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Maidens On The Mall: Hulu Series Brings Red Cloaks To Steps Of Lincoln Memorial


If you were here visiting Washington, D.C., last week, you might have caught a startling sight - groups of young women dressed in floor-length red capes and oversized white bonnets strolling along the paths leading to the Lincoln Memorial. The women were extras in Hulu TV's adaptation of Margaret Atwood's novel "The Handmaid's Tale."

As NPR's Lynn Neary reports, they were filming a scene for the upcoming season.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: There was a lot going on at the Lincoln Memorial that day. Tourists were being ushered into the monument by some members of the film crew...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Anybody want to go up?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We're open, guys. You're more than welcome to...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Up the steps, and off you go.

NEARY: ...While others were getting ready to shoot the scene.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: OK, handmaids, let's do another kneeling rehearsal.

NEARY: "The Handmaid's Tale" is set in Gilead, a fictional country ruled by religious extremists. Fertile women, known as handmaids, are forced to become surrogate mothers for the rulers and their infertile wives. So the sight of these red-caped women on the steps of this majestic, white monument to freedom was chilling.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: OK, good morning, handmaids. Thank you for coming out and helping us out. You guys look amazing.

NEARY: Two-hundred women portrayed the handmaids, but producer Kim Todd says, in the end, it will look like a lot more.

KIM TODD: We will replicate those with our visual effects so that the final shot will have thousands of handmaids stretching down the Mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument.

NEARY: As rehearsal gets underway, the women stand in rows, their heads bowed down, facing the ground.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: That's pretty good. OK. And what I'm going to do is I'm going to go, and kneel. And you'll do the action, OK? So here we go. And kneel.

NEARY: The women kneel in unison, their faces completely obscured by their winged caps.

Anna Tummarello (ph) says wearing that cap makes you feel ashamed.

ANNA TUMMARELLO: We were talking on the ride over on the bus about how just humbling it is. You can't make eye contact with anybody for a few minutes after you first put it on.

NEARY: But Amy Shea (ph) says she gets a different feeling when she's surrounded by the other handmaids.

AMY SHEA: It kind of feels powerful, too, in a way.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Yeah, it feels powerful, which is very ironic...

SHEA: Yeah, it's kind of ironic because we're not supposed to be powerful. But us all together here kind of is powerful, in a way.

NEARY: Watching from the sidelines is executive producer Warren Littlefield. He says since the show first went into production, the lines between fiction and reality have blurred at times.

WARREN LITTLEFIELD: The wardrobe of the handmaids has become a symbol of rising up against depression, particularly for women, and fighting back.

NEARY: As they prepare to shoot the actual scene, the lead actors emerge on the top steps of the memorial, overlooking the handmaids below.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: You'll get a separate cue for Yvonne and Joe. I'll call it out. Thank you. And rolling.


NEARY: One of the leaders of Gilead and his wife stand on each side of their handmaid, played by Elisabeth Moss. This scene, says producer Kim Todd, depicts a show of power.

TODD: It's a little bit like any country when they want to have a show of strength, but they're not running tanks through the street. They're showing the power of their prayer.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Lord above, we beseech you. Hear our prayer. Ready? And kneel.

NEARY: The Lincoln Memorial is a monument to all the values Gilead has betrayed. Shooting this scene in this place, says Warren Littlefield, is a powerful experience.

LITTLEFIELD: June, Lizzie (ph) Moss, is kneeling on the exact same spot where Martin Luther King gave his "I Have A Dream" speech. So, yeah, goosebumps and chills over what that means.

NEARY: In the final show, the thousands of computer-generated handmaids will be kneeling in the shadow of a Washington Monument that has been changed into a cross.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.