Culture

Joseph Fiennes on Leaning into Humanity with The Handmaid’s Tale

When Joseph Fiennes first broke out onto the big screen as young Will Shakespeare in 1998’s Weinstein-era Shakespeare in Love, the world swooned over his rascally magnetism, ease and rapturous delivery of the bard‘s most classic tale-in-the-making. The Tom Stoppard-scripted romantic comedy went on to win no less than seven Oscars—going up against Fienne’s other sumptuous period piece Elizabeth, and famously beating out Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture (to audible audience gasps). A charmed entry into Hollywood, by all accounts. 

Nearly a decade and a heap of theater later, Fiennes reclaimed his spot onto our protest-happy—now post-Weinstein era—collective consciousness as Fred Waterford in Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s zeitgeist-busting, dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale. A series so perfectly on point with the political climate and fury of the times that you might as well swap red hoods for pink kitty hats. This time around, not quite as the romantic hero audiences had come to know. And yet, binge-ing the show, as one does, it is impossible to feel that anyone else could have made such an unsettling, dark character so absolutely transfixing. 

With season four of the series now out, we spoke to the English actor and father of two about leaning into the humanity of the Commander (or trying to), its prescient crystal ball aspect in our tribalistic times, plus growing up on Buster Keaton & Charlie Chaplin, his love of war photography, and the long lost days of art and discipline before the dawn of technology.

LEO: I did a deep dive into season four of Handmaid’s Tale yesterday and could not stop watching. It got so good, I was on my couch for a full seven hours.

JOSEPH: Oh, you poor thing. Firstly, I apologize, but in the same breath, I am thrilled that you got addicted. How many episodes have you seen?

They gave me the first seven episodes. I’m interested to see how it’s going to play out.

Yea, it’s a fascinating thing. In today’s world, we’re sort of a series of factions and everyone jumps on their own soapbox. Sadly, we’re so divided, but what you see out of the Waterfords’ trial or incarceration  based on their very warped dystopian beliefs is that there are people that kind of like their extreme points of view. So it kind of reflects sadly the state of politics around the world, where we’re a series of tribes, aren’t we? Which is really sad. All these brothers and sisters, and we’re all separated by these beliefs. Everyone is standing up on their soapbox. But that’s the Waterfords. They certainly do get a fair fan base, if you like.

“Sometimes I wonder whether our writers are clairvoyant. They seem to kind of pitch it perfectly just as real life politics unfold.”

It felt like a not-too-subtle, but very well represented, kind of mirror of what’s been going on at the U.S. border. Or at least that’s how I read it. I thought they did a good job of acknowledging current circumstances. 

They did, and often ahead of those circumstances. Sometimes I wonder whether our writers are clairvoyant.They seem to kind of pitch it perfectly just as real life politics unfold [laughs].

There is something to the series that speaks so strongly to women’s place in society and the way women are treated. I’m curious how it feels to have been given the responsibility of being one of the men in a project like that?

When I read the book, Commander Waterford within the novel is very thinly sketched—that’s not to say what he inflicted on Offred wasn’t painful or appalling. It was evident the repercussions of her interaction with him, in the book, was enough to sort of startle me. But there is a responsibility; I guess all actors, when you enter the mind and realm of a character like Fred Waterford, you’re pulled one way into sort of the archetypal, nasty, misogynistic patriarch. But then I guess our job as actors is to kind of try and find—you know, I don’t know that there are many similarities between me and Fred [laughs]—but to find, at least, where it all went wrong. 

“Leaning into the human elements of what someone in his position does is more frightening to me than just playing the monster who gets off on power… he’s a weak man who needs powerful women, but when they rise up and dominate him—it’s at that moment that he wishes to shut them down.”

What I find fascinating in the book and Fred—and what I try to do—is lean into the idea that what’s frightening is that he’s human. And I think, if anything, a big part of his downfall is the corrosive effects of power, of being untouchable, of getting away with it. And I guess we all could fall into—you know, such as an actor doing quite well— with notoriety, with fame, and money. Is there a sense that one can understand a man who is very, very driven politically, that he’s corroded to a degree by the effects of power and he’s bought into this idea? The regime of Gilead promotes that the patriatrical rule is the way; institutional rape is a virtue because it brings the population that’s ailing back. I guess, in many ways—bastardizing scripture, twisting scripture. 

