She's chewing gum, singing Taylor Swift songs and joking with her co-stars and crew.

If it wasn't for her symbolic bright red gown and white hood, this set for The Handmaid's Tale in Hamilton, an hour out of Toronto, could be mistaken for a comedy show.

It's most definitely not: Elisabeth Moss is halfway through filming the most gruelling episode yet for the bleakest show on TV.

Nonetheless, she chirps, "It's an absolute blessing," when she meets reporters.


They're not words her character June, or Offred, would use at the moment. In the episode, Moss' heavily pregnant character was violently raped, then briefly reunited and torn away from her daughter, who she hadn't seen in months.

Through Offred, Elisabeth Moss is telling the story of a survivor of sexual assault. Photo / Hulu
Through Offred, Elisabeth Moss is telling the story of a survivor of sexual assault. Photo / Hulu

It's a continuation of her torturous circumstances, but the 10th episode of this harrowing second season dialled things up, leaving many emotional wrecks.

Ask Moss how she's coping and she lowers her voice.

"We're continuing to bring a voice to ... women who have experienced this," says Moss. "I feel a sense of responsibility to tell the story of a survivor of sexual assault. It feels very present."

She's talking about June, a once-happy mother forced to become a Handmaid - enslaved women who provide children to wealthy aristocrats - as America transitions to a far-right totalitarian society called Gilead.

Ahh, Gilead. There have been plenty equating the fictional society to where America is heading under Donald Trump's rule - a claim made worse when the latest episode appeared to mirror the child-separation tactics used on illegal immigrants arriving at American borders.

"We know we're doing something important. We know we're doing something with integrity," says Samira Wiley, who plays June's friend, Moira, in the show. An escaped Handmaid, she's had plenty of her own horrifying experiences on the show.

Just like Moss, the star of Netflix hit Orange is the New Black was all smiles as she greeted journalists. That soon changed when asked how she copes with the show's scarily real themes. "You don't have to look in some roundabout way to figure out the correlation," says Wiley. "We didn't mean for it to be as timely and relevant."

With the show's eerie echoes of present-day America, Wiley says she feels the pressure for the show to keep delivering. They all do. "There's a new-found sense of responsibility to get this story right," she says.

Amanda Brugel agrees. She plays Rita, a "Martha" - in-home help for the aristocrats - whose allegiances aren't always obvious.

When we meet her, she's laughing about her uniform on the show, which she describes as the colour of yoghurt. She tells a story about how she thought she'd flunked her audition when she couldn't stop raving about Margaret Atwood and her 1985 novel the show's based on.

She isn't laughing for long. "You don't start a TV show thinking it's going to be part of a political movement or incite political change," she says, just minutes into her interview.

"It's scary at times. You feel a sense of responsibility that we maintain a clear map about where the discussion is going to go. You don't want to offend anyone, you want to keep the discussion moving forward."

She pauses, and admits: "There's a little more pressure than your average television show."

Yvonne Strahovski feels it too. Fresh from set, and warming herself around a crackling fire, she wins journalists over by calling her character, Serena Joy, a "magnificent bitch".

Then she gets serious. Her role in the show is a big one: she's Offred's captor, her torturer, her abuser. But it's more complicated than that. This season, she's also been her friend.

"[I] know so many people who've been really, truly, deeply affected by this show, maybe because of the parallels to Trump's America," says Strahovski.

"The show is about raping a woman every month to try and get her pregnant against her will."

She calls the show's timing "extraordinary". "I find it fascinating that we've accidentally become aligned with Trump's America."

Back with Moss, there's time for one more question before she's whisked away to film another grisly scene.

It's a big one: how do we stop America turning into Gilead?

"If you know, you've gotta tell me," Moss replies. She's smiling, but she's also shaking her head.

Then she says: "If I knew the answer to that, I wouldn't making a silly TV show."