TORONTO — As he prepared to play a cutthroat commander in the new season of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” Jonathan Watton of Corner Brook, N.L., heard from the writers that the character was similar to a certain Republican south of the border.
“They said, ‘Look, there’s a particular political person in the States who we’ve thought of and he’s younger, he’s ambitious, politically astute, and in some ways out for himself,'” Watton said in an interview.
And who was that person?
“Should I say?” the affable Watton said with a laugh. “Well, they modelled him a little bit after Paul Ryan (the former U.S. House Speaker). Not in terms of necessarily where he comes from but just where he slots into that power structure: Politically astute, intelligent and yet just intensely after a goal. That was helpful for me. It just clarified what his motivations are.”
Watton plays American Cmdr. Mathew Calhoun in season 3 of the Emmy-winning dystopian drama, which is shot in Toronto and around southern Ontario. He first appears in episode 3, set to air Sunday, and is in five episodes in total. The series is on Bravo and Crave in Canada.
Season 1 was based on Toronto author Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, while the rest of the series created by Bruce Miller explores what happens after the book ends.
Calhoun is a new commander in the Republic of Gilead, a theocracy in which women are treated as a property of the state and some are forced to bear children to combat an infertility epidemic.
Elisabeth Moss stars as protagonist June (a.k.a. Offred), who continues to defy the power structure along with a resistance movement that stretches into Canada, prompting Calhoun to take a hard line.
“He feels the power structure needs to clamp down, that we need to be stronger here, rule with an iron fist and show no mercy,” said Watton, 41.
“Anyone who shows any weakness, especially of the more established commanders who we’re starting to look at with questions, like Waterford for example, he thinks they need to step aside and we need to come down hard. He doesn’t think of himself as a bad guy, but he’s definitely in this world a bad guy.”
Cmdr. Waterford is played by Joseph Fiennes, while Yvonne Strahovski plays his wife, Serena Joy. The characters have June in their household as a handmaid.
“The tagline this year is ‘Blessed be the fight,'” said Watton, noting the season shows the resistance taking different “and maybe unexpected forms.”
There’s also “a sense of hope, a sense of agency” for the resistance, he added.
“We see June start to make some strong choices and some difficult ones, of where her loyalties lie and what she’s going to do to take down Gilead.”
Watton’s previous credits include David Cronenberg’s film “Maps to the Stars,” and the shows “Private Eyes,” “Saving Hope” and “Murdoch Mysteries,” in which he was a series regular as Dr. Darcy Garland.
He was a fan of Atwood’s novel and the series before signing on, and was able to get input directly from series writer Yahlin Chang onset, where the cast was “so welcoming.”
“The Handmaid’s Tale” has brought his career to a new level, he said, “just because it’s become part of such a conversation critically with the work that goes on in the show, and also culturally it’s just become part of such a conversation that people are having and need to have now.”
“There are many instances where sadly we see a lot of parallels between the very things that are going on in the world of the show, and in the world around us, so it’s an honour to be a part of that conversation,” Watton said.
“Who would have thought we’d be having conversations about women’s reproductive rights now in 2019? And it’s very much on the table — more than on the table, it’s being stripped away from people in state legislatures across the U.S.”
Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press