We all kind of rationalize. I have been in predicaments where I might rationalize myself out of a situation to make myself feel good. Well, we all do that; I think that’s very human. With that in mind, I think Fred would rationalize that everything he actually did was Offred’s fault, and actually he’s the victim, not her, that she manipulated him in order to survive. That she drank whiskey in his study and broke the protocols of Gilead. 

Joseph Fiennes

So I guess, in many ways, leaning into the human elements of what someone in his position does is more frightening to me than just playing the monster who gets off on power. It’s interesting to me that Fred has surrounded himself by two very powerful women. It tells me that he’s a weak man who needs powerful women, but when they rise up and dominate him—it’s at that moment that he wishes to shut them down. And he’s in a position of power to do so. So it’s a curious kind of predicament where he wants to control the thing that actually he’s very kind of enamored by.

You wouldn’t be doing your job if you were judging your character, right? You’re there to understand him.

Trying to—which is difficult in this day and age—but yes, trying to lean into the sort of human qualities, I guess, and trying to unpick the fallibility and the contradictions that surround us all. But with Fred it’s obviously on a disgusting war crimes level [laughs].

There was a scene that I thought was so telling. It really came down to one line–when you’re in the meeting with the handmaid who used to work in your kitchen, she tells you to handle your own family business. Your response to her is, “But I was never cruel to you.” And that’s it. To him as long as you were nice to her: well, what?

Yea Fred’s a PR guy. Everything is objects. I think he will always turn the situation around to benefit him, and it’s that kind of weird rationale that I think he kind of—he’s a spin doctor, if you like, and that’s what he sort of falls back on. It’s that typical predator thing. The predator will go out and tear lives apart, and then turn around and say: actually, it was the victim’s fault, not mine. That’s the kind of weird rationale which I see and read about a lot, all too much, and I guess that’s what I’m trying to shine in a way on Fred. 

Joseph Fiennes

I know that you have a particular interest in photography, and your father was a photographer.

You’re correct. My father went into photography rather late in life—or he switched careers, if you’d like, around 40. But essentially, he followed a passion he had as a child, which is film, and we have vast amounts of his collections of funny Charlie Chaplin films, a lot of black and white silent films he collected when he was 13 or 14. He was a member of a film club when he was young at school. 

I remember in my childhood, we would put up the big screen, and we would watch these movies. It was a wonderful way to get the family together and just have a real hoot looking at these brilliant comics like Buster Keaton or Chaplin. 

My dad’s love of film was there from an early age; when he was brave enough to make the decision to go into photography, I remember on many occasions being his assistant and carrying these huge trunks of lights, and a massive kind of operation box, and lenses and tripods up mountains or wherever he might be filming or taking his photography. 

It was very much a part of the family, and so it wouldn’t be unusual for any one of us to have a camera strapped around our neck when we’d be out and about. 

My father mainly was commissioned to do architectural photography, so I got to go to incredible houses and gardens and many stately homes in Britain. That’s what I remember mostly—these extraordinary sort of Georgian palaces.

My wife has studied the last 7 years in New York under a wonderful tintype academy called Penumbra, run by a wonderful group of tintypers. She studied with them, and the last several years has been producing her own tintype here in Spain. So my love of photography has been reignited through my wife’s new discipline and dedication to tintype photography, which is an incredibly painstaking process. I love assisting her, like I did my dad. 

Full circle.

Yes. Full circle..

“I think we’ve come to an age where technology allows so many people to participate very rapidly in producing photographs and films, and this is wildly exciting. At the same time, you feel there is a huge loss or leap away from discipline.”

Would you say you’re more of a color or black and white guy?

I’m a black and white guy. I guess it just harks back to the early days of magnum, and I love reportage and photographic journalism. All of that reporting on the war. I love the photography of the ‘70s. I like the composition and the depth and tone of those pictures. And tintype is black and white. I love ambrotype as well, on glass tint. I love watching that process. I love the magic of development. 

