In its first season, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale gave South Jersey’s Madeline Brewer plenty of reasons to think her character would never make it to the second.
But as the Emmy-winning drama premieres two of 13 new episodes on the streaming service Wednesday, Janine is still among the living.
“Anything can really happen, and especially to Janine, who has skirted death so many times,” Brewer said in a phone interview Tuesday. It’s not as though the actress, who grew up in Pitman, Gloucester County, hadn’t been there before: Her first TV role, in Netflix’s prison drama Orange Is the New Black, ended with her character, Tricia, dying from a drug overdose.
“When I found out I was jumping off a bridge [in The Handmaid’s Tale], I said, ‘Well, OK, that’s the end for me,’ and then I read the end of the episode, and it turned out I was still alive. So that was a pleasant surprise,” said Brewer, whose character, a rape survivor, had by that point already had a baby taken from her and been punished for a minor act of resistance with the removal of her right eye.
“The same thing with the stoning” in the season finale, in which Janine’s fellow handmaids, led by Elisabeth Moss’ character, June, refuse to participate in her execution, an act of defiance whose repercussions will be felt as the new season opens. To quote Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd): “There will be consequences. Believe me.”
“They kind of kept me on my toes, up to the bitter end there,” Brewer said. Now, though, Janine’s “just happy to be alive.”
Happiness remains in limited supply in Gilead, where The Handmaid’s Tale is set. The post-U.S. society first envisioned in Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel is a place where women have been stripped of all rights by men who have perverted religion to justify a totalitarian regime, and where “handmaids” are enslaved — and, in a creepy monthly ritual, raped — to provide babies for childless couples.
Playing a handmaid, though, doesn’t have to be grim.
Moss, who stars as June — known as Offred to reflect her status as handmaid to Commander Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes) and his wife, Serena Joy (Yvonne Strahovski) — sounded almost gleeful in January as she described her approach to the show’s more wrenching scenes. “For me, it’s definitely a sick feeling of like, ‘Yes! We’re going to crush them with this one!’ ” she said, laughing.
“Honestly, it’s kind of impossible on that set to feel really” bad, Brewer said.
“You can simultaneously feel really connected to what you’re doing, and the moment that you’re playing, and I feel like, hopefully, giving it as much justice as you can. But then as soon as ‘Cut!’ calls, it’s just like I’m with a bunch of people I really, really enjoy being around,” she said. “Being on set and playing Janine is always fun. I mean, having my eyeball covered for sometimes like 12-plus hours a day is really annoying, but outside of that, it’s just been a pure joy to be able to explore her mind.”
Janine, not surprisingly, appeared somewhat unhinged at times during the first season, but “I don’t like to call her crazy,” Brewer said, describing the character as “more lucid” this season. “She’s just like, ‘You know what, everything that could happen to me has already happened. And I’m just going to enjoy being here.’ ”
Watching the first season, “seeing the stark contrasts between the way Janine looks at the world and the way Emily [a character played by Alexis Bledel] looks at the world and the way that June looks at the world … made me realize that Janine’s voice is an important voice,” Brewer said.
“Janine’s voice is the eternal optimist, the one who’s had some of the [worst] things happen to her — I mean, it’s all [bad], but she doesn’t have an eyeball. She’s struggling. But she holds strong to that silver lining. And that’s an important outlook. Someone’s got to have it.”
Brewer graduated from Pitman High School in 2010 and won a scholarship as Miss Pitman before heading to New York to study musical theater at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. Her father, Mark, is a retired middle school teacher, and her mother, Laurie, is chief of staff in New Jersey’s Office of the Long-Term Care Ombudsman. Her brother, Nick, said their mother, is a technical writer for a software company and lives in Brooklyn.
Growing up in a town once described by Inquirer columnist Kevin Riordan as a “cozy, conservative, church-steepled Gloucester County community” wasn’t exactly preparation for playing a beleaguered handmaid.
“Janine’s life experience in general, every moment of her life, is different than mine. She is stronger than me in every way possible. She is more patient,” Brewer said.
Having now played at least two women who’ve had their freedom taken from them has made her “absolutely, more political,” said Brewer, whose other TV work has included a recurring role in Netflix’s Hemlock Grove and an episode of Netflix’s Black Mirror.
“Each role, even outside of just Tricia and Janine, it forces you to open yourself up to a different way of thinking about a different life experience than you yourself have. If I didn’t have the opportunity to play Tricia, I don’t know that much of my brainpower would’ve been occupied by how women are treated in prison. Because I just didn’t know … a lot of the best of what’s come from working on Orange Is the New Black is working with the Women’s Prison Association and kind of getting to see firsthand what they do for incarcerated women.”
Her hometown has been supportive of her career, she said.
“No matter who they are, which of the 13 churches in my town they go to, whatever, every single person that I have spoken to has been completely just kind and congratulatory and wonderful,” Brewer said.
“Even my dad. You know, I’m put in some compromising situations. … I say a lot of off-color things [as an actor],” she said. “I’m sure he would like to see me in something where my mom doesn’t have to watch it first and then tell him when to close his eyes.”
Still, “there’s absolutely no part of what I do that my dad doesn’t have the utmost pride in. It doesn’t matter what the job is — he’s … supportive. Same with my mother.”
Speaking of closed eyes, Wednesday’s premiere should probably be seen with someone trained in CPR.
“Honestly, the first 20 minutes of the first episode I did not breathe. I [kid] you not. I was not breathing. And then I had to stop the TV, stop the show, and I had a quick sob, I had a quick 10-minute sob. It was so fraught,” Brewer said.
“And I knew what was going to happen.”
The Handmaid's Tale. Wednesday, Hulu.