Spoilers are ahead. Fans of The Handmaid’s Tale know that the show doesn't exactly shy away from violence. But in the season 4 premiere, the hit Hulu series gets even darker with the introduction of Esther Keyes, a 14-year-old child bride who also happens to be the mistress of the farm-turned-safe house where June (Elisabeth Moss) and the other handmaids are hiding out. Adding to the intensity of the character is the fact that Esther Keyes, or Mrs. Keyes, as she prefers to be called, is played by actress McKenna Grace, who is also just 14 years old.
Grace’s character brings up a whole slew of emotions for June, who is initially simultaneously annoyed by and protective of the young commander’s wife. On the one hand, Mrs. Keyes represents everything she and the other handmaids are fighting against — patriarchy and tyranny in the form of Gilead’s strict social structure. On the other hand, Mrs. Keyes is just a child, married off to a man five times her age and forced to play a role she’s likely too young to fully understand.
Later, June learns that Mrs. Keyes’ journey is full of more pain and violence than she realized. In a devastatingly vulnerable scene, Mrs. Keyes reveals that she’s a survivor of not only state-mandated rape by her husband, but also of assault by other men whom the commander regularly brings in to rape her — guards, drivers, and even other commanders. It’s a hard storyline to swallow, given not just the age of the character, but of the actress herself.
In fact, prior to landing the part, Grace hadn’t even seen the series — she wasn’t allowed to. “I know that my parents both really liked Handmaid’s Tale, but they would never let me watch it because they were like, ‘Oh goodness, I don’t think you can watch this show,'" Grace told Refinery29 over the phone in late April. After she landed the role, the young actress watched all three seasons with her mom. Then, Grace dove right into the series' toughest material yet: Mrs. Keyes' heart-wrenching monologue about her serial assaults was actually what the actress used to audition for the role.
Still, it's hard to square with the origin of the upsetting scene. Showrunner Bruce Miller penned season 4's first episode, and it was directed by Colin Watkinson. Having two men at the helm of a story about sexual violence against a particularly young woman has great potential to be problematic, especially considering that television history is riddled with disturbing scenes of sexual assault against young women, written by men. But Grace's approach to the character was all her own. The actress has loads of experience playing young versions of main characters, from young Tonya Harding in I, Tonya, to young Theo on The Haunting of Hill House, and young Carol Danvers in Captain Marvel. That skill helped Grace find Mrs. Keyes' voice.
“It was really cool getting to create her personality and everything about her,” Grace said, adding that she drew inspiration from “Ms. Yvonne" Strahovski, who plays the first wife we met on on The Handmaid's Tale, Serena Joy. "It was dark subject matter. It was also a story about this child who has been raped and has been through all these things and has been forced to mature very quickly in this whole Gilead world. I feel like [she] is such an important character.”
However empowered Grace was in the creation of the character, it also helps to know that the entire cast and crew kept things light on-set in order to counteract the intensity of her scenes. “It’s a show that deals with rape and torture and everything like that on a daily basis, so I think that everyone is just respectful on that show whenever somebody else has a darker scene,” she says. Sometimes, she’d even play her ukulele and sing with her castmates between scenes. (A favorite song was “Anyone Else But You” by Moldy Peaches.)
“I feel like watching the show will make people uncomfortable, but that’s what’s great about it,” Grace said. “If it makes you uncomfortable, then it probably needs to be talked about more. … Especially when things like that happen every single day to hundreds, thousands, millions of girls every year. Some people have had to go through it, so I wanted to make sure that I did it right.”