Co-created by Tony Ayres, Cate Blanchett, and Elise McCredie and inspired by true events, the Netflix drama series Stateless tells the story of four strangers who end up at the same immigration detention center in the middle of the Australian desert. One of those individuals, Sofie Werner (Yvonne Strahovski), is a woman fleeing from the cult that she turned to when the situation with her parents became too toxic, only to find herself stuck in a cruel and deeply flawed system that seems even more impossible to escape.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Strahovski talked about getting the phone call from Cate Blanchett to be a part of Stateless, why she wanted to be a part of telling this story, what she loved about Sofie, shooting the dance sequences, and the most profound part of the entire experience. She also talked about the Chuck reunion for charity, as well as being a part of The Handmaid’s Tale and just what she thinks of her villainous character, Serena Joy.
Collider: When this project came your way, what were you told about it and the story that it would be telling?
YVONNE STRAHOVSKI: Cate [Blanchett] actually approached me, with an email and a phone call, describing the project to me. Of course, I was immediately intrigued, and I read the script and was just very, very moved. The content was incredibly important and moving, but also with the character of Sofie, there was so much there for me to get sucked into and work with. I just loved that she was such a bright spirit, and just wanted to be free in the world and free from her own troubles, but she is constantly facing her troubles in the show, including a family that she sees as oppressive to her, in wanting to tie her into a medical system that she doesn’t want to be a part of because of the things that she battled with, like her mental health. And then, she’s drawn into this cult, that seemed so wacky on paper when I read it, and how that affected her and her experience there, and how that affected her mental health, and then wanting to escape all of that and going into this detention center, willingly, and changing her identity. There was just so much in there. It’s this incredibly important story that we see told through the eyes of Sofie, as well as the three other characters that we follow, from very different angles, to get a full picture of this human experience within the detention center in Australia.
It’s so interesting how we feel like she’s this light and happy person, until we see her with her family and how that deflates her spirit.
STRAHOVSKI: She feels like her family, and particularly her parents, are failing her. She sees Gordon (Dominic West) and Pat (Blanchett), the people who run the cult, as her new parent figures in her life. They’re people who actually are seemingly supporting her and wanting her to flourish and be who she wants to be. For them to just suddenly turn around like that, and for her to go through the trauma of what happens there is obviously incredibly damaging. To see her deal with that and try to run away from it, only to have everything exacerbated by her experience in this detention center, it was just an incredibly fascinating journey to go down, as an actor.
What was it like to play all of those emotional levels, but then have a dance number to shoot?
STRAHOVSKI: I loved this experience. I loved the material, and I loved the character. I loved that I got to dance in it. I used to be a dancer, from probably the age of five to 18. For me, that part of it was like revisiting my old childhood passion. I guess I shouldn’t call it childhood because I still love to dance around my living room. It was really wonderful. I love those sequences. Watching Sofie crumble in this detention center, and then to escape to a part of her mind because that was the only way that she could deal with what was going on, and all of her memories and trauma and the system, and watch her escape into these moments of happiness that she had, with these fantasy sequences in the detention center, it was so amazing to be able to create that. We had a blast shooting that stuff, on set. That was super fun.
Did you find it easy to identify with Sofie, or did you just try to understand who she was, in the moments that you played her?
STRAHOVSKI: It was just about trying to understand her, and really sitting with her and becoming her, and feeling my way through everything that was thrown at her and how she grappled with that. There was one element that I related to quite strongly, actually, which is that her parents were not Australian-born. They’re German. And I very much related to that family situation. My parents are not Australian-born. They’re from Poland, and they migrated to Australia. So, there was that aspect, which ties into the theme of the show, with migration. The show is more about refugees, but I certainly felt a little tie in there, with that.
What was it like to work with Cate Blanchett and Dominic West, exploring that very interesting and very odd dynamic between your characters?
