On April 28th of this year, audiences were introduced to Mckenna Grace as they’ve never seen her before: as The Handmaid’s Tale’s new character Esther Keyes, a girl whose childhood and innocence are stolen by the horrors and trauma of Gilead. While this may be one of Grace’s most striking and memorable roles to date, it certainly isn’t her first experience in the industry. The talented actress’ credits and performances span film and television, including starring in the 2017 feature film Gifted, portraying Christmas Flint in Troop Zero, acting as the younger version of Tonya Harding in I, Tonya and more. Today, Mckenna Grace spoke to Schön! Magazine about Mrs. Keyes, the preparation for the difficult but powerful scenes, what she hopes the audience takes away from this new season and upcoming projects.
You portray Esther Keyes in the new season of The Handmaid’s Tale. How did you feel when you first heard you are going to join the show? Who was the first person you told?
I cried! I couldn’t believe they chose me. I felt so honoured to be a part of a well-known show like this that speaks out about so many important topics. I wasn’t able to really tell anyone for a while because it was very secretive. I was with my mom when I found out, and so I immediately called my dad at work and told him.
How would you describe your character Mrs. Keyes?
She’s very grown up, like a wife, but at the same time, she is still a fourteen year old girl cracking under the pressures of abuse, Gilead and hiding rebels in her home. I think her mind is a really loud place.
What are some of her qualities that stood out to you that made her interesting to play?
Mrs. Keyes is an interesting character. Playing her is fun, but at times it was difficult because I wanted to make sure her trauma was accurately portrayed. She’s constantly switching between being anxious and controlling to childlike and crying. Sometimes it’s as small as her hand shaking while smoking a cigarette or the tapping of a foot, but I did always really try my best.
How did you prepare for the difficult and powerful scenes that come with playing Esther Keyes?
I binge-watched the show. The acting is so incredible, and there are so many powerful scenes, so that helped me with the mood and the tone of Gilead. I researched about child marriage. Right now in my state I could technically get married if my legal guardian signed a document, which is absolutely crazy. I also watched interviews and stories of women who went through what Esther had to go through. I researched as much as I could so that I could give an accurate portrayal.
What was the most difficult part of creating this season of The Handmaid’s Tale?
I would say Covid. We got shut down around the beginning of Covid, and then I came back eight months later! Thank goodness I didn’t grow much, but Covid definitely made everything a lot stricter and harder. I definitely did not enjoy a two week quarantine. It was very strict — we couldn’t even take out the trash.
What have you learned from The Handmaid’s Tale cast and crew, and the acting experience itself?
I feel like I’ve learned and understand a lot more about acting just from watching people act in this show. Especially Elisabeth Moss. I love her and think so highly of her. She’s one of the best actresses I’ve ever worked with; every line she says is just so real. She made my job as an actress easier, because she was so good. It made me want to be better.
Without revealing too much, what do you hope people take away from this season of The Handmaid’s Tale?
I hope people understand that even though Gilead and the people in it are fictional, the persecution, judgements and abuse that happen there happen every day, all over the world. I hope I make people uncomfortable, because people seem to be a little upset that they used an actual 14 year old to play an abused 14 year old. But if that makes you upset or uncomfortable that I’m just playing someone who’s abused, maybe we should be doing something for the actual young girls being raped and abused around the world. Child marriage happens in the US all the time; it’s just very quiet.
Looking back on your career so far, what’s one moment that sticks out in your memory?
Doing Handmaid’s Tale, for sure! Maybe the moment I found out I booked Ghostbusters. That was a shocker. I thought the director, Jason Reitman, was definitely not going to pick me, so I was so, so surprised. It was one of the happiest days.
Are there any skills you’ve had to learn for a film or series that you still practice today?
For Annabelle Comes Home, we had a single scene where I was outside in skates that I think they actually cut out of the finished film, but I kept a pair of skates that have been in my garage, and over quarantine, I’ve been learning to skate! For the past seven months I’ve been learning to skate outside and at my local skatepark, and I just learned how to drop in. I’m quite proud of myself! I also had to learn how to ice skate for I, Tonya. I was practising for over 7 hours a day and working with an Olympic skating coach. I remember my feet were so blistered and I had bruises all over from falling. It was worth it, though. That was a great experience.
If you could relive any project from your past — not necessarily to change it, but rather to experience it again — which would it be and why?
I think it would be Troop Zero, Gifted or Ghostbusters. Troop and Ghostbusters were two of the best summers of my life, but Gifted was kind of the start of my career. It wasn’t my first project, but it just felt different and after that I really started getting into acting. It was a really special time and I was really close with the cast and crew.
What are some of your dream roles to play in the future?
I would really love to do a musical someday, or a film like Heathers or Mean Girls. Though Handmaid’s and Ghostbusters were definitely a dream come true! I would love to be able to continue on in the Ghostbusters franchise and do a sequel. That would be cool!
Are there any other professional career routes — such as singing, producing or something else behind the camera — that you would like to explore in the entertainment industry?
I really want to do anything and everything that has to do with being creative. I have been writing music for the past year and just started to get into the studio to record the songs. I’m planning on releasing an EP hopefully before the end of the year. I love doing anything with film and television, so I would love to direct someday. I am producing a film and that has been challenging, but also really fun to get to see the behind the scenes work that goes into getting projects made. I also recently wrote a script and a pilot with my dad.
If you can share, what are some upcoming projects that you are excited to begin working on?
I am filming a movie this summer with some other kids on the moon! Not actually on the moon, but it takes place on the moon. I’m really excited about that… I am very, very excited for Ghostbusters to finally come out in November! I’ve also been producing a film called Rabbit Cake. The script is shaping up really nicely, and we will hopefully get started on the production for that soon.
The Handmaid’s Tale is currently streaming on Hulu.