Margaret Atwood and Elisabeth Moss on the Urgency of The Handmaid’s Tale

12 minute read

Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel about a society with a plummeting birth rate, in 1984. In the book, a totalitarian American regime strips women of their rights and forces those who are fertile to become “handmaids” to bear children for wealthy men and their barren wives.

Atwood challenged herself to only include events in the book that had happened in history. The result was a tale about the future that can, at turns, feel all too contemporary. The story includes an environmental crisis, restrictions on abortion, marches for women’s rights and Americans fleeing to Canada.

When Mad Men star Elisabeth Moss signed on to play the lead Offred in the Hulu adaptation of the landmark novel, most pundits predicted Hillary Clinton would be president. But just months after filming the show, Trump won the election and protesters at the Women’s March carried signs that read, “Make Margaret Atwood fiction again” and a Latin line from Handmaid’s, “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” (“Don’t let the bastards grind you down”).

The book is back on top of the bestseller lists and the show, which premieres April 26 on the streaming service, is “accidentally the most prescient story on TV,” says Moss. The novelist and the actor sat down with TIME to discuss The Handmaid’s Tale’s newfound relevance, how they define feminism and the joys and ills of social media, from Peggy Olson memes to slut-shaming.

Portrait of Elisabeth Moss and Margaret Atwood shot at the Time Inc. Photo Studios in New York, March 18, 2017.Ruven Afanador for TIME.

TIME: Why this show now?

Elisabeth Moss: I get asked a lot whether the show is in response to the election, but we were filming beforehand.

Margaret Atwood: The control of women and babies has been a part of every repressive regime in history. This has been happening all along. I don’t take it lightly when a politician says something like a pregnancy can’t result from a rape because a woman’s body knows it and rejects it. There’s an under­current of this [type of thinking]. And then it rises to the surface sometimes. But The Handmaid’s Tale is always relevant, just in different ways in different political contexts. Not that much has changed.

Moss: When we first met, we were in a very loud restaurant, so I was sort of leaning over the table trying desperately to hear all of your answers. But you said that the kernel of the idea was how you would control women by shutting down their bank accounts.

Atwood: Also it was, If America were going to do a totalitarian govern­ment, what kind of totalitarian government would it be? It wouldn’t be communism. No surprises there. I thought it would have to be some sort of theocracy, like the 17th century in the U.S. I was always very interested in the Salem witch trials, another instance of controlling women.

Moss: We touch on this more in the show than in the book, but even though things are bad for the handmaids, the government has improved some things. There are more babies being born, the air is cleaner.

Atwood: A character in the book says, “Better never means better for everyone.”

Moss: You’ve said a lot, and I’ve repeated often, that everything that happened in The Handmaid’s Tale has happened.

Atwood: Somewhere at some time. I made nothing up.

Moss: And now we’re at a time when our climate is what it is in America and in the world. Do you still feel this could happen?

Atwood: Even more so. When I first published the book, some people did the “it could never happen here” thing. “We’re so far along with women’s rights that we can’t go back.” I don’t hear that much anymore.

Moss: I know. One of the things when we first started talking about making the show was whether this was something that could be plausible. I love it, but is this something the public is going to buy into? And then unfortunately, six months later, it became a hell of a lot more plausible.

TIME: There are some differences between the show and the book. Why did you add more nonwhite, nonstraight characters?

Atwood: We’re taking off from now rather than 1984, and there are more multi­racial couples now. In the book I had them being so segregationist, they were just separating everybody and shipping them off the way the Nazis did.

In the show, it’s different. So just as we have cell phones in the plot now, we have to update other things. Although I was setting it in the future when I was writing it, I didn’t know anything about the future. I wrote that thing on an old typewriter in Berlin. We didn’t even have personal computers yet.

Moss: We wanted the show to be very relatable. We wanted people to see themselves in it. If you’re going to do that, you have to show all types of people. You have to reflect current society.

A question I get asked a lot in inter­views: Do you gravitate toward feminist roles? This is a question I struggle to answer because I don’t necessarily feel like they are feminist roles. I feel like they’re interesting women. The Handmaid’s Tale is considered one of the great feminist novels. I actually consider it a human novel about human rights, not just women’s rights.

Atwood: Well, women’s rights are human rights unless you have decided that women aren’t human. So those are your choices. If women are human, then women’s rights are part of human rights.

Moss: Exactly.

Atwood: When we use that word, feminism, I always want to know: What do you mean by it? What are we talking about? If the person can describe what they mean by the word, then we can talk about whether I am one of those or not.

Moss: I find myself getting slightly tripped up because I am a feminist, and I’m not ashamed of it. But that’s not why I chose this role. I did it because it’s a complex character.

Atwood: If it were only a feminist book, you would think, in that case, all the women are over here on the low side, and all the men are over here on the high side. But it’s more like the way human societies actually arrange themselves, which means some powerful people at the top. The women connected to those people have more power than the men connected to the bottom rank.

