Madeline Brewer | It’s Not a Proper Apocalypse Until the Falcon Cannot Hear the Falconer
“Are you scared?” I ask Madeline Brewer as she takes off a pair of colossal Fendi boots, descending back to her five feet three inches. A falcon, named Circa, has been hovering just barely a foot from her head, occasionally attempting to dart out of the hands of the master falconer clinging to its leash. “I got used to the owl, I don’t know that I’ll get used to the falcon,” Brewer admits. “I'm trying.”
Of course, in many ways, Brewer has mastered navigating tension. The 26-year-old New Jersey native first broke through five years ago as Tricia Miller in Orange is the New Black—a spunky white-girl-with-cornrows and a hardcore neck tattoo who struggled with drug addiction, and who seems a far cry from Brewer herself. Since then she’s appeared on shows like Hemlock Grove and Black Mirror, as well as in film—a perhaps unexpected turn of events considering the 26-year-old initially attended The American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City, funding her way in part with prize money won in her local Miss Pitman pageant, and expected to be making a career on the stage. However, life rarely goes as expected, and maybe it’s all for the best—her recent role in the Hulu smash The Handmaid’s Tale has reached far more people than she’d likely ever manage from Broadway.
Playing Janine (also called Ofwarren and Ofdaniel), Brewer masterfully navigates a terrifying and increasingly prescient universe where women’s rights are stripped away by an authoritarian, theocratic, and heavily patriarchal society, and women like Janine find themselves reduced to reproductive apparatuses for infertile elites. That said, however frightening the misogynistic hellscape that Gilead may be, it’s still fiction— at least for now. The falcon, however, is all too real. “I’m normally not near anything that could literally bite my hand off,” she says of the bird—a bit of an ironic statement given that in The Handmaid’s Tale’s first episode, she has her right eye ripped from her skull. The falconer assures everyone that Circa is quite safe. Still, scary business nonetheless.
The Handmaid’s Tale has become a potent symbol during a time of openly regressive politics and frequent cultural clashes, and Brewer is always trying to become more aware of the ways in which the show—and all her work—bears on the real world. Although she notes that Janine may not identify as a feminist, Brewer herself certainly does. “As someone who identifies heavily as a feminist, and as someone who is constantly checking in with myself and those around me to make sure I’m being the best possible type of feminist (A.K.A. an intersectional feminist), I do enjoy that the work that I have done and the work that I will continue to do reflects that.” While she is always down for pure entertainment, she also believes she can put her beliefs to work. “I love escapism, but I personally feel that as an artist it is your duty to take that to the next level, if you’re comfortable with that—and I am.”
Many of the worlds Brewer’s characters occupy are distinctly female—cordoned-off from society—whether in Orange is the New Black’s prison or The Handmaid’s Tale’s Red Center. But in these oppressive spaces, Brewer has set herself apart by playing strong, complicated women with nuance and empathy. “I have to literally put myself inside their brain,” she says, speaking of the empathy she feels for her characters and the complexity she brings to them.
Brewer is continuing to go dark in Cam, a feature-length film to be released on Netflix, directed by Daniel Goldhaber with a screenplay by Isa Mazzei, in which she plays Alice, a camgirl who is haunted by a sinister doppelgänger, Lola (also played by Brewer). The role challenged her, but also gave her a deeper insight into the importance of building a truly inclusive, liberatory feminism. “It’s about a woman who works in the sex industry as a camgirl, and that was something I had never explored. I never realized how much sex workers are treated as second-class citizens. They’re not treated as people, their work is not legitimized, they don’t have rights—and they haven’t for so long.”
When I ask Brewer how people close to her respond to seeing her in all these different lights—Tricia, Janine, Alice—she quickly lets me know that Cam hasn’t been uncontroversial. “Well, my dad just watched Cam and he hated it. But my dad’s a Mormon, so.... that was tough for him.” Point taken. “I’m not saying my dad can’t form his own opinions, but the way he grew up was that sex is bad, sex is wrong, porn is wrong, sexual autonomy is not something you ever want to talk about or want to explore or discuss. He just believes what he’s always believed.” As for her mom, “She is much more open.” She sits down with Brewer to watch the new The Handmaid’s Tale episodes when they’re unveiled and proudly attended the Women’s March in 2017 with Brewer and her aunts. “She doesn’t totally get it, but she’s trying,” Brewer adds. Which, after all, is sometimes all we can ask.
Other actors were wary of taking on Cam, and Brewer’s manager was at first hesitant. “The thing with something that can be as subversive as this is that you have to have people who truly want to be involved. Otherwise it won’t be made correctly, and then you’re just filling a role. We could’ve had filmmakers who had no interest in telling the story truthfully”—the creator and writer, Isa Mazzei, is herself a former camgirl—“and then we would’ve had to have someone on set telling us exactly how to hold a dildo. Like, no. We had people there who know how to hold a dildo.”
Of course, there is one big difference between being a camgirl and being an actor on film and TV—camgirls get to control their own camera. “When you are a camgirl you have control of what people see and what people hear you say and all of that, and that’s why it can be so empowering. It’s your show. It’s your life. And you only show and do and say and express things you want.”
To prepare for the role, Brewer watched “so much fucking cam” “I had my camgirls that I modeled Alice after and that I modeled Lola after. It was like me watching Meryl Streep and being like, ‘I’m taking that.’ They are Meryl Streeps of camming, so I might as well listen to what they have to say.”
For someone who so often plays characters living in profound darkness, Brewer’s demeanor is bright and interminably friendly. But when I ask if she is an optimist herself, she’s quick to say no. “I’m a total pessimist. I’m like, ‘everything’s terrible.’ I think that’s just my anxiety talking, but no, Janine has taught me so much about looking on the bright side. If Janine can get through Gilead by being an optimist, then I can get through the day.” It’s a sentiment many fans share, thanks in part to Brewer’s commitment.