“As a country, we don’t treat women and people with wombs like they’re human beings, and it’s difficult to film certain scenes when there are things happening in the country that so closely parallel them.” The passion with which Madeline Brewer, Emmy-nominated actress on Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, speaks to us about women’s rights makes it no wonder why she is the perfect fit for her role of Janine Lindo. It’s hard not to view a show like The Handmaid’s Tale as anything other than a story of rebellion, so to play a character navigating the setting of Gilead, a totalitarian, religious government that forces women into natal slavery and limits their power and autonomy to an oppressive degree, she can’t help but adopt a fighting spirit. The Handmaid’s Tale prophetically mirrors the worst aspects of American society while simultaneously making a statement against them, and Brewer is a vital piece of the puzzle as Janine, who she sees as her fictional mentor.
New Jersey-born Madeline Brewer, a self-professed “full-blown theater nerd,” got her start on the stage in New York City, but soon saw her breakout in Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, where she found her footing in screen acting. Now a seasoned screen performer, having starred in blockbuster films like Hustlers, as well as her role on The Handmaid’s Tale. Then she returned to her theater roots, further brightening her star as Sally Bowels in Cabaret on the West End.
Brewer sat down with Indira Cesarine of The Untitled Magazine to talk all about The Handmaids Tale, her passion for women’s rights, and her latest projects. Read the full interview for The REBEL Issue below and pick up your copy in our online boutique for more.
Indira Cesarine: You grew up in New Jersey and went to school in New York City. Can you tell us what your life was like at home when you were a kid? Were you into acting and performing?
Madeline Brewer: I’ve been a full-blown theater nerd my entire life. I did my first play when I was seven, and I just loved it. I loved being on stage, I loved playing a character, I did accents. It felt so natural for me, and it was what I loved to do. My parents put me in community theater every single summer, so I did every play or musical that was available to me. I grew up with parents who really supported me. They got me into voice lessons, and I was in a choir. Theater was to me what sports are to some other people. I worked hard, and I had such a fun time, and I made so many friends. Then when I decided to go to theater school after graduating high school, I picked the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York, and I didn’t even think about any other school. Going to AMDA meant I didn’t have to do English, math, science, or anything boring. I got to sing, act, and dance all day long.
I was 18 years old when I moved to New York, and for a while, my mom was like, “Why don’t you consider a four-year school? Why don’t you consider getting a degree?” because AMDA was a conservatory. It didn’t even cross my mind. This was what I wanted to do, in and out in 15 months, and then I wanted to be out in the world and ready to work. I was ready for this to be my career. There’s never been anything else, just being creative, being an actor.
Your first role was in Orange Is the New Black back in 2013. Was it straight out of school that you got that role, or was there a gap? How did you end up getting cast for that?
Something I loved about going to AMDA was that they collaborated with a lot of other theater schools and showcases. You have agents and managers, and you can invite casting directors, all these people, but AMDA has a panel night where there is a panel of casting directors and agents and managers that come to the school. You do a minute-and-a-half dance, a minute-long monologue, and then 32 bars of a song. You put yourself out there, they see you, and then you move on with your day. I got an agency through that. I got this wonderful agent, Ann Kelly, in New York. Then I left for a few months to do a musical in Connecticut with my theater teacher at the time. He cast me in a show immediately after that, and then when I finished that, I moved back to New York. I was auditioning and working at a restaurant, I was working at Victoria’s Secret. I was just living in Queens, trying to make things happen. I did a couple of auditions, and it was 2012 when I auditioned for Orange. I remember thinking, “Is this a web series? This doesn’t make any sense. Netflix is DVDs, Netflix isn’t online.” At the time, Netflix was still DVDs. Orange was one of its first streaming shows. Nobody really knew what it was. I caught a lucky break in that they were hiring a lot of unnamed New York city-based actresses to play these various inmates, and it was beautiful. Jen Houston, the casting director, and Jenji Kohan, the showrunner, gave little old me a shot. That was my first professional job on TV.
