Alexis Bledel shows new layers of complexity in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’
Alexis Bledel is well aware that most people see her as an ingenue.
Maybe it’s that many people see blurred lines between Bledel and the sunny roles she’s often seen in - Rory Gilmore, and a “Traveling Pants” sister, for example.
Or maybe it’s that people have a hard time getting past her features. Just try to find a single interview that doesn’t use a Crayola-box adjective to refer to the distinct blueness of her eyes or infantilizing terms to describe her cherubic face. Then there’s the fact that her voice is so light and fluffy it sounds like it’s been fork-whipped with extra air, like a meringue.
That’s what makes the Houston native’s turn as the subversive Ofglen in the Hulu adaptation of “The Handmaid’s Tale” work so well. When the show begins, it’s tempting to write Ofglen off as pious and obedient. But as the first episode unfolds, it becomes apparent that Ofglen is only playing prim and proper to keep herself safe and hidden. In truth, she wants to flip the world on its head. Hardly the desires of an ingenue.
“Handmaid” is set in a dystopian present where the United States has morphed into a new nation called Gilead. Here, a plague of infertility - caused by excessive pollution - coupled with religious fervor, has upended the role of women in society. As a fertile woman, Bledel’s character has been chosen as a handmaid: It’s up to her to conceive and carry a child to full term for a wealthy couple. She is not supposed to read, have opinions or thoughts, or even go anywhere unattended.
And Ofglen seems to be not only good at this, but also content to be subjugated: a poster-perfect good girl. Until we find the depth and complexity she keeps hidden beneath her surface.
“She’s a very strong character,” Bledel says. “And very complex, and she’s under very extreme circumstances. She’s constantly challenged.”
And it’s these challenges and complexities that drew Bledel to the role.
“The more obstacles a character has, the richer story they get to play out,” she says. “This seemed like a rich opportunity.”
It’s the kind of opportunity Bledel has been increasingly drawn to as she’s matured from the up-and-coming teenager in “Gilmore Girls” and “Tuck Everlasting” to a working mother in her 30s.
“I tend to want to tell women’s stories because that reflects what I naturally gravitate toward and the roles that come my way because of ‘Gilmore Girls,’ ” she says.
You could call her recent character choices - Ofglen, the revived Rory, or even her character in the mostly overlooked “Post Grad” - feminist roles. But Bledel, who speaks in run-on thoughts with the flow of someone who wishes she could replace her last word with something a little more precise every half-second, mostly beats around that bush.
“I like complexity. These characters are not always strong women, or always exemplary,” she says. “Especially in the ‘Gilmore’ reunion, you see my character more, sort of, shaken than you’ve ever seen her before. She’s not as firmly planted on her two feet as we’ve seen her before. And in their complexity, these are more feminist roles because they’re really human, flawed, capable women.”
Bledel is relishing the opportunity to play multilayered characters, as she deepens her understanding of what it means to be human herself.
“I feel like I was handed a really wonderful opportunity to express something different than I’ve gotten the opportunity to do before,” she says. “And I keep learning about this work. It becomes more fulfilling as you go because you’re just learning more about human nature and getting to express more of the things you notice and process.”
And that expression isn’t always made through words. While “Gilmore Girls” grew famous for its breakneck dialogue, resulting in novel-length scripts, the dialogue in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is much more sparse. This requires Bledel, and her cast mates, including Elisabeth Moss in the lead role of Offred, to showcase their nonverbal skills.
“The nature of the writing here is very different,” Bledel says.
So is the tone. And Bledel is hesitant to say whether her presence as such a subversive character will surprise her fans who are used to seeing a sunny, hopeful character through her work. Again, the actress carefully chooses her words.
“I really don’t know what my fans will think. I really don’t know. It’s hard to have perspective on how someone might respond,” she says. “I hope that they find the show entertaining and thought-provoking, and that would be the best thing for me. And I think a lot of ‘Gilmore Girls’ fans are big readers, and ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is a classic book.”
The kind of book Rory would likely read, she notes.
Written more than 30 years ago by Margaret Atwood, as a critique on Reagan-era views of women in society, the book has enjoyed a renewed success in recent months, with sales skyrocketing shortly after the Hulu trailer premiered Super Bowl weekend. When the novel cracked the top 10 on Amazon.com, Atwood pointed to President Donald Trump’s recent inauguration, and a “bubbling up” of Puritan sensibilities, as the most likely catalyst for the heightened interest in her book.
Bledel won’t go that far. At least not blatantly.
“I think that when Margaret Atwood originally wrote the book 30 years ago, people were saying that it was really relevant at that time. And I think it’s a credit to her writing and her vision that she is always sort of able to comment on human nature and make it relevant. I think she’s a strong writer, but there are certainly things happening today that you could draw parallels to,” she says.
She couches this thought.
“But Gilead is an imagined place,” she says. “There are things very specific about the show that don’t have much to do with current times.”
Then she dives in again.
“But when it comes to what people are feeling in terms of women’s rights or human rights, I think that I’m not oblivious to the fact that there are,” she pauses, searching for the perfect way to say what she’s thinking. “People will find something in the show that will certainly make them feel something.”
She won’t commit to what that something is. Not out loud, on the record anyway.
Ofglen likely wouldn’t either.