Up until recently, Christine Ko was known primarily for comedic work, from her time on CBS sitcom The Great Indoors with Joel McHale to FX's Dave, opposite Dave Burd. But with a new guest-starring arc on The Handmaid's Tale Season 5, you may now think of her synonymous with stoicism and strength.
Ko joins the Season 5 cast of Hulu's dystopian drama based on Margaret Atwood's seminal novel of the same title as Lily, a former Martha and now refugee from Gilead and new leader of resistance group Mayday.
"I was a huge fan of the show. I had the show on my vision board for years because I was like, 'This is the pinnacle of drama that I want to work on with just impeccable, grounded performances,'" Ko tells Metacritic. "I also feel, just honestly, as an Asian American female actor, I don't get that many opportunities to show this kind of wide range in one character. And so, having the opportunity to guest on a show like Handmaid's, I'm like, 'Oh clean slate, I get to fully dive into this world.'"
That process began for Ko with rewatching all four previous seasons of the series before stepping on set. Ahead of her audition to play Lily she was only able to find time to watch the last few episodes of the fourth season to remind herself "where June was at so that I could see what basically what she wanted from me as an ex-Martha." But while she quarantined in Toronto, Canada ahead of production (due to COVID safety protocols still in place), "I just binged everything," she says.
What helped her the most was the first season because that was the idea of Mayday was "peppered throughout" the story the most.
"You see everyone talk about this mysterious force that is called Mayday, and June thinks it is a place. And when you meet my character, Lily, she takes you to Mayday. The description of this camp and the women there and the refugees there, that was all in Season 1," Ko recalls. "And so I was like, 'Wow, how lucky am I to be able to have all of that, without having to create it in my mind?'"
It may have taken five seasons for June Osborne (Elisabeth Moss) to finally find that Mayday location, but it couldn't have happened at a better time for Ko.
"I didn't go to get to go to theater school, so it's one of those things where I'm both learning in the moment and kind of taking a leap of faith and saying, 'Do I belong? And if I do belong, then let me try these things,'" she explains. "That's a set where you get more than 10 takes, and they really honor an actor's choices, and I think you can really see that from the performances. So, this was creatively one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life, hands down."
Here, Ko talks to Metacritic about tapping into the psychology of playing a woman marked for death who is now choosing to engage in behavior that could still result in her death and working with Moss on The Handmaid's Tale, as well as what's to come when she returns to Only Murders in the Building and Dave.
The audience meets Lily when she has gotten out of Gilead, but that is a very recent development, so it feels like her anger could be even more raw than June's because she hasn't had the wins that June has had in fighting back and successfully getting a plane full of children out or killing a commander. Is that true? How did you flesh out her backstory to inform your performance?
In the audition, it had already said that I was one of the women that were freed when they made the exchange for Fred. The character description when you first meet Lily is that she's completely depleted emotionally and physically. She was just traded [and] these were women that were supposed to go to the Colonies, so it was like her only path was death. And there's a scar that she has that recently happened. She feels this immense debt to June. She doesn't want to continue to live her life in Toronto as a free woman. She wants to help Mayday and pretty much start a revolution. And so, she's like, "I'm going to do anything possible, even if this means risking my life again, because this woman saved my life."
Moira (Samira Wiley) calls those working with Mayday "suicidal" and "traumatized" and pleads with June not to go to them. And you did just say that death was her only path in Gilead and now she's still choosing that potential path. Do you agree with Moira's sentiment?
I feel like it's something more complicated because when Bruce [Miller, creator and showrunner] did his research about refugees, the one thing he actually said when we were at the [TIFF] press junket was [that] trauma lives with you; it just doesn't go away, and it's constantly triggered throughout your life. And so, what was really helpful for me to understand this character was, "Yeah, she's gone through all these things, but there is such a fight in her." And I have a feeling that she's always had this fight while she was a Martha, it just never had its chance to release. June is the poster child of someone who can fight back and has lived through it, and so, it's this idea of attaching herself to June, and being like, "OK if you're the one who's going to go in and fight, this is the one glimpse of light that I see that we can actually make a difference." In all of her scenes, there's always a hesitation — "I'm nervous about this path, but I think we can find a way" — but she makes everything happen to do it. I think it's about the fact that there's just such a bigger purpose to this — even bigger than June finding Hannah.
There needs to be a certain level of trust to operate in a secret resistance, but that's made so much harder not only by past trauma these women have experienced, but also by not being able to be sure who is really one of them. As we see in "Border," there's an incident where a man approaches and guns are drawn because it's unclear if he's friend or foe when he can't remember the code phrase right away. How did you land on Lily's level of trust, and how much of expressing it was about adlibbing certain dialogue versus only holding your body and face certain ways to emote the right level?
