McKenna Grace on ‘Handmaid’s Tale,’ ‘Friend of the Family’ Roles and Sharing Her Scoliosis Story
[This story contains mild spoilers for Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale season five and Peacock’s A Friend of the Family. ]
The Handmaid’s Tale had its season five finale. MckennaGrace ,, who plays Esther Keys in the Hulu series, decided to share something.
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 the things we want people know — sometimes we don’t see all of the good, bad, or less-flattering aspects of a person’s life.” She wrote in part with a promise to expand on it soon.
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. She tells The Hollywood Reporter about her four years spent on TV sets and at industry events. “I tried not to be private about it.” “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. I kept it to myself .”
Grace stars in two critically acclaimed dramas, which 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. Esther awakens in hospital to discover she is pregnant after the rape. She then performs a wild performance with Ann Dowd, who plays the terrifying 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.
In a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter , Grace explains her decision to have surgery to correct her curled spine. She also discusses her recovery and why she takes on such heavy but age-appropriate roles.
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 openly share a private experience?
It’s strange! I find that I present myself as a happy person because I am happy! My personal life is kept private so I can have a childhood and figure out who I am as a teenager. It’s not easy to share these deeply personal thoughts and struggles with the world. I hope that by sharing my experiences with my spine surgery and my song , people who are going through similar things will feel less alone. It doesn’t matter how the outside looks, everyone still has to deal with a lot in their lives.
I didn’t know much about the surgery, other than what my doctors had told me. I was trying to find information online and was very scared. I didn’t want the surgery. It was, in fact, the best thing I have 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. My dad is a surgeon. Then I stopped going to school. In school, they give you scoliosis tests. My dad did one on me, and he was like “Oh yeah, that is you.” It just got worse. I used to wear a back brace. Back when I was shooting (2021’s) Ghostbusters: Afterlife, I had one but never wore it. After surgery, it was a very difficult, frustrating struggle to deal with, especially when I went to premieres, carpets, and even shooting. People will say to me, “Mckenna! I need you stand on your mark and not lean one of your leg,” because you’re shifting weight onto one side of your legs and it looks uneven. I was like, “Guys! I’m standing as straight and straight as I can.”
Would you tell people about those situations? Or would you choose to keep it private?
I tried to keep it private. On Ghostbusters, there wasn’t a lot of hiding a big old clunky, massive back brace. I kept it to myself for the most part. It’s not something that could be considered a liability, but I didn’t want productions thinking that I was. I wanted to be a superhero and I didn’t want people to find out that I had a problem with my spine. My hip was so prominently higher than the others that I had to tell productions about it. This happened over the year before my surgery. I kept it to myself until I was in fittings. Then, I would have to tell wardrobe “Hey, my Hip is Higher than the Other” and that sometimes I had to adjust skirts, dresses, or pants so they don’t look wonky .”
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 that you have five upcoming projects on IMDB. What made you decide to put aside your busy schedule and say, “OK. I’m going now to do this surgery”?
It was difficult to schedule surgery when I was busy with everything else. I had been shooting since May. Then I switched to another project that worked six-day week — adult hours — and that lasted for a month. Then I flew to New York to do some work, and then I flew back home to L.A. the night prior to my surgery.
Were you also in pain during all of this?
Pre-surgery? I mean, I love to work and work until I can’t anymore. That’s how I am. I love my work and what I do. So if I feel sore or have a bump or injury from work, it’s okay. It’s like having battle scars! My hip would occasionally bother me, but that was due to my back. Fortunately, scoliosis isn’t accompanied by a lot of pain unless it is very 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. Now I am a six degree, which is insane!
How long have you been without surgery?
It’s been five weeks. This morning was the first time I went to the gym. I am starting to return to my regular activities. I want to get in shape after I have fixed my spine. I didn’t realize how much my spine was limiting me. I would train six days a week, but make no progress. I would work out for months and not see any results. It was probably because my spine was bothering. I feel like a completely new person. It’s crazy.
In your first online post, you shared that you had a spinal operation. You also talked about the Handmaid’s Tale hospital scene while you were still in recovery. Was it difficult to be both a character in your own recovery and also a character in the recovery scene?
That episode was released on the same day as my first or second episode of A Friend of the Family HTML1. But Esther [in The Handmaid’s Tale ]] was in the hospital bed thrashing about, and I was in my bed in the hospital and couldn’t move. It was my first day after surgery. It was my first day post-op. I forgot to send you the !”
We didn’t see as much of Esther this season. How would you describe your relationship to this character?
I haven’t spent as much time as I would like to playing her, but I’m so honored to be on The Handmaid’s Tale and they’ve been so accommodating with me and the craziness of this past year. I love being on that show. It’s so awful, but I love being a part of it!
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).
That was insane. I was reading episode two of the script when I received a text message from Miss Madeline, who plays Janine. She said, “You little brat!” I can’t believe it!” I was shocked. I read the script again and then I read the final scene in which I poison Janine. I was like “Woah! I’m really going crazy!” 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!
