With a calming exhale, Alexis Bledel lets an emotional day of work fall away. Well, a controlled breath and some 1990s music.
Meditation and familiar music have become part of a self-care routine the Emmy winner uses in an effort to shed an emotionally challenging day of work on The Handmaid’s Tale. And as Emily, a former Handmaid from the oppressive country of Gilead who escaped as a refugee to Canada, there were plenty of days grappling with heavy emotions. Adjusting to life outside a cruel regime that tried to strip her of all rights, physical autonomy, and identity is a challenge for the character.
“I think she’s a dealing with a real shock to the system, being back in a society that she recognizes. She’s in Canada now…her family is there, so you can assume that she is? going to want to reconnect, as of course they’ve never left her mind the whole while she’s been in Gilead struggling to survive. Now, she’s struggling to survive in a new way, fighting, sort of, against her own impulses,” Bledel told E! News. “She’s been kind of hardwired to react to things, like guards with guns around every corner and things exploding, threats, things being taken away from her at every turn.
“So, without that aggression present, there is still all the trauma that lives inside her that she’s battling with, trying to process, perhaps better understand now in this new environment. Reconnection is so hard,” she continued.
Having played Emily for three years now, Bledel uses music playlists to help her get in and out of character. To become Emily, she listens to music provided to her when the series started, consisting of classic music and songs from the show’s soundtrack. Over the years, both series star Elisabeth Moss and Bledel have built on the playlist with selections of their own.
“Well, music is so powerful to help me focus on her emotional state. It’s a really different thing I’ve discovered in this job, in the way that I’ve used it as a tool and kept it going from the beginning,” Bledel said of her use of music. “It helps me to recall some of the first scenes, to kind of get back into character. And then for some of the other songs from the other seasons, it’s kind of become part of my preparation. I don’t know why it works, it just triggers my emotions, I guess.”
To transform back from Emily to Alexis, Bledel turns to a very different playlist.
“Yeah, I tend to listen to ‘90s alternative music because it’s so familiar to me from growing up [Laughs.], so it’s very comforting,” she said, laughing.
However, when you’re filming scenes that include wading across a dangerous river with a friend’s baby or seeing your son for the first time in years, sometimes it takes more than indie rock. That’s why Bledel said she started meditating as part of a self-care routine.
“It definitely helps everything when I manage to do it,” Bledel said about meditating and finding some zen. “It’s great.”
Emily’s arc in season three is a fascinating one. She’s fighting a different kind of fight. To prepare for the character’s new life and challenges, Bledel sought insight from experts at the United Nations. Her struggle this year is with feelings of isolation, which is common among refugees who suddenly find themselves surrounded by friends and loved ones who can’t possibly understand what they’ve been through. Physically, Emily is fine. Mentally and emotionally, however, is where the real battle begins.
In the fourth episode, Bledel’s character reunites with her wife (Clea DuVall) and son, both of whom escaped the former United States before the Gilead government came fully into power. Though Emily suddenly finds herself reunited with her loved ones, a dream that got her through the worst of Gilead, returning to “normal” life is more difficult than Emily could have anticipated. Her family reunion is not cure-all for the deep-rooted trauma of life as a Handmaid.
“I can’t really imagine the moments of extreme frustration, going through that process, for everyone involved. It takes so much patience and willingness to work on those connections, on everyone’s part. Everyone in the family has to want that and work toward it over a period of time—and it takes a lot of time as well. So, I think luckily for Emily, her family bond was so strong before they were separated, and she does have a home to go back to. But she’s already been through so much,” Bledel said. “And part of the wonderful challenge of this season, for me, was to reveal her trauma in places, to pick the spots where we’re going to show a bit of what she’s feeling. Because on a whole she’s trying to keep it together and not show her family the truth, because she doesn’t want to scare them away. She doesn’t want to reveal too much because what if they don’t understand some of the choices she made? Given the context of the moments she was in, she herself is probably reevaluated everything she’s done now with a bit of perspective.”
And Emily certainly has been through a lot. She stole a car and killed a man with it, was a victim of female genital mutilation, worked in toxic waste in the Colonies, returned to Gilead as a sexual slave, stabbed Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd), and ultimately escaped Gilead to find refuge in Canada—with June’s (Moss) baby.
“Right, in her mind, toward the end of her time in Gilead, she was under the impression she was at war in a way. She was fighting back for her own survival and for a cause,” Bledel said.
Executive producer Bruce Miller praised Bledel’s work this season. The journey he and The Handmaid’s Tale writers crafted for Emily boils down to a simple premise.
“It’s an extension of Gilead’s within you. That when you get out of Gilead, Gilead doesn’t get out of you,” Miller said. “It’s a lot longer process, and honestly it came out of our conversations with the UN and how it really was for refugees.”
For Emily, remnants of Gilead leave her angry and plagued by self-doubt.
“Yeah, what does she do with it? That’s sort of a huge question for her. It’s not being kind of aggravated or triggered in the same way anymore, but she’s still used to reacting in that way, with anger, so she has to learn to be a gentle person again with herself, with others. And that’s incredibly challenging when you’ve been through what she’s been through,” Bledel said.
During her time in sexual servitude, Emily continued to respond to the power structure of Gilead by displaying her own strength. It’s rubbed off on Bledel, as has Emily’s ability to let her guard down.
“I love playing a character who is so strong because it is inspiring. She also has moments that feel incredibly vulnerable to me and probably more so than any character I’ve played. She has kind of both things happening…which is really great to play,” Bledel said. “Both things are such a strength, if you can access both your vulnerability and your strength, it’s a great combination [Laughs.], so, yeah, I guess it makes me think about that for myself. When to use either capacity, and how to grow both of those things within yourself, they’re both good things.”
If there’s one thing viewers take away from her character’s story this year, Bledel hopes they “appreciate the humanity of refugees seeking asylum.”
“For people to open up their hearts to that experience and realize that it’s happening all over the world, not only at our own borders, but in places of extreme conflict,” she said. “There’s so much suffering. We don’t want to turn a blind eye to that or be insensitive to that because it’s part of the world that we live in.”
New episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale season three premiere Wednesdays on Hulu.