A key component that actually Lizzie Moss really helped me with while we were on set was, she was like, "I know, we're part of the resistance and I know that you're a leader in Mayday, but there's this vulnerability that we really want to show in Lily, which is that she just has such empathy for people that are in this world." When she sees the guy who comes in with the code name, and you have Sam next to her who has a gun in his face and is like, "Give me the code," Lily's face isn't that forceful because she's like, "This is a child that's been put into the situation." He's probably 18, 19 years old, he's clearly terrified, but he's doing a job. And so, that was what was the most interesting thing about playing Lily: We know that she's gone through so much pain, we know that she has a goal in mind, but there's something to her that is just wanting to be caring and kind of like a motherly figure to people and say, "OK, I'm gonna take you in under my wings and then guide you."
I don't necessarily have an answer for you as to where this vulnerability came from, but I really appreciated it because it added so much depth to the character and something that I can relate with as a person. I was adopted, but into my own family: I was separated from my parents and then later had this relationship with them when I was an adult. And so, there's this thing of, people make bad decisions and they're selfish sometimes, but you can choose to have them in your life and forgive in a way and be a bit empathetic or completely x them out. And I think for Lily, she's like, "I'm not going to pretend like this didn't happen, this is a part of my life and, in a way, my family, even if they are from Gilead."
Maybe this speaks to the empathy, but there is a line that stuck out when Lily and June first meet and June says she was lucky in what she has accomplished so far, and your response as Lily is, "Women always say that when they've done something extraordinary." It is only one line, but it speaks volumes about women in your world and in the real world — but is that something you even consciously discuss or is it all just understood and part for the course at this point?
I definitely felt like that line had so much weight on it. When I read it, it shook me to my core because I was like, "This is so true." Women can't just do things and stand proudly and not feel like they need to be humble sometimes. And I feel like that's what the show is about; I feel like that's what the actors really show.
That was my first scene I shot, and so, it was really nice to have Lizzie there to guide me, and I'll never forget that when I said that, even in rehearsal, Lizzie had tears in her eyes and we weren't even rolling. And it just gave me such a confidence as an actor to say, "Wow, this woman is basically cueing me up and supporting me." As an actor, that's all you need, because she's propping you up to feel like there is an emotion or reaction to what you're saying.
When we shot it, I knew there was a weight to it because the camera was literally so close to my face that I couldn't see Lizzie. And she was like, "You can stare straight at like the corner of the camera box. I'm here so that you can feel me," and she gave me a performance of a lifetime. I wish I could show you what she did on my side. But witnessing that was all I needed. This is someone who was willing to make you the star and let you take up space, even though she's the lead of the show and you're a guest star and you're new. It was such a good analogy to that line because she's like, it's not about me all the time. It's about the people around me. If I ever get to be No. 1 on a show, I hope I'm like Lizzie Moss; I really do.
I know it's early to talk about Lily's future on The Handmaid's Tale since we don't yet know if she survives the season, but this is far from your only gig at the moment. What can you set up for what we can expect for your character Nina on Season 3 of Only Murders in the Building and Emma in Season 3 of Dave?
It just so happened that the finale of Only Murders was at the exact same time as the first episode of The Handmaid's Tale that I was on, so unfortunately, I wasn't able to bring in the finale, but she's still the board president, I will say that. And even though the murder's now outside of the building, there's gonna be a lot of scenes back in the building, so that's exciting.
For Dave, it's super exciting because they ended the season with Dave and GaTa going on tour, and Emma is going to go on tour with them. So, you're gonna see a lot of footage of Emma and the boys, and I'm gonna say that that dynamic is very intense. She's probably craving some girl time after that.
We left Emma's storyline with her wanting something better for her life and having a new career, so I think she's going to explore the idea of directing. And we'll see how much Dave supports her new adventure because he kind of gets scared when his friends do well, but then there's like always another side where he wants to support them. So that's what we're gonna deal with in Season 3.
Dave did end up supporting GaTa in a major way at the end of Season 2 by adding him to his VMA performance and then naming the tour Dave, which nods to both of their first names. Do you think Emma will have a similar supportive experience in Season 3, even if the road to get there takes the whole season?
Absolutely. I think you saw hints of it and "Ad Man," that episode, where you could see him exploring Emma's talents and he's like, "Oh, I hope you direct my music video someday," but then it ends with this schadenfreude feeling of watching Dave crumble. So, I think they're really battling their friendship and saying, "I've supported you from the wings for so long," and Emma's clearly very capable, and the brains behind a lot of his creative endeavors. But I think it's gonna be a struggle to get there because Dave is not the most aware person in the world, especially when it comes to the women in his life. And so, I think that's going to be a key component: how does Dave treat the women in his life, especially when he doesn't have an album to put out? He has the time now to really focus on his relationships, and we're going to answer that, for sure, in Season 3; I know that for a fact.
The Handmaid's Tale Season 5 streams new episodes Wednesdays
Get to know Christine Ko:
Ko is known for memorable performances on television series from The Great Indoors (Metascore: 51) and Hawaii Five-0 (66), to Upload (68) and No Good Nick. She currently stars on FX's Dave (76) and has a guest-starring arc on Only Murders in the Building (77), in addition to The Handmaid's Tale (82). In film, she has starred in Tigertail (65) and will soon be seen in The Knocking and Mabel.