The scene between Esther, Aunt Lydia and Esther, in which Lydia asks Esther whether she did anything to “bring it on”, showed Esther showing a new level rage. What can you do to tap into that level of rage?
I’m not sure. To get into a certain emotional state for a scene, I listen to a lot. This was almost acting because I was deprived of my hands, legs, or body for the scene. All I had was my face with these handcuffs. I refused to be uncuffed between takes, or to pad my handcuffs. They kept asking me if I would like to sit in this.
I think I was angry for Esther and all she has been through. These are the questions I get, and I really don’t know why. I don’t feel this type of rage in my daily life. I just do it, then I come out of it to realize that I’ve been doing it for hours. I don’t really know where I went. Because I was so crazy, I had these huge bruises on my wrist. My wrists were so swollen and bruised that day.
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. The original season of The Handmaid’s Tale was still in production. The season was released after it had been overturned. How does Esther’s story resonate?
It’s scary to watch this show, and how relevant it is because we shot that way before everything happened. It was crazy to see The Handmaid’s Tale , and it was amazing. It’s been wonderful to hear the stories of people and to see how they were touched by my performance. It’s wonderful to hear the reactions to the show.
Have any of you ever thought about returning to The Handmaid’s Tale ??
I hope so! My lips are sealed but I will return for any Handmaid’s Tale wants.
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 have the chance to finish Esther’s story, how would you like to see her in the final season of the series?
I don’t know. I feel like I could be optimistic and say that I hope she’s okay. Let’s take a look at this season. Let’s take a look at this series. I don’t know what will happen to her and I’m certainly scared. But I hope that, no matter what happens to her, she can at least bring some light to Gilead.
In Peacock’s A Friend of the Family, you also tackle sexual abuse with another age-appropriate character. What attracted you to these roles and why did you decide to tell Jan Broberg’s story?
It’s an honor to play roles that are my age. It’s a privilege to play these young women, as it’s what I said about my age in Handmaid’s Tale HTML1. If we’re so uncomfortable with me performing these scenes, why not do something for the young women going through it? To me, dramatic roles are the most satisfying as an actor. However, I also believe that these stories are important and that I can be a part in something bigger than myself. It’s amazing to be able talk about it and to have a bit more platform to educate people.
You had the opportunity to speak with Jan Broberg, the real Jan Broberg. She was involved in the series and even plays a small role at the end as your therapist. What were some of your conversations about Jan Broberg’s real-life story and what you hoped to accomplish?
First, let me just say that Miss Jan was one of the most beautiful and inspiring people I have ever met. It was an honor to be a part her story. It’s important to tell her story to educate others and show them [what happened]. I hope people will get it. The family was so under fire after the documentary [Netflix’s Abducted In Plain Sight] came out. People were attacking their family and that was unfair. They didn’t make these decisions willingly and have been very open about every mistake in the book. Miss Jan even said that her family is what saved her from all of this, and that she’s glad they are back together. People will hopefully be able to understand why the Brobergs made certain decisions and what actually happened. 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 Jan Broberg spoken to you and are they happy with the reception?
She seems to be happy with it. I do speak with her often. Miss Jan is someone I love dearly. I was scared for my episodes to be released because I wanted to make sure she was right. She’s been nothing but kind and generous to me.
Was this your last role prior to the surgery?
No. No. I played Spider and had to do a lot of heavy running and some stunts. After my surgery, I was like “Holy hell, I cannot imagine doing that again.” I won’t lie for a second — I’ll get back to it!
These roles will all involve you dealing with trauma, abuse, and addiction. How do you let go of these roles and put them behind?
Fortunately, I have always had my parents who have always been supportive of me and my acting decisions. Outside of acting, I have my wife and my dog and my life that I can live apart from my roles. I listen to a lot to get into a certain place, and then I listen a lot to get out of that place. I was driving home and crying because of a scene. Music can do that to me and it’s really helpful.
These roles have been a big part of my life for many years and will continue to be so. However, it’s an emotion that you can trick yourself into feeling and then you need to learn how to dissociate it from your real emotions. There have been times when I looked back at a scene that I did all day and it was a very dramatic, high-intensity scene. It can give me anxiety because my body believed it was real, even though it wasn’t. It’s all mixed emotions, but at the end it’s acting and emotions that I leave at work.
Are you taking some time off or jumping back in?
Well (laughs), I’ve taken about five weeks off now post-surgery, and now I’m getting back to work. I am actually going to start work on a film next Tuesday — I have a fitting tomorrow! I can’t bend my spine or lean over completely, so I am still healing. But I am working out again and healing, so that was my time off.
I am really happy. I was afraid I would have to take months and even months off. I love to work hard until I can no longer. Then I’ll need time off to spend a few days off, then I’ll feel a bit antsy and want to do something. I have many things planned for next year. I have a lot more music coming out, hopefully soon. I am so excited about this project, because I get to work with someone I admire and truly love. Next year, I have many things I want to do and I can’t stop talking about them.
Interview edited to increase clarity and length.
The entire fifth season of The Handmaid’s Tale can be viewed on Hulu. The limited series A Friend of the Family can be accessed on Peacock.
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.