2020: Tell-tale TV


Inspired by true events, the limited series Stateless, now on Netflix, is centered on the stories of four strangers whose lives collide at an immigration detention center in the middle of the Australian desert.

Among those strangers is Sofie Werner, an airline hostess on the run from a dangerous cult who winds up being detained in her own country. Sofie is played by Yvonne Strahovski, who is also known for her roles on Chuck, Dexter, and most recently, The Handmaid’s Tale.

I recently spoke with Strahovski about her role as Sofie on Stateless and what she learned from working on the series. We also talked a bit about The Handmaid’s Tale.

When I read the script and I was preparing to go to Australia to shoot Stateless, I kept thinking, ‘Nothing really can be more intense than The Handmaid’s Tale right now.’ Coming off of that, I just thought that Stateless would be perhaps a notch under that, but I was very mistaken. So, as I got myself into the mode of playing Sofie Werner, I realized, ‘Wow, we’re really in for it.’ And I was. It was an incredibly intense journey, but I definitely loved going down it. I learned so much and we’re really proud of the work,” Strahovski said.

Strahovski’s character on Stateless is extremely complex, and as an audience, we have the chance to see her varying emotions as she struggles to find her way — and eventually winds up in the detention center. Strahovski spoke a bit about the challenges of playing Sofie.

It was a little daunting at first just on paper, but as I sort of melted into her, I don’t know. It’s always a very intuitive process for me, going into the deep dive of emotions into someone like Sofie. So, although it did seem intimidating at first, it just flowed. Once we were there, it was just such a great team of people as well, which also helps. I really connected with our setup director Emma Freeman, our DP, Bonnie Elliot, was extraordinary. Oftentimes, I just felt like I was dancing with her in scenes and it was just me and her or the cameraman, Tim [Walsh], who was extraordinary as well. It’s just a very connected set which is always really such a bonus.

It’s a bizarre story as well, how she gets involved in this cult and then wants to run away. But my starting point with Sofie was that she just felt like this bright light and a free spirit — and that she was getting crushed from all angles and she really wanted to be free. Free from her family, which was oppressing her in a lot of ways, and free from her own mind as well, and from her parents’ desire to put her in a hospital to treat her mental illness. Which is why she gets sucked into that cult in the first place — because it’s her new family — and that ends up crushing her as well,” Strahovski explained.

It’s this journey of going down this road of watching this person disintegrate and lose themselves, and then obviously [she] ends up in a system that absolutely didn’t see her or what she was going through in terms of her mental health.

Throughout the limited series, Sofie’s sister is searching for her and eventually does find that she’s been mistakenly placed in this detention center. But Strahovski noted that this isn’t necessarily a happy ending for the character.

I don’t think it’s a happy ending for her. I think the system fails Sofie so dramatically that even though she has been found physically by her family and her sister, I think she has lost herself forever because the system failed to see her struggle and her mental health … and did nothing about it. It was exacerbated to the point of no return for someone like Sofie, I think.

Obviously the story is about how the system fails people. And then this really weird unique case of a white Australian woman being tied up in a detention center in Australia, and that not being addressed, and how people are forgotten,” Strahovski noted.

Stateless is inspired by true events, and that includes what happens with the character of Sofie Werner.

I think what’s really interesting in the real-life case of what happened with Cornelia Rau is that it took a white Australian woman for people to notice what was going on at these kinds of places. There’s many aspects of the story that are important, but I think that’s a really valid one and as the person playing the white Australian getting caught up in the detention center, which is not the norm, I think it’s important to mention that. That that’s what it takes, often, for people to realize that they need to pay attention to something that is going on, even if they don’t deem it as relatable to them,” Strahovski continued.

That’s exactly the problem — or one of the many, many problems in a system like this. That needs to be pointed out.”

Strahovski went on to discuss the importance of these kinds of stories and what she learned from working on the series.

It does make you feel hopeless when you think about displacement across the globe and how many millions of people are going through what one character, Amir, the character of Amir, played by Fayssal [Bazzi] — what he represents in terms of millions and millions of people is … It’s beyond upsetting. There are no words, really. It’s very depressing to think that this is the world. This is the world that we live in, which is why it is so important to highlight these stories.

One of the greatest things about working on the show was talking to the background artists that the production hired,” Strahovski recalled. She said going into the project, she wasn’t aware of that at first.

“I had no idea that they were people who had been through the system in some kind of way. Who were refugees, who had been detained, who had been stateless, displaced, who were running away from their home countries. That was incredible to be at the compound that they built, which by the way, was down the road from a real-life detention center, like a replica. Our compound was a replica of the one up the road that used to be in use, and some of our background artists had been at that detention center up the road and lived through the experience.

Just in talking to them, it was so eye-opening for me. I had not met anyone before who had been through something like that, and hearing stories of families escaping, how fathers would leave first to try and escape because they were being targeted in their home countries and then leaving to go to another country. One woman was telling me how she didn’t know if her husband was alive or dead for six years, as he had left to go to another country, then come to Australia. She had followed with her six kids, and — I just had no idea — and then the rest of her family had been killed in her home country. These are the kinds of stories that I was listening to every day, which just made this experience so much more powerful.”

“So many people said, ‘This story has to be told, I want to be part of this, and I want to face …’ There’s something also that some people said: they wanted to face that experience of what they’ve been through, and in doing that, tell their story and be part of it. That, to me, was the most amazing part of this whole thing.

Before we ended, Strahovski also discussed her character, Serena Joy, on The Handmaid’s Tale, and what it’s like getting into a space of justifying the character’s actions. (The series will be heading into its fourth season soon.)

As an actor, it’s really fun to play someone like Serena. There is so much to go with in diving into her psyche, but I still maintain the same thing that, I don’t know if I said it to you, but I’ve said it before, just in sitting in this really dirty space of being that person who knows her probably the best — or at least alongside the writers who were right there with her in her psyche when they write her, but just in terms of justifying everything that she does and finding her humanity within all of her decisions. Which is a really, really fun process and really interesting to deep dive into that human behavior. But at the same time, it is so not in alignment with me, my own self, that it always feels really gross to come out the other side and go, ‘Oh, I sat there and justified everything that she did.’ Then stepping away from that and then going, ‘Oh, this is a really despicable character.’

Tell-tale TV, 2020.