Since moving to America in 2007, Yvonne Strahovski has made a name for herself portraying women who combine a tough, icy exterior with an underlying warmth and vulnerability. Women like Chuck’s no-nonsense spy Sarah Walker; tough CIA agent Kate Morgan, who held her own against Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) in 24: Live Another Day; and morally complex serial poisoner Hannah McKay in Dexter.
Strahovski’s latest role, as Serena Joy Waterford in The Handmaid’s Tale, is certainly as outwardly clinical and humourless as anyone she’s played before, but it’s questionable whether she has the kinds of redeeming qualities that made her other characters so likable hidden beneath the surface.
Watch the first episode of The Handmaid's Tale here:
That’s right, even a murderer is more appealing than Serena Joy, the wife of Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) in The Handmaid’s Tale’s messed up dystopian society of Gilead. In her relatively privileged position – she’s at the top of the female hierarchy, but, being a woman, her freedom is still restricted – Serena wields considerable power, and does so with a terrifying harshness.
In the series' opening episode, right after she and her husband perform "the Ceremony" with Handmaid Offred (Elisabeth Moss) – an act which is rape in all but name – Serena hisses at Offred to get out as if she's the one who's been violated. Later in the season, she confines the Handmaid to her room when it transpires pregnancy didn't eventuate.
"I find myself apologising [to Moss] a lot of the time in between takes because I just feel so horrible with what I’m doing," Strahovski admits. Her co-star gets it, though. "It’s a normal day for us. We come in every day, just like anyone going to their normal job; we try to have a laugh where we can because often we’re in very awkward scenes together."
For the Sydney-born actress, connecting with such an intensely unsympathetic character was not easy, although there was the opportunity to explore a more complex version of Serena than the one that appears in the novel.
"I tried to find the humanity in Serena, even though she’s absolutely horrendous," Strahovski says. "We really got to dive into Serena’s backstory and I got to have some vulnerable moments as Serena. It was really nice to have an opportunity to try and find what makes her heart hurt and what makes her sad, rather than just being completely nasty the whole time."
That said, Serena is pretty nasty and playing her was a challenge. But taking on a role that pushes her beyond what she’s done before is something Strahovski looks for in a project.
"Most actors don’t like to get pigeonholed and told what other people want us to keep playing, so when this opportunity came about, I went for it," she says. "This is the type of thing I want to sink my teeth into, for sure. I like changing it up and it can be a bit of a fight to get there, but here I am.
"I probably wasn’t the go-to actress for this kind of role. Also, in the book Serena Joy is a lot older – she’s arthritic and has a cane. At one point, they might have thought about honouring that more. I loved that choice to go with a younger Serena, selfishly because I get to do it, but it also seems to make sense to add that into an already awkward situation."
Indeed, having Serena and Offred very close in age - both actresses turn 35 at the end of July - works incredibly well.
"For Serena, it really highlights that sadness of her not being able to have a baby and puts it at the forefront of her mind and amplifies everything as far as the competitive feeling she might have for Offred. The jealousy, the envy – all of it is heightened," Strahovski says. "Just the fact that you have two women who are pitted against each other having to exist under the same roof under these very strange circumstances, it amplifies everything at once."
Refusing to be pigeonholed and defying expectations have served Strahovski well so far in her career. It’s why, with only a handful of Australian TV credits to her name (Double The Fist, Headland, Sea Patrol), she dived in the deep end by auditioning for spy comedy series Chuck – a big budget action adventure series on a major US network. After recording her audition in Australia, she flew to LA and was given the part days later.
It’s also why, besides her TV roles, Strahovski has worked on a diverse array of other projects, such as local films I Love You Too (a rom-com written by Peter Helliar) and Matching Jack (a family drama also starring Richard Roxburgh and Jacinda Barrett); Australian-American co-production I, Frankenstein (based on the graphic novel of the same name); and Hollywood movies The Guilt Trip (alongside Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand) and the upcoming All I See Is You (with Blake Lively and Jason Clarke). In 2012, Strahovski made her Broadway debut in the Tony-nominated revival of Golden Boy.
Having that theatrical training and the versatility encouraged in Australian actors is something Strahovski credits for her success in America. And with The Handmaid's Tale renewed for a second season – not that she can reveal anything about what to expect – it's a career that'll continue going from strength to strength.
The Handmaid’s Tale is available to stream at SBS On Demand.