I think we’ve come to an age where technology allows so many people to participate very rapidly in producing photographs and films, and this is wildly exciting. At the same time, you feel there is a huge loss or leap away from discipline, away from understanding the skills of the way chemicals interact. Knowing your F stops and knowing how much developer to pour on the picture. There’s all that kind of schooling which is somewhat lost in the excitement and acceleration of technology. So I am kind of an old school black & white guy. 

And you collect photo books?

I’ve got sort of a library of various artists. Some unknown. I love the idea, especially for my children, that you can just pick up literature or photography books. Just to get lost in an image, to kind of ponder—even if it’s for a few seconds. Just to daydream and try to understand what that story is telling you, where the photographer leads your eye within the frame. It doesn’t have to be anything other than just getting lost for a second, in a moment, in a story. And so for that reason, I love it more than just following a famous photographer. It’s really about just having stimulus I guess. Stimulus and stories. Surrounded by that on a bookshelf I think is very enriching for one’s life. 

Do you have a favorite?

Don Mcollum is one I am particularly moved and haunted by. You feel, like—how he could not have succumbed to that kind of [war time] horror himself? 

I am sort of fascinated with this book called The Bang Bang Club, about these war photographers. Whether it was in Sierra Leone or the Middle East. Covering heavy, heavy conflicts and loss of human life, from babies to women and men. Looking through that lens and taking that composition that might end up on Time Magazine—the guilt that you might carry that you’ve captured this powerful image for the world to see. And through that lens, how it’s seared onto that person’s retina who took the picture, and the effects of capturing that moment. 

I don’t know why, I just sort of always circle around to what it must be  like for those brave and brilliant people who go in—they must be affected deeply by what they see. And they’re off developing that picture, but what happens to that subject, you know? Whenever I see pictures or photographs that move me, especially from war photography, you wonder, what did that photographer do—or those that were around that photographer—for that ailing person that was on fire or has been shot and needs a hospital? So I am always left with the repercussions of what happened after that photo was taken. I don’t know, I should ponder more on happier things [laughs].

“I am always left with the repercussions of what happened after that photo was taken. I don’t know, I should ponder more on happier things [laughs].”

It’s interesting how deeply you attach emotion to the photos, and it seems you kind of create a story to go along with what you are looking at. I wonder if you find that your experience working in film has given you a different perspective looking at photography than you might’ve had otherwise?

Well, that’s interesting. I mean I’m always fascinated by the architecture of film, the choice of lenses, the choice of angles, the dolly, the static, the wide versus the close-up—all of those extraordinary components, and also windows and staircases. I love film noir. I love the way a moment is framed, the way someone enters the frame, the way someone is looking out from the frame; I love anamorphic. I love Tchaikovsky for his wonderful ability to muse on the frame, and the size of the frame, and the scope. And I love Malick for that. Terrance Malick is so wonderful at being able to engage us within the frame. So I find it very exciting. 

Maybe that is part of the full circle that we were talking about earlier, as a kid watching the silent movies of Buster Keaton and Chaplin and the others. It’s stories and predicaments that from an early age held me captive. 

You’ve had such a prolific career, has there been something that you’ve always wanted to do that you haven’t had the opportunity to yet?

I would love to go back to photography. I would love to, in some way, shape or form in the future, try directing—whether it’s theatre or a short film. I’ve been producing quite a lot over the last four years, and I’ve got a couple of projects which are emerging at a near shootable stage. That journey has been exhausting, much longer than I could ever imagine the developing process to be, but it’s been hugely rewarding. So there’s a couple of projects that I would really love to see through from the idea to filming. It’s much more rewarding in many ways than acting and being in front of the camera, being behind the camera, making things happen, and putting writers together and finding directors. I find that hugely rewarding, so I’m sort of on that journey, not quite there yet. But, touch wood, the end of this year or next year will bring to fruition a few projects I’ve been slaving away at.

The Handmaid’s Tale season 4 is streaming now on Hulu.

Joseph Fiennes, Handmaid's Tale on Hulu
Photo Courtesy of Hulu

CHECK OUT JOSEPH

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In director Terrence Malick’s Way of the Wind

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As Fred Waterford in Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale 

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