What a show to kick off your career with. Did you learn a lot on set?
There was so much I didn’t know. There was a lot of new lingo. It definitely wasn’t the world I was used to. I remember one day they were calling “second team,” which means that stand-ins come in and I get to sit down, but I just stood there. I didn’t know what to do. Everybody left and I was like, “What’s happening?” Leah Daria came up to me and said, “We get to go sit down now, come on.” It was like everyone else spoke a different language that I was still trying to understand. But it was nice. The women on that show were amazing, and I’m still friends with so many of them, even though we spent such a short time working together.
I would imagine that for a lot of them, Orange was a breakthrough. You’ve also been playing Janine in The Handmaid’s Tale since 2017, right?
We started filming in 2016, at the time of the election. That was crazy timing.
There’s an interesting synergy between the storyline of The Handmaid’s Tale and everything that happened post-election, in regards to the Women’s March and other protests. That must have been a dramatic time to kick off a show focusing on such subjects. Can you tell me more about your specific role in the beginning of the show and how your character has evolved over the seasons?
Being a part of that show at that time took it from an ordinary job to something with special importance. There was definitely an added weight to do it and to live in Gilead. My character has evolved quite a bit since the beginning. During these last two seasons in particular, we’ve really stretched the boundaries of what I thought Janine was. A lot of it is because of these brilliant writers and Elizabeth Moss, the director, who really understands Janine. When we first meet her, Janine is this one-eyed, batshit crazy character. That’s how we’re introduced to her. It’s a beautiful thing that the writers have done. They’ve given me the opportunity to play Janine authentically and to dig into the fact that she really is just a gentle, frightened girl. That craziness you see, and I say “crazy” in quotes, is because Janine’s there. She’s present, she hasn’t lost it, but she can’t handle it. If she tries to stay present in this world that is trying to beat her down, she’s not going to make it. Her own rebellion, her way of fighting these men, is to check out. They’re not going to break her, because to break her would mean that they win. That’s kind of where she starts. Over the last few seasons, we’ve seen a much more hardened Janine. She’s more pragmatic in who she is. At this point, she’s seen some shit. That’s the fact of it. She’s followed in June’s footsteps for so long, and she’s seen June go off the rails in her bloodlust, in her need for revenge. I think Janine now thinks, “The most important thing for me is to stay alive and help who I can.” It’s a much simpler objective for her, but she’s still got a fire that they can’t extinguish. No matter what you think of her, she’s still burning.
Do you see yourself in her as a character?
Janine is my sister. It’s weird. I feel like I have to talk about her like she’s a real person that I could sit right next to. I’ve grown up with her. I started playing Janine when I was 24, and by the time I’m finished playing her, I’ll be 31. We’ve grown up together. The more I know about me, the more deeply I get to meet her, and the more I get to know me, the stronger my friendship and bond with her gets each season, especially because of the ways in which she’s changed. I’ve gotten to meet different parts of her that I didn’t know were there, and I’ve learned more about what I’m capable of. I’m thinking about the world in a certain way, like Janine does. She’s my role model. She’s much braver than I am. She’s much stronger. She’s much smarter. I really admire her.
How has your role as Janine evolved through the seasons?
As per usual, Janine is like a cat with nine lives, and those lives are always being placed in danger by others or by Jeanine herself. She’s putting herself in situations that could potentially hurt her, but she does it for her own reasons. If you compare season one Janine to season five Janine, you’ll see two completely different women, or at least, what she’s showing you is two completely different women. You’re seeing a much stronger, much bolder, and much sturdier Janine than before.
Going back to what you said earlier about the election and thinking about today, do you see parallels between this story of a brutal dystopian world and what’s going on in the world around us?
I think there are. We say sometimes that The Handmaid’s Tale does feel prophetic in a way because sometimes we’re filming things on the show and then three months later, they happen in the world. It’s confusing and scary.
Can you share any examples of that?
