quite recall which), but that, he says, almost as a throwaway remark, wasn’t the worst of it. We are discussing childhood idylls, places to which he feels rooted by landscape (the West Country, Norfolk), when he says: “I’ve got a problem with authority, but that’s to do with nuns in West Cork in the 70s. But don’t go into that.” Wait, why not? He takes a swerve which sounds like the end of it. “I got into television, really, through Ryan Murphy, the creator of Glee and American Horror Story … a brilliant television creative. Anyway, we did a film called Running With Scissors, it was sort of about Augusten Burroughs. And we improvised a scene in that – it was very cathartic – in which I got to write a poem about being beaten by nuns with bamboo. But anyway, I digress.”
Before Fiennes got into television, he had carved a striking early career as a romantic lead, beginning with the 1998 film Shakespeare in Love, which he played with such ease, mischief, energy, familiarity and assertive anti-respect that from then on, he seemed to be the go-to actor for English cultural history. “I’m just very lucky. Just lucky, lucky, lucky. I’d been working in the theatre for a bit, but I’d only been out of drama school maybe five years … and, yes, I’d been doing bits for the RSC, but spear-carrying bits.” He didn’t capitalise on the film as a Hollywood calling card, perhaps inevitably, since he, as he puts it, “went to drama school because I wanted to do theatre, not film. I had no compulsion to do film and television. It was radio and stage – don’t laugh at radio.” I’m not laughing. “I love radio. It’s the most difficult medium out there.” And while most actors’ heads are turned by adulation, he remains apparently immune to fame, and is rather sceptical about film. (Although he spent his 20s “jumping from one independent film to another, and I loved the freedom”.)
Asked whether he has defected, since The Handmaid’s Tale’s success, from the stage to the screen, he is unexpectedly old-school. “I think theatre will survive and cinema will die. Theatre has a social necessity; we need to get out, to integrate, socially, emotionally, on a human level. I’d love to think cinema won’t die, but I think it already has. With streaming platforms, phones and iPads. When’s the last time you went to the cinema?” I actually saw Toy Story 4 the night before. “My kids [who are seven and nine] haven’t seen any Toy Story films. Well, they tried one, it just didn’t lock in. It was cowboys and astronauts … they didn’t feel the connection.” This stuns me. What kind of freaks has he raised? “Original freaks.”
His wife, Maria Dolores Dieguez, is also an actor, and the family lives in Canada seven months of the year, with Fiennes creating fresh horrors in Gilead (The Handmaid’s Tale is filmed there), and the kids learning the Canadian national anthem and how to play hockey. “Peter Ustinov said Toronto was like New York run by the Swiss. And that’s true. Canadians are a lovely bunch. The crew is the best I’ve worked with.”
He loves all his co-stars, directors and costume designers, but is distrustful of the way things are going, especially in relation to box sets. “It couldn’t be a better time for creative staff, whether you’re a writer, producer, director or actor. It feels as if with streaming platforms, there’s a lot more need for content. Is the development process rigorous enough to meet this need? This appetite for content, content, content. How can anyone binge The Handmaid’s Tale? I don’t know how you do it without watching comedies in between, but this sense of bingeing all the time … it’s great.” His face is saying it isn’t great. Really loudly. “It’s the insatiableness. I love to go and see a Robert Lepage trilogy and then spend a week talking about it, breaking it down. We’re always on to the next meal. We’re missing that discussion between the meals.” I call this an ascetic stance, and he’s not sure about that, says he has never thought about himself in that way. But what I mean, rather, is that it’s redolent of that disgust at comfort, and hatred of indulgence and of gorging – he uses the word gorge quite a lot – that belongs to a different time. He seems, himself, to belong to a different time.
He disputes, too, the idea that in quality terms, this is TV’s golden age. “Weirdly enough, the best experience I had at the RSC was doing a Dennis Potter play. Everyone talks about The Sopranos being the moment that television defined itself, but sorry, you know, The Singing Detective, Pennies from Heaven, the whole thing about breaking the fourth wall. Look at the real House of Cards. The first one [broadcast in 1990]. All these things we talk about had been done already. I think TV back in the 80s was really exciting.”
For all of that, you can’t miss the pleasure and pride he takes in The Handmaid’s Tale, even while he takes his future demise with equanimity, even while he can see it may have an impact on what he does next. “I’ll only get misogynist roles for ages. I’m waiting for someone to slap or punch me in the street. I’m waiting for someone to be really disturbed by Fred because I’m really disturbed by him.”
Wherever it has gone, the conversation returns, irresistibly, to The Handmaid’s Tale, mainly because I can’t stop ruminating about its impact. “There are fans of the book, and there are people who discovered the book through the show, but what I think about is those young folks dressing up as handmaids in Alabama, silently protesting [against their new, very restrictive abortion legislation]; you feel as if you’re in something very important and very pertinent to people. So it’s great. At least I’ve done my bit for society, I’ve illustrated the patheticness of misogyny. Fred is very thinly illustrated in the book, so I didn’t know how it would open up. It’s luck, I think. I just got lucky, lucky, lucky.”
The Handmaid’s Tale, Sundays, 9pm on Channel 4, in the UK. The season finale is available on Hulu from midnight on Wednesday in the US