[This story contains mild spoilers for Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale season five and Peacock’s A Friend of the Family.]
The day The Handmaid’s Tale released its season five finale, Mckenna Grace, who stars in the Hulu series as Esther Keys, decided to share something personal.
Along with a video of herself in recovery from a spinal surgery, Grace took to social media to thank her surgeon and reveal how life imitated art when, weeks earlier, she watched her handmaid character lying in a hospital bed while she, in real-time, was in a hospital bed. “Social media only reflects what we want people to know — often we don’t see the ugly, hard, less-flattering sides of a person and their life,” she wrote, in part, with a promise to soon elaborate further.
As it turns out, Grace was recovering from a surgery to fix her scoliosis, something the 16-year-old actress was diagnosed with at age 12. “I tried to be private about it,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter of her last four years on film and TV sets and at industry events. “Back when I had my back brace while filming Ghostbusters: Afterlife, there wasn’t a lot of hiding a big old clunky, massive back brace. But for the most part, I kind of just kept it to myself.”
Grace is starring on TV in two acclaimed dramas that recently released their full seasons. On Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which aired its fifth season finale Nov. 9, she returns as Esther, the fiery former child wife and now-handmaid who spent most of the season in a coma after being sexually assaulted by a commander. In the hospital bed episode, Esther wakes up to find out she is pregnant from the rape and delivers a raging performance with her scene partner Ann Dowd, who plays the fearsome Aunt Lydia.
In Peacock’s A Friend of the Family, which wrapped its run on Nov. 10, the scripted series based on the true story first introduced with Netflix’s docuseries Abducted in Plain Sight, Grace plays the older version of Jan Broberg, who was abducted twice, at age 12 and 14, and sexually abused by a family friend (played by Jake Lacy) in the 1970s. Broberg, a producer on the series, worked with Grace on the role.
Below, in a chat with The Hollywood Reporter, Grace explains why she had no choice but to put a pin in her busy schedule to undergo surgery to correct her curved spine, opens up about that journey and recovery, and reveals why she tackles such heavy yet age-appropriate roles: “If we’re that uncomfortable with me acting out these scenes, why aren’t we doing something for the young women who are going through it?”
You open up about your scoliosis and feelings around your body in a new song, “Self Dysmorphia,” and I was struck by the lyrics because you exude such positivity in interviews. How does it feel to speak out about an experience that you’ve been going through so privately?
It’s a little weird! I do find that I present as a very happy person — because I am a very happy person! I like to keep my personal life a little bit more personal so that I can have a childhood and figure myself out as a teenager. So it’s a little bit weird to put these deeply personal thoughts and struggles out into the world. But, hopefully, by telling my struggles with my surgery and spine and with my song, I’m hoping that maybe people who are going through the same thing will feel less alone. I guess it’s important to show that it doesn’t really matter how it looks on the outside, that everybody still goes through a lot of struggles in our lives.
I did not really know a lot about the surgery going into it except for what my doctors had been telling me. I was trying to find some stuff online, and I was really, really scared, and I didn’t want to do the surgery. But honestly, it was the best thing that I’ve ever done.
When you first posted on TikTok from a hospital bed, you said the last four years have been a struggle. Did you find out you had scoliosis at age 12?
Yes, I did. My dad is a surgeon. I’m a very affectionate person, so I hug my parents a lot, and whenever I would hug him, he would feel my back and my spine, and he would tell me my back felt weird. And then I didn’t go to school, and in school, they give you scoliosis exams, and so my dad did one on me and he was like, “Oh yeah, that’s you.” And then it just progressively got worse. I used to have a back brace. Back when I was shooting (2021’s) Ghostbusters: Afterlife, I had one but never wore it. And then I had surgery, and it’s been a really wonky, not fun struggle to be dealing with, especially going to premieres and carpets and even when shooting. People will say, “Mckenna, I need you to stand on your mark and not lean on one of your legs,” because you’re kind of shifting weight onto one of your legs, and it looks uneven. And I’m like, “Guys, I’m standing as straight as I can.”
Would you tell people when you were in those scenarios, or would you pick and choose and stay private about it?
I tried to be private about it. On Ghostbusters, there wasn’t a lot of hiding a big old clunky, massive back brace. But for the most part, I just kept it to myself. Even though it’s not the type of thing that is a liability, I didn’t want productions to overthink and think that I was a liability. I always wanted to play a superhero, and I didn’t want people to know there was something wrong with my spine. But eventually, over the past year or so before my surgery, I did have to tell productions because my hip was so prominently higher than the other one. I’d keep it to myself until I was in a fitting, and I would have to tell wardrobe, “Hey, my hip is higher than the other, and sometimes I have to adjust skirts or dresses or pants so they’re wonky, so I don’t look wonky.”
Logan Kim and Mckenna Grace (right) in Ghostbusters: Afterlife (2021).
Columbia Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection
The Handmaid’s Tale creator Bruce Miller told me your schedule was so busy, he had you for less filming time this season. I see on IMDB that you have five upcoming projects. What prompted you to pause your busy work schedule and say, “OK, I’m going to do this surgery now”?