It was season three, I think, where we were at the Mexican border and there were literally children in cages, children being ripped away from their mothers. This was weeks before similar news came out of our own country. On The Handmaid’s Tale, they were literally ripping Hannah out of June’s arms. It was like, “How did we do this? How did this happen?” It felt too close to home. Even the coup on the Capitol, January 6th; the show made me think of it. I keep this quote that Margaret Atwood wrote for The Handmaid’s Tale close to me. She wrote, “Now I’m awake to the world. I was asleep before. That’s how we let it happen. When they slaughtered Congress, we didn’t wake up. When they blamed terrorists and suspended the constitution, we didn’t wake up then, either. Nothing changes instantaneously.”
What we’ve said since the beginning of The Handmaid’s Tale is that you have to keep your eyes open. You have to be awake to what is happening. We’re so desensitized, especially now in a world where you have a deluge of information coming at you, when it comes to things like mass shootings and school shootings. They happen, and then we move on. Black men are being literally gunned down in the streets. It happens, and then there’s public outrage and thoughts and prayers for a week or two. Then everyone forgets. When these things happen, these horrifying, inhumane things, it’s our duty as citizens of this country to stay involved and stay aware and not let ourselves become desensitized to the violence, because that’s how Gilead happens.
Honestly, we have a world that’s worse than Gilead right now… not literally worse than Gilead, but there are states right now that are forcing 10-year-old girls to give birth to children as a result of being raped. When that is where our country is at, we’re in big fucking trouble. It’s maddening, and disheartening, and sickening. Some of what I’ve read in recent weeks since the overturn of Roe v. Wade is horrifying, and as a country, we don’t treat women and people with wombs like they’re human beings. It’s difficult to film certain scenes when there are things happening in the country that so closely parallel them, but The Handmaid’s Tale is ultimately a work of fiction. It’s pulled from real nonfiction things that have happened. That’s how Margaret wrote the book. She researched crimes against humanity all over the world, and then she wrote them into this book. But ultimately, it is a work of fiction, while what we’re dealing with in the United States, especially right now, is not fiction. It’s our every day. It’s real life. The lives of Black trans women are in danger, they’re being killed at alarmingly large rates. There are Black men being murdered in the streets and 10-year-old girls being forced to give birth. These are real people, unlike in Gilead, and our thoughts and prayers are not enough for them.
We live in a very disturbing world. How do you think we can counteract what’s happening? Is there a solution to what we’re seeing in reality?
There’s voting, which I know feels futile to a lot of people. It doesn’t feel like it matters when you feel such helplessness and hopelessness, but ultimately, the power is in the hands of people who get involved. I live all over the place, but I now want to get involved in local politics in the place where I own a home. What I’m seeing there makes me want to do something. If you’re feeling bogged down and hopeless about what’s happening in the United States, get involved in your local government, take control at home. Nothing is ever without hope. That’s all I can think to do: make your voice heard. These problems will never get solved by legislators alone because legislators are bound to their constituents. We vote people into that office who ideally uphold our values and represent what we want as citizens. You need to be involved at any level that’s attainable for you, let your voice be heard, educate yourself, take care of yourself, and not get burnt out because of all the fucking horror in this country right now. I also don’t take the fact that I’m an American citizen for granted. I’m proud to have been born here because I value a lot of the ideas and ideals of being an American. There’s the famous American dream; people often come here for a better life.
You’re a great example of the American Dream. You’re a young girl who came from New Jersey, who had a dream, who lived in Queens and worked at Victoria’s Secret and waited tables to make your way up the ladder. Then by season four of The Handmaid’s Tale, you got an Emmy nomination.
I did, but I also had a lot going for me when I started acting. I grew up in a suburban, middle-class family. I’m a white girl with two parents who have good jobs. But you’re right. I worked hard, and nobody in my family is from the industry, so I had to learn to navigate it on my own. That’s not any shade to nepotism babies; we love you, and we see you. I’m very, very blessed to have the life and the job that I do, to get to tell the stories that I’m telling.
I’d love to chat about some of your other projects. Can you tell me a little bit about your role in Hustlers?