Moss: The commanders’ wives have more power than the male servants.

Atwood: You betcha. And Queen Elizabeth I had more power than Joe the peasant.

(Interview continues below)

Portrait of Margaret Atwood shot at the Time Inc. Photo Studios in New York, March 18 2017.Ruven Afanador for TIME

Moss: What is the book ultimately about for you?

Atwood: I think it’s about a totalitarian society in America the way it would likely be—except maybe the outfits.

Moss: Well, time will tell about the outfits.

Atwood: We’re heading into a situation in which health coverage is going to be removed for pregnancy and childbirth. At the same time, you’re going to force women to have babies by making it so they can’t get abortions. That’s like being drafted into the army. Except at least in the army, you get three square meals a day and a place to sleep. You’re not left out on the street. If you’re going to take away women’s choice and not give them an adequate wage or healthcare, what would you call that? I’d call it a bad deal.

Moss: We’re not politicians, but I get asked a lot what’s the average women or average person can do to prevent Gilead from happening.

Atwood: Well, they can vote, just to begin with.

Moss: That would help, wouldn’t it? Voting helps. Showing up. That’s a good first step.

TIME: Is it harder to get projects with multiple female leads made?

Moss: I’ve found that to be an issue. I optioned a book with two women in it and was told multiple times it was “too female.” I was like, Are you even allowed to say that?

Atwood: It’s not a problem in the world of writing because publishers have this lightbulb over their head that tells them that women read a lot of books. In fact, there was a funny thing that happened a few years ago in which they were girlifying the covers of fiction, including men’s fiction.

Moss: Really?

Atwood: You really had to fight off the publishers to keep them from putting flowers on your book.

Moss: What does Margaret Atwood read while she’s relaxing?

Atwood: I’m pretty omnivorous. Pop science—something where somebody else tells me the result with usually, I hope, lovely colored illustrations. Show me the pictures and tell me what you found out. Don’t make me actually do the study and kill all those mice.

Everything from there all the way through to sci-fi, spec-fic, regular novels, non­fiction, history, biography and graphic novels. A lot of history, as you might imagine.

TIME: Margaret, you mentioned earlier that you were struck by the fact that Elisabeth filmed without makeup.

Atwood: They wanted you to look sort of tired and baggy.

Moss: The worse, the better!

Atwood: Bruce Miller, who is the showrunner and chief writer, he said he felt that it allowed the acting to be more direct and because every little twitch and twinge was visible. There wasn’t anything between you and the camera.

Moss: Absolutely. And same with if I went paler or if I flushed or if I was cold, you could really see it. And we also did very, very close shots.

Atwood: So in a situation in which someone is not supposed to be registering seething rage, for instance, you can see your character is trying to keep a straight face. But you can see the tension.

TIME: Margaret, you’re very active on Twitter. Elisabeth, you’re not on Twitter at all. What do you make of the sometimes toxic nature of social media, including slut-shaming?

Atwood: I am on Twitter, but I’m too old to attract slut-shaming. I hate to break this to you, but I don’t think anyone’s interested in me.

Moss: [Sarcastically] What a shame. That’s too bad. I’m so sorry about that.

Atwood: Right? There are pluses and minuses of getting older. The closer you come to being dead, such as myself, the less likely you are to attract such things. Young women with some power are particularly subject to it, because it’s also a love-hate-love-hate thing. This is an attractive person whom I’m never going to have a date with, so I hate them. Don’t you think?

Moss: It’s similar to a scene in the show: a woman reveals that she was the victim of rape, and she’s told, “You brought this upon yourself. You deserve this.”

You go out in a sexy dress on the red carpet, so now we’re allowed to say whatever we want about you. But that’s not O.K.

Atwood: That’s always been the case. If you go back to the 19th century, it was opera stars and female theater stars who attracted this kind of thing. It’s not new. It just gets amplified.

TIME: Speaking of social media, Elisabeth, an image of your character Peggy from the end of Mad Men became a feminist meme. Do you think that will happen with The Handmaid’s Tale?

Atwood: Why did that become a meme for feminism? Because of smoking?

Moss: [Laughing] No. It’s her walking into her new job. She leaves this old place after a very long time.

Atwood: It’s a brave new world. You’ve come a long way, baby. Virginia Slims.

Moss: Exactly. She’s walking down the hall, and she’s carrying a box of her things and wearing sunglasses, doesn’t give a sh-t and has made this giant leap because it takes place in the ’60s. I’m super-proud to have been part of a moment that people can gain any inspiration from or connect with women’s rights.

I can ask the same question of you: Does the fact that I have the nolite te bastardes carborundorum (“Don’t let the bastards grind you down”) line from the book on my necklace, or the fact that people get it tattooed, is that weird?

Atwood: I’ll tell you the weird thing about it: it was a joke in our Latin classes. So this thing from my childhood is permanently on people’s bodies.

This interview appeared in the April 24 issue of TIME. It has been edited for clarity and context.

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