It was very difficult to schedule a surgery in the midst of everything I was doing. I had been shooting since around May, and then I went straight from that project onto another one that worked six-day weeks — like, adult hours — and that was for a month. Then I literally flew from that to New York to do something, and then I flew back to L.A. the night before my surgery.
Were you also in pain throughout all of this time?
Pre-surgery? I mean, I like to work and work, and go and go until I physically can’t anymore, that’s just the type of person I am. I love my work, and I love what I do, so if I’m feeling sore or having a bruise or injury or bump from work, I dig it. It’s like battle scars! My hip would bother me every once in a while and that had to do with my back, but luckily, scoliosis doesn’t come with a lot of pain unless it’s super severe.
If you reach a 45-degree curve, that’s the point you’ll have to have surgery or else, for the rest of your life, it’ll progress another degree until, 20 years down the road you’re, I don’t know, in your 30s and all of a sudden you have a 60-degree curve and it starts to impact your lungs and stuff, and that would be super bad. I was a 47-degree curve. But now I am a six-degree, which is crazy!
How long has it been since you got the surgery?
It’s been about five weeks now. I actually went to the gym for the first time this morning. I’m starting to get back to my regular activities. I want to get in shape now that I’ve fixed my spine because I didn’t realize just how much my spine was hindering me. I would work out six days a week and make zero progress. I would do everything as hard as I could for months, and I would be like, “Why am I not seeing results?” I think it was a lot of my mind frame but also post-spine surgery I feel like I look the best I ever have in my body even though I have not worked out in months. I guess that was just how much my spine was bothering me. I feel like a new person. It’s crazy.
Esther (Mckenna Grace) and Janine (Madeline Brewer) in the second episode of The Handmaid’s Tale season five.
Courtesy of Sophie Giraud/Hulu
In your online posts first sharing that you had a spinal surgery, you spoke about your Handmaid’s Tale hospital scene coming out at the same time you were also in a recovery bed. What was it like to watch yourself playing a character in recovery and also be in recovery yourself?
The day that episode came out, I think was also when my first or second episode of A Friend of the Family came out. But Esther [in The Handmaid’s Tale] was in the hospital bed thrashing around, and I was in my hospital bed, and I could not move. I think it was my first day post-op. I was on such pain meds, and I kept telling my mom, “Make a video for so and so, I want to tell them hi.” And my mom was like, “You’re going to regret sending all of these videos.” I made one for Mr. Bruce Miller like, “Look, Bruce, I’m in a hospital bed!” And then I tried to recreate my scene, but I was like, “I can’t move!” Then I saw him at the premiere for the finale, and I was like, “Oh my God! I forgot that I sent you that!”
We didn’t get to see as much of Esther as we wanted to this season. How would you describe your connection to that character?
I also haven’t spent as much time playing her as I would love to, because I’m always so honored to be on The Handmaid’s Tale, and they’ve been so accommodating with my schedule and craziness of the past year. But I love going onto that show. I love being able to be a part of it even though it’s so horrible!
Indeed: This season, Esther is raped, poisons herself and her closest friend Janine (Madeline Brewer), goes into a coma, and then comes out of it only to find out she is pregnant by her rapist — and then she’s blamed for it by Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd).
Yeah, that was crazy. I was reading the episode two script, and I remember I got a text from Miss Madeline, who plays Janine, and she said, “You little brat! I can’t believe you!” And I was like, “Wait, what happened?” So I finished reading the script and read that final scene where I poison her, and I was like, “Woah, I’m really going off. Wait, why am I coughing up blood?” And then every script that I got that my character was in, it was like blow after blow!
That scene between Esther and Aunt Lydia, where Lydia asks Esther if she did anything to “bring on” the assault, showed Esther exhibiting a new level of rage. What do you tap into to find that kind of rage?
I’m really not quite sure! I listen to a lot of music to get into an emotional state for a scene. But this was almost an acting exercise because I was stripped of being able to use my hands or legs or body and any physicality for the scene; all I had was my face and these handcuffs. They kept offering to uncuff me between takes or pad the handcuffs, but I said, “No it’s fine, I’ll just stay here and sit in this.”
I guess I was just enraged for Esther and what she’s been through. I get questions like this, and really, I don’t know. I don’t feel that type of rage through my day-to-day life. I kind of just do it and then after, come out of it to realize I’ve been doing this for hours, and I kind of don’t know where I went. I had these massive bruises on my wrist for going so ham. My wrists were so crazy swollen and bruised the next day.
Left to right: Esther (Grace), Janine (Brewer) and Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd).
Courtesy of Sophie Giraud/Hulu
Last season, we spoke about your attraction to being around the same age as Esther, and that also applies to your Friend of a Family role playing Jan Broberg. When you filmed this season of The Handmaid’s Tale, Roe v. Wade was still intact. But the season released after it was overturned. How is Esther’s story resonating?
