The Second Act of Alexis Bledel: How The Handmaid's Tale Changed Everything

Viewers grew up with Alexis Bledel as Rory Gilmore, but with The Handmaid's Tale she flipped the script on what to expect

By Chris Harnick May 23, 2018 1:00 PMTags
Alexis Bledel, Gilmore Girls, Handmaids TaleWB, Netflix, Hulu, Eric Charbonneau/Invision for Netflix/AP Images

Alexis Bledel got her start in Hollywood with parts in dramedies like Gilmore Girls and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, but dramatic roles were what she was really after. Now, that dramatic work has arrived and her first Emmy followed soon after.

As Rory Gilmore, Bledel became a household name in The WB/The CW's Gilmore Girls. Rory, a brainy teen from the small town of Stars Hollow, had a close friendship with her mother, Lorelai, played by Lauren Graham, that audiences everywhere coveted. It was Bledel's first major role and one she said helped shape her as an actor.

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"Well, it was a really particular kind of training. I mean, it really helped me learn how to memorize dialogue quickly and really comprehensively, which is great for auditioning and any work I get after. It also really prepared me for putting in the hours, I guess. Yeah, it gave me sort of endurance, so I feel like I can hop into TV work more confidently than when I started," Bledel said with a laugh.

Bledel bounced around between genres with every project during her seven seasons on Gilmore Girls and after, picking up skills wherever she landed. There was the youth-oriented Tuck Everlasting, Sin City, where she played a hooker, the series finale of ER, a guest arc on Mad Men and a Fox sitcom that never saw the light of day.

In 2016, Bledel returned to Stars Hollow in the Netflix revival Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. It was a brief return home to familiarity for Bledel and audiences, before introducing the world to a role—and performance—that was the antithesis of Rory Gilmore. Her work in The Handmaid's Tale shocked audiences and garnered critical acclaim.

"I never have had a sense or been able to predict what kind of thing is coming up for me. It always just kind of pops up—I always wanted to do dramatic work, but I didn't know that [I could], I guess, delve into roles like this one," Bledel told E! News in a phone interview. "It's been really fulfilling in a way I didn't know this job could be. It's really been incredible."

This is the second act of Alexis Bledel.

The Handmaid's Tale's Alexis Bledel Talks Emily's Big Episode in the Colonies
The WB/Michael Courtney


Bledel's career kicked off in earnest on October 5, 2000 when Gilmore Girls debuted on The WB. The show lasted seven seasons and was one of the network's highest-rated shows.

"It taught me how to pace myself throughout the day so that I could still do work that I felt happy about when the last scene of the day was up. There were so many times I would kind of run out energy, so over time I learned. It was just a great education in so many ways and different ways that I still benefit from," Bledel said about her time in Stars Hollow.

After Gilmore, Bledel said, "I had a long way to go in terms of developing skills to help me do more dramatic work, which I've worked on with my acting coach."

Bledel and her acting coach, Lisa Robertson, worked together whenever she had an audition she "was excited about."

"I've been working with [Robertson] on Handmaid's," Bledel said. "The role of Emily [in The Handmaid's Tale] is an incredible challenge, but I've loved it. It's so well-written and I've gotten such incredible character work in season one and two that I've just really sort of relished tackling the material and understanding it and spending a lot of time in preparation in my mind and then getting to go shoot it."

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Thanks to syndication and streaming, Gilmore Girls fandom grew in the years since the show ended in 2007, so much so it was revived with a four-part miniseries. The return to Stars Hollow and the start of The Handmaid's Tale production just so happened to take place in the same year.

"I couldn't have expected to have both come up in the same year. Certainly I was really happy to do…both jobs," Bledel said with a laugh.

Going from the lighthearted Rory in Gilmore Girls to The Handmaid's Tale's Emily, a woman who lost everything and was relegated to the role of a handmaid, a fertile woman assigned to have babies with a wealthy political figure, wasn't as hard as viewers might think. Bledel said she tends to be able to keep her focus on the project at hand.

The WB/Scott Humbert

"They're so different," Bledel said. "They just felt like—kind of two separate entities."

Yet Bledel admitted she's "still definitely learning how to be sort of dexterous as to, like, jumping into a completely different tone of a story" when it comes to moving between genres.

"I think sometimes it takes beginning to shoot, the first day, to really fully understand what it is—getting to play out a scene with one of the other actors, talk to your director to really fully understand what they're intending. Until that all comes together—on some projects it's taken time. I tend stay pretty focused on it while I'm shooting it, so I wouldn't say—it's not the easiest thing for me to jump around, put on a lot of different hats. Sometimes you read something and it just taps into part of your own life experience or your personality and you just understand it, then it's easier," she said. "I think it's just about being true to that instinct and really listening to it. That helps."

Her process worked with The Handmaid's Tale.

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Based on Margaret Atwood's acclaimed dystopian novel of the same name, Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale is set in Gilead, the former United States of America, after a totalitarian regime overthrows the government.

In Gilead, the birthrate has plunged and fertile women are scarce. Those that can reproduce, like Bledel's Emily, are placed in the homes of powerful men and forced into sex servitude in the name of population growth. In an effort to strip her of her individuality, Emily, an extension of her commander, Glen, becomes Ofglen.

The Handmaid's Tale creator Bruce Miller said he was impressed with Bledel's range. "For Emily, I was looking for a kind of coiled stillness, a sense of strength held back. Alexis brought that to life perfectly," Miller said in an email interview.

During her first season arc, Bledel's character refused to accept the subservient role of handmaid and repeatedly clashed with those in positions of power—and received harrowing punishments as a result. Bledel's first arc ended with Ofglen being sent to the Colonies to suffer a slow, painful death while cleaning up radioactive waste. The character's rebellious nature and strength through resistance appealed to Bledel.

"With Handmaid's, what I felt really strongly about was it was an incredible role, so complex. The story was just fascinating and just had so much to it. It was kind of endless…I was intrigued, like, immediately," Bledel said. "That was kind of my biggest takeaway. And then as we got closer to it I found what the elements of the role that I really connected to were and do a lot of work in preparation."

Miller, who said he was aware of Bledel's Gilmore Girls past, said he was not surprised by the career-redefining performance Bledel turned in.

"The stunning aspect of her performance is her patience—she has an extraordinary feel for suspenseful and comic timing in scenes," Miller said. "Amazing."

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Off screen, to get into Emily's head, Bledel uses a playlist given to the cast by a director in season one. The songs help her return to the world her character lives in.

"I feel like [the songs] sort of cover a theme and her storyline. I just didn't want to forget. As we go forward with the flashbacks and flash-forward in to the Colonies, it's been helpful to think of it as sort of a series of layers. I want to kind of start from the beginning and build, by using music to just kind of jog my memory and then kind of get into the right frame of mind, get into her point of view," she said. "It takes about an hour and a half, it's when I put on my costume in the morning and go through hair and makeup."

Though she only appeared in four episodes of the first season, Bledel stunned audiences and took home the Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series Emmy at the 2017 ceremony.

Like she did for viewing audiences, the character of Emily immediately popped off the page for Bledel.

"Well, I loved how incredibly strong she is, especially how that played out in the first season with her kind of rebellious streak. I think that's something I can get inspired about. I don't know why exactly, it's just something where I'm like, ‘Oh, I like that character!' [Laughs.] I think it's fun to play because she is a capable of anything in a sense, you know? Her path could go in many different directions, which is exciting as an actor because it keeps you on your toes and it's always new and it always surprise you even though you know the character inside and out," she said.

It's not just Emily who is surprising.

"Alexis surprises me in every scene, in every turn.  She takes challenging material and makes it even more challenging—more troubling, more complex, deeper, more emotional, more specific, harder, scarier, divine and hopeful.  Honestly, she is a wonder," Miller said. "She's a seasoned professional, a pleasure on set, and one of my favorite humans."

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Season two picked up with Bledel's character in the Colonies. Early in the season she met the wife of a commander, played by Marisa Tomei, who is sent to work to her death for "sins of the flesh." Initially, it looked like Emily was protective of Tomei's character. She looked out for her and provided her with medicine…except she wasn't helping. She was killing her.

"She's really been hardened and become vengeful at that point. In the Colonies, she has either subconsciously or consciously has decided to take justice, in her mind, in her own hands," Bledel said.

With The Handmaid's Tale, Bledel said she is presented with new challenges as an actor that she didn't get with other roles.

"More than anything, the complexity of the role…I knew it was a great thing when I first read the character, but then digging into the role it's just been such a wonderful challenge to see her, first of all in Gilead in the way she's depicted in the book, and then to just add on to that and see her in flashbacks and see her in the Colonies," Bledel said. "There's so much to figure out there. [Laughs.] It's what I love, to have that much work to do throughout the day. It's fantastic. It's so satisfying. It's been the biggest challenge, but I'm just excited that it's worked out OK so far! [Laughs.] It's just a great pleasure to get to work with my coach on really, fully understanding these scenes and picking out moments that are particularly interesting and different ways to play them. It's all really great."

New episodes of The Handmaid's Tale debut Wednesdays on Hulu.

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