The hallways of the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills are hushed and dark and nearly empty. The doors to certain rooms are marked with women’s names: SAMIRA, ALEXIS, ELISABETH. When those doors swing open to allow you in, the woman on the other side will be very beautiful. She will be made-up, coiffed, nicely dressed, very poised. She will be eager to greet you, to speak with you, to answer all of your questions.
My door is labeled MADELINE, and it grants me access to Madeline Brewer, the 25-year-old actress who plays Janine on Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, launching its second season Wednesday, April 25. You might remember Janine from when she lost an eye as punishment for disobedience in an early episode, or for her midseason pregnancy, or from the finale, in which she and the baby—sorry, no spoilers, but if you saw it, you know.
Today, Brewer is sitting in a sunlit corner of a well-appointed suite, wearing an orange minidress and high, strappy heels. She is waiting patiently for me to come pepper her with questions about her career (her first role, straight out of college, was an addict named Tricia on Orange Is the New Black; Brewer also appeared on Netflix’s Hemlock Grove and Black Mirror before landing Janine) and perhaps her personal life (she had dinner with Nick Jonas once, and it made a lot of headlines).
I’ve been watching Handmaid’s Tale screeners all morning, previewing its somehow-even-more-fucked-up-than-the first second season, so I come in rattled: There’s something about the contrast between the dark hallways and well-lit jewel box room, the fresh fruit on platters and the publicist in the corner, monitoring our conversation, that feels ominous. But Madeline—she introduces herself as Maddie—is no cowed Handmaid, or even an actress media-trained into giving good sound bite. She’s funny, wry and charming, especially once she warms up to you.
And that’s important to her, that she makes people feel safe and welcomed. Brewer deals with anxiety and depression, which sometimes manifests as social anxiety. “I approach situations with a little more, I like to hope, empathy,” she says. “Because I don’t want to ever hurt someone. I’m a little fragile in that way, because I don’t want that to happen to me. I want to make sure everyone’s comfortable.”
Luckily, she says, her coworkers share the same ethos: “Lizzie [Elisabeth Moss, who plays the show’s lead, June] is the kind of person who scoops you into a big hug when she first sees you, and is like, ‘How are you?’ And you don’t feel like it’s a formality. There’s never been a moment where I’ve felt any level of weird animosity or competition [on set],” Brewer reports, “which I know that there can be. I’ve been on shows where someone was like, ‘You’re in my shot.’ A man. I was like, ‘Excuse me for existing.’”
I recoil. Brewer shrugs. “People do that. It’s the nature of our business! We’re all a little bit vain. We put our faces on a screen and expect people to look at them.” She gestures at the mirrored wall behind her. “I did all of my phone interviews while staring myself in the face. I’m not kidding. I don’t care. I’ll admit it! And I’m just, like, checking myself out. Like I don’t see enough of myself.”
The pressure put on everyone in Hollywood—but particularly young actresses—to appear a certain way means that Brewer is especially grateful for the unprettiness of the characters she portrays on screen, which allow her to escape, even briefly, that type of self-scrutiny. “I find myself most comfortable in something opposite of me, because I live in the Instagram age,” she says. “So it’s really, really liberating as a person, but also as a character, to not be like, ‘I hope I look thin in this.’ I don’t think about that when I’m wearing six layers of robes.”
Letting go of aesthetic concerns helps keep her centered in her performance. On Orange Is the New Black, Tricia was a prisoner worried about feeding her addiction, and whether her girlfriend would leave her once they weren’t serving time in adjacent cells; Janine lives in a misogynist dystopia in which her only role is to deliver viable, healthy babies for a man who owns her like property.
“They don’t give a shit about what they look like,” Brewer says of her characters. “They don’t care! I mean, there is a deep part of Janine that’s like, ‘I have one eye—who will ever love me?’ but that’s a whole other can of worms. On her day-to-day, Janine doesn’t get up and think about what her arms look like. ‘Should I do more push-ups?’ She doesn’t give a shit.”
Brewer, however, lives in America, which may get compared to The Handmaid’s Tale’s Gilead, but isn’t there yet. So she copes with her reality the way most of us do. She decompresses from the intensity of her work by taking long baths: “If it’s been a particularly emotional day, sometimes I go home and cry in the bath, and then I go to bed,” she says. But no matter what, “There’s always a bath. Whether it’s been a good day, bad day, what have you, there’s always a bath. Working or not, there is a bath.”
She favors Lush bath oils for keeping her skin smooth. “I’m super dry,” she reports. “I’m like the driest person. I got a facial yesterday, and the person was like, ‘We need to help you.’” (To be fair, she notes, she’s been traveling like crazy—Los Angeles, Toronto, New York—which tends to take a toll on the complexion.)
Brewer does use Instagram, though not just for selfies. It’s a part of her creative practice, helping her more deeply imagine Janine’s experiences of motherhood—especially important since Brewer doesn’t have kids of her own.
“I actually have a Finstagram, like a burner Instagram,” she explains, “and on it I have pictures of babies I don’t know, which is weird. I have a lot of pictures on my phone of random people’s babies that I found on the internet that I imagine [Janine’s children] might look like, just to try. I pick the ones I think kind of look like me. It’s just this weird thing that I do.”
She also has a manifestation Instagram, “because I’m one of those people. But it’s mostly reminders, reminding myself, keep going, whatever.”
For someone with self-reported anxiety, she seems very open, friendly and willing to chat about just about anything. Is that a decision she made, I ask, to discuss all of these topics so honestly? Brewer laughs. No, she says. This is “just me.”
“You’re not gonna probably ever have a conversation with me where some level of my anxiety won’t come up,” she explains. “That’s just who I am. I have anxiety. It’s a pain in my ass like you would not believe. I have anxiety-induced depression where I can’t get off the couch for days. And that’s fine! That’s who I am. It’s people. That’s just what people are. People who don’t have anxiety, fuck you! No, I’m kidding. I’m just kidding. Everyone has their shit.”