It’s just scary to watch this show and see how increasingly relevant it always becomes because we did shoot that way before everything happened. I remember everything happening, and it felt crazy to see [with The Handmaid’s Tale], and it’s scary. But it’s been beautiful to hear peoples’ stories and to hear they’ve been touched by my performance. It’s beautiful to hear the response to the show or the reactions.
Have you talked about returning for the sixth and final season of The Handmaid’s Tale?
I hope so! My lips are sealed, but I will come back for anything Handmaid’s Tale wants me.
Bruce Miller teased after the finale that both Esther and Janine are still out there, as these rebel seeds who are growing and dangerous. If you do get a chance to wrap up Esther’s story, what do you want to see from her in the final season?
I don’t know. I feel like I could go the optimistic route and say I hope that she’s OK. But let’s look at what’s happened this season. Let’s look at this show. I don’t know what’s going to happen to her, and I’m definitely scared, but I just hope that no matter what happens, that she can maybe rain a little bit of hell on Gilead.
In Peacock’s A Friend of the Family, you also tackle sexual abuse with another age-appropriate character. What attracts you to these types of roles, and what made you want to tell Jan Broberg’s story?
I’m just honored to be playing the roles that are actually my age. To be playing these young women who are going through this, because it’s exactly what I say all the time about playing my age in Handmaid’s Tale: If we’re that uncomfortable with me acting out these scenes, why aren’t we doing something for the young women who are going through it? Dramatic roles, to me, are the most fulfilling as an actor, but also I find that these stories are important to tell and that I’m able to be a part of something that’s bigger than myself. To be able to talk about it and have a bit more of a platform to educate people, I think that’s incredible.
You got to speak with the real Jan Broberg, who was very involved in the series; she even appears in a small role as your therapist at the end. What were some of the conversations between you two about what you hoped to accomplish by helping to tell her real-life story?
First, can I just say that Miss Jan is one of the most beautiful and incredible people that I’ve ever met? And I’m honored to have been able to be a part of telling her story. I think it’s really important to get her story out there to hopefully educate people and show people [what happened]. Hopefully, people will understand. The family was so under fire after the documentary [Netflix’s Abducted In Plain Sight] came out. People were just attacking their family, and I think that’s so unfair, because it’s not like they made any of these decisions willingly, and they’ve been very open about how they made every wrong decision in the book. Miss Jan even says that her family is the reason she survived all of that, coming back together. Hopefully, people can understand and see why the Brobergs made the decisions they made and what really happened, and hopefully, it can be a bit of a learning lesson. Even though nowadays we know so, so, so much more than they knew back in the ‘70s in their small town in Pocatello, Idaho.
Have you spoken to Jan Broberg, and is she happy with the reception?
I think she has been happy with it. I do speak to her often. I really love Miss Jan. I was so scared for my episodes to come out because I hoped I did her right. And she’s been nothing but so, so kind to me.
Grace as Jan Broberg and Jake Lacy as Bob “B” Berchtold in Peacock’s A Friend of the Family.
Was this your last role before the surgery?
No. My last role before surgery was a film called Spider & Jessie. I play Spider, and I had a lot of heavy running around and some action things and some stunts. And after my surgery I was like, “Holy heck, I cannot imagine doing any of that again.” At least not for a minute — I’ll get back into it!
These roles all see you dealing with trauma, addiction and abuse. What’s your process of letting go and putting them behind you?
Luckily, I’ve always had my parents, who have always been so supportive of me and my decisions in acting. So outside of acting, I have my family and my dog and my own life that I can separate from my roles. I listen to a lot of music to get into a place, and then I listen to a lot of music to get out of a place. Just the other day, I was crying in the car, listening to something because it reminded me of one scene. Music does that to me, and I find that’s really helpful.
These roles are always a really big part of my life and will always be a part of me, but it’s an emotion you trick yourself into feeling, and then you have to figure out how to disassociate it from your real emotions. I’ve definitely had times where I look back at a scene where I did something all day that is a super dramatic, high-intensity scene, and it will give me a little bit of anxiety because my body thought it was real even though my mind knows it wasn’t. So it’s all sorts of mixed feelings, but at the end of the day, it’s acting and emotions I leave at work.
Are you taking time off now or jumping right back in?
Well (laughs), I’ve taken about five weeks off now post-surgery, and now I’m getting back to work. I’m actually starting work on a film next week — I have a fitting tomorrow! I still can’t fully lean over or bend my spine all the way, so I am totally still healing. But I’m working out again and starting to heal, so that was my time off.
I’m really happy. I was scared I was going to end up taking months and months off. I like to work and work and work until I can’t anymore, and then I’ll want time off and spend a week or two off, and then I’ll get super antsy and need to go and do something. I have a lot lined up for next year. I also have a lot of music coming out — hopefully soon. And I’m really excited about this next project because I’m getting to work with someone who I really look up to and really love. Next year I have a lot of things I’m going to be doing, and I can’t wait to talk about them.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
The entire fifth season of The Handmaid’s Tale is streaming on Hulu and the full limited series A Friend of the Family is available on Peacock.