STRAHOVSKI: That was incredible. I thought that was amazing. We had some incredibly challenging scenes, but we also had some pretty fun scenes to do, as well. We had a blast with the costumes, because it’s set in the early 2000s. We just had a blast, shooting that whole thing. I just remember shooting the scene with Gordon at the party, and he’s making that speech, and he zones in on Sofie, at the end. That felt electric in the room, actually, with all of the background artists and Cate and Dom up there, doing their thing. It was really interesting. I really got an insight that night into what it might be like for someone like Sofie, who really is feeling vulnerable, in her own skin, and is feeling let down by the people who are supposed to make her feel safe and supported, and being stuck into this incredible energy of this establishment that supposedly celebrates people, and celebrates them through art and expression, and allows everyone to be vulnerable, only to attack those very things and use them against her and other people. So, that was quite electric.
Really, the whole mental experience was very unique to other experiences that I’ve had, working in film and television. I just felt that there was such a connection to everybody that I was working with, particularly Emma Freeman, the director, who set up the show, and our incredible DP, Bonnie Elliott, who was so intuitive and right there with us. The most profound experience was working with all of the background artists who had direct experience with a detention center and had either been through one or had family members who had, and had experienced an incredible life-changing and life-and-death situations. That was just the most astounding and heartbreaking emotional experience.
One of the bright sides of everyone being stuck at home because of everything that we’re dealing with now is that we’ve gotten quite a lot of cast reunions that we never would have gotten otherwise. How did it feel to get to have the Chuck reunion and table read, and did it make you wish and hope, even more, that you could get to do a Chuck movie, at some point?
STRAHOVSKI: That was incredible. We just started texting about doing a reunion, and then we started talking about making it worthwhile and raising money for Feeding America. The most exciting part of it was that we were doing it to draw attention to a need and making it happen, and all of the amazing fans who donated. We raised so much money, which was incredible. It’s always great to see those guys. When you work on television, in particular, you spend so much time together, where months turn into years, and you really do become a family, in a lot of ways. It’s always a blast, seeing those guys. And so many people remember that show. It had such a powerful impact on so many people and families, in particular. The main thing that I heard, and still hear, to this day, is that people could sit down with their family to watch it, and kids would bond with their parents. It’s sweet. We still have a lot of people discovering it now, which is really fun.
The Handmaid’s Tale has been one of TV’s most talked about and most highly acclaimed shows, since it started its run. What’s it meant to you to be a part of that show and work on that material, and see and hear the reaction from fans?
STRAHOVSKI: It’s been really powerful. It’s so incredible to be a part of a show that really is such a conversation starter, in so many ways. The show affects so many people because it really reflects our life, right now. We might be portraying a dystopian future situation, but really, there are so many things in the show that people connect to. It really is amazing to be able to have real, genuine conversation with people about what it brings up for them, in watching the show
As the person who plays Serena, have your feelings about her changed over the seasons?
STRAHOVSKI: No, not really. It’s just more of a focused thing. In the pilot and the first season, I spent a lot of time getting to know her. Now that I know her, I still think she’s despicable. I did an interview with [Elisabeth Moss], and she said that I’m the harshest critic of Serena, out of everybody, because I just don’t really have any sympathy for her. I do, and I don’t. When I see the end result, I don’t, but as the actor who plays her, I do. In the moment, I spend time sitting with her and justifying all of her heinous actions. It’s a very awkward space to be in. I sit in a very ugly, dirty space, justifying everything, and how she feels, and why she is the most important person on the planet. And then, I step outside of that and I watch the show, and I see how hideous she is. It’s a strange contradictory space to exist in, with this character.
She seems like a character that would be both fun to play and not so fun to play.
STRAHOVSKI: Yeah, it’s been fun. A lot of people say that villains are always the most fun to play. While that is true, there have been some incredibly challenging moments throughout the series. There are some things where I go, “Wow, that’s really walking the line, right there.” One scene that comes to mind is the rape scene where Serena was holding June down, and she was really struggling. Not to take away from any of the other rape scenes, that are also incredibly hard to watch and traumatic and powerful, but that one, in particular, was one of those scenes that was quite difficult.
Stateless is available to stream at Netflix.