I loved Hustlers! It’s coincidental that I fell in love with pole dancing after doing zero pole dancing for that movie. It’s now one of my favorite things to do in my free time. The film was an amazing experience. Jennifer Lopez was a dream to work with, and she works harder than anybody on this fucking planet. As a woman especially, it’s a beautiful thing to see someone so engaged in her power. She really inspired me. I also loved working with Lorene Scafaria. She’s a fucking genius. She’s hilarious and brilliant, and it was an honor to work with her. Hustlers is a true story about these women who took their lives into their own hands through whatever means necessary after the devastation of the 2008 crisis. I was proud to be a part of that story. I love Jessica Pressler, who wrote the article for The Cut that opened this world up. Her kind of character is played by Julia Stiles in the movie. Working on the film was a treat, and I got to wear these crazy outfits when I played Dawn. I got to have a little bit of an accent and a little bit of like a silly personality, and I had so much fun with her.
What can you tell me about your stage role in the musical Cabaret?
I’m moved to London to play Sally Bowles in the musical Cabaret on the West End. I took over from the brilliant Amy Lennox, who took over from the inimitable Jessie Buckley in this production. It’s won seven Olivier Awards. It’s a total reimagining of Cabaret, which is one of my favorite musicals of all time. Like I said, I went to musical theater school. I am a fucking musical theater nerd. This is the role of a lifetime. I’m still pinching myself. I cannot believe that I get to do this. I get to play Sally fucking Bowles.
It’s a stage performance. Do you prefer stage roles over working in TV and film?
I fell in love with the stage at seven years old. That’s what I thought I would do. I never, ever thought I would work in TV or film. I didn’t even want to audition for them. Then I got on Orange is the New Black, and I fell in love with them as mediums. I want to direct, I want to produce. It’s what I love to do, just in a different form, but knowing that I get to go back to the stage is like coming home. It’s what I’ve loved to do for over two decades.
What is it about being on stage that excites you? Is it the live audience?
It’s that, and it’s also the rehearsals. I’m about to go into six weeks of rehearsal every day. I could not be more thrilled. It’s the work and the research involved that I love. I enjoy working on The Handmaid’s Tale, but for that, I only get to work maybe once every couple of weeks, or a couple of times a week, then I’m off for a while. My dream is to be in there every day, to bite into my roles. That’s just how I want to work. I want to be involved. I love the theater because it’s alive and you’re participating in it. You’re not alone. You have co-creators and co-conspirators on that stage, but you’re also engaged with an audience that’s engaging with you. It’s an organism that lives and breathes on its own every single night.
Are there any other factors or performers that have inspired you throughout your career?
I’ve loved Lizzie Moss forever. I’ve seen nearly everything she’s ever done. Then, I got to go on set and work with her, and now she’s my friend, which is insane. She’s a huge inspiration to me. And all the girls from Orange are wonderful people. It was amazing to grow up alongside them and learn from them.
You mentioned you want to direct and produce, do you also see yourself continuing with acting and performing? Do you have a dream project you’d like to be working on 10 years from now?
In 10 years, I still expect to be acting in whatever form it takes. I’d like to lead a show. I’ve watched Lizzie do it for five years now, and she looks like she’s having a freaking ball. She directs and produces for the show, too. She gives everything to it, which is so inspiring. I want to do that, and I expect to eventually do that. I also want to keep doing theater. In 10 years, I’d like to have some more work under my belt that I’m proud of.
It sounds like you’re already living a dream.
I am, for sure. I’m truly, truly beyond blessed, and it’s almost maddening. I still have to pinch myself all the time to remember that it’s real.
Interview by Indira Cesarine for The Untitled Magazine
To read our print feature on Madeline Brewer, pick up your copy of “The REBEL Issue” here.
Photography by Indira Cesarine for The Untitled Magazine
Styling by Kelly Brown
Make-up by Jenna Nicole
Hair by Justine Marjan
Photographed on